7 Feb 2011

Lockerbie bomber’s release: the view from Washington

As documents are published about the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Sarah Smith hears from US politicians who say it “stretches the imagination” to believe Holyrood and Whitehall did not do a deal.


It all began in Washington last year. That’s where and when David Cameron promised he would order a trawl through all the government documents relating to the release of Abdel basset al-Megrahi. He was responding to questions coming from some very angry Senators. The three men and one woman who represent the states of New York and New Jersey had been trying to investigate the links between BP and the decision to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber, but without much success, as no one from BP, the Scottish government or the British government would come and give evidence to them.

A review of the relevant documents was as much as Cameron could offer them – and if he was hoping that the result might embarrass the previous Labour government he probably wasn’t hoping as hard as those senators were. They want to prove the “horrendous decision to release this unrepentant terrorist” was taken because “commercial and economic considerations trumpeted our global fight against terrorism”.

They want to prove that the release was directly linked to a BP oil deal in Libya. They want Megrahi sent back to prison. Today’s documents don’t exactly prove anything, so the senators are once again calling for BP execs, Scottish ministers and former UK ministers to come to DC to give evidence. So far they have all refused. Alex Salmond says he won’t consider appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until he sees some American politicians come and give evidence to the Iraq war inquiry in London.

I spoke on the phone this afternoon with Senator Bob Menendez from New Jersey who believes, now more than ever, that Megrahi’s early release had nothing to do with compassion and everything to do with a secret deal between Edinburgh and London.

Seizing on the revelation that Scottish ministers wanted help from Westminster to put an end to ex-prisoners financial claims against the Scottish govt over “slopping out” Menendez says he sees a clear conspiracy between UK and Scottish governments to release Megrahi for commercial ends

So, I asked him about the clear conclusion from Gus O’Donnell that ministers in London “took great efforts” not to overly pressurise the Scottish government into releasing Megrahi. And feared that if they had their efforts would have been counterproductive. I’ve never thought that these senators properly understand the relationship between Westminster and Holyrood. Either the constitutional relationship between the two parliaments or, more importantly, the political relationship between Gordon Brown’s Labour government in London and Alex Salmon’s government in Edinburgh.

Menendez told me it “stretches the imagination” to believe that there was not collusion between the administrations. “It’s hard to believe that a confluence of events happening independent of each other” led to the release of Megrahi he said. And stated that he now has many additional questions that simply make him more determined to talk to ministers. He doesn’t think you can ever get a clear picture of what happened simply by looking at the documents as not everything in government is “memorialized”.

He may well be right about that. And it is thanks to his work and that of Senator Frank Lautenberg also of New Jersey, as well as that of Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Senator Kirsten Gillbrand of New York that we got to see the new information released today. But until they begin to understand that an SNP minister in Edinburgh would be much less likely to do something once they’d been asked to do so by a Labour minister in London they won’t get to the bottom of this.

They released a report at the end of last year called Justice Undone in which they conclude “Scotland was motivated by pressure from the UK”.

They say “Evidence suggests that UK officials pressured Scotland to facilitate al-Megrahi’s release. The UK communicated to the Scottish Government that there were significant national interests in expanding trade relations with Libya. While Scotland has enjoyed a measure of independence from the UK since 1998, the UK government retains considerable powers over Scottish affairs. Thus, it would not be surprising that the Scottish Government would be susceptible to pressure from the UK”.

I think it would be extremely surprising and Gus O’Donnell’s report today backs that up.

The Senators report also states that because the UK government retains some powers over Scotland that are not devolved they could somehow have prevented Megrahi’s release. They say the UK government could have asserted its authority because they reserved the power to deal with immigration and asylum and Megrahi is not a UK citizen. Or that because Westminster deals with “international relations” they could have intervened. Or maybe they should have used their control of UK airspace to stop Megrahi flying from Glasgow to Tripoli.

I hope that someone will at some point explain the true nature of relations between Westminster and Holyrood to these American lawmakers. Without them we would not know as much as we do today. Until they understand the political realities they won’t be able to get to the whole truth.