Who Killed Zia? Edward Jay Epstein Vanity Fair, September 1989 On August 17 1988, Pak One, an American built Hercules C-130b transport plane, took off from the military air base outside of Bahawalpur, Pakistan at 3:46 p.m, precisely on schedule. The passengers in the air-conditioned VIP capsule, which included Mohammad Zia ul-haq, the Army Chief of Staff and President of Pakistan. were returning to the capital city of Islamabad after a hot, dusty tank demonstration.
This was General Zia's first trip on Pak One since May 29. He had reluctantly gone to Bahawalpur that morning to witness a demonstration of the new American Abrams tank. Although he himself saw little point in going at a time of national crises to see a lone tank fire off its cannon, the commander of the armored Corp, who had been his former military secretary, was extraordinarily insistent in his phone calls. He argued that the entire Army command would be there that day, implying that if Zia was absent it might be taken as a slight. As it had turned out, the tank demonstration was a fiasco. After helicopters flew him from the airport to the desert site, the much vaunted American tank missed its target ten out of ten times. So much for the tank. Zia went on to the lunch at the officers' mess, eating ice cream, and joking with his top generals. Back at the air strip, he prayed to Mecca, then, before reboarding the plane, he warmly embraced those of the generals that stayed.
Seated next to him on the flight back to Islamabad was his close friend, General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, after Zia, the second most powerful man in Pakistan. He had headed Inter Service intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA, for ten years. There he had been Zia's architect for the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. It was his ISI that had organized the Muejadeen into combat units, trained them, distributed weapons to them, provided them with intelligence and even selected their targets. And now the Mujuedeen was on the verge of winning; the first time the Soviet Union had been defeated since the second world war.
Like Zia, Rehman had not wanted to come to this tank demonstration. He indeed had another appointment in Karachi. He decided to go only when a former deputy of his at the ISI advised him that Zia was on the verge of making major changes in his the army and intelligence high command and suggested that Zia needed his counsel. Rehman had been aware that ever since a huge arms depot for Afghan weapons had blown up in the suburbs of Islamabad that April, killing at least 93 people, Zia had become increasingly uneasy about what might be done to undermine his control in the closing days of the Afghan war. Zia blamed the Soviet trained Afghan intelligence service, WAD, for the blast, but Pakistan politicians criticized him and Rehman for locating the arms depot where it endangered civilians. Zia reacted by precipitously firing his own prime minister, dissolving the parliament and local government on May 29. He had expected changed to be made in the military. So, canceling his meeting in Karachi, he joined Zia on Pak One that morning. He reboarded the plane, wearing his familiar peaked general's hat, with General Mohamed Afzal, Zia's chief of the General Staff.
The remaining two seats in the capsule were given to Zia's American guests: Ambassador Arnold L. Raphel, an old Pakistan hand who had known Zia for twelve years and General Herbert M. Wassom, the head of U.S. Military aid mission to Pakistan. They had also witnessed the dismal tank demonstration, then, Ambassador Raphel found time to pay a condolence call at a convent in Bahawalpur where an American nun had been murdered the week before. Behind them, Eight other Pakistan generals packed the two benches in the rear section of the VIP capsule.
Lt. General Aslam Beg, the Army's vice chief of staff, waved goodbye from the runway, the only top general in the chain of command not aboard Pak One that day. He would fly back in the smaller Turbo Jet, waiting to take off as soon as Pak One was airborne.
A Cessna security plane completed the final check of the area-- a precaution taken ever since terrorists had unsuccessfully fired a missile at Pak One eight years earlier. Then, the control tower gave Pak One the signal to take off.
In the cockpit, which was separated from the VIP capsule by a door and three steps, was the four man flight crew. The pilot, Wing Commander Mashhood Hassan, had been personally selected by Zia. And the co-pilot, the navigator and the engineer had been cleared by Air Force security. Just the day before, they had flown Pak One back and forth on the exact route as a trial run so there would be no surprises. The trip was expected to take an hour.) After Pak One was airborne, the control tower at Bahawalpur routinely asked Mashood his position. He said "Pak One, stand bye" . But there was no response. The efforts to contact Mashood grew more desperate by the minute. Pak One was missing only minutes after it had taken off.
Meanwhile, at a river about 18 miles away from the airport, villagers, looking into the sky, saw Pak One lurching up and down in the sky, as if were on an invisible roller coaster. After its third loop, it plunged directly towards the desert, burying itself in the soil. Then, it exploded and, as the fuel burnt, became a ball of fire. All 31 persons on board were dead. It was 3:51 p.m.
General Beg's turbojet circled over the burning wreckage for a moment. Then the vice chief of stall, realizing what had happened, ordered his pilot to head for Islamabad. That evening, acting as if a coup might be underway, army units moved swiftly to cordon off official residences, government buildings, television stations, and other strategic locations in the capital.
The crash altered the face of politics in Pakistan in a way in which no simple coup d'etat could have done. Pakistan is the only country named after an acronym: "P" stands for Punjab, "A" for Afghanistan, and the "K" for Kashmir. It reflected a dream at best of an Islam state; only the "P" actually became part of Pakistan when it was carved out of British India in 1947 as a haven for Moslems. But it was a dream that Zia taken advantage of after he seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1977. Mindful that the Shah was unable to control his empire in Iran because he had underestimated the power of Islam, Zia moved almost immediately to placate the mullahs in his country by pursuing a policy of "islamization" and reinstalling the law of the Koran. Public flogging was made the penalty for drinking alcohol, amputation of a hand the penalty for robbery, and being stoned to death the penalty for adulatory. Women, if they were teachers, students or government employees, to cover their head with a chador. While he used thousand-year old Koran law to help maintain control over a population of over 99 million people in Pakistan, he strove to build an ultra-modern military machine, complete with state of the art F-16 fighters, Harpoon missiles, and nuclear arms, and to make Pakistan the leading ally of the United States in Asia. It had been an extraordinary balancing act.
Now, the sudden end of Zia and his top generals dead, with no civilian government in place, left a conspicuous void. There was of course still the Army, which General Beg had now assumed command of--which was and always had been the dominant power in Pakistan. There was also the opposition party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which no longer prevented by Zia from participating in the elections scheduled for that November, could back the candidacy of his arch enemy, Benazir Bhutto. This, in turn, made possible her election-- which was inconceivable if Zia had been in power.
But this still left opened the question of what had happened to make Pak One to fall from the sky at this opportune moment? Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto offered perhaps the most convenient explanation: divine intervention. In the epilogue to her book, Daughter of Destiny (which before Zia's death had been entitled more modestly "Daughter of the East"), Mrs. Bhutto notes "Zia's death must have been an act of god". Zia was, as far she was concerned, the incarnation of evil. When she first met him in January 1977, she saw him only as a " short, nervous, ineffectual-looking man whose pomaded hair was parted in the middle and lacquered to his head". She could not understand why her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then the prime minister of Pakistan, had passed over six more senior generals to pick him as head of the Army . Eighteen months later, Zia had usurped power from him and then committed "judicial murder," as she saw it, by allowing her father to be hanged like a common criminal on a trumped up charge. He also banned her father's political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, imprisoned her and her mother (even though she was suffering from lung cancer) and had both her brothers in exile, Shah Nawaz and Mir Murtaza, tried and convicted of high crimes in absentia. When Shah Nawaz was killed by poison in France in 1986, she suspected it was done by Zia's agents. Zia had decimated her family. She took particular satisfaction that Zia's body was burnt beyond recognition in the plane fire, noting, "Zia had exploited the name of Islam to such an extent, people were saying that when he died, God didn't leave a trace of him."
But there also existed less divine sources of retribution. There was, for example, Mrs. Bhutto's own 34 year old brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto. For the past nine years, he headed an anti-Zia guerrilla group, which shared offices with the PLO in Kabul, Afghanistan (and later operated out of Damascus, Syria) called Al Zulfikar or "the sword". Its proclaimed mission was to destroy the Zia regime, and the means it used included sabotage, highjackings and assassination in Pakistan. It had demonstrated that it had the capacity to carry out complex international terrorist operations when it hijacked a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 727 with 100 passenger aboard in 1981, flew it first to Kabul, where it executed one passenger and refueled, and then to Damascus, where, with the assistance of the Syria government, it forced Zia to exchange 55 political prisoners for the passengers. It originally had taken credit for the destruction of Pak One in a phone call to the BBC although subsequently, after it was announced that the American Ambassador was aboard it, Mir Murtaza Bhutto retracted this claim. But Mir Murtaza admitted that he had attempted to assassinate Zia on five previous occasions. And one of these earlier Al-Zulfikar assassination attempts involved attempting to blow Pak One out of the sky with Zia aboard it by firing a Soviet-built SAM 7 missile at it. On that occasion, the missile missed, and when the terrorists who fired it were capture they admitted that they had been trained for the mission in Kabul by Mir Murtaza Bhutto and his advisers. Now, with his sister in a position to win the elections if Zia could be removed, Mir Murtaza had an added reason to pursue his mission. But he was not the only one with a motive.
Another suspect was the Soviet Union. Zia had offended Moscow to such a degree that it had declared publicly, only a week before the crash, that Zia's "obstructionist policy cannot be tolerated". In Washington, I was told by a top official in the Pentagon, who was directly responsible for assessing the political consequences of military activity, that his initial concern was that the Soviet Union might have been involved in bringing down Pak One. Earlier that month the Soviet had temporarily suspended its troop withdrawals from Afghanistan to protest Zia's violations of the Geneva Accords that had been signed in May. According to the Soviets, Zia not only was continuing to arm the Afghan Mujuedeen in blatant disregard of the agreement but was directing the sabotage campaign in Kabul that was adding to the Soviet humiliation. After protesting to the Pakistan Ambassador, the Soviet foreign ministry then took the extraordinary step of calling in the American Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, and informing him that it intended "to teach Zia a lesson".
Soviet intelligence certainly had the means in place in Pakistan to carry out this threat. It had trained, subsidized and effectively ran the Afghan intelligence service, WAD, which had in its campaign of covert bombings in the past year killed and wounded over 1400 people in Pakistan, according to a State Department report released the week of the crash. It had also demonstrated that Spring it could recruit Pakistani accomplices inside military installations. Had Pak One been another of its targets?
After weighing this possibility, the relevant officials in the Pentagon and State Department rejected, according to the official I was interviewing. What persuaded them that the Soviet leadership would not permit such a move, he further elaborated, was the presence of the Ambassador on the plane. They simply did not believe that the Soviets would not have jeopardized Glastnost by assassinating an American of this rank. But later while we were having lunch in his office he mentioned that neither Ambassador Raphel or General Wassom were supposed to fly back on Zia's plane. Both men, at least the day before, had been scheduled to return from the tank exhibition on the U.S. military attache's jet (which General Wassom had flown down on). If so, the perpetrators might not have necessarily reckoned on the American presence aboard the plane.
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.
But it was still possible to come to some reasonable conclusions about what happened to Pak One, if not the precise cause. And there were still outstanding, however, disturbing pieces of evidence. A crucial piece missing in the puzzle was what had happened to the pilots during the final minutes of the flight because the accident investigators found that there was no black box or cockpit recorder on Pak One to recover. Yet, there were three other planes in the area tuned to the same frequency for communications-- General Beg's turbojet, which was waiting on the runway to take off next, Pak 379, which was the backup C-130 in case anything went wrong to delay Pak One, and a Cessna security plane that took off before Pak One to scout for terrorists. I managed to locate pilots of these planes-- all of whom were well acquainted with the flight crew of Pak One and its procedures-- who could listen to the conversation between Pak One and the control tower in Bahawalpur. They independently described the same sequence of events. First Pak One reported its estimated time of arrival in the capital. Then, when the control tower asked its position, it failed to respond. At the Same Time Pak 379 was trying unsuccessfully to get in touch with Pak One to verify its arrival time. All they heard from Pak One was "stand by" but no message followed. When this silence persisted, the control tower got progressively more frantic in its efforts to contact Zia's pilot, Wing Commander Mash'hood. Three or four minutes passed. Then, a faint voice in Pak One called out "Mash'hood, Mash'hood". One of the pilots overhearing this conversation recognized the voice. It was Zia's military secretary, Brigadier Najib Ahmed who apparently, from the weakness of his voice, was in the back of the flight deck (where a door connected to the VIP capsule.) What this meant that the radio was switched on and was picking up background sounds; in this sense, it was the next best thing to a cockpit flight recorder. Under these circumstances, the long silence between "stand bye" and the faint calls to Mash'hood, like the dog that didn't bark, was the relevant fact. Why wouldn't Mash'hood or the three other members of the flight crew spoken if they were in trouble? The pilots aboard the other planes, who were fully familiar Mash'hood, and the procedures he was trained in, explained that if Pak One's crew was conscious and in trouble they would not in any circumstances have remained silent for this period of time. If there had been difficulties with controls, Mash'hood instantly would have given the emergency "may day" signal so help would be dispatched to the scene. Even if he had for some reason chosen not to communicate with the control tower, he would have been heard shouting orders to his crew or alerting the passengers to prepare for an emergency landing. And if there had been an attempt at a hijacking in the cockpit or scuffle between the pilots, it would also be overheard. At the minimum, if the plane was crashing towards earth, screams or groans would have been heard. The radio must have been working since it picked up the brigadier's voice. In retrospect, the pilots had only one explanation for the prolonged silence: Mash'hood and the other pilots were either dead or unconscious while the microphone had been kept opened by the clenched hand of one of the pilots' on the thumb switch that operated.
I could not be ascertain if such tapes actually existed. If they did, the clarity could possibly enhanced to separate other background sounds from the static. Although one witness claimed that he had listened to recordings of these conversations after the crash to identify Mash'hood's voice, the control tower operators at Bahawalpur denied having recorded the conversations although they suggested it might have been taped by the main airport at Muelton forty miles away.In any case, the account of the eyewitnesses at the crash site dove-tailed with the radio silence. They had seen, it will be recalled, the plane pitching up and down as if it were on a roller coaster. According to a C-130 expert I spoke to at Lockheed, C-130's characteristically go into a pattern known as a "phugoid" when no pilot is flying it. First, the unattended plane dives towards the ground, then the mechanism in the tail automatically over-corrects for this downward motion, causing it to head momentarily upwards. Then, with no one at the controls, it would veer downward. Each swing would become more pronounced until the plane crashed. Analyzing the weight on the plane, and how it had been loaded on, this expert calculated the plane would have made three roller-coaster turns before crashing, which is exactly what the witnesses had been reported. He concluded from this pattern that the pilots had been conscious, they would have corrected the "phugoid"-- at least would have made an effort, which would have been reflected in the settings of the controls. Since this had not happened, he concluded, like the pilots in the other planes, that they were unconscious. He suggested that this could be accomplished be planting a gas bomb in the air vent in the C-130, triggered to go off, when the plane took off and pressurized air was fed into the cockpit.
My investigations at the Bahawalpur airport showed that planting a gas bomb on the plane that day would not have entailed any insurmountable problems. Instead of following prescribed procedures and flying to the nearby air base at Muelton where it could be guarded, Pak One had remained at the air strip that day. According to one inspector there, a repair crew, which included civilians, had worked on adjusting the cargo door of Pak One for two hours that morning. Its workers entered and left the plane without any sort of search. Any one of them could dropped a gas bomb into the air vent.
I also spoke to an American chemical warfare expert about poison gases that could have been used. He explained that Chemical agents capable of knocking a flight crew, while extremely difficult to obtain, are not beyond the reach of any intelligence service, or underground group with connections to one. He also pointed out that a gas capable on insidiously poisoning a whole flight crew (and leaving the pilot's fingers locked on the radio switch) had been used in neighboring Afghanistan. According to the State Department's special report 78 on "Chemical Warfare in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan," which he sent me, corpses of rebel Muejadeen guerrillas were found still holding their rifles in firing positions after being gassed. This showed that they had been the victims of "an extremely rapid acting lethal chemical that is not detectable by normal senses and that causes no outward physiological responses before death." This gas manufactured by the Soviet would have done the trick. But so would American manufactured "VX" nerve gas, according to a scientist at the U.S. Army chemical warfare center in Aberdeen, Maryland. "VX" is odorless, easily transportable in liquid form, and a soda-sized can full would be enough, when vaporized by a small explosion, and inhaled, to causes paralyzes and loss of speech within 30 seconds. According to him, the residue it would leave behind would be phosphorous. And, as it turned out, the chemical analyzes of debris from the cockpit showed heavy traces of phosphorous.
Such an act of sabotage would probably leave other detectable traces. The chemical agent that killed or paralyzed the pilots could probably be determined through an autopsy of their bodies. If it was a sophisticated nerve gas, it had to be obtained from one of the few countries that manufactures it, transported across international borders, and packaged with a detonator and fuse mechanism into bomb that would burst at the right moment after take off. All this could be trace back, just as the bomb on Pan Am 103 in Scotland was eventually identified and traced. Moreover, in Pakistan, the device had to be delivered to an agent capable of planting it on Pak One at a military air base. And someone had to supply him with intelligence about Zia's movements, the operations of Pak One, and the gaps in its security. Since access was limited to a few dozen persons, these people were vulnerable to discovery through an ordinary police investigation. Access to American intelligence resources, such as the technical labs of the FBI, the counter-terrorist profiles of the CIA, and the electronic eavesdropping archives of the National Security Agency, might also have helped locate the source of the intelligence (especially if it had been broadcast). But I found no such determined investigation took place.
To begin with, as noted by the Board of Inquiry, autopsies were never performed on the bodies of the flight crew. The explanation told to me by the Pentagon official, and apparently given in the secret report, was that Islamic law requires burial within 24 hours. But this could not been the real reason since the bodies were not returned to their families for burial until two days after the crash, as relatives confirmed to me. Nor were they ever asked permission for autopsy examinations. And, as I learned from a doctor for the Pakistan Air Force, Islamic law not withstanding, autopsies are routinely done on pilots in cases of air crashes. I further determined from sources at the military hospital in Bahawalpur that parts of the victims' bodies had been brought there in plastic body bags from the crash site on the night of August 17, and stored there, so that autopsies could be performed by team of American and Pakistani pathologists. On the afternoon of August 18,however, before the pathologists had arrived, the hospital received orders to return these plastic bags to the coffins for burial. The principal evidence of what happened to the pilots was thus purposefully buried.
The police investigation of those who had access to Pak One at the airport and were involved in its security, also appeared to be similarly curtailed. According to a security officer who was there that day, the ground personnel was not methodically questioned. Instead, they said in interviews almost uniformly that they were amazed that no one was interrogated. The only inquiry that they saw taking place was the inquiry by the American team. The questions by the Americans, which had to go through a Pakistani translator, were largely confined to the aircraft's maintenance and movements prior to take off. Other activities that day were not explored. For example, according to a police inspector at Bahawalpur, a policeman at the airstrip that day was found murdered shortly thereafter, but it was not connected to the air crash or, for that matter, resolved.
For its part, Pakistani military authorities attempted to foist a explanation that Shi'ite fanatics were responsible for the crash. The only basis for this theory was that the co-pilot of Pak One, Wing Commander Sajid, happened to have been a shi'ite (as are more than ten per cent of Pakistan's Moslems). The pilot of the back-up C-130, who also was a shi'ite, was then arrested by the military and kept in custody for more than two months while military interrogators tried to make his confess that he had persuaded Sajid to crash Pak One in a suicide mission. Even under torture, he denied this charge and insisted that, as far as he knew, Sajid was a loyal pilot who would not commit suicide. Finally, the army abandoned this effort the Air Force demonstrated that it would have been physically impossible for the co-pilot alone to have caused a C-130 to crash in the way it did. And if he had attempted to overpower the rest of the flight crew, the struggle certainly would have been heard over the radio. But why had the military attempted to cook up this shi'ite red herring?
There were other indications of efforts to limit or divert from the investigation, such as the destruction of telephone records of calls made to Zia and Rehman just prior to the crash, the reported disappearances of ISI intelligence files on Murtaza Bhutto, and the transfer of military personnel at Bahalapur, which, taken together, appeared to add up to a well-organized cover up. If so, I was persuaded that it had to be an inside job. The Soviet KGB and Indian R.A.W. Might have had the motive, and even the means, to bring down Pak One but neither had the ability to stop planned autopsies at a military hospital in Pakistan, stifle interrogations or, for that matter, kept the FBI out of the picture. The same is true of anti-Zia underground, such as Al-Zulfikar, although its agents, like the shi'ite, would provide plausible suspects ( or even, if provided convenient access to Pak One, fall guys.) Nor would any foreign intelligence service which was an enemy of Zia's have much of a motive for making it look like an accident rather than an assassination. Only elements inside Pakistan would have an obvious motive for making it the death of Zia, Rehman and 28 others look like something more legitimate than a coup d' etat.
The most eerie aspect of the affair was the speed and effectiveness with which it was consigned to oblivion. Even it involved the incineration of the principal ally of the U.S. in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the abrupt end of the American Ambassador and the head of its military mission in Pakistan were killed in the course of discharging their duties, and the government of one of the few remaining allies of the U.S. In Asia was abruptly changed; there little occurred in the way of repercussions. No outcries for vengeance, no efforts at counter coups, no real effort to find the assassins. In Pakistan, Zia and Rehman's names disappeared within days from television, newspapers and other media-- except on a few monuments in Afghan refugee camps that had not yet been painted over. In the United States, the State Department blocked any FBI interest in investigating the death of its Ambassador and, through press "guidance", distorted the event into just another foreign plane accident. The one uncounted casualty of Pak One was the truth.