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Lockerbie Bomber; Barack Obama’s fake outrage

The UK Independent Newspaper headlines a top secret meeting between nine top-level MI6, Foreign Office, CIA and Libyan officials at the Travellers Club where it was believed the seeds for the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi’s release was sown. The revelation that two senior American officials were present risks causing embarrassment to the White House, as Washington has made clear its criticism of the release of Megrahi by the Scottish government last month.

The expose threatens to  thrust Tony Blair  into the controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi with questions in Parliament over a secret meeting the then Prime Minister orchestrated that brought Libya in from the cold.

Unravelling the real story of the release last month of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. – SUNDAY INDEPENDENT

 

It should be obvious by now that the British Government was looking for ways to get Megrahi back to Libya long before the SNP (Scotlands ruling party) took over two years ago.

 

When the process of rapprochement with Libya began, Megrahi was in jail in a Labour Scotland. Part of the confusion arises from the fact that, while the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds was taken by the SNP government, the outcome was what Mr Brown wanted all along.

 

It has been alleged that Megrahi’s release was in exchange for British access to Libya’s oil. It has been alleged that the £550m deal signed by BP and the Libyan government early last year lay behind the pressure for Megrahi’s release.

There is of course some truth in this, as Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, said yesterday, which is why it has been difficult for Mr Brown to set the record straight. “Yes,” Mr Straw said, trade and BP were “a very big part” of his decision two years ago to include Megrahi in the agreement that would allow prisoners to be transferred between the UK and Libya.

 

However, it should be clear from our account that the trade deals were the consequence of a political decision rather than the cause of one. As we reveal today, that decision was taken by Tony Blair and George Bush in December 2003.

Two days after British, US and Libyan intelligence chiefs met at the Travellers’ Club in London to discuss how Libya might be brought in from the cold, Mr Blair telephoned Colonel Gaddafi. That call marked the beginning of the end of Libya’s isolation: the next day Mr Blair and Mr Bush announced that Col Gaddafi had abandoned his attempt to acquire nuclear weapons and renounced weapons of mass destruction altogether.

 

The normalisation of trade relations with Libya therefore flowed from a geo-political decision taken by Messrs Blair and Bush; it was not the reason for it. If anything, the immediate stimulus for the rapprochement was the embarrassment felt by Mr Blair, Mr Bush and their respective intelligence agencies over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Desperate for an intelligence “coup”, and eager to suggest that the Iraq invasion had had a salutary effect on other rogue states, Mr Blair claimed the deal with Col Gaddafi as a personal vindication.

 

Like any good story, you have to hear the start of it to make sense of the ending. Once it is realised that the story began in 2003, the puzzling parts of last month’s chapter fall into place.

It explains why, although the Americans were angered by Megrahi’s release, administration officials and President Obama did not sound properly outraged; they sounded as if they were reading from a script. It is doubtful whether the US would ever have been reconciled to Megrahi’s transfer as a price worth paying for Libyan engagement, but the Bush administration was certainly closely involved in the broader policy of reconciliation.

Partly because both Mr Obama and Mr Brown were acting out parts assigned to them by their predecessors, the feeling that a game is being played has been inescapable in the past few weeks.

Once again, it is as if Mr Blair has got away with something – he is like a mischievous schoolboy who has rung the doorbell and run away, leaving his friend Gordon on the doorstep, taking the flak.

 

Yet, once we have cut through the hypocrisies of diplomacy, the basic policy objective of drawing Libya into the international community was a justifiable one. Whether Megrahi’s release was a price worth paying for that objective is a question that changed when it emerged that he had only a short time to live.

 But let that argument be contended on the basis of a clear-eyed understanding of what “the deal” really was. And let us not be distracted by red herrings from the bigger picture of Megrahi’s release – and from the pursuit of the more elusive truth of what happened over Lockerbie in 1988. 

The UK Independent Reports:

MPs are set to demand the minutes of an extraordinary cloak-and-dagger summit in London between British, American and Libyan spies held three days before Mr Blair announced that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was surrendering his weapons of mass destruction programme.

At the time of the secret meeting in December 2003 at the private Travellers Club in Pall Mall, London – for decades the favourite haunt of spies – Libyan officials were pressing for negotiations on the status of Megrahi, who was nearly three years into his life sentence at a Scottish jail.

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·                     Leading article: Megrahi: a small piece in the game

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Whitehall sources said the issue of Megrahi’s imprisonment was raised as part of the discussions, although it is not clear whether Britain or America agreed to a specific deal over his imprisonment, or a more general indication that it would be reviewed.

MPs are to investigate what was promised by Britain at the talks on 16 December, and the role that Mr Blair played in the affair. Until now, the controversy over Megrahi’s release last month has centred on discussions between Gordon Brown’s government and the Scottish executive and Libya since 2007, with Mr Blair apparently not involved in any way.

It has also focused on claims that the deal was related to oil deals, with Jack Straw admitting yesterday that BP’s interests in Libya played a “big part”. But authoritative sources said the seeds for Megrahi’s release were sown in 2003, when Libya made the historic agreement to end its status as a pariah, and that the focus on oil and trade was a “red herring”.

Yesterday the Libyan Foreign Minister, Musa Kusa – who himself was present at the Travellers Club meeting – told The Times that Megrahi’s release was “nothing to do with trade”.

Two days after the meeting Mr Blair and Col Gaddafi held direct talks by telephone; and the next day, 19 December, the historic announcement about Libyan WMD was made by Mr Blair and President Bush.

At the time, the British government was in desperate need of an intelligence victory after the debacle of going to war in Iraq in the belief that it had weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraq Survey Group had just reported it had found no biological or chemical weapons. Two months after the talks, Mr Blair travelled to the Libyan Desert to extend the “hand of friendship” to Col Gaddafi in a Bedouin tent, calculating that the PR coup of Libya dismantling WMD programmes outweighed American outrage.

Yet, in the end, it was revealed that Libya had not developed a nuclear- weapons capability and so did not pose as great a threat to the West as was feared.

Nine top-level MI6, Foreign Office, CIA and Libyan officials were present for the negotiations at the Travellers Club. The revelation that two senior American officials were present risks causing embarrassment to the White House, as Washington has made clear its criticism of the release of Megrahi by the Scottish government last month.

Yet, as the focus shifted to the former prime minister last night, it can also be revealed that Mr Brown and Barack Obama have not spoken to each other for more than a month, in a sign of the growing tensions in the US-UK relationship which has been put under intense strain by the Megrahi affair.

Despite Washington‘s concerns over the release of Megrahi on 20 August, Downing Street confirmed that Mr Brown and President Obama last spoke by telephone on 24 July about Afghanistan.

In an interview with CNN after Megrahi’s release last month, Mr Blair denied he personally raised the case of Megrahi, adding that he “didn’t have the power” to release him.

Last night, a spokesman for Mr Blair could not be drawn on the December 2003 meeting. In fact, The Independent on Sunday has established that Mr Blair’s involvement with the Travellers Club meeting was at arm’s length, via his then foreign affairs envoy, the current ambassador to Washington Sir Nigel Sheinwald.

But MPs on the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, one of two committees poised to investigate the affair, are to probe suspicions that the Travellers Club talks involved giving the green light to Megrahi’s release. A Conservative frontbencher and member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Ben Wallace, said: “This is the sort of thing a parliamentary inquiry can get to the bottom of. We need the Government to clarify how the Libyans raised the subject of Megrahi, what was the UK‘s response, and did the WMD negotiations spark verbal or written correspondence with the then Scottish executive, which was run by the Labour Party at the time.

“We know the UK and Tony Blair were desperate to maintain the special relationship with the WMD deal – what price did they pay? We need assurances from the Foreign Secretary that Megrahi was not part of the deal.”

Details of the December 2003 talks are straight out of a scene from a spy thriller. In a darkened corner of the 190-year-old gentlemen’s club, surrounded by secret doors disguised as bookcases, the negotiations began at lunch but stretched on for eight hours.

Sir Nigel was in Downing Street and was kept informed of negotiations. He in turn kept the Prime Minister up to date. Full details of the meeting, and the identities of those present, have not been revealed until now.

Mr Kusa, the Libyan head of external intelligence, was at the time banned from entering Britain after allegedly plotting to assassinate Libyan dissidents. But because of his closeness to Col Gaddafi, he was essential to the talks and was given safe passage to London. Also in the Libyan delegation was Abdulati Alobidi, now the minister for Europe, who extracted the assurance from Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell this year that Mr Brown did not want Megrahi to die in a Scottish jail. Mr Alobidi said last week: “In my negotiations with the British and the Scottish, I didn’t mention anything about trade relations.”

For the Americans, Stephen Kappes, the CIA deputy director of operations, and Robert Joseph, counter-proliferation chief, led the talks. Britain was represented by William Ehrman, Foreign Office director general for defence and intelligence, and David Landsman, then the head of counter-proliferation at the Foreign Office. A CIA source said last night that a Lebanese businessman, while not at the meeting, was the key go-between, bringing together Libyan officials and British and US spies. The same businessman also put together a team of private investigators on Lockerbie to undermine the case against Megrahi.

An official with knowledge of the talks said of the Travellers Club meeting: “That was where the real negotiations were made.”

dimokalu@yahoo.co.uk