Special report by GA Ponsonby
Secret documents emerged recently to confirm details of how British intelligence agencies engaged in a series of joint operations with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s government.
The revelations, made first in The Guardian newspaper, indicate the bizarre attitudes of Labour while in government in London and in opposition in Edinburgh. The party said one thing in opposition, and did the opposite – simultaneously – in government.
According to The Guardian: “The papers recovered from the dictatorship’s archives include secret correspondence from MI6, MI5 reports on Libyans living in the UK, a British intelligence assessment marked “UK/Libya Eyes Only – Secret”
“Gaddafi’s agents recorded MI5 as warning in September 2006 that the two countries’ agencies should take steps to ensure that their joint operations would never be ‘discovered by lawyers or human rights organisations and the media’.”
At the time of the joint operations, which it is claimed involved the rendition of Libyans for torture at the hands of Gaddafi’s regime, Tony Blair had also been negotiating a secret deal aimed at extraditing a healthy Abdelbaset al-Megrahi back to Libya. The Labour Prime Minister also helped broker an oil deal for BP in what came to be known as the “Deal in the Desert”.
The secret deal was exposed by then First Minister Alex Salmond shortly after the SNP’s shock win in the 2007 Holyrood election. Salmond was rewarded by being attacked by Unionist politicians and BBC journalists.
In 2009 fate intervened in the form of terminal cancer and the man known as the Lockerbie Bomber was release from prison on compassionate grounds.
The following extract is from a soon-to-be-released book that highlights the role of the BBC in the Scottish independence referendum, and its coverage of Scottish politics in general. The extract begins in September 2010. The Scottish Government had come under sustained attack for a full year, with accusations and smear particularly from the Labour party. The attacks were reported with apparent relish by some BBC Scotland reporters….
Extract: “How The BBC Stole The Referendum”
The issue of Megrahi’s compassionate release appeared to hold no more surprises as we approached the end of 2010. It seemed all there was to know was already in the public domain. The Scottish Labour Party, not surprisingly, moved away from the BP oil deal and focused its attention back onto Megrahi. A US Senator, Robert Menendez, had sent an assistant over to Scotland to pursue the issue of Megrahi’s medical files.
On September 30th, then BBC Scotland reporter Raymond Buchanan compiled another report which covered a meeting between the assistant and George Burgess, former deputy director of criminal law and licensing.
Buchanan’s report contained lengthy quotes from an aide to Menendez, who gave what he claimed was an accurate recount of the meeting. It was claimed Megrahi could not have had a terminal illness because he had received chemotherapy just prior to being released and that the three-month prognosis had been made by a prison doctor, Peter Kay.
“An aide to the senator who is familiar with what happened said: “Burgess confirmed that al-Megrahi received chemotherapy in July 2009. That is a first.
‘To date, we only knew that he had received a “new treatment” in July of 2009.
‘The significance of this is very important.
‘First, al-Megrahi claimed in documents in both July and August 2009 that he had not received chemotherapy, only exploring the possibility.
‘This is now confirmed to be a lie.'”
The senate aide said this was particularly significant because it indicated that Megrahi’s cancer was still treatable just weeks before he was allowed home to die.
He continued: “We now have confirmation that Scottish officials knew Al-Megrahi started a course of chemotherapy.
“I think we can prove that they knew chemotherapy was not palliative in nature but was designed to extend his life.”
The claims from the US senator’s aide were nonsense. Megrahi had received no chemotherapy. The Scottish Government said it was a matter of public record that Mr Megrahi did not receive any chemotherapy in Scotland.
As though to emphasise the Scottish Labour line of attack, BBC Scotland reporters were also now routinely describing Megrahi’s survival in multiples of three months – a nine month survival would be reported as “three times the estimate”, 12 months’ survival would be reported as “four times” and so on.
In December 2010 the story took an unexpected twist. News emerged of the publication of confidential US Government files by controversial free-speech group Wikileaks. Listed in the files were details of confidential top level communications involving US and UK officials. The communications included discussions on Megrahi and they revealed the UK Labour Government had been secretly helping the Libyans.
The files proved that far from being against the release of Megrahi as they had claimed, the Labour government had fully supported the decision to free the Libyan.
Britain feared “harsh and immediate” consequences, according to the leaked cables, if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison.
The US charge d’affaires in London, Richard LeBaron, wrote in a cable to Washington in October 2008:
“The Libyans have told HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] flat out that there will be ‘enormous repercussions’ for the UK-Libya bilateral relationship if Megrahi’s early release is not handled properly.”
Labour politicians had claimed publicly that the decision to release Megrahi was an embarrassment to Scotland – but the documents showed the Labour leadership were in fact favouring his release.
The cables showed that the UK government was aware of dire repercussions should Megrahi die in a Scottish prison:
“GOL (Govt of Libya) officials have warned U.K. Emboffs in demarches here that the consequences for the U.K.-Libya bilateral relationship would be “dire” were al-Megrahi to die in Scottish prison. Specific threats have included the immediate cessation of all U.K. commercial activity in Libya, a diminishment or severing of political ties and demonstrations against official U.K. facilities. GOL officials also implied, but did not directly state, that the welfare of U.K. diplomats and citizens in Libya would be at risk.”
The documents also revealed that the US had been privately suspicious of Tony Blair’s “Deal in the Desert” in 2007. The cable stated:
“Saif al-Islam implied that former UK PM Tony Blair had raised Megrahi with the Libyan leader in connection with lucrative business deals during Blair’s 2007 visit to Libya. [Note: Rumors that Blair made linkages between Megrahi’s release and trade deals have been longstanding among Embassy contacts. End note.]”
The Guardian reported that the leaked documents claimed: “Anger with the British persists in some American circles, and UK ministers, Labour and Tory, have attempted to distance London from the release insisting it was purely a Scottish decision.”
Further cables from the US ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, revealed that the US position was to resist voicing opposition to Megrahi’s release at the time, so as not to risk Libyan retaliation against US interests.
Mr Cretz warned the US itself should keep quiet in order to protect its interests: “If the [US government] publicly opposes al-Megrahi’s release or is perceived to be complicit in a decision to keep al-Megrahi in prison, [America’s Libyan diplomatic] post judges that US interests could face similar consequences.”
The documents suggested that both the UK Labour government and its US counterpart had unleashed false, and seemingly co-ordinated, furore about the Scottish government’s decision to release a dying Megrahi.
The cables also made clear that bribes in the form of “treats” were offered to the Scottish Government by Libyan diplomats, but refused point blank. The cables revealed that US officials had privately acknowledged that the Scottish Government had acted in good faith at all times and had nothing to gain whereas the UK government, according to the leaked documents, gained massively from Megrahi’s illness and subsequent release.
The cables revealed the Americans were aware that the issue had been hijacked by Unionist politicians at Holyrood who were trying to capitalise on it for political gain: “Meanwhile, local Scottish opposition politicians are using the issue to call into question the SNP government’s credibility and competence.”
“Naysmith underscored that Scotland received “nothing” for releasing Megrahi (as has been widely suggested in the UK and U.S. media), while the UK Government has gotten everything – a chance to stick it to Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP) and good relations with Libya.”
The publication of the secret cables was very bad news for Labour. If true, then Blair himself had offered Megrahi as a bribe in order to clinch the BP oil deal. Both the UK and US governments were aware of the possible economic and geo-political repercussions for both nations if Megrahi was allowed to die in prison.
The documents featured as the main news item on BBC Scotland that day. However it wasn’t the Labour party which found itself the target of the BBC’s reporting. Somehow the corporation had managed to turn the incredible story into one attacking the SNP.
“First Minister made the decision to release the Lockerbie Bomber” was the introduction read out by the newsreader on the lunchtime news.
An online article appeared on the BBC Scotland news site with a headline that read:
“Salmond rejects new Megrahi claim”
Incredibly, BBC Scotland had decided the main story from the secret cables was not the former UK Labour government’s privately backing Megrahi’s release, but a short sentence related to Alex Salmond.
The BBC said:
“The leaked documents also appeared to contradict the official Scottish government position on who would make the final decision to release Megrahi.
“In August last year, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill insisted it was his decision and his alone.
“But the cables claimed Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond told the UK Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, he would make that call.”
Faced with a virtual banquet of information relating to Libya, the UK Labour government and the US government, BBC Scotland had managed to find something they could use against Salmond. On that evening’s Reporting Scotland the real revelations were ignored as BBC Scotland embellished the reference to Salmond and managed to turn it into that evening’s main news story.
Like the BP oil deal, the BBC had managed to deflect attention away from Labour and towards the SNP. It was an incredible editorial decision by BBC Scotland news editors. More so because in a radio interview earlier that day, Jack Straw had let slip that David Miliband, when Foreign Secretary, had written to the Scottish Government saying the UK Government did not want Megrahi to die in prison.
Straw told interviewer John Humphreys: “Somebody did write to the Scottish Government, that’s a matter of public record.
“It’s been out for well over a year, which is a letter from the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband which set out that, and here I significantly paraphrase, but it said ‘other things being equal we think it would be better if al-Megrahi did not die in prison.”
On December 21st the BBC again provided a platform for US Senator Robert Menendez to make some outrageous accusations, alongside three other senators. The Scottish Government’s response to the Senator’s claims could in fact have applied to the BBC’s own coverage, a spokesman saying: “This is not an official report of the Senate foreign relations committee – it is an incorrect and inaccurate re-hash by four senators of material that has been in the public domain for many months…”
Something the four senators should have known about but never got around to mentioning was that in 2008 the Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam had visited Washington, DC. His trip included a personal tour of the White House, an official escort on Capitol Hill and lunch with executives from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Occidental Petroleum and Raytheon, as well as the US trade representative’s office. Shalqam cited oil, tourism, communications and information technology as sectors of the Libyan economy that were eager for US investment. [source: allgov.com]
On February 1st 2011 the charade finally ended when more Wikileaks cables when it emerged that shortly after Abdelbaset Al Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a UK Foreign Office Minister secretly informed the Libyans that the illness could be used to set him free. Within one week of Megrahi’s terminal illness being confirmed, Bill Rammell, a junior Foreign Office minister, wrote to his Libyan counterpart Abdulati al-Obeidi advising him of the compassionate release process under Scots law.
The secret files confirmed that as far back as October 2008 both the UK Labour government and the US authorities were already aware that tests proved Megrahi had terminal cancer. The secret files also revealed how Labour ministers defiantly told the Americans that London was in charge of foreign policy, “not the Scottish”. They also revealed that the UK Cabinet Office was secretly facilitating a way for the US to lobby the Scottish Government on the issue.
“At the same time, FCO contacts tell us that HMG is adamant that, despite devolution, London controls foreign policy for the UK, not the Scottish. Embassy London is working with the FCO and to find a way to represent USG views on the matter to the Scottish government, should we wish to, without making any implicit statement about UK national foreign policy prerogatives,” said one memo.
A week later on February 8th, a report by top Whitehall civil servant Sir Gus O’Donnell vindicated the SNP over its handling of the compassionate release of Megrahi and revealed that, far from not interfering in the process, the Labour Government did “all it could” to help facilitate Megrahi’s return to Libya.
The report by Sir Gus, the Cabinet Secretary, said the Labour government had had an “underlying desire to see Mr Megrahi released before he died”.
It added that, in 2008, the government developed a policy that it “should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi’s transfer under the PTA (prisoner transfer agreement) or release on compassionate grounds”.
“This action amounted to: Proceeding with ratification of the PTA; explaining to Libya in factual terms the process for application for transfer under a PTA or for compassionate release, and informing the Scottish government that there was no legal barrier to transfer under the PTA.”
It was over. Labour had been caught. Even the BBC had to acknowledge it in the subsequent news reports. The SNP had endured one and a half years of what amounted to propaganda at the hands of the BBC.
The final sting in the tail came with the release of documents by the Coalition Government which had replaced Labour nine months earlier. Hidden away in the communications was the name of the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy.
The documents revealed that Labour MP Murphy knew about the secret letter sent by the Labour Government to the Libyans in 2008 advising them on options for compassionate release.
The documents showed that the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire was included in communications that made clear the importance to the UK of cultivating good relations with Libya in key areas including energy.
Jim Murphy was Labour’s most senior politician in Scotland at the time of Mr Al Megrahi’s compassionate release. The documents were proof that he knew of the behind-the-scenes advice his Government was giving to the Libyans. Murphy was included in the confidential communications on 13 October 2008, shortly after Megrahi was originally diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The report explained that a Whitehall delegation, including Labour MP Bill Rammell, had met with the Libyans the week previous in which the Libyans had asked about the possibility of a release of Mr Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The report very clearly stated that a letter of legal advice was to be sent to the Libyans by the end of the week.
The report said:
“JS [Jack Straw] outlined the fact that Bill Rammell, FCO officials and Simon McDonald had meetings last week with Libyan representatives …
“JS said that the Libyans asked about release on compassionate grounds. JS outlined where discussions had got to with the PTA, i.e. that the Libyans had now accepted the UK standard text and that it is likely to be signed in November. JS outlined the importance of UK/Libya relations on CT issues, migration and energy – and made the point that all of these affected the whole of the UK.
“JS said that FCO had agreed to write to the Libyans by Friday of this week with factual and legal details of the options for release. JS envisaged that the letter would set out the SE [Scottish Executive] position on compassionate release and PTA transfers.”
Murphy, now leader of the Labour party in Scotland, had previously denied knowledge of any secret talks. In September 2009 after a previous release of limited documents, the Labour MP said: “It’s important in the way that we are being, because there is no cover-up, there is no plot, there is no conspiracy.”
One month earlier Mr Murphy had criticised the time the SNP were taking in order to make the decision on the cancer stricken Libyan, saying it was “dragging on”. He also called the delay “embarrassing”.
Murphy’s links to the secret negotiations between the UK Government and Libya over Megrahi was never reported by any mainstream news outlet. The BBC showed no interest in pursuing Labour in the same manner it had the SNP.
In October 3rd 2011 the BBC had one final misreporting flourish when it broadcast news of an apparent deathbed confession by Megrahi. Good Morning Scotland presenter Gary Robertson claimed that Mr Megrahi had talked about “his role being exaggerated” and that the comment seemed to be “some kind of admission of guilt”.
On the BBC’s UK national news George Alagiah claimed that Mr Megrahi had complained that “his role in the bombing had been exaggerated”.
BBC Scotland used a video interview in which Megrahi supposedly said his role in the 1988 PanAm bombing was “exaggerated”. The BBC referred to a “confession” which had “some kind of admission of guilt”.
The Scotsman newspaper, in an article headlined Megrahi’s death bed ‘confession’, claimed that Mr Megrahi “appeared to admit that he did play some role in Britain’s biggest mass murder.”
But Edinburgh University law professor Robert Black QC said the word Megrahi used meant “invent or fabricate” not “exaggerate”. Black commented: “This was a vehement denial.”
There was no confession. Channel Four News that evening correctly reported that Megrahi had claimed innocence in the interview.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi died on May 20th 2012, still protesting his innocence. At the time of his death his appeal was in limbo, having been abandoned by Megrahi days prior to his release from prison in Greenock.
Many believe his appeal would have been successful. A book by John Ashton – Megrahi: You Are My Jury – provides a compelling insight into one of the most controversial episodes in Scottish legal history. It destroys the case against the Libyan.
The BBC had behaved appallingly throughout its coverage of the Megrahi release. It had allowed and promoted claims that were demonstrably false. The coverage marked the moment the corporation moved from a respected news organisation into an institutionally anti-SNP entity. In Scotland this institutional corruption would lead to an appallingly one sided coverage of Scottish politics that tainted the independence referendum.
GA Ponsonby’s book about the BBC and the Referendum is due for publication this Spring. More details here.
[Note: The original version of this article stated that Megrahi was released from HMP Barlinnie. Megrahi was held in a special cell at Barlinnie for much of his imprisonment in Scotland, but was transferred later to prison at Greenock, from where he was released and transported to Libya.]