Last week, after both Barack Obama and new British PM David Cameron publicly criticized the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi eleven months ago, the Scottish government challenged the US to open its files on the case of the Lockerbie bomber. The Australian reports that the Times of London has discovered why Scotland seemed so keen on transparency. The deputy US ambassador to London gave a green light to Megrahi’s release, and even insisted on a “compassionate” parole rather than simply a prisoner transfer:
Correspondence obtained by The Sunday Times reveals the Obama administration considered compassionate release more palatable than locking up Abdel Baset al-Megrahi in a Libyan prison.
The intervention, which has angered US relatives of those who died in the attack, was made by Richard LeBaron, deputy head of the US embassy in London, a week before Megrahi was freed in August last year on grounds that he had terminal cancer.
The document, acquired by a well-placed US source, threatens to undermine US President Barack Obama’s claim last week that all Americans were “surprised, disappointed and angry” to learn of Megrahi’s release.
Initially, the Obama administration resisted the transfer of Megrahi to Libya in any circumstances. However, LeBaron didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about resistance, or perhaps figured that Scotland and the UK would use Megrahi as a bargaining chip regardless of the US position. In the very same letter in which LeBaron filed his objections, he then advised Scotland on the terms of transfer preferred by the US:
In the letter, sent on August 12 last year to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and justice officials, Mr LeBaron wrote that the US wanted Megrahi to remain imprisoned in view of the nature of the crime.
The note added: “Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the US position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose.”
What the US actually wanted, short of continuing Megrahi’s imprisonment, was a sort of house arrest in Scotland, not Libya. That is what was meant by LeBaron’s suggestion of “compassionate release.” The White House didn’t want Megrahi stepping off of a plane in Tripoli to cheering crowds, the exact scenario that played out in the end. While having Megrahi outside of prison wasn’t the nominal situation, that at least would have kept Megrahi from rubbing his freedom in the noses of the Pan Am 103 victims’ families.
The letter did not give a green light to Megrahi’s parole to Libya. Nevertheless, it shows the kind of ineptitude that has plagued the Obama administration’s diplomacy from the “reset button” with Russia to this day. LeBaron’s note was a clear signal to Scotland that the US had lost most of its interest in Megrahi; recall that the US had insisted originally that any parole must include extradition to the US. The Scottish government must have presumed that we would not strenuously object to their release of Megrahi to the Libyans after LeBaron failed to raise that point and demand Megrahi’s extradition.
Also, it shows that the Obama administration lied about being surprised by Megrahi’s release. They knew it was coming, and while they may have been surprised that he went to Libya, the White House knew Scotland was going to spring Megrahi one way or the other.