- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 20, 2010

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday came to the defense of embattled energy giant BP PLC, warning Americans not to let justifiable anger over the Gulf oil spill and questions about BP’s suspected role in the release of a Libyan terrorist convicted in the Lockerbie airplane bombing undermine the viability of the company.

Mr. Cameron, in his first Washington visit since his election in May, said he hasn’t “seen anything to suggest” a link between the 2009 Lockerbie decision by the Scottish government and lobbying by London-based BP in hopes of securing Libyan oil contracts.

In a joint appearance with President Obama, Mr. Cameron said he sympathized with the widespread fury over the Gulf disaster, but urged people to avoid allowing their anger - along with questions about BP’s role in the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi - to undermine a company that’s important to the economies of both countries.

“I completely understand the anger that exists right across America. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophe for the environment, for the fishing industry, for tourism. I’ve been absolutely clear about that,” Mr. Cameron told reporters in the East Room of the White House.

But he cautioned: “Equally, of course, BP is an important company to both the British and the American economies. Thousands of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic depend on it. So it’s in the interest of both our countries, as we agreed, that it remains a strong and stable company for the future.”

Though he walked a fine line on BP, Mr. Cameron, head of Britain’s Conservative Party, presented a united front with Mr. Obama on Tuesday on issues of global security and the war in Afghanistan, where the two men praised recent progress and reaffirmed their commitment to the war-ravaged country. After the U.S., Britain is the largest contributor of troops to the American-led effort there.

On the domestic front, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Obama stressed that both their countries must take major steps to reduce deficits. While Mr. Obama commended Mr. Cameron’s calls for drastic spending cuts in his country, the Democrat defended his own administration’s record, arguing that Britain is in a more perilous situation given its debt-to-GDP ratio.

The men never expressed disagreement - indeed, Mr. Obama declared they “see eye to eye on virtually every challenge” - but BP was clearly the thorniest topic. Mr. Obama didn’t mention the firm in his opening remarks, but Mr. Cameron chose to address the controversies head on, tackling questions raised by a group of U.S. senators over whether BP pushed the Scottish government to release al-Megrahi in hopes of gaining access to lucrative Libyan oil fields.

“Let us not confuse the oil spill with the Libyan bomber. I’ve been absolutely clear about this right from the start, and in our meeting we had what we call a ‘violent agreement,’ which is that releasing the Lockerbie bomber, a mass murderer of 270 people, the largest act of terrorism ever committed in the United Kingdom, was completely wrong,” Mr. Cameron told reporters. “That wasn’t a decision taken by BP; it was a decision taken by the Scottish government.”

Compounding the anger in Congress is the fact that Scottish authorities said the Libyan was terminally ill with cancer when the release was negotiated. But al-Megrahi was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Libya and there are reports that he is far less sick than originally thought.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a hearing on the matter, and Mr. Cameron said his government will provide information to the panel. He was also slated to meet with Democratic senators from New York and New Jersey on Tuesday night after they requested a meeting to discuss the charges.

But Mr. Cameron said he didn’t think an additional investigation, as the U.S. lawmakers have requested, is necessary. Instead, he said he has ordered his government to review documents that were released to the public on the decision to determine whether more information should be published.

“In terms of an inquiry, I’m not currently minded that we need to have a U.K.-based inquiry on this, partly for this reason: I don’t need an inquiry to tell me what was a bad decision,” he said.

Mr. Cameron said he has not seen any evidence to suggest that BP influenced the Scottish government’s decision, but that it’s up to BP to explain itself. The energy giant has acknowledged that it lobbied the government a few years ago in favor of a prisoner transfer agreement between Britain and Libya.

Mr. Obama said he would welcome more information on the case.

“I think all of us here in the United States were surprised, disappointed and angry about the release of the Lockerbie bomber,” he said. “So we welcome any additional information that will give us insights and a better understanding of why the decision was made.”

The British-U.S. “special relationship” has come under strain after an era in which Prime Minister Tony Blair of the Labor Party cultivated close ties with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Many observers said Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown, appeared strained - a conclusion that was bolstered last year when Mr. Obama gave Mr. Brown a present of American film videos that weren’t compatible with a European DVD player.

Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Cameron is already off to a better start, at least on the personal level. Both men told reporters they heartily enjoyed the beers they swapped last month after England tied the U.S. in soccer’s World Cup. They exchanged beers from their hometowns, both of which were consumed cold.