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EDITORIAL: A trade with terrorists

The clever British sucker-punched by the crafty Libyans

- - Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The British government traded a notorious terrorist for money five years ago, and newly released diplomatic emails confirm what everyone knew then. London's Sunday Telegraph obtained the messages to shed clarity on the curious 2009 decision by Scottish officials to set free Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan agent imprisoned for his role in blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

The official story was that al-Megrahi was at death's door with prostate cancer and that "humanitarianism" compelled his release from Greenock Prison. The Christian thing to do, and all that. This never made sense to the relatives and friends of the 259 men and women who perished when a bomb ripped the Boeing 747 apart with such force that the falling pieces of the plane destroyed several houses in the town of Lockerbie below, killing 11 more on the ground. Skeptics, and there were many, questioned whether al-Megrahi was really ill at all.

On the day he returned to Libya, al-Megrahi smiled, waved, danced and was received like a national hero. Al-Megrahi went on to outlive Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan strongman who embraced the terrorist mastermind like a long-lost son.

Until his death last year, those who lost loved ones to al-Megrahi's evil were pained to know that he was living his last days in luxury. In the accounting of the diplomatic emails, the families can't even take solace that the release of al-Megrahi was a spy-for-spy exchange. It was a purely financial transaction.

In 2008, Vincent Fean, who was then the British ambassador to Tripoli, and Tony Blair, the former prime minister, had been working to persuade the Libyan government to buy a $600 million defense system from a British manufacturer. This would have been quite a prize for the Labor government, attracting 2,000 jobs to the United Kingdom, which desperately needed them. The Libyans were aware of the value of the deal, and wanted something big in exchange. "Col. Q [Gadhafi] may very well raise Megrahi," wrote Mr. Fean in an email to Mr. Blair. "Saif [Gadhafi's son] raised the case last week."

Two days after that memo was dispatched, Mr. Blair met Gadhafi in Tripoli. As part of the deal, British negotiators tried to persuade Libya to invest some of the billions in oil profits, held in a $150 billion "sovereign wealth fund," through London's financial houses. High-level British ministers sought to divert some of the money into several pet projects, including an anti-poverty scheme in Sierra Leone.

Diplomacy sometimes requires striking bargains with evil people, but a pact with thugs and murderers rarely works. The nations of the West once recognized this and stood united on the principle of never dealing with terrorists. "Cool Britannia" would have known better, "Crass Britannia" wouldn't, and didn't. Mr. Blair's office denies that this was what it was, a quid pro quo. The British were successfully played for suckers. The Libyans got their hero back. The cash was never invested, and Libya didn't buy the missile-defense system. The British got a lesson in international diplomacy: Never take a knife to a gunfight.

The Washington Times