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Senate cancels Lockerbie hearing; BP, Brits ‘stonewall’

A U.S. Senate committee cancels a hearing on the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber after key witnesses from BP and the British and Scottish governments decline to testify.
/ Source: NBC News

A U.S. Senate committee has canceled a much-publicized hearing slated for this Thursday on the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber after the panel was turned down in its request for key witnesses from BP and the British and Scottish governments.

An aide to Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who was slated to chair the hearing, informed family members of the 270 Lockerbie victims this afternoon that the Foreign Relations Committee was unable to secure testimony from any of the witnesses it wanted — including outgoing BP chief executive Tony Hayward and Mark Allen, a former top British spymaster who, as a BP consultant, lobbied for an agreement that would have allowed for the Lockerbie bomber’s release.

The committee had hoped to focus the hearing on BP’s lobbying of the British government on behalf of a prisoner transfer agreement that would allow for the release of the convicted bomber, Abdelbaasset al-Megrahi. He was convicted of murder by a Scottish court in 2001 for the bombing of the Pan American World Airways jet, which fell near the town of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988.

BP has confirmed that Allen, the former MI6 spymaster turned BP consultant, had twice called Jack Straw, then the British Justice Minister, to urge him to expedite a prisoner transfer agreement—a move that the Libyan government had insisted upon as a condition for approving a multi-billion dollar oil deal with the British government.

In an exchange with the Menendez aide, two family members expressed their anger over the move and suggested that the committee convene the hearing anyway — with an empty chair where the putative BP witnesses would sit — or seek a Senate resolution censuring BP, according to source who participated in the phone call.

But instead, Menendez issued a public statement late Tuesday angrily accusing  BP—as well as the British and Scottish governments—of having “stonewalled” the committee. He added that he planned to expand the panel’s probe into a full blown inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the release last year of Megrahi.

“In the case of BP, it is hard to imagine that a company on such thin ice with the American public after devastating our Gulf Coast would not fully cooperate in getting to the bottom of the release of a terrorist who murdered 189 Americans,” Menendez said.

“It is apparently more important to BP and Mr. Hayward to focus on his multi-million dollar golden parachute than to help answer lingering questions about whether his company advocated trading blood for oil.”

BP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The postponement was not entirely a surprise to Senate aides and some family members given the hard line stand taken by the British and Scottish governments in recent days as well as the non-committal responses from BP when asked about the events surrounding Megrahi’s release. Even though Prime Minister David Cameron last week promised a comprehensive review of all documents relating to the release of Megrahi, British officials have since privately said that they believe all the “relevant” documents had already been made public and there was nothing in its archives that would alter its account of events.

Given a series of press conferences that Menendez and three of his Senate Democratic colleagues — Sen. Frank Launtenberg of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York— had been holding in recent weeks about their plans to hold the hearing, “this is embarrassing,” said Frank Duggan, a spokesman for the Lockerbie victims' families. But Duggan said he wasn’t that “personally disappointed” because he never expected the committee would get any cooperation anyway.

Although the then British government did in fact sign a prisoner transfer agreement that could have allowed for Megrahi’s release, British officials have repeatedly emphasized that the bomber was released by the Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill on other grounds — that he was eligible to be freed under a provision of Scottish law that permits the “compassionate release” of convicted criminals. This was based on medical testimony that he was suffering from advanced state of prostate cancer and  had only three months to live. Eleven months later, Megrahi is still alive and Scottish officials have said they can’t comment about his current condition because his medical reports — which they receive regular updates on — are considered private.

Menendez said the committee had sought testimony from Straw, MacAskill, and Andrew Fraser, the Scottish prison medical director who provided the report upon which the compassionate release finding was reached. All three refused to appear. BP did offer to provide testimony from another vice president, but the committee ultimately decided not to hear him after concluding he had no role in the Libya deal.