As it turns out, the release of the man responsible for almost 300 deaths in a terrorist attack from Scotland came as no surprise to either British or American officials. Leaked diplomatic cables show that the American embassy knew as early as October 2008 that the British Foreign Office had secretly consulted with Libya on winning the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, suggesting that “compassionate release” would be the best strategy:
British government ministers secretly advised Libya on how to get convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi released from a life sentence in a Scottish prison, American documents published by WikiLeaks allege.
A Foreign Office official explained to the Libyans how to apply for compassionate release for Megrahi after he was diagnosed with cancer, according to an October 2008 U.S. Embassy cable newly published by WikiLeaks.
The British government believed Scotland would be inclined to grant the bomber compassionate release, the cable says. …
Then-Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell wrote to Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdulati al-Obeidi in October 2008 to explain how to apply for compassionate release, a British official told the U.S. Embassy in London, the cable says.
There still appears to be a missing step in this trail. Why was the UK government so confident that Scotland would grant compassionate release, if requested? The bombing killed eleven people on the ground, and Scotland had agreed to extradite Megrahi for trial in the US for the murders of 190 American citizens if they released him. They reneged on that promise as well as allowed Megrahi’s release after just serving a year for each of the murders of their citizens. That doesn’t quite add up.
It seems likely that the British government didn’t just consult on Moammar Gaddafi’s behalf, but actively brokered the deal. That has implications for the people of Scotland beyond Megrahi’s release. Thus far, both governments insist that the decision was made by an independent judiciary, but this revelation shows that the UK conducted political machinations to spring Megrahi, with the intent to protect British interests in petroleum. Would they have stuck their necks on the line without any certainty of the outcome?
This also shows that the US claims of being surprised at the outcome are either a symptom of incompetence — or disingenuity. The warning signs appeared before Barack Obama became President, but given the centrality of the war on terror to our diplomacy, this should have received attention at the highest levels.
Update: Good debate on Twitter on who to blame for this, Bush or Obama. I’d say both. Bush was still president at the time the embassy learned about this, and should have put the kibosh on it when it came to light — or demanded that the UK honor its agreement with the US to extradite Megrahi. The Obama administration should have done the same, and if that didn’t work, at least honestly address the issue publicly rather than feigning surprise as they did at the time.