David Frum peruses the Wikileaks cables pertaining to the release of the Lockerbie bomber in August 2009 and finds that the British government lied about its role in springing Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison. That won’t surprise too many people; in fact, it didn’t even surprise our own government at the time. Frum calls this “the scandal of the decade,” and demonstrates how everyone rolled over for the Libyans and Moammar Gaddafi’s threats.
First, let’s take a look at the Guardian’s report from the cables themselves:
In January 2009, six months before Megrahi’s release, the US ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, confirmed that “dire” reprisals had been threatened against the UK, and the British were braced to take “dramatic” steps for self-protection.
The Libyans “convinced UK embassy officers that the consequences if Megrahi were to die in prison … would be harsh, immediate and not easily remedied … specific threats have included the immediate cessation of all UK commercial activity in Libya, a diminishment or severing of political ties, and demonstrations against official UK facilities.
“[Libyan] officials also implied, but did not directly state, that the welfare of UK diplomats and citizens in Libya would be at risk.”
The British ambassador in Tripoli, Vincent Fean, “expressed relief” when Megrahi was released, the US reported.
“He noted that a refusal of Megrahi’s request could have had disastrous implications for British interests in Libya. ‘They could have cut us off at the knees,’ Fean bluntly said.”
This shows that the shock expressed by the Obama administration was mostly feigned. We knew seven months before the release — indeed, from the very first days of the Obama administration — that the UK was getting threatened by Gaddafi. Megrahi’s release was instead the culmination of a capitulation long in the making, and the US knew it at the time.
Why didn’t Obama intervene to demand Megrahi’s extradition? As Frum explains, we certainly had good cause to do so:
The al-Megrahi story could be the scandal of the decade. Of the 259 people murdered over Lockerbie, 190 were American citizens. It took a decade of hard diplomatic work to bring the man directly responsible for those deaths to justice. If the cables are correct, the Al-Megrahi release was not some aberration of the local Scottish government, with which London had nothing to do. Instead, our British ally was subjected to intense commercial pressure to release Al-Megrahi, apparently acquiesced, and then stone-facedly denied itsr own role. Nothing to do with them, utterly beyond their control, terribly sorry old boy.
Here’s how the UK government characterized the release at the time, again as reported by the Guardian. “Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said reports that the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was released over an oil deal are “wholly untrue.” He denied a “back door deal” was done to transfer Megrahi because of UK trade talks with the Libyan government.” Even at the time, that story looked dodgy. Here’s the next sentence from the same news account: “Letters leaked to a newspaper show Mr. Straw agreed not to exclude [Megrahi] from a prisoner transfer deal in 2007 because of ‘overwhelming national interests’.” By the way, six weeks after Straw changed his mind about the handling of Megrahi’s case in 2007, BP gained a huge oil deal in Libya.
WikiLeaks does not add any new proof to the case that the British ministers misled the world about the Megrahi release. What the leaks do show is that neither the U.S. government nor the British government itself ever believed the misrepresentations. So that’s some comfort: a mass murderer may have gone free, but at least nobody in authority duped themselves over what had happened. Just the voters. Actually on second thought, the voters were not duped either. We all knew, and now the truth of what leaders knew has been exposed for all to see.
The families of those murdered by Megrahi and the Libyans on Pan Am 103 knew the truth all along, too. The release of these cables won’t make their lives any brighter, but it will help them hold those in power accountable for their failures in this shameful episode.