But the WikiLeaks papers tell us much about the way in which public authorities across a number of countries behaved in the lead up to and aftermath of the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the only man convicted of the bombing.
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The picture that emerges from WikiLeaks may encourage a cynical view of government actions. We can, though, take some comfort from the documentary evidence that the devolved Government behaved impeccably. The leaks provide evidence that the Scottish Government did, indeed, make its decision on compassionate grounds and refused to be bullied into releasing Megrahi by the UK Government. The evidence of extraordinary cynicism on the part of the UK Government and its supporters is shocking. This is best summed up in a communication from US officials in the London embassy who informed Washington that “the UK Government has gotten everything -- a chance to stick it to Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP) and good relations with Libya” while Scotland got “nothing”.
It is clear from the documents that expectations of Megrahi’s approaching death prior to his release were shared by more than the Scottish Government. Preparations were in hand for the likely consequences of the Libyan prisoner’s death in Scottish custody involving an “immutable timeline”, as American officials wrote seven months before his release. UK officials had prepared for the prospect of Megrahi’s death in custody and were “focused on transfer under PTA [prisoner transfer agreement]”, believing time was short. The Libyan reaction to the arrest of one of Gaddafi’s son’s in Switzerland had been a sobering experience. Against this backdrop, Libya’s intention to cease “all UK commercial activity in Libya” immediately, reduce political ties and encourage demonstrations against “UK facilities”, as well as implicit threats to UK citizens in Libya, could not be taken lightly. It is impossible to know how long Megrahi would have lived had he not been released but the indications are that UK and US officials were preparing for an imminent and serious backlash.
While US Government spokesmen have portrayed the Lockerbie bombing as an essentially American event, US officials took a very different view prior to the release of Megrahi. They feared that US interests would be attacked in the event of the Libyan prisoner’s death if the Libyan Government “views the Pan Am 103 case as a joint US-UK issue”. American officials wrote of repercussions “even if we remain neutral”, a discussion of neutrality that sits uncomfortably with the subsequent US official position.
Public US opposition to the release occurred when it suited US officials. The US Government played a two-level game: maintaining a low profile in opposing Megrahi’s release for fear of provoking a Libyan reaction while strongly condemning the release to appease understandably distraught relatives and playing to a domestic agenda.
The thuggish nature of the Libyan Government under Gaddafi is well documented in dispatches from Tripoli. The repugnant antics of the regime and the extended Gaddafi family are made clear. Much is, indeed, tittle-tattle such as references to Gadaffi’s preference for his “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse and “legendary female guard force”. Three sons fought over the rights to the representative licence for Coca-Cola’s Tripoli plant -- it may surprise some that this company has a plant in Libya’s capital, given US hostility to the regime. But Gaddafi has not been a dictator for more than 40 years without guile. The public display of support for Megrahi on his return to Libya was as much about playing to his domestic audience as annoying the west. Even dictators seek to legitimise their rule in the eyes of their public. Negotiations with London had led Libyan authorities to expect the Libya PTA would result in the imminent release of Megrahi. Libyan media reports had built up expectations that, if unfulfilled, would harm the regime internally.
UK officials in Libya were under no illusion as to their role from the start. They sought to facilitate the return of Megrahi to Libya. America suspected Tony Blair was behind the deal. Earlier this year, a UK official expressed concern that Libya would use Megrahi’s funeral and discussed using “all possible levers” to discourage this. He noted that Mr Blair was one who had a “personal relationship” with Gaddafi.
Opposition parties at Holyrood attempted to milk the issue. The liberalism of the Scottish Liberal Democrats was quickly thrown aside in pursuit of a headline. The Tories managed to tie themselves in knots with what was at least an effort to cut out a distinct position supporting Megrahi’s release but keeping him in Scotland. Scottish Labour’s uber-cynicism was led by Richard Baker. Mr Baker may initially have been unaware that his own party in government in London had been leading efforts to return Megrahi to Libya, though this had been obvious for at least two years. He became the chief figure in the “stick it to Salmond’s SNP” agenda.
He was effective, in that most limited way that now comes to be expected of politicians, playing what the late Bernard Crick referred to as “student politics” -- but failing miserably in the politics of aspiring to govern. In his memoirs, Mr Blair reflected on how New Labour had behaved in opposition, acknowledging that “some of the tactics were too opportunistic and too facile”. These tactics “sowed seeds that sprouted in ways we did not foresee and with consequences that imperilled us”. These words ought to be imprinted on the foreheads of all who play cynical games in opposition.
Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks’ founder, would wish us to conclude that all governments are cynical. The evidence suggests otherwise. The Scottish Government and judicial processes emerge well. It stands accused of failing to appreciate the reaction to its decision, essentially of lacking cynicism. There should be no place for cynicism where matters as grave as those involved in this case are concerned. Cynicism is no substitute for good government.
Professor James Mitchell is head of the School of Government and Public Policy, Strathclyde University.