The United States and Libya are tangled in a dispute over Scotland's release of convicted Pan Am 103 bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi. U.S. officials expressed outrage that Scotland allowed Megrahi, who is dying of cancer, to return home to Libya on "compassionate grounds"; President Obama called it a "mistake." But if official documents released by the Scottish government this week are to be believed, the United States may not have pushed very hard to prevent Megrahi's release. The documents cite a Libyan government official who allegedly told the Scottish government that the United States had assured Tripoli it did not intend to "pressure" the Scots to keep Megrahi in prison.
A top State Department official denied the Libyan account, insisting that the Obama administration repeatedly told authorities in Scotland, London, and Libya that Megrahi, the only person convicted for the December 1988 airplane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, should not be let out of prison.
According to the Scottish documents, Libya's minister for Europe, Abdulati Alobidi, made the claim during a May 5, 2009, meeting between Scottish and Libyan government representatives. The primary purpose of the meeting, according to the documents, was to discuss how a new "prisoner transfer agreement" between Britain and Libya might affect the case of Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the bombing, with a minimum term of 27 years behind bars in a Scottish jail.
At the May 5 meeting, according to notes of the discussion made by Scottish officials, Libyan officials presented the Scots with a formal request that Megrahi, suffering from terminal cancer, be transferred to Libya under the terms of the prisoner-transfer agreement that the British and Libyans had negotiated. During the course of the discussion, according to the notes, Alobidi, the senior Libyan official at the meeting, told his Scottish counterparts that the U.S. government "had contacted the Libyan government to clarify their position on any transfer, and that they wish Mr. Megrahi served his sentence." However, Alobidi went on to claim, the U.S. government had also "stated to the Libyan government that they would not put any pressure of [sic] the Scottish government." The notes offer no further elaboration on the purported American position.
But in a telephone interview and e-mail exchange with NEWSWEEK, P.J. Crowley, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's chief spokesman, denied that the Obama administration had ever indicated to the Libyans that Washington would soft-pedal its opposition to Megrahi's release from prison. "There is nothing we told the Libyans that would support what the Libyans suggested to the Scots," Crowley said. "Our fundamental point to the Libyans, Scots, and Brits was the same: he should not be released."
Crowley said that Obama had been working against Megrahi's release since the presidential transition late last year, when the issue was red-flagged as a possible problem for the incoming president's national-security and foreign-policy teams. Crowley said that in February, only days after taking office, Obama's team had begun a series of contacts with officials in London and Edinburgh, making clear that the incoming administration strongly opposed any move to free Megrahi. By the time of the May 5 meeting between the Libyans and the Scots, Crowley said, there was no doubt where the U.S. government stood on the issue. Last month Secretary of State Clinton personally lobbied Kenny MacCaskill, Scotland's justice minister, to keep Megrahi in prison, said a U.S. official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive talks. However, MacCaskill, the elected official in charge of Scotland's criminal-justice system, decided to go ahead and release Megrahi to Libya anyway about a week after Clinton's démarche. "We talked with them again multiple times before they released him," Crowley insisted, adding: "We did say to the Scots that we respected the fact that this decision was theirs to make, but we made it crystal-clear what our position was."
British and Scottish officials insist that the decision to release Megrahi was made solely in Edinburgh. And the British government has denied making any special deals with Libya to influence the Scots. But other official documents, also released this week, raise new questions about a possible British role. According to the documents, as far back as 2007, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government was discussing a prisoner-transfer agreement as part of a package to improve relations with Tripoli. Jack Straw, the British justice secretary, wrote to Scottish authorities telling them that he would prefer that any such agreement exempt Megrahi. However, by February 2008, the documents indicate, Straw and other top British officials had concluded that they didn't want Megrahi's imprisonment to prevent rapprochement between the two countries. "I do not believe it is necessary, or sensible, to risk damaging our wide-ranging and beneficial relationship with Libya by inserting a specific exclusion," Straw wrote.