Senators Turn Up the Heat on BP Over Claims of a Lockerbie Deal
July 15, 2010 - 3:47 AMFour U.S. senators turned up the pressure on BP Wednesday, demanding that the oil giant release to Congress private and public communications relating to last year's early release by British authorities of the Libyan convicted in the Lockerbie bombing.
The four also secured from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton an agreement to “look into” their request for an investigation into allegations that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi’s release was linked to a lucrative BP oil deal in Libya.
New Jersey Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, and Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York – all Democrats – wrote to BP executives Wednesday, calling for information on the Megrahi affair.
They said at a press conference they also want the oil company to suspend plans to begin drilling in Libya until the matter is cleared up.
BP was due to begin exploratory drilling along the Libyan coastline within weeks, after signing an agreement in May 2007 for what the company then described as the “single biggest exploration commitment” in its 100-year history. BP representatives have spoken about the possibility of a $20 billion dollar investment over a decade or two.
The agreement was signed by BP group chief executive Tony Hayward and the head of Libya’s National Oil Company, with then Prime Minister Tony Blair looking on.
Lautenberg has separately written to the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requesting that it investigate the affair.
Megrahi was sentenced in 2001 to life imprisonment in a Scottish prison after being convicted for the1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Of the 270 people killed in the JFK-bound plane and on the ground where the wreckage fell, 189 were Americans, many of them residents of New York and New Jersey.
Scotland’s devolved government released Megrahi on “compassionate” grounds last August after a medical evaluation concluded that he would likely die of prostate cancer within three months. He is still alive.
The allegations raised by the senators first came to light ten months ago, but the new push comes at a time when BP is under fire over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and its aftermath.
In a letter to Clinton on Tuesday the lawmakers raised the prospect that BP may use what they called “blood money” – profits from drilling in Libya – to pay damages claims for the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Claims of a deal first emerged at the time of Megrahi’s release.
At the time Britain’s Labor government denied involvement in any deal “in relation to Megrahi and any commercial interests” in Libya, and further denied having put any pressure on Scottish authorities to free the Libyan. Scotland’s justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, also denied having come under any pressure from the government in London.
For its part, BP last September confirmed that it had told the British government in late 2007 that lack of progress in concluding a bilateral “prisoner transfer agreement” (PTA) with Muammar Gaddafi’s government “might have negative consequences” for the exploration deal which it had signed the previous May, but remained to be ratified.
But it also stated that its advice to the government did not relate to Megrahi, because it was aware that the case fell within the jurisdiction of Scotland, not Britain.
BP then, and now, denies having been involved in any discussions with the relevant authorities about Megrahi’s release.
‘Our wider national and commercial interests’
Although Megrahi’s eventual release was on compassionate ground and not under the PTA, the PTA nonetheless lies at the heart of the controversy.
A PTA provides a framework to transfer prisoners between two countries to serve out the remainder of their jail terms, but authorities in the relevant jurisdictions have the right to veto any transfer request.
In a statement to the House of Commons last October, then Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that when Britain and Libya were negotiating the PTA in 2007, Scottish authorities urged London to ensure that the document specifically excluded Megrahi.
The negotiating team had sought to do so, he said, but the Libyans had refused to sign any PTA that carried an exclusion.
This left the government was a clear choice, Miliband said, It could agree to the Libyans’ position, knowing that the Scottish authorities retained the right to veto any request for Megrahi’s transfer, or it could have ended the negotiations, and in so doing, “set back our wider national and commercial interests that flowed from normalized relations.”
The government had decided to agree to the Libyans’ terms.
Ten days after Megrahi was released and given a “hero’s welcome” in Tripoli, London’s Sunday Times published excerpts from a letter written by then Justice Secretary Jack Straw to MacAskill in December 2007.
Straw told his Scottish counterpart that he had decided to agree to Libya’s terms on the PTA because “[t]he wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage.”
The newspaper noted that six weeks after the government’s about-turn, BP announced that its Libya deal had been ratified.
In their letter sent Wednesday to BP executives, the four senators said Congress was interested in both the public and private record of BP’s verbal or written communications with authorities in Libya, Britain, Scotland or other individuals or entities relating to Megrahi or the PTA.
“Serious questions have been raised about whether justice and punishment for terrorism took a back seat to back-room deals for an oil contract,” they said.
“We presume you agree that these questions must be answered fully and without delay. The American public and the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 deserve no less.”
Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent, was linked to a suitcase of clothing bought in Malta and put on a flight to Frankfurt, Germany. There the unaccompanied bag was assigned for transfer onto the Pan Am flight from London to New York. The bomb was hidden in a radio cassette recorder packed in the suitcase.
Throughout his lengthy trial, after his conviction and at his release, he maintained his innocence.
Among other theories circulating early on during the investigation was a claim that a Syrian-based Palestinian group carried out the attack at the behest of the Iran. Tehran had supposedly ordered the attack to avenge the accidental shooting down by a U.S. warship of an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf earlier that year.