Four U.S. senators have called on oil giant BP to halt its plans to drill for oil off the coast of Libya until questions about possible terrorist connections behind the company's drilling contracts there have been resolved.
"The more we learn about the [matter] in recent days, the more it makes the stomach turn," Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said at a Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday.
BP confirmed Thursday that it lobbied the U.K. government to speed up the release of Libyan prisoners in order to finalize an drilling agreement with Libya, but denied that it tried to intervene in the case of Abdel Basset al Megrahi, convicted for his role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people, including 189 Americans and 11 on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland, where the plane went down.
A statement from BP said the decision to release Megrahi in August 2009 was taken by the Scottish government alone: "BP was not involved in any discussions with the U.K. government or the Scottish government about the release."
But Menendez said Wednesday that he wants BP to do more than deny the allegations.
"We are calling on BP to show us that they are committed to international justice and that they reject terrorism by suspending all activities related to their planned drilling off the coast of Libya until the full information about their potential involvement in the al-Megrahi case is known," he said.
In 2009, Megrahi was serving a 30-year sentence when the Scottish government announced it would free him, citing medical reports that the cancer-stricken terrorist was gravely ill and could die within weeks. Months after the release, the Libyan government and BP finalized a 2007 agreement -- estimated to be worth $20 billion to BP -- to begin deepwater oil exploration and drilling off the country's coast.
But last week, one of the three doctors who pronounced Megrahi terminally ill admitted
he had been paid by the Libyan government to examine Megrahi and had been strongly encouraged to worsen the prisoner's diagnosis. Megrahi is still alive in Libya, where doctors have declared him healthy enough to live another 10 years.
"They pulled the wool over our eyes," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) told Politics Daily. He joined Menendez and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in calling on BP to stop its Libya operation until it explains the circumstances behind Megrahi's release. "I was suspicious then and unfortunately I don't enjoy being right. . . . There had to be an influence some place in the orbit of the United Kingdom to let that guy go and we want to find out what it was."
Earlier this week, the same senators called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate the British government's role in releasing Megrahi. In a letter to Clinton
, they wrote, "The question we now have to answer is, was this corporation willing to trade justice in the murder of 270 innocent people for oil profits?"
The senators have also asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold a hearing
on the matter and have called on the British ambassador to the United States
to ask the British government to launch a full-scale investigation into its role in matter.
On Wednesday, Clinton said she was aware of the senators' concerns. "I have received the letter and we will obviously look into it," she said.
Questions about terrorist connections behind the BP deal began as soon as the Scottish government announced last year that it would release Megrahi. British Justice Minister Jack Straw said in 2009 that he was aware of BP's efforts to drill for oil off the Libyan coast but flatly denied allegations of a quid pro quo between the two countries, telling the BBC
: "Was there a deal? A covert, secret deal ever struck with the Libyans to release Megrahi in return for oil? No, there was not and there is no evidence whatsoever because it is untrue."
But according to The Sunday Times
, Straw wrote in 2007 to Kenny MacAskill -- his counterpart in Scotland, who set the Libyan free last August -- and said the government was abandoning its attempt to exclude Megrahi from the prisoner agreement, citing the national interest.
But Lautenberg, Schumer and the other senators want more answers than either the British government or BP have given so far.
"If BP is found to have gained access to Libyan oil reserves by using a mass murderer as a bargaining chip, then make no mistake: Any money it makes off of that oil is blood money, pure and simple," Menendez said.