The naïve Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, defending his decision to free the only person convicted in the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing, said this week that an Aug. 10 diagnosis giving Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi just three months to live triggered his release.
"As I said, Mr. Al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power," he told an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament on Monday. "It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die."
A lot of people are counting the days.
MacAskill faced his Parliament after he found "compassionate grounds" under Scottish law to grant al-Megrahi freedom. Al-Megrahi, who has prostate cancer, served only eight years of his 27-years-to-life sentence.
If Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi had kept al-Megrahi's return to Libya low key, perhaps the outrage prompted by MacAskill's decision would have already diminished and Gaddafi would have continued to nurture his image transformation from terrorist to international leader.
But on Aug. 20, Gaddafi sent a plane to pick up al-Megrahi, 57, from a Scottish prison and fly him back to Libya, where he received a hero's welcome, contrary to assurances given to MacAskill by the Libyan government that his return would be low-key, even sensitive. Libyan TV showed video of Gaddafi embracing a murderer who was convicted for the Dec. 21, 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people, 189 of them Americans.
MacAskill's release of al-Megrahi threw a spotlight on evolving relations between the United States, Great Britain and Libya and tensions between Scotland and England that are barely perceptible to Americans.
The bond between the United States and Great Britain is one of the world's strongest bilateral alliances. But there is a nascent movement to make Scotland -- a member of the United Kingdom -- an independent state. It was only in 1998 that Scotland won the right to limited self-rule and to establish a Scottish Parliament.
The relationship between Scotland and the U.K government, therefore, is super-sensitive.
So it is not surprising that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown never commented one way or the other before al-Megrahi was released, while U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton phoned MacAskill to tell him in no uncertain terms not to let al-Megrahi out of prison.
Brown did not want to take a position because that would have led to domestic accusations that he was interfering in a matter that was up to the Scottish government to decide. Brown did not want to give nationalists any excuses to stir things up.
That's why U.K. Foreign Secretary David Milibrand offered a barely coded comment about the release. In a BBC interview, Milibrand called the hero's welcome al-Megrahi received in Tripoli "deeply unsettling" and went on to underscore that the decision was made by the Scottish government and not the British.
"We have been scrupulous in saying that this decision should be made by the Scottish authorities. We have been scrupulous in saying that to the Libyans. We have been scrupulous in saying that to the Americans. We've also been scrupulous in our engagement with the Scottish government," he said.
President Obama was not exactly loquacious, but said the release was a "mistake" and "highly objectionable."
A much, much stronger statement of condemnation came from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. When Mueller was an assistant attorney general, he was in charge of the U.S. end of the investigation and indictment of al-Megrahi in 1991.
In a scathing letter to MacAskill dated Aug. 21, Mueller said, "I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of "compassion."
"Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed, your action makes a mockery of the rule of law. Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury, after the defendant is given all due process, and the sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed by one man's exercise of 'compassion.'"
Brown only broke his silence on al-Megrahi on Tuesday when he said he was "angry and repulsed" at Libya's homecoming. But he continued to decline to say if MacAskill made the right call.
Gaddafi and Brown and other world leaders met in Italy in July for the G8 summit. Gaddafi was there in his role as leader of the African Union. President Obama caught some flak in the United States for shaking Gaddafi's hand. But that is the Obama doctrine in action. "We don't see being in the same room as a stamp of approval or a reward," a U.S. diplomat told me. "We do it to advance U.S. security issues."
When Gaddafi was not looking for a photo op with Obama at the G8, he did do some lobbying with Brown for al-Megrahi's release. This is now known because the British released a letter Brown wrote to Gaddafi on Aug. 9. Brown tipped off Gaddafi that he would likely get his man -- but the world would be watching how he handled al-Megrahi's return.
The Brown letter, in full below:
When we met at the G8 Summit in L'Aquila last month, you raised the case of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi. You will be aware that the Scottish Executive's public announcement on Megrahi's future is expected very shortly. I understand that their decision is to transfer Megrahi back to Libya on compassionate grounds.
When we met I stressed that, should the Scottish Executive decide that Megrahi can return to Libya, this should be a purely private, family occasion. A high-profile return would cause further unnecessary pain for the families of the Lockerbie victims. It would also undermine Libya's growing international reputation. There are significant shared interests at stake in our relationship and I am committed to working with you to achieve them. I look forward to seeing you again at the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September.
Finally, may I wish you 'Ramadan kareem'
Questions about just what are those "significant shared interests" between the United Kingdom and Libya raised questions about trade deals. Seif al-Islam, Gaddafi's son, said in an interview al-Megrahi's future "was always on the negotiating table" when there were talks about the United Kingdom's access to Libya's oil and gas.
Two U.S. senators called for a probe into whether al-Megrahi's freedom was a bid for Libyan oil, but it's hard to see where it could go on the U.S. end.
"I don't want to believe that they are true, but they are hanging so heavily in the air that I hope that our friends in Britain will convene an independent investigation of this action by the Scottish justice minister to release a mass murderer," Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said Sunday on CNN.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said on the same CNN show, "I think we need to know what this oil deal was all about and whether there was a compromise to the judicial system for commercial gain."
Clearly, the Obama administration has no interest in moving on this angle. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly was asked during a press briefing Monday if he believed the trade deal allegations.
"We are not aware that this played a role in the decision to release Mr. Megrahi," Kelly said. "I think you have multiple British officials who denied this, and I will take what they said at face value."
Asked about Lieberman wanting an investigation, Kelly said, "Well, I don't think we would launch an investigation."
Over the weekend, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on U.S. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to work up a U.N. resolution condemning Libya for giving al-Megrahi his jubilant homecoming.
"If Libya wants to be embraced by the international community, embracing convicted terrorists is not the way to do it," Schumer said. "It's revolting to me, to the victims' families, to all people of goodwill in every country of this world."
As much as the British tried to distance themselves from MacAskill, the distinction was lost on Schumer, who blasted the "hypocrisy" and "stupidity" of the Scottish and British governments.
Schumer said he wanted the United Nations to act before 192 world leaders gather in New York on Sept. 23 for the opening of the 64th Session of the U.N. General Assembly. Schumer probably knows the United Nations is not in the business of condemning peaceful domestic gatherings in member nations, no matter how noxious to some the reason for the demonstration.
This does bring up, however, what kind of reception Gaddafi can expect when he gets to New York next month. There have been some news reports that he wants to pitch a Bedouin tent on the grounds of the home of the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations in Englewood, N.J., a New York City suburb.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is objecting to the tent -- Gaddafi wants it to receive visitors -- but it's not clear yet what will happen on that front.
The United States and Libya have been moving to normalized relations after Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction in 2003, when President Bush was in office. The United States opened an embassy in Tripoli. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Libya in 2008.
Libya is one of the 10 non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Gaddafi and Obama are both scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly, possibly the same day. It seems highly unlikely that Gaddafi would get any face time with Obama, though they may be in the same chamber at the same time.
What's not clear yet is if Obama and First Lady Michelle will invite him to a reception they are hosting for the world leaders in New York.
The enduring ties between the United States and Great Britain remain strong despite this incident.
A British Embassy spokesman in Washington told me, "We recognize the strength of feeling in the United States about this issue. The Scottish justice secretary has made clear that he has made his decision strictly according to due process, and according to the laws of Scotland.
"The U.K. and Scotland have close relationships with the United States that benefit all our countries. Sometimes there will be disagreement, but the fundamentals of those relationships remain sound."
The State Department's Kelly, whose father is from Scotland, was pressed if relations were frayed.
Said Kelly, "I would discourage anyone from assuming or drawing the conclusion that we are somehow going to retaliate against the government of Great Britain or against Scotland."
Kelly put Libya on notice. "And we have made it quite clear to the Libyan government, both publicly and privately," that the United States will be "watching very closely how they receive this man and if they continue to lionize him in a public fashion . . . "
". . . We had hoped that Libya had put into the past the kind of relationship that it had with terrorism. You know, we want to see a Libya that cooperates with us, that shows clear indications that they're prepared to put this in the past and move forward. So we will be watching very closely."
There have been some Netroot calls of boycotts of Scotland and its products. But this is about more than swearing off Scotch whiskey, kilts, tartan scarves and sightseeing in Edinburgh.
MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, appears to have been snookered by the Libyans into thinking al-Megrahi would get an understated return and not be used to send a message to would-be terrorists that they, too, may secure their own get-out-of-jail card.
"It is a matter of great regret that Mr. al-Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner. It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie," MacAskill told his Parliament.
MacAskill apparently missed the much bigger point about compassion, even as he talked about how the Scottish people pride themselves on their humanity. His decision to let a convicted mass murderer out of prison -- yes, he's sick, let's see where he is on Nov. 10 -- showed no compassion for the families who did not have the comfort al-Megrahi will get, of a long, loving, lionized goodbye.