Senate Democrats blame BP and Britain for Lockerbie bomber’s release

Democratic senators lashed out at Britain and BP on Wednesday, accusing them of colluding in the release of a terrorist bomber in exchange for a $900 million oil deal with Libya.

The controversy, stoked by New York and New Jersey senators at a press conference, could damage U.S.-U.K. relations already strained by the massive oil spill from a BP well in the Gulf of Mexico.

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BP has become public enemy No. 1 in the U.S. since April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and started pumping millions of gallons of crude into the sea. It is still gushing, wrecking livelihoods, killing wildlife and polluting the coast.

The four senators called on the State Department to investigate the freeing of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison. He was convicted in 2001 for the 1988 bombing of a Pan-Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland — an atrocity that killed 270 people, including 189 Americans.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would support an initial investigation.

The Scottish government released al-Megrahi last August after a medical prognosis gave him just three months to live.

Democratic senators say this prognosis was fabricated to manipulate public opinion and that Jack Straw, Britain’s former foreign secretary and secretary of state for justice, expedited a deal to release al-Megrahi.

“Back in 2007, BP and the Libyan government struck a $900 million oil deal that [then-] Prime Minister Tony Blair helped to coordinate, but the deal ran into roadblocks,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership.

BP has admitted it pushed London to expedite a prisoner-exchange deal with Tripoli to smooth the way, Schumer said.

“We then know that the British government agreed to release al-Megrahi based on a fraudulent doctor’s prognosis that he had three months to live,” Schumer said. “Once Megrahi is released, all the roadblocks to that oil deal [are] removed.”

Straw has denied any link between the oil deal and the terrorist release, but Schumer said, “If anyone thinks this is a coincidence, I have a bridge to sell them in Brooklyn.”

Al-Megrahi is now expected to live another decade and is writing a book that lawmakers said could be lucrative.

British officials are growing increasingly irritated with the steady American criticism. Lord Jones, a government trade ambassador and former trade minister, has criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron for failing to defend BP, which has seen its stock price crumble, taking many pension portfolios with it.

London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has accused the Obama administration of “anti-British rhetoric.”

John Napier, chairman of Royal Sun Alliance, a big British insurance company, wrote an open letter criticizing Obama of treating BP unfairly and saying, “There is a sense here these attacks are being made because BP is British.”

But lawmakers piled on the pressure from Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), citing media reports, said Mark Allen, a former agent from the British secret intelligence service, MI6, who also worked as an adviser to BP and is well-connected to Britain’s Labour Party, told Straw that al-Megrahi’s detention threatened BP’s drilling deal with Libya.

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“Mr. Straw’s letters to the Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, which [have] also been uncovered by the media, indicate that the British government gave in to Libya’s demands for the convicted Lockerbie [bomber’s] release,” said Gillibrand.

“This evidence, although circumstantial, is deeply troubling, not just to the families of the Lockerbie victims but for all Americans and for all nations around the world who are committed to fighting terrorism and preserving justice,” she added.

The senators called on BP to stop drilling in Libya until the investigation is over. They also called on the British government to conduct a “full, open and transparent investigation.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said, “Various reports suggest that BP applied pressure to have al-Megrahi released in order to finalize and expedite a $900 million oil drilling deal with Libya.

“If BP is found to have helped free this mass murderer, that would further delegitimize the Scottish court’s decision to grant him compassionate release.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) also took part in the press conference.

“Not only does BP have terrible management, it has no character,” he said.

On Tuesday, the four Democratic senators sent a letter to Clinton demanding an investigation, writing, “Evidence in the Deepwater Horizon disaster seems to suggest that BP would put profit ahead of people — its attention to safety was negligible, and it routinely underestimated the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf. The question we now have to answer is, was this corporation willing to trade justice in the murder of 270 innocent people for oil profits?”

Lautenberg has also asked Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) to hold a hearing on the decision to free al-Megrahi.

Clinton told reporters, “I have received the letter and we will obviously look into it.”

This story was originally posted at 12:31 p.m. and updated at 8:27 p.m.