Why Senator Menendez Should Question Tony Blair

Silence speaks volume. In the unmitigated disaster that is the Gulf of Mexico, two silent partners watch as BP endures a hurricane of criticism, Transocean and Haliburton, who it has been alleged are at least as complicit over the oil spill as the company that has been re-born in sections of the US media as “British Petroleum”.

Meanwhile, as that same company begins drilling off the coast of Libya, a pariah state until very recently, many of those same critics, including US Senator Robert Menendez believe that BP was instrumental in lobbying for the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdel al-Megrahi in return for those drilling rights. They want those who made the decision to release him on compassionate grounds, former Justice Secretary Jack Straw and Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to fly to Capitol Hill to face questions from his Committee.

At one level it is entirely possible to understand the Senator’s wish. Indeed he represents a fairly solid and angry body of opinion in the United States that is furious with BP, which it believes is wholly responsible of for the blackening of the American Gulf coastline. It is also possible to see how he and others smell a rat over the release of al-Megrahi, who was supposed to have had only three months to live, but has so far chalked up an extra year of freedom in Libya where coincidentally, and to rub salt into the wounds, he is regarded as a national hero.

Just because big business and Government frequently fuse and lobby in such a way all of the time, and just because ‘Big Oil’ has such political and economic power, does not mean that Senator Menendez is wrong to try and pursue answers. Far from it. And just because the British lawmakers he wants to invite in front of his Committee have not taken up his offer, doesn’t mean that his Committee should allow itself to get side-lined.  In truth it is difficult to see US lawmakers agree to fly to London to be quizzed by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, just as it is for British and Scottish lawmakers to break all conventions and appear in front of a foreign legislature. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom are supplicants.

However, there is nothing stopping Senator Menendez and others coming to London and Edinburgh to find out for themselves what really want on behind the scenes in the run up to the signing of al-Megraghi’s release, they might discover that the whole affair is a good deal murkier than even they imagine.

I interviewed al-Megrahi in Tripoli at a time when the Libyans were refusing to extradite him, and while Libya’s pedigree in backing terrorist outrages was not in doubt. I remember then thinking that something did not quite seem right, and wondering if al-Megrahi – the only man to be convicted for the downing of the Pan Am flight – was being set-up as some kind of scapegoat. A body of evidence amassed in the years since, not least by the now sadly deceased investigative journalist, Paul Foot, does indeed reach the conclusion that al-Megrahi was the scapegoat. The Senator and his team only need visit the offices of Private Eye magazine in Soho, London, and they can see the evidence for themselves. It is also worthy of note that many of the British families who lost family in the Lockerbie bombing also happen to agree that al-Megrahi could be innocent.

That then is one angle. But here is another. In recent days we have seen and heard much from the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, easily the most erudite and informed politician in these islands, a visible reminder of the calibre of politician we have lost. Senator Menendez certainly needs to meet Salmond and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, where he will discover I suspect that the Scottish authorities played the release of al-Megrahi by the book. I may of course be wrong, but somehow I do not see that Salmond in particular would have been swayed by lobbying by BP, still less by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In fact Salmond is adamant that, when it came to the Scottish Parliament, there was no lobbying by BP at all.

And so to the other silent voice, the loudest silence of all, from the man who was the architect of the rapprochement with Libya, the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Blair’s ties to BP were so close that the company was at one time nicknamed as ‘Blair Petroleum’. A revolving door existed between Number 10 Downing Street and BP’s head office, and while there is a good argument to suggest that Blair was right to want to lift relations with Libya out of deep freeze, it is probably time to ask exactly why.

Was it because Britain, a perennial target for Libyan inspired terrorist attacks, or Libyan financed terrorist attacks, genuinely wanted to turn over a new leaf with the unpredictable Libyan strongman, Colonel Gadaffi , or was the prospect of black gold too tempting a prospect? Or was it, more likely, a combination of the two?

Big companies such as BP have incredible clout, yet it takes Government’s to legislate and Governments to agree prisoner transfer agreements. It takes Governments to revive trade and diplomatic ties. It therefore follows that Governments can if they wish resist the pressure and refuse to legislate or revive diplomatic ties. But when it came to Libya, still ruled by a despot who had never even apologised for the State sponsored financing of terrorism and whose agents shot Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher in cold blood outside the Libyan Embassy in London, Tony Blair’s Government wanted to re-open economic ties.

If Senator Menendez wants to get to the bottom of this whole sorry affair he could do no better than inviting Tony Blair to testify on Capitol Hill. After all, Blair has close links with both BP and the Libyan authorities, and is no longer a Parliamentarian but a private citizen. Why should he refuse to go?

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