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."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.