Did a former top British spy now on BP’s payroll—a man known as “BP’s Lawrence of Arabia”—win the release of the Lockerbie bomber and preserve BP’s huge oil-drilling business in Libya?
U.S. law-enforcement and congressional officials tell The Daily Beast they are convinced the retired MI6 spy—Sir Mark Allen, now a senior adviser to BP in London—played a key behind-the-scenes role in freeing the Pan Am 103 bomber, Abdel Baset al Megrahi, who was released from a Scottish jail last summer and allowed to return home to Libya.
Through a BP spokesman, Allen, a well-respected spook who specialized in the Arab world in his career at MI6 and who led U.K. government efforts after the 9/11 attacks to persuade Libya to give up its WMD programs and restore ties to the West, denies he made any effort to help Megrahi.
“If we get the chance to call in some of the BP officials to testify about Megrahi, Allen will be on the top of our list for testimony,” a Senate aide said.
• Rick Outzen: Cautious Optimism in the Gulf • Full coverage of the oil spill But government investigators in the U.S., outraged over the release of the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am 747 over Scotland that left 270 people dead, most of them Americans, are hoping that BP’s newfound infamy in the Gulf of Mexico will allow the U.S. to force BP to disclose what involvement the company—and specifically, Allen—may have had in Megrahi’s release.
“Allen seems to be at the heart of this story,” said a Senate aide whose boss joined with other Senate Democrats this week in calling on the State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate BP’s connection to the bomber’s release.
The Senate Democrats say their outrage over Megrahi’s freedom has only grown in the wake of new reports from Libya that the Lockerbie bomber, released from a Scottish jail because he was supposedly only weeks from dying from terminal prostate cancer, is far from dead—and may in fact survive for several more years.
“If we get the chance to call in some of the BP officials to testify about Megrahi, Allen will be on the top of our list for testimony,” the Senate aide said. “Certainly some of us think subpoenas are in order.”
Allen should be quizzed, the aide said, about the instructions he received at BP from the man who hired him at the company in 2004—then-Chief Executive John Browne, who later stepped down from BP in the wake of a perjury scandal. (In a book, Browne admitted having made mistakes in court papers testifying to details of a gay relationship he had.)
Allen had obvious appeal to BP, given his close ties to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and his friendships with other leaders of oil-rich Arab nations—friendships cultivated in part through Allen’s love of falconry, the hobby of choice of many Arab rulers. (Allen’s book, Falconry in Arabia, was published in 1980.)
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) singled out Allen by name this week in calling for an investigation of BP’s involvement in Megrahi’s release, alleging that the energy company may have “gained access to Libyan oil reserves by using a mass murderer as a bargaining chip.”
He said that Allen appeared to have been “well-connected in Labour Party circles” in Britain and is reported to have used those connections in 2007 to push the then-Labour government for a prisoner-transfer deal with Libya that eventually allowed Megrahi to go free.
While refusing to make Allen available for interviews, BP officials do not dispute news reports that Allen contacted Britain’s then-justice minister in late 2007 to urge the government to approve the prisoner-transfer agreement with Libya so BP could move forward with a stalled $900 million oil-exploration project in Libya. The company insists, however, that Allen made no effort to win freedom for Megrahi.
“It is a matter of public record that in late 2007 BP told the U.K. government that we were concerned about the slow progress that was being made in concluding a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya,” a BP spokesman, Robert Wine, told The Daily Beast from London.
“We were aware that this could have a negative impact on U.K. commercial interests, including the ratification by the Libyan government of BP’s exploration agreement,” Wine continued. The spokesman insists, however, that “BP was not involved in any discussions with the U.K. government or the Scottish government about the release of Mr. al-Megrahi.”
U.S. officials suspect that BP is playing semantic games, because Megrahi was far and away the most important Libyan being held in U.K. prisons at the time of the prisoner-swap agreement.
“I think that if they didn’t mention his name, it must have been implicit between BP and the government that they were talking about al-Megrahi,” said Nick Day, a former MI5 agent who now runs Diligence LLC, a consulting firm set up by veterans of U.S. and British intelligence agencies.
“The Libyans were basically telling the British that if we wanted access to these oil and gas licenses in Libya, at some point, we would have to release al-Megrahi,” Day said in an interview from his offices in Geneva. “Why else would BP be getting involved in prisoner-trade issues?”
According to news reports in the U.K., the former British justice minister, Jack Straw, received two phone calls from Allen, an old friend, in the fall of 2007—one in October, another in November—to urge the British government to approve a prisoner-swap agreement.
Within weeks of the calls, Straw announced to colleagues that Megrahi could be included in the prisoner agreement with Libya, a turnaround from the government’s earlier position that the Lockerbie bomber could not be freed under any circumstances.
Straw has denied that he discussed Megrahi’s fate with Allen in the phone calls, although the former justice minister has acknowledged that trade deals with Libya, especially in oil, were “a very big part” of the reason for Britain’s decision to reverse itself and allow Megrahi to be included in the prisoner-transfer deal.
“I’m unapologetic about that,” Straw told The Daily Telegraph in an interview last September about the government’s change of heart on Megrahi. “Libya was a rogue state. We wanted to bring it back into the fold and trade is an essential part of it—and subsequently there was the BP deal.”
Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.