U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron held talks at the White House on Tuesday amid growing pressure for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release of a Libyan convicted in the Lockerbie airliner bombing.
The visit, Cameron's first to the U.S. as prime minister, was advertised as a chance to discuss the Afghanistan war, the Middle East and the global economy. But BP and its role in the release of Abdel al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison in 2009 overshadowed coverage of the talks.
Reporters zeroed in on the matter at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, asking repeatedly if the leaders would support an investigation into what they both agreed was "a bad decision" by the Scottish government.
"I think the key thing to understand here is that we've got a British prime minister who shares our anger over the decision," Obama said. "It was a bad decision."
"I've been absolutely clear about this right from the start … releasing the Lockerbie bomber, a mass murderer of 270 people, the largest act of terrorism ever committed in the United Kingdom, was completely wrong," Cameron agreed. "I don't need an inquiry to tell me what was a bad decision," he added. "It was a bad decision."
Still, Cameron said the release was not the doing of the British government nor, apparently, the result of any lobbying by BP, Britain's largest company, to win oil concessions from Libya. Rather it was a decision by the government of Scotland on compassionate grounds, he said.
Cameron also said he understood American anger over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
He said the spill that began April 20 with an explosion aboard a BP-leased oil rig that claimed 11 lives was "a catastrophe" for the environment, the fishing industry and for tourism in the region.
Cameron said he agreed with Obama that "it is BP's role to cap the leak, clean up the mess and pay the appropriate compensation." He said that the recent temporary capping of the well by BP was "a step in the right direction."
At the same time, Cameron said that BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, is an important company to both the United States and Britain, noting it employs thousands of workers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Cameron was scheduled to meet Tuesday evening with four U.S. senators who have questioned whether BP's oil interests in Libya somehow played a role in al-Megrahi's return to Libya, where he was given a hero's welcome.
Anger over al-Megrahi's release has been stoked by revelations that he may not be as sick with cancer as first believed. Last summer, he was said to have three months to live. Now there are reports that a doctor has said he could live another 10 years.
Al-Megrahi had served eight years of a life sentence for his role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. It crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Most of the dead were American.
'Focused on Afghanistan'
Though al-Megrahi's release received much of the attention at the news conference, Obama said much of the leaders' discussion "focused on Afghanistan."
Britain has 10,000 troops there, and Cameron has said he wants them out by 2014. Nevertheless, he touted the shared mission as the clearest "tangible illustration of Britain and America standing shoulder to shoulder."
The two men "took stock of progress" in the country, Cameron said, including training Afghans to take over their own security, a move that would allow the U.S. and the U.K. to begin pulling their troops out of the region.
They also discussed the Middle East, agreeing on the need for direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians on a two-state solution.
While Obama maintained a grave composure during most of the news conference, Cameron appeared almost giddy in his admiration for the American president, whom he referred to repeatedly as simply "Barack."
He thanked Obama for his warm welcome and tour of the West Wing, and praised Obama's parenting, saying he "was most impressed by how tidy [Obama's] children's bedrooms were."
He also joked about how much he'd enjoyed drinking a case of beer Obama had given him earlier this month as part of a World Cup bet. (The leaders had exchanged cases of beer after the U.S. and English soccer teams tied 1-1.)