Debunking The “White House Wanted Libyan Bomber Released” Story

Today's outrage of the day comes in the form of a new report claiming that the United States supported the release of the only man accused. But the report itself proves that isn't what happened.

There’s plenty of chatter in the blogosphere this morning about a story that, by it’s own headline, claims that the Obama White House backed the release of accused convicted Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi:

THE US government secretly advised Scottish ministers it would be “far preferable” to free the Lockerbie bomber than jail him in Libya.

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.

Scottish ministers viewed the level of US resistance to compassionate release as “half-hearted” and a sign it would be accepted.

Sounds fairly outrageous, doesn’t it ? Well, not so much if you bothered to continue reading:

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.”

Mr LeBaron added that freeing the bomber and making him live in Scotland “would mitigate a number of the strong concerns we have expressed with regard to Megrahi’s release”.

The US administration lobbied the Scottish government more strongly against sending Megrahi home, under a prisoner transfer agreement signed by the British and Libyan governments, in a deal now known to have been linked to a pound stg. 550 million oil contract for BP.

It claimed this would flout a decade-old agreement between Britain and the US that anyone convicted of the bombing would serve their sentence in a Scottish prison. Megrahi was released by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill on the grounds that he had three months to live, making his sentence effectively spent.

In other words, according to this report, the Obama Administration told Scottish authorities the following:

1. Don’t release Megrahi

2. If you do release him, make it a compassionate release conditioned upon him remaining in Scotland, presumably under some form of house arrest

3. Under no circumstances should you send him back to Libya.

While it would be helpful if the White House were to clear the air on this and release the August 12th letter, it is fairly clear that any claim that the Obama Administration lobbied Scotland to release Megrahi is, on it’s face, an absolute lie.

Now, it is perhaps possible to be outraged that the U.S. would take any position that would allow Megrahi to be released from prison, but it’s worth remembering that, at the time, the world was operating under belief that Megrahi was dying. We now know that wasn’t true, and, yesterday, one doctor said he told the Scottish Government that Megrahi’s cancer would not kill him as other physicians were claiming at the time. Based on the information publicly available at the time, though, it was the common belief that Megrahi would be dead within a very short period of time.

There is no story here. The Obama White House did not lobby for Megrahi’s release. It’s time to move on.

Update: The State Department has released the complete text of the August 12, 2009 letter.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Middle East, National Security, Politicians, Terrorism, US Politics, World Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Is it coincidental that the Sunday Times, The Australian, and Fox News are all owned by Rupert Murdoch?

  2. Pug says:

    …any claim that the Obama Administration lobbied Scotland to release Megrahi is, on it’s face, an absolute lie.

    Oh, that won’t stop anybody on conservative blogs or Fox News. You should know that, Doug.

  3. Tano says:

    Good for you Doug, for highlighting this story. I wonder if there can ever be some cost associated with blatant lying like this. It sure seems that there is no cost now. If the debunkers, like you, get the upper hand in the dynamics of this story, they will simply try something else tomorrow.

  4. mike says:

    just curious – since he is not dying, are there any grounds for trying him in the US for anything? I envision a Pave Low helicopter dropping in for a visit at his home. The fall out is what? Libya being mad at us?

  5. Franklin says:

    Out-of-context quotes? In my source of news?

    Inconceivable!

  6. Everett says:

    Your story misses two key points.

    1. Obama feigned surprise that Megrahi would be released. Since he was discussing the alternatives, he lied about his surprise. That lie damaged longstanding relations with the U.K.

    2. The idea that Obama could only be a passive spectator to the decision of Megrahi’s release is silly. Another president would have found a way to exert some influence on such an important issue.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    mike, he’ll be safe from extradition as long as he sticks to places like France and Switzerland . . .or Libya.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    The argument being made by Mika Brzezinski this a.m. on MSNBC was that the letter did not exhibit any real effort to stop the release, but was a mere face-saving measure. Dunno, I don’t speak state-departmentese. Is John Burgess in the house?

  9. verbalobe says:

    1. Obama feigned surprise that Megrahi would be released. Since he was discussing the alternatives, he lied about his surprise. That lie damaged longstanding relations with the U.K.

    Source, please?

    2. The idea that Obama could only be a passive spectator to the decision of Megrahi’s release is silly. Another president would have found a way to exert some influence on such an important issue.

    So from a story that purports to show Obama favored transfer to Libya, and presumably exerted influence in that direction, the debunking now prompts criticism that he exerted no influence. Neat trick. In any case — see point above: the guy was believed virtually dead, and the government had made a strong private statement against his release.

    Could “more” have been done, with 20/20 hindsight, to achieve what some people are sure would have been the right thing? Personally, I’d need more facts and probably more anti-terror/diplomacy expertise (i.e., some) to debate further.

  10. Everett says:

    verbalobe:

    Here’s one source:

    “The publication of the memo’s contents comes just days after President Obama, at a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, said “all of us … were surprised, disappointed and angry” by the Scottish government’s decision to free Abdel Baset al-Megrahi last year.”

    http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/07/25/obama-administration-reportedly-backed-lockerbie-release-transfer-libyan-prison/

    Many others sources are available. Just Google “Obama Megrahi Surprised Disappointed Angry”

    This matters because the U.K. has been one of our strongest allies. Regardless of whether you support the war in Afghanistan, Obama does. And the U.K. has supported our efforts there heroically. That’s not how we should be treating our allies.

    2. In fact, in the above quote Obama does claim to be a passive spectator. That’s the lie.

  11. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    See Mataconis, there are people here who do deeper investigation than you. Obama lied. I am shocked. When are you going to stop appologizing for this inept Marxist?

  12. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Doug, if you are not afraid. Go look at Riehl World View blog. Use the word Sherrod. This is just for your edification because I care.

  13. I saw it

    I see that Dan Riehl; has moved on from dragging Shirley Sherrod through the mud and has moved on to her husband.

    That is all I have to say about something that doesn’t even qualify as news

  14. […] Several commenters here, as well as more than a few bloggers have jumped on the story about U.S. diplomatic contacts with the Government of Scotland regarding the release last year of Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, which I wrote about earlier today. […]

  15. mike says:

    I am not talking about extradition. I am talking about an assisted visit by the CIA or military to the US – but your response was pretty funny about France/Switz.

  16. Wayne says:

    Anyone has the whole letter we can look at. I understand if other unrelated parts are blacken out, I heard Obama is blocking its publication but hopefully someone has it. I would like to read it myself to put it into context.

    Regardless it does show that Obama is either lying about knowing about the release or he is incompetent.

  17. sam says:

    Does this clear anything up?

    EMBASSY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
    LONDON

    August 12, 2009

    RtHon Alex Salmond, MSP
    First Minister for Scotland
    The Scottish Parliament
    Edinburgh
    EH99 1 SP

    Dear First Minister:

    I have enclosed a copy of a communication from my government that was passed to the Scottish Ministry of Justice on August 9. I am aware that competence for the decision on the matter discussed lies with the Scottish Minister of Justice, but given the gravity of this matter, I thought it important that you receive directly and be aware of the views of my government as your authorities approach a decision.

    I am at your disposal to discuss this matter further.

    Sincerely,

    Richard LeBaron
    Chargé d’Affaires

    Enclosure: as stated

    BEGIN TEXT OF ENCLOSURE:

    — We greatly appreciate the Scottish Government’s continued willingness to solicit the views of the United States and the families of its victims with respect to a decision on Megrahi’s transfer. This issue is of great importance to the United States.

    — We understand that Scottish law permits the Scottish Government to release individuals in Scottish custody on license if there are compassionate grounds justifying the release, and that as a matter of practice such release is not granted unless the prisoner has a life expectancy of less than three months. We also understand that the Scottish judiciary has the ability to grant bail, and in the case of Megrahi the judiciary has indicated that it is prepared to entertain a renewed bail application on compassionate grounds if Megrahi’s prognosis worsens and becomes more certain.

    — The United States respects that decisions concerning compassionate release and bail are reserved to Scottish authorities and are to be made in accordance with Scottish law and policy.

    — The United States is not prepared to support Megrahi’s release on compassionate release or bail. We understand that Scottish authorities are ensuring that Megrahi receives quality medical treatment, including palliative care, while incarcerated. The United States maintains its view that in light of the scope of Megrahi’s crime, its heinous nature, and its continued and devastating impact on the victims and their families, it would be most appropriate for Megrahi to remain imprisoned for the entirety of his sentence. This was the understanding and expectation at the time arrangements were made for his trial in Scottish Court in the Netherlands, were he or his confederate to be convicted and their appeals upheld.

    — Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the U.S. position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose.

    — If a decision were made by Scotland to grant conditional release, two conditions would be very important to the United States and would partially mitigate the concerns of the American victims’ families. First, any such release should only come after the results of independent and comprehensive medical exams clearly establishing that Megrahi’s life expectancy is less than three months. The results of these exams should be made available to the United States and the families of the victims of Pan Am 103. The justification of releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds would be more severely undercut the longer he is free before his actual death.

    — Second, the United States would strongly oppose any release that would permit Megrahi to travel outside of Scotland. We believe that the welcoming reception that Megrahi might receive if he is permitted to travel abroad would be extremely inappropriate given Megrahi’s conviction for a heinous crime that continues to have a deep and profound impact on so many. As such, compassionate release or bail should be conditioned on Megrahi remaining in Scotland.

    — Again, while we are not able to endorse the early release of Megrahi under any scenario, we believe that granting compassionate release or bail under the conditions described (i.e. release with a life expectancy or less than three months and with Megrahi remaining in Scotland under supervision) would mitigate a number of the strong concerns that we have expressed with respect to Megrahi’s release.

    — We appreciate the manner in which the Scottish Government has handled this difficult situation. We recognize that the prisoner transfer decision is one that the Scottish Government did not invite, but now must take. We hope that the Scottish Government would consider every available alternative before considering the granting of Megrahi’s prisoner transfer application. [Source: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2010/07/145142.htm%5D

    See also, U.S. State Department, U.S. Letter Regarding Continued Detention of Megrahi [http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2010/07/145141.htm]

  18. Juneau: says:

    New Mataconis lead-in template: “Debunking the [ anything that makes Obama look bad ] “

  19. sam says:

    “Debunking the [ anything that makes Obama look bad ] “

    It’s a target rich environment.

  20. Wayne says:

    Appreciate the info Sam. It does appear the Obama administration wasn’t trying to secure his release but the administration was aware of what was going on.

  21. tom p says:

    ****New Mataconis lead-in template: “Debunking the [ anything that makes Obama look bad ] “****

    No the same Mataconis lead-in template as from the very beginning:

    “De-bunking pure idiocy no matter where it originates from”

  22. Juneau: says:

    No the same Mataconis lead-in template as from the very beginning:

    “De-bunking pure idiocy no matter where it originates from”

    One man’s idiocy is an entire nation’s motivator. Golly gee, if you folks could just teach people like me and the rest of the great unwashed masses how to stay in our proper place, everything would work out perfectly. Learn to enjoy the coast , its the only place left in the country where your brand of politics has any credibility