The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.
From the Daily Press Briefing of July 20, 2010
MR. CROWLEY: Kabul conference: International community and the Afghan government agreed on a joint plan for a phased transition of security in Afghanistan's provinces to the Afghan national security forces/Afghan government presented a detailed plan called "The Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program"/US welcomes the commitment at the conference to implement the national action plan for the women of Afghanistan and the elimination of violence against women law and its reaffirmation of the rights of Afghan women
QUESTION: Can we start with something that I think is going to get taken up at the White House in about 33 minutes? And that is the question of the U.S. Government’s position with regard to Mr. Megrahi. The letter that you released yesterday, Secretary Clinton’s response to the four senators, says – notes that any decision to review or reconsider Megrahi’s release is a matter for the Scottish authorities and that the United States continues to believe that he should not be a free man. And then it says, “To that end, we are encouraging the Scottish and British authorities to review again the underlying facts and circumstances leading to the release of al-Megrahi and to consider any new information that has come to light since his release.”
Is it fair to say that the U.S. Government would like Megrahi to be sent back to a British prison?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, the United States Government would have liked that Mr. Megrahi never left --
MR. CROWLEY: -- a Scottish prison. It is unclear whether the Scottish authorities have any recourse with regard to this matter. Secretary Clinton did have the opportunity to discuss this issue today in Kabul with Foreign Secretary Hague. As I think Prime Minister Cameron indicated yesterday on his way to Washington, fully expect that this is an issue that President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron will talk about today at the White House. I believe that Prime Minister Cameron will meet later on today with the four senators who have been in contact with the State Department, have, obviously, significant concerns which we share about understanding fully the circumstances surrounding the Scottish authorities’ decision.
What the Secretary said to Foreign Secretary Hague today is that we hope that British authorities and Scottish authorities will cooperate fully in trying to help everyone understand the circumstances surrounding this decision and any interaction or influences that might have been presented outside of the government.
QUESTION: The thing that interests me here, though, is – and that’s why I read it. The sentence ends, “Our unshakable conviction that al-Megrahi should not be a free man.” And then the next sentence begins, “To that end, we’re encouraging the Scottish and British authorities to review again the underlying facts
I mean, is – it seems as if your encouragement of the British and Scottish authorities is not merely to make sure that everybody understands the circumstances leading to the decision and what influences there may or may not have been on that decision, but rather that it is to that end, i.e., the end of his not being a free man. It seems as if you are not quite but almost saying you want him back in prison somewhere. I mean, do you want him back in prison? Not did you want – never – not want him released in the first place. Do you want him incarcerated again?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, if we had a preference, he’d be back in prison. I’m not sure how realistic a reversal of the Scottish authorities’ decision of a year ago is at this point. But certainly, questions have been raised. They’re legitimate questions about the breadth of information, who provided that information, what was the medical information that was available that caused the Scottish authorities to make what was, in retrospect, a regrettable and erroneous decision based on an assumption that Mr. Megrahi had a limited time to live.
So I think that, again, there are questions here. These are questions for British and Scottish authorities to answer. We think that the meetings today, particularly with the senators, will be an opportunity for the British Government to pledge cooperation with ongoing investigations of this. There will be a hearing before the Senate later in the month. So this is an issue that is going to be with us, I expect, for some time. We’re coming up next month on the anniversary of Mr. Megrahi’s release. So to the extent that particularly Scottish authorities can be forthcoming in helping us understand how they arrived at the humanitarian judgment that they did, I think will answer the questions that have been raised. And I don’t know that it can reverse the decision made, but it can assuage the concerns that we have about how this was handled.
QUESTION: P.J., the same question. In that, you mentioned new information, any new information. Is there any new information that might shed a different light on this or that might lead the Scottish authorities to change their original decision?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware of any new information. I think my understanding – and I think there was a release of some information and documentation by Scottish authorities last fall that they came to this judgment based on the medical advice of a wide range of medical professionals who examined the evidence that was available to them.
But again, these are very legitimate questions. They reflect the concern and the sense of outrage that we have and the families of the Pan Am 103 victims have about how this was handled. But these are questions for the Scottish authorities in particular to answer and I’m sure that the senators will reflect the views of many Americans that we want to make sure that we have available to us all of the details that went into this judgment a year ago.
QUESTION: And P.J., also on that subject, when this came up a while ago – a year ago almost – there was concern that it might have an effect on the relationship between the United States and the UK. That diminished and things went on. Now, it has been raised by these four senators from New York and New Jersey. Does it have new life, enough new life that it might actually pick up enough political steam to have an effect, a bad effect, on relations?
MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think it’s going to have an effect on our relationship. In fact, it hasn’t had an effect on our relationship. We continue to engage fully with the British Government on a range of shared interests. There was the – Prime Minister Cameron’s very effective and eloquent op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that talked about that this is a relationship that is based on common interests, common values.
So it’s on that basis that we continue to have the kinds of high-level meetings we’ve had today between the President and the prime minister, between the Secretary and the foreign secretary, simply because there are such a wide range of issues on which the United States and Britain cooperate. And it is in our mutual interest to continue what is arguably the most productive bilateral relationship in the world.
QUESTION: May we stick with this for just one more?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: You talked about the questions that have been raised and the influences that there may have been on the decision to release him. Are you alluding there to the questions about British Petroleum and its role in the – in lobbying the British Government regarding the prisoner transfer agreement which is not the vehicle through which he was ultimately released? Is that what you’re talking about?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, BP itself has answered some of these questions last week in its public statement saying – acknowledging that it did lobby the British Government regarding the prisoner transfer agreement, but not about Megrahi himself. We take that and understand it. But I’m sure that when the senators meet with Prime Minister Cameron later today, they’re going to raise BP’s role in this once again. My sense is that will be a significant issue talked about at this hearing coming up at the end of the month.
Now, there was a separate correspondence by these senators to Secretary Clinton also addressing the issue of precisely what was the medical information that was available to the Scottish authorities. There have been suggestions that perhaps a doctor who may have been influenced by the Libyan Government may have offered some information. It’s our understanding that the Scottish authorities made this decision based on the information and the evaluations of many medical professionals. It’s unclear that the individual in question who has ties to Libya was even a factor in the Scottish decision.
But these are the kinds of questions that we understand have been raised and we hope and trust that the British Government and Scottish authorities will be responsive to these questions.
QUESTION: Do you – two things here. One, do you think that – BP was very upfront about saying that it lobbied the British Government regarding the prisoner transfer agreement and that it was aware that slow progress on that could affect its offshore oil exploration agreement, which then required or was pending ratification by the Libyan authorities. They, however, said that they did not lobby on behalf of Mr. Megrahi.
I wonder, though, if you think there’s something a little sophistical in that argument because the prisoner transfer agreement, while it was not limited to Mr. Megrahi, it was certainly – he was certainly somebody ultimately covered by it. And within a week of the prisoner transfer agreement coming into force on April the 29th, 2009, on May 6th, the Libyan Government asked for Mr. Megrahi to be transferred to Libya to serve out his sentence under the prisoner transfer agreement.
And while I understand that these are two separate processes – the PTA on the one hand, on the compassionate grounds on which he was ultimately released because of his ill health – I wonder if you think there’s something a little sophistical here, a little disingenuous perhaps? Because clearly, Mr. Megrahi was somebody who could have been a beneficiary of the prisoner transfer agreement.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as I understand it – again, British and Scottish authorities are in the best position to answer what you just asked – that in fact, the request for Mr. Megrahi to be transferred under the prisoner transfer agreement was actually rejected. And then the Scottish authorities decided to return him to Libya under a humanitarian decision, which we all regret.
So again, these are quite legitimate questions. They reflect the discomfort and concern that we have about what has transpired in light of the fact that Mr. Megrahi does live as a free man in Libya today. And to the extent that authorities can help us understand fully what led up to the decision last year, I think that will be helpful in – as we go forward. But I don’t think ultimately it’s necessarily going to change where we are today.
QUESTION: Another thing. It’s about – do you – with all these talks that’s going on, do you seriously believe that he can be brought back? The bird has flown the cage and it is not that it escaped; it was asked to. So where are we leading with all this? What does the U.S. today seriously believe?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as I just said, it would be unclear, absent some sort of very specific finding that, in fact, laws and regulations were violated here somehow, that there would not be a basis to reverse this decision.
QUESTION: P.J., quickly --
MR. CROWLEY: But again, that’s part of the reason why these questions are coming up. And to the extent that British and Scottish authorities can be reassuring that this was exactly as it was described and the process was not skewed in any way, then at least we’ll understand fully how this happened. But it is an issue. It’s going to remain an issue and to the extent that the meetings today can help us understand more fully the basis upon which the Scottish authorities made this decision and other things that were swirling around surrounding it, that would be helpful.
QUESTION: Even if it was a mistake –
MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?
QUESTION: Even if it was a mistake, do you expect Libya to listen to Scottish authority and hand him back?
MR. CROWLEY: As a practical matter, it is not – at this point Scottish authorities – and as we’ve said and stressed many times, Scottish authorities made this decision, they had the authority to make this decision. They would have to make a request to Libya that – on some sort of legal basis. I don’t know the Scottish authority is going to make such a request and I’m not sure that Libyan authority is going to honor such a request. That’s an academic point at this point, because we’re not aware of any such request from Scottish authorities to send – to return Mr. Megrahi to Scotland, which makes all of this more, as we’ve said, regrettable. But it’s unclear that it is reversible.
QUESTION: Given that you feel strongly about this, have you asked the Libyans to put him in jail? I mean, he’s in Libya. They could imprison him if they wanted.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, what would be the legal basis to do that? Had he been transferred under the PTA, he would be in prison today in a Libyan prison. He was transferred under a humanitarian gesture by Scottish authorities, and I’m not aware of what specific conditions Scotland placed on Mr. Megrahi. All I can say is, from our standpoint, we wish that today he was still in a Scottish prison. It was our understanding that he would serve out his sentence in a Scottish prison. And we regret very strongly that Scotland made the decision that it made, but we respect the fact that it was within the authority of Scottish authorities to do what they did.
QUESTION: Last one from me on this: The Secretary –
MR. CROWLEY: Wait. Hold on.
QUESTION: -- was asked – forgive me, just last one. I won’t ask any more about this, I hope.
MR. CROWLEY: (Laughter.) For a day anyway.
QUESTION: And you all hope, too.
MR. CROWLEY: We’re going to beat this horse for a while (inaudible). (Laughter.)
QUESTION: The senators specifically asked Secretary Clinton or the State Department to investigate this matter. Her letter doesn’t actually address whether the State Department is going to launch any kind of an investigation into this. I mean I realize that the letter addresses some of the other issues, but it doesn’t say, “Yeah, and we’re going to launch an investigation.” Does the State Department have any intention of launching an investigation into the circumstances regarding Megrahi’s release?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, Arshad, let us take this a step at a time. We’ve had – I think the President and the prime minister are wrapping up their meeting. As everyone has indicated, we fully expect that this was a topic of discussion among several. The prime minister will be talking to the senators later on this evening. There will be a hearing coming up at the end of the month where we’ll be able to learn some more things from hearing witnesses, including, I think, representatives from BP about what they did.
We, at this stage, are encouraging, as the Secretary said in her letter, British and Scottish authorities to cooperate fully to answer the questions that have been raised by the senators. We’ll evaluate this as we go along, but one way or another, the answers to these questions do not exist within the United States Government. They exist within the British and Scottish governments. They are the ones who have to answer these questions. And we are encouraging them, as the Secretary and Foreign Secretary Hague agreed today in Kabul, to cooperate fully in answering the questions that these four senators, on behalf of the American people, have raised.
QUESTION: Thanks. P.J., the suggestions that –
MR. CROWLEY: So we are going to beat this horse a little while longer.
QUESTION: We are.
MR. CROWLEY: Keep going.
QUESTION: But at least we all get a whack at it. The suggestion –
MR. CROWLEY: Oh, joy. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: The suggestion that there may have been, as you said yesterday, other parties or influences that could have skewed the decision, or raising the question as to whether there were, suggests some sort of quid pro quo is what you’re asking about: Was there something that Libya got or gave in exchange for this? And I wanted you to address that. What, concretely, is it that you’re hinting at? And then a follow-up to that –
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not hinting at anything. I mean, what we – what the senators are reflecting and our frustration is that the decision by Scottish authorities almost a year ago was based on an expectation that Mr. Megrahi had a limited time to live, perhaps three months. Here we are 12 months later, and now you’ve seen some assertions publicly that perhaps he has years to live. Well, this has obviously touched a nerve here in the United States. We – it touches our nerves as well. So what was the – in retrospect, what was the – what were the key judgments that the medical professionals that the Scottish authorities consulted with that led them to believe that Mr. Megrahi was, in fact, confronting a terminal illness?
And so to some extent, fully understanding the full range of the information upon which they based this decision, I think would at least help us understand and assuage the concerns that have been raised. So was this something that was simply just a misdiagnosis or was this something else? These are the questions that the senators have raised and they deserve answers.
QUESTION: Can I have the one follow-up, and only one? I promise. This certainly raises the question of Libya’s reintegration into the civilized world. Libya was excluded from trade and diplomatic relations for – I can’t even think how long it was. I mean, it was even before Lockerbie. If you find that – do these questions, these doubts, and if there was some interference, would that affect relations with Libya, reintegration of Libya, access of U.S. companies to work in Libya?
MR. CROWLEY: There are a lot of ifs in that question.
QUESTION: Yes, I know.
MR. CROWLEY: Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
QUESTION: Is that something you’re examining at this point?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. We have some very legitimate questions and these questions could be resolved through very straightforward answers by British and Scottish authorities. We regret the decision. We think it was a mistake. We’ve made that clear. But at this point, we have no information to suggest that it was other than just simply the judgment of Scottish authorities to release Mr. Megrahi on compassionate humanitarian grounds.