THE US government secretly advised Scottish ministers it would be "far preferable" to free the Lockerbie bomber than jail him in Libya.
Correspondence obtained by The Sunday Times reveals the Obama administration considered compassionate release more palatable than locking up Abdel Baset al-Megrahi in a Libyan prison.
The intervention, which has angered US relatives of those who died in the attack, was made by Richard LeBaron, deputy head of the US embassy in London, a week before Megrahi was freed in August last year on grounds that he had terminal cancer.
The document, acquired by a well-placed US source, threatens to undermine US President Barack Obama's claim last week that all Americans were "surprised, disappointed and angry" to learn of Megrahi's release.
Scottish ministers viewed the level of US resistance to compassionate release as "half-hearted" and a sign it would be accepted.
The US has tried to keep the letter secret, refusing to give permission to the Scottish authorities to publish it on the grounds it would prevent future "frank and open communications" with other governments.
In the letter, sent on August 12 last year to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and justice officials, Mr LeBaron wrote that the US wanted Megrahi to remain imprisoned in view of the nature of the crime.
The note added: "Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the US position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose."
Mr LeBaron added that freeing the bomber and making him live in Scotland "would mitigate a number of the strong concerns we have expressed with regard to Megrahi's release".
The US administration lobbied the Scottish government more strongly against sending Megrahi home, under a prisoner transfer agreement signed by the British and Libyan governments, in a deal now known to have been linked to a pound stg. 550 million oil contract for BP.
It claimed this would flout a decade-old agreement between Britain and the US that anyone convicted of the bombing would serve their sentence in a Scottish prison. Megrahi was released by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill on the grounds that he had three months to live, making his sentence effectively spent.
The US Senate foreign relations committee launched a probe after The Sunday Times revealed this month that Megrahi's doctors thought he could live for another decade.
A source close to the Senate inquiry said: "The (LeBaron) letter is embarrassing for the US because it shows they were much less opposed to compassionate release than prisoner transfer."
Last week, a succession of British politicians - including Mr MacAskill, Mr Salmond and former justice secretary Jack Straw - delivered a diplomatic snub to the senators by refusing to fly across the Atlantic to answer questions at the Senate's hearing on Thursday (US time) about their role in Megrahi's release.
Despite the controversy over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Megrahi's release, it emerged over the weekend that BP is planning deep-water drilling off Libya.
And BP boss Tony Hayward is poised to quit this week when the company announces its half-year results, London's Sunday Telegraph reported.
The Sunday Times, AFP