Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder each called Scotland's justice minister on Thursday to object to the release of the Libyan man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, Politics Daily has learned.
This behind-the-scenes diplomacy comes as American relatives of the victims express concern over how hard the Obama administration is pressing the case that Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi remain in prison and not return to Libya.
He received a 27-year sentence in 2001 and had two separate pleas pending: one calling for release on compassionate grounds because he has prostate cancer and another under a new British-Libyan prisoner exchange treaty. On Friday, a number of news outlets reported that al-Megrahi has asked the high court of Scotland to drop his appeal of his conviction, perhaps a strategy to strengthen his bid for release to Libya.
Stephanie Bernstein's husband, Michael, was among the 270 people --180 of them American -- killed in the bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. "I want the U.S. government to pull out all the stops to see that he stays in prison," said Bernstein, who lives in the Washington suburbs. "That the only person convicted for the largest mass murder in the United Kingdom would go free I think is a travesty."
Officially, the Obama White House offered a measured response Thursday when asked about al-Megrahi's possible freedom. "We're not aware that there has been a final decision. We have made our views clear to the U.K. government, to other authorities, that we believe that he should spend the rest of his time in jail," said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs.
However, Politics Daily has learned that the administration is concerned that any strong public statement could backfire if it were seen as unduly pressuring Scotland's justice minister, Kenny MacAskill. Holder, who has talked at least once previously to MacAskill, phoned him again on Thursday. Clinton made her call to the minister while she was traveling in Africa.
Bernstein and the members of other families gathered at the British Embassy in Washington on July 9 for a video conference with MacAskill, who is seeking input from the victims' relatives. MacAskill also met with al-Megrahi in prison earlier this month. Ironically, the day MacAskill conducted the video conference with the U.S. families, President Obama was in L'Aquila, Italy, for the G-8 summit with world leaders and was photographed shaking hands with Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy, there in his role as leader of the African Union.
The paths of Obama and Khadafy may cross again, as they are scheduled to speak on the same day when the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly convenes in September.
During al-Megrahi's trial, the Scottish courts and the U.S. Justice Department set up a video site in Washington so relatives could watch the proceedings. Bernstein viewed the verdict live. Her husband was a Justice Department lawyer in the Office of Special Investigations -- also known as the Nazi-hunting unit.
Bernstein said it would send the wrong message if al-Megrahi were allowed to return to Libya. "He will be greeted like a hero. And I think what Khadafy will say is this shows he was innocent."
Bernstein said she was concerned that the Obama White House had not reached out to the families and that, unlike with previous administrations, family members have not gotten a meeting with anyone on President Obama's National Security Council.
No one at the NSC is "willing to talk to us," Bernstein said. "I really feel like they slammed the door in my face." She said a meeting with the Obama NSC was needed to underscore why "this is important, not just to us, but in how we deal with Libya. This is not a minor issue."
NSC spokesman Mike Hammer said, "We have no information to suggest that the Scottish authorities have taken any decision to release" al-Megrahi. "We maintain our long-standing position that Megrahi should serve out the entirety of his sentence in Scotland for his part in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103."
Crowley told Politics Daily that "the policy of the United States government regarding Pan Am 103 did not change with the change of administrations. . . . Those responsible should be punished, and we have made that clear in recent days. They should stay in prison."