Did O Drop the Ball?

Back from summer recess, Congress faces continuing outrage over Scotland's release of Libyan terrorist Abdel Bassett al-Megrahi, convicted of destroying Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. How did this happen? How is it possible, at the supposed height of "Obamamania" worldwide, that Great Britain, our closest ally, would free a terrorist who killed 270 innocents, 189 of them Americans? What does this mean for our policy against terrorism?

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's own ministers now concede, despite earlier denials, that Megrahi's triumphal return to Tripoli was linked to British interest in greater trade and investment with Libya.

In the United States, polls show over 80 percent of Americans opposed to the release. That disgust spilled over to Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy's impending visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly opening in two weeks. Khadafy had wanted to pitch his tent, literally, on Libyan-owned property in a New Jersey residential neighborhood. Vociferous popular opposition blocked that idea, and Khadafy's looking elsewhere for a place to stay.

It is simply inconceivable that Britain and Scotland would free Megrahi if President Obama had clearly and forcefully articulated his opposition.

Now Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and others are calling for congressional probes. Writing to Sens. John Kerry and Richard Lugar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lautenberg asked for "a hearing and investigation to uncover whether justice took a back seat to commercial interests."

Significantly, Lautenberg's letter also asks the committee to consider whether Megrahi's release "violated the international agreement between the US and the UK." This important question may well reveal a critical failure of Obama administration foreign policy.

US interests in British or Scottish decisions about Megrahi are palpable and justifiable--and our feelings, and those of the victims' families, could surely be communicated in powerful terms. Did President Obama, in fact, really make plain to Prime Minister Brown his opposition to freeing Megrahi? Was the administration too worried about offending Libya, and if so, why? Or did the administration simply drop the diplomatic ball?

In the Clinton years, the United States made two key concessions in exchange for Libya turning over Megrahi and another defendant to Scotland for prosecution. The first was explicit: The trial would not be used to undermine Libya's regime, which was uniformly understood to mean that prosecutors wouldn't seek to tie Khadafy directly to the decision to blow Pan Am 103 out of the sky. The second was implicit: By agreeing that trial would be under Scottish, rather than US law, the maximum sentence could only be life imprisonment. (The death penalty is not available in Britain.)

Given this history, America obviously had a profound and continuing stake in Megrahi's status, after the conviction as well as before. Indeed, because of the Clinton concessions allowing for Scottish jurisdiction, the US victims' families were assured at that time that Megrahi would serve his sentence in Scottish jails--not in a specially created "UN prison," as some proposed, and certainly not in Libya.

Now Megrahi's commutation from any incarceration makes a mockery of all these supposedly good-faith arrangements.

It is simply inconceivable that Britain and Scotland would free Megrahi if President Obama had clearly and forcefully articulated his opposition.

Here, the White House's public explanation has been inconsistent. First, spokesmen quickly asserted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had worked for "weeks and months" to avert Megrahi's release, and that Attorney General Eric Holder heard about clemency for Megrahi as early as June. Some contend that Obama's national-security transition team was briefed well before the inauguration.

Yet now the administration spin is that Megrahi's release blindsided Washington, and that it is appalled by the decision.

These widely different administration versions of reality are separated by one important fact: the vociferous outpouring of anger and dismay by the Pan Am 103 victims' families, and by the public generally. That is likely what truly blindsided Obama--how much more convenient, therefore, to blame the British rather than admit his own administration's failure. Not surprisingly, officials in Britain are now responding testily that the US government was kept fully informed throughout.

Why was the president so diplomatically reticent--or so obviously ineffective--in opposing Megrahi's release? Prompt, public and thorough Senate hearings would surely uncover the real answer.

Until then, we can only speculate that Obama just didn't think keeping this mass murderer in prison was worth much effort or political capital. If that speculation is wrong, even the administration should welcome a congressional investigation.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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