Washington Prowler

Lax on Libya

Obama officials allow UK to go scot-free as well. Plus: Obama's Internet security precautions.

By 8.31.09

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SCOT FREE
British intelligence and Foreign Office officials were surprised by what they called the "seeming lack of enthusiasm" by the Obama administration in the run-up to the release of convicted Libyan terrorist Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the man responsible for the murder of more than 270 passengers on Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.

"We know that [Attorney General Eric] Holder and [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton weighed in with the Scottish justice ministry, but we expected more, particularly given the circumstances," said a foreign office staffer. "We would have expected, given that a Department of Justice official was one of the passengers on that flight, that the department would be more aggressive in ensuring al-Megrahi remained imprisoned."

According to the British sources, the Obama White House was advised that due to internal, United Kingdom politics, it was going to be difficult for the British government to provide a full-court press on Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill. As it was, the British embassy in Washington provided the families of Pan Am 103 opportunities to speak to MacAskill and make their case for al-Megrahi not to be released.

In the days leading up to the Scottish decision, Holder and Clinton made calls to MacAskill, but "it isn't clear that much more was done," says the British career diplomat, who has spent time in both Washington and New York. "It seemed to be very much about going through the motions."

Holder did raise a number of concerns with MacAskill during the phone conversation, word of which was leaked by a senior Obama administration source inside the Department of Justice after the administration started taking more heat for not taking a greater role in preventing al-Megrahi's release.

But according to Department of Justice sources, Holder never asked for legal options related to al-Megrahi, nor did the State Department present options to DOJ or the White House. More troubling, during the period when the Scottish government was seeking input from the U.S. and Pan 103 victims' families, President Obama was meeting with Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi at the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy. At the time, according to White House sources, Obama had not been fully briefed on the al-Megrahi situation.

While the British source says that British officials bear much blame for al-Megrahi's release under a Libyan-British prison transfer treaty ratified in April, "those of us who were attempting to block the compassionate release here were hoping for greater support from the United States, and it was lacking."

Department of Justice officials privately put the blame on the State Department and the White House National Security Council, both of which seemed not be communicating with each other or with the Department of Justice. "Holder was at DOJ during the al-Megrahi trial in 2001 and 2002, so he has some skin invested in this case," says one DOJ source. "He made his calls and made his opinion known, but this was a foreign policy issue, too, and it's not clear just how hard State or the White House pushed on this."

SECURITY PRECAUTIONS
At the same time that the Obama administration's Federal Communications Commission looks at ways to gain greater regulatory control of the Internet via a policy called "Net Neutrality," aides to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) have drafted legislation that would give President Obama the legal ability to take temporary control of private-sector broadband networks if he or his administration determined there was a "cybersecurity" emergency.

Under the draft bill, which was leaked to the media late last week, the president could "declare a cybersecurity emergency" and take control of "non-governmental" Internet networks. The bill would also create a government certification process, which would require that some individuals seeking private sector jobs that require contact with certain secure broadband networks or the Internet be required to undertake government-approved licences or certification before getting those jobs. The Obama administration would determine what that certification process would entail.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) has introduced legislation that would allow the Obama Administration and the FCC to regulate broadband networks. The legislation would limit the ability of private network operators like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast to manage their networks. Ironically, much of that management involves security and so-called "traffic management" issues related to spam and other online traffic that presents security threats to the networks -- security threats that the Obama administration would be able to use as cause to take control of those networks.

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