Reporting from Washington — President Obama joined British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday in condemning last year's release of the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, but both men stopped short of pledging a full inquiry into how the release unfolded and whether embattled BP executives had anything to do with it.
Speaking to reporters after a morning of meetings at the White House, Cameron said that, despite reports that BP officials pushed for a prisoner transfer, he hasn't seen evidence that the company influenced the decision last August by the Scottish government to release Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi. The bombing killed 270 people, most of them Americans.
Cameron said he understands the anger Americans feel for the British oil company as a result of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
But he also urged people to separate that incident from the release of the ailing Megrahi to die at home in Libya. Megrahi was released on grounds of compassion, because his death appeared imminent. Nearly a year later, he is still alive.
"I don't need an inquiry to tell me what was a bad decision," Cameron said, adding later that it was not BP's decision to make but rather that of Scottish officials. He said his government would "engage" with members of Congress who are pledging to look into the matter.
Standing at Cameron's side for several questions about the release, Obama did not push for a full investigation, saying instead that he wants to have "all the facts" laid out. U.S. senators from New York and New Jersey are calling for an investigation into whether BP lobbied for a prisoner trade with Libya in exchange for access to oil in that country.
No matter what an inquiry turned up, Obama said, it would not negate the fact that it was "a very poor decision."
Obama pointed out that Cameron had wholeheartedly voiced concern about Megrahi's release, saying the British prime minister "shares our anger over the decision [and] also objects to how it played out."
In diplomatic terms, the afternoon appearance in the White House East Room was part of the red carpet treatment afforded Cameron as leader of one of the most valued U.S. allies and a key partner in Obama's top military and diplomatic efforts.
After three hours of talks and a lunch of striped bass, they appeared before television cameras to praise what they repeatedly called the "special relationship" between their countries, referring to each other in familiar fashion as "David" and "Barack."
But the question-and-answer period focused almost entirely on BP, putting the recently installed British prime minister in the hot seat during his first official visit to the White House.
In recent weeks Cameron has emphasized the responsibility BP bears for permanently containing the oil spill, cleaning up the Gulf region and compensating those who suffered harm as a result of the disaster
Cameron also called BP an important part of the American and British economies, saying it is a major supplier of petroleum and employer of workers in both countries.
"Thousands of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic depend on it," Cameron said of the company. "So it's in the interest of both our countries, as we agreed, that it remains a strong and stable company for the future."