The Cable

Wikileaked: Obama administration told senators not to discuss Lockerbie bomber with Qaddafi

The U.S. embassy in Tripoli told a 2009 congressional delegation led by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) not to raise the issue of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi during its visit to Libya, according to diplomatic cables newly released by WikiLeaks.

This week, senior lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates said that the top priority of the new Libyan government should be  the re-arrest and extradition of  Meghrahi, who was sentenced in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, but then released in 2009 on compassionate grounds because he was supposedly dying of cancer. Just before his release, McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) visited Libya to meet with Muammar al-Qaddafi, but were advised by the U.S. embassy in Tripoli not to raise the Megrahi issue because it could become an irritant in the newly restored U.S.-Libya relationship.

"We do not expect the issue to be raised during your visit, but if it is, we believe the most helpful response would be to note that this is an issue for the Scottish Executive and that it would not be constructive to discuss the case as a bilateral issue," read the Aug. 10, 2009 cable.

The cable said that the Qaddafi government had requested compassionate release for Megrahi on July 24 and was discussing the matter with Scottish officials, but that the U.S. embassy in Tripoli had not conferred with the Qaddafi regime on the matter at all.

As Politico noted today, McCain and Lieberman totally ignored the embassy's advice and raised the Megrahi issue early and often with both Qaddafi and his son Muatassim, as an Aug. 14, 2009, diplomatic cable sent from Tripoli embassy reported.

"Muatassim reacted defensively, telling the CODEL that Megrahi ‘is an innocent man, and we believe it.' Muatassim then compared Megrahi's case to that of the Bulgarian nurses convicted in Libya of intentionally infecting 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus, arguing that they had been welcomed in Bulgaria as returning heroes even though they had been sentenced to life in prison," the cable read.

Col. Qaddafi emphasized that if Megrahi was released, neither he nor any other Libyan official could control the manner in which the Libyan people reacted. "They could even demonstrate against me," he said, forebodingly.

Senators and GOP candidates are set to press the Obama administration's to make the Megrahi case a key agenda item in the U.S.-Libya relationship with Transitional National Council, which now appears poised to take power.

For now, the administration's position is simply that they always officially opposed Megrahi's release. But they are not saying whether they will publicly call for his re-arrest or extradition to the United States.

"The secretary's made clear this guy should be behind bars," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "The Department of Justice has the lead on these issues."

McCain memorialized his visit to Libya with a now infamous Aug. 15, 2009, tweet, in which he wrote, "Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his ‘ranch' in Libya - interesting meeting with an interesting man."

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The Cable

Is Robert Ford trying to get thrown out of Syria?

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford went on another trip outside Damascus to view the anti-government protests on Tuesday, this time in direct violation of travel restrictions placed on him by the Assad regime.

"Ambassador Ford went down to Jassem, which is about 70 kilometers south of Damascus, to see for himself what was up there," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's press briefing. "This has been another town that has been engaged in peaceful protest. He was there for about four hours. He had a chance there to talk to a number of Syrians, including those in the opposition, and then he drove back to Damascus."

Sounds like a nice little trip: another example of Ford's commitment to justify his continued presence in Damascus -- against the opposition of many congressmen and foreign policy pundits -- and a useful means of engaging with the Syrian opposition.

But after Ford's trip to the city of Hama last month to observe the unrest there, the Syrian government slapped travel restrictions on the U.S. envoy and his team, barring them from leaving Damascus. The State Department in turn retaliated with similar restrictions barring Syrian diplomats from leaving the Washington area.

Of course, Ford could have requested permission to leave Damascus, but instead he chose to tell the Syrian government about his trip only after he returned to the U.S. embassy.

"In this case, he informed the Syrian Foreign Ministry after the visit, and he made clear to them that the reason that he didn't inform them before the visit was because they haven't been approving any visits by anybody, anywhere," Nuland said. She explained that Ford had requested permission three times over the last six weeks to go to the city of Aleppo, but was denied in all three cases.

"So is he trying to get expelled from the country?" one member of the State Department press corps asked Nuland.

"He is trying to do his job, which is to be able to maintain broad contacts with a broad cross section of Syrians and to make sure that they know where the United States stands," she responded. She added that Ford had received the support of State Department leadership in advance of the trip.

Meanwhile, Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha, who has been neglecting his blog lately, has returned to Washington after spending some time back home. Moustapha is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly using Syrian embassy resources to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington with the aim of intimidating them and threatening their families back in Syria.

How would the State Department feel if Moustapha just ignored the U.S. government and began hopping around the United States without permission? Nuland said that he would be granted permission if he requested to travel somewhere, and that some Syrian officials had recently been granted permission to travel to California.

After the briefing, a State Department official held a little gaggle with reporters on a background basis, as is the post-briefing custom. One reporter pressed the official to acknowledge that, if the tables had been turned and a foreign ambassador didn't follow rules laid out by the U.S. government, he would be expelled.

All the official would say is, "In this case, after he was turned down three times, we just felt he needed to do his job."

Ford's expulsion from Damascus would actually solve a tricky problem for the State Department, which is facing a tough confirmation fight for him this fall. Ford was sent to Damascus last year under a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year. The only way for Ford to stay in Damascus longer than that is for the Senate to confirm him.

Though Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) reversed himself and now supports keeping Ford in place as ambassador, there are still multiple GOP senators who have no intention of letting Ford's nomination get through the Senate.

Given these dynamics, Ford's unauthorized visit to Jassem represents a win-win scenario for the State Department. On the one hand, it bolsters the State Department's case that Ford is a crucial link to the Syrian revolution. And if he gets thrown out of Syria, State can avoid a messy confirmation fight they are almost sure to lose.

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