Who Killed Zia? (Page 2)


September 1989

by Edward Jay Epstein

The Soviets were not, as it turned out, the only nation to pointedly threaten Zia. In Delhi, Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister of India, informed Pakistan on August 15 it would have cause "to regret its behavior" in covertly supplying weapons to Sikhs terrorists in India. The Sikhs, who were attempting to secede from India and create an independent nation called Khalistan, were a crucial problem for Gandhi. They had assassinated his mother when she was prime minister and, with some 2000 armed guerrillas located mainly around the Pakistan border, the death toll from this civil war was approaching 200 a month. Zia had been meeting with top Sikh leaders, according to Gandhi, and providing guerrillas with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket launchers and sanctuary across the Pakistan border. In response, India had organized a special unit in its intelligence service, known by the initials R.A.S., to deal with Pakistan.

It was not unlike Agatha Christie's thriller Murder on the Orient Express, in which, if one looked hard enough, every aboard the train had a motive for the murder. When Zia's eldest son, Ijaz ul Haq, a soft-spoken, impeccably dressed man now living in Bahrain, described to me how his father was persuaded to go to the tank demonstrations that day by his generals, despite his misgivings, and then General Rehman's sons told me how their father was manipulated into going on the same plane, it raised the possibility that the assassination was the work of a faction in the army. After all, as I learned from Zia's son, Zia had planned to make imminent changes in the military.

Zia's great game had also even offended the United States. It was explained to me at the Pentagon that the CIA had become concerned that Zia was diverting a large share of the weapons being supplied by America to an extreme fundamentalist Muejadeen group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Not only was this group anti-American but its strategy appeared to be aimed at dividing the rest of the Afghan resistance so that it could take over in Kabul-- with Zia's support. American anxiety was also increasing over the progress Zia was making in building the first Islamic nuclear bomb. His clandestine effort included attempts to smuggle the Kryton triggering mechanism and other components for it out of the U.S., which had only added to the tensions.

In any case, with Zia death, the U.S. could foresee an amenably alternative: the replacement of the Zia dictatorship, with all its cold war intrigues, with an elected government head by the attractive Harvard-educated Benazir Bhutto. With this prospect, the State Department had little interest in rocking the boat by focusing on the past, as the new American Ambassador, Robert Oakley, told me in Islamabad. This decision was apparently made just hours after the charred remains of Zia were buried. Flying back from the funeral, Secretary of State Schultz recommended that the FBI keep out of the investigation. Even though the FBI had the statutory authority for investigating crashes involving Americans, and its counter-terrorism division had already assembled a team of forensic experts to search for evidence in the crash, it complied with this request.

During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relation Committee, Oakley explained "the judgment of the State Department and the Defense Department was that [the FBI forensic experts] would not add any expertise to the team and that it might create complications because we had already obtained something rather extraordinary, that is, the permission of the government of Pakistan to have U.S. investigators fully involved, with full access to everything which had occurred, involving the death under mysterious circumstances of the President of Pakistan." The result was that the U.S. team assigned to Pakistan's Board of Inquiry included only seven air force accident investigators-- and excluded any criminal, counter-terrorist or sabotage experts.

An unrestricted investigation by the FBI also could have opened up a potential Pandora's box of geo-political troubles. What if, for example, it pointed towards a superpower, a neighbor, or Pakistan's military itself? It could undermine everything the United States was striving to achieve by damaging detente, leading to armed confrontation on Pakistan's borders or even de-stabilize the new and shaky Pakistan government. Why chance such uncontrollable consequences when the change in power could be attributed to an "accident" or "act of god?

The State Department evidently decided to work to control media and public perception of what had caused the crash. Just before a summary of the Board of Inquiry' findings was to be released to the press, Oakley sent a classified telegram from Islamabad providing "press guidance." He advised in a follow-up telegram "It is essential that U.S. Government spokespersons review and coordinate on proposed guidance before commenting to the media on the GOP [Pakistan] release".

This spin control effectively deflected press attention from the report's conclusion actual conclusion that the probable cause of the crash was sabotage. On October 14th, 72 hours before that release, the State Department leaked a pre-emptive story to theNew York Times headlined "Malfunction Seen as Cause of Zia Crash". It began " Experts sent to Pakistan ... have concluded that the crash was caused by a malfunction in the aircraft". But on October 17, when the summary was released, the headline had to be changed to "Pakistan Points to Sabotage in Zia crash". TheTimes now correctly reported that Pakistan's Board of Inquiry had concluded "the accident was most probably caused through the perpetuation of a criminal act or sabotage". But unnamed administration spokespersons, continuing with their pre-prepared press guidance, added to the story that "the Pakistani findings were not the same as findings by American experts." They even suggested a psychopathological explanation for the Board's finding, saying that it reflected a"mind set" among Pakistan military officers who wanted instability so they had an excuse for continuing their military rule.

The problem with this press guidance was that it was misinformation. There was no such divergence between the American and Pakistanis experts involved in the investigation, and no separate American conclusion of a "malfunction". Nor was it a conspiratorial Pakistani "mind set" that had ruled out a malfunction as the cause of the crash. This was the conclusion the six American Air Force experts, headed by Colonel Daniel E. Sowada, that comprised the U.S. Assistance and advisory team, which was supported by laboratories in the United States. They, not the Pakistani, had actually written the sections of the report that investigated all possible mechanical failure of the aircraft that led the Board to state it had been " unable to substantiate a technical reason for the accident." This was confirmed to me by both the head of the Pakistan investigating team and an American assistant secretary of defense. Colonel Sowada himself gave secret testimony before the subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs that acknowledged that no evidence of a mechanical failure had been found.

The conclusion of sabotage became inescapable after the accident investigators eliminated virtually all other causes. Sherlock-Holmes like detective work is contained in a red-bound 365 secret investigation report, which the relevant sections of were read to me by a Pentagon official in his office. Like Sherlock Holmes, it used on a process of elimination. First, they were able to rule out the possibility that the plane had been blown up in mid air. If it had exploded in this manner the pieces of the plane, which had different shapes and therefore resistance to the wind, would have been strewn over a wide area-- but that had not happened. By re-assembling the plane in a giant jigsaw puzzle, and scrutinizing with magnifying glasses the edges of each broken piece, they could established that the plane was in one piece when it had hit the ground. They thus concluded structural failure--ie. The breaking up of the plane-- was not the cause.

Nor had the plane been hit by a missile. That would have generated intense heat which in turn would have melted the aluminum panels and, as the plane dived, the wind would have left tell-tale streaks in the molten metal. But there were no streaks on the panels. And no missile part or other ordinance had been found in the area.

They could also rule out the possibility that there was an inboard fire while the plane was in the air since, if there had been one, the passengers would have breathed in soot before they died. Yet, the single autopsy performed, which was on the American general seated in the VIP capsule, showed there was no soot in his trachea, indicating that he had died before, not after, the fire ignited by the crash.

The next possibility they considered was that the power had somehow failed in flight. If this had happened, the propellers would not have been turning at their full torque when the plane crashed, which would have affected the way their blades had broken off and curled on impact. But by examining the degree of curling on each broken propeller blades, they determined that in fact the engines were running at full speed when the propellers hit the ground. They also ruled out the possibility of contaminated fuel by taking samples of the diesel fuel from the refueling truck, which had been impounded after the crash. By analyzing the residues still left in the fuel pumps, they could also tell that they had been operating normally at the time of the crash.

They deduced that the electric power on the plane had been working because both electric clocks on board had stopped at the exact moment of impact, which they determined independently from eye witnesses and other evidence.

The crash had occurred, moreover after a routine and safe take off in perfectly clear daytime weather. And the pilots were experienced with the C-130 and in good health. Since the plane was not in any critical phase of flight, such as take off or landing, where poor judgment on the part of the pilots could have resulted in the mishap, the investigators ruled out pilot error as a possible cause.

They thus came down to one final possibility of mechanical failure: the controls did not work. But the Hercules C-130 had not one but three redundant control system. The two sets of hydraulic controls were backed up, in case of a leak of fluid in both of them, by a mechanical system of cables. If any one of them worked, the pilots would have been able to fly the plane. By comparing the position of the controls with the mechanisms in the hydraulic valves and the stabilizers in the tail of the plane (which are moved through this system when the pilot moves the steering wheel), they established that the control system was working when the plane crashed. This was confirmed by a computer simulation of the flight done by Lockheed, the builder of the C-130. They also ruled out the possibility that the controls had temporarily jammed by a microscopic examination of the mechanical parts to see if there were any signs of jamming or binding. (The only abnormality they found, which led to a long separate appendix, was that there were brass particles contaminating the hydraulic fluid. Although they could not explain this contamination, they found that it could have accounted only for gradual wear and tear on the parts, not a sudden loss of control).

Having ruled out all the mechanical malfunctions that could cause a C-130 to fall from the sky in that manner, the American team left it to the Board to conclude "the only other possible cause of the accident is the occurrence of a criminal act or sabotage leading to the loss of control of the aircraft".

This conclusion was reinforced when an analysis of chemicals found in plane's wreckage, done by the laboratory of Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco in Washington, found foreign traces of pentaerythritol tertranitrate (PNET), a secondary high explosive commonly used by saboteurs as a detonator, as well as antimony and sulfur, which in the compound antimony sulfide is used in fuses to set off the device. Using these same chemicals, Pakistan ordinance experts reconstructed a low-level explosive detonator which could have been used to burst a flask the size of a soda can which, the Board suggested, probably contained an odorless poison gas that incapacitated the pilots.

But this was as far as the Board of Inquiry could go. It had not had autopsies done on the remains of the crew members to determine if they were poisoned. It acknowledged in its report that it lacked the expertise to investigate criminal acts. What was needed was criminal investigators and interrogators. It thus recommended that the task of finding the perpetrators by turned over to the competent agency, which meant, as one of the investigators explained to me, Pakistan's intelligence service--the ISI.

When I got to Pakistan in February and called upon General Hamid Gul, the Director General of the ISI, I found out that political events had apparently overtaken this mandate. He told me that his agency had called off its investigation at the request of the government and had transferred the responsibility for it to a "broader based" government authority headed by a civil servant called F.K. Bandial. It was not using the resources of his intelligence service and, as far as he knew that committee had not begun the work. His tone suggested that, he did not expect any immediate resolution of the crime.


Questions? Email me at edepstein@worldnet.att.net
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