Did John McCain flip-flop on the Bergdahl deal?


(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“Now this idea is for an exchange of prisoners for our American fighting man. I would be inclined to support such a thing depending on a lot of the details.”

– Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), interview on CNN, Feb. 18, 2014

“We were never told that there would be an exchange of Sergeant Bergdahl for five Taliban.”

– McCain, interview on CNN, June 3, 2014

Is Sen. John McCain a flip-flopper? Did he support a trade of five Taliban fighters for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl back in February, only to turn around and denounce it once the deal was made?

The Fact Checker began looking into this issue earlier this week, and the McCain team has been pushing back hard. Spokesman Brian Rogers issued a statement accusing the media of “selectively” quoting McCain, while McCain himself went on CNN’s “The Lead” on Thursday to defend himself after host Jake Tapper highlighted his contradictory statements the day before. McCain focused on the fact that his support was dependent on “the details.”

“The details are outrageous,” he said. “Like any other agreement it’s, as I said, in the details. The details as I found out here are unacceptable.” Among the details he objected to were the identities of the five Taliban and the requirement that they only remain in Qatar for a year.

“These are also war criminals,” McCain said. “A couple of them were accused of killing thousands of Shiite Muslims. These are the ones that used to take the women into the soccer stadium in Kabul and hang them from the goalposts.”

The Facts

First, let’s set the context for McCain’s interview in February. In a front-page article, headlined “U.S. seeks prisoner swap with Taliban,” The Washington Post on Feb. 17 reported that a potential deal was in works with the Taliban to secure Bergdahl’s release:

Five members of the Afghan Taliban who have been held at Guantanamo for years would be released to protective custody in Qatar in exchange for the release of Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and is thought to be held in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, an allied insurgent group.

To refresh the American offer, which has been on the table for more than two years, senior officials from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies decided within the past month to allow the simultaneous release of all five men. Taliban representatives had objected to the previous plan to release the prisoners by ones or twos as a test of Taliban and Qatari intermediaries’ ability to make sure the men did not return to militancy.

As you can see, the key elements of the deal that was announced last week were apparent in the article four months ago — the exchange of five Taliban members held at Guantanamo for Bergdahl and the protective custody of Qatar.

Throughout the discussions, it has always been the same five men, so their identities would have been no surprise to any lawmaker keeping track of the discussions. The five are Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, the former interior minister; Mullah Mohammed Fazi, a senior commander; Mullah Norullah Noori, a provincial governor; Abdul Haq Wasiq, deputy chief of intelligence; and Mohammned Nabi Omari, a member of a joint al-Qaeda-Taliban cell in eastern Khost province.

In August 2011, the Associated Press reported that Afghan negotiators were seeking the release of Taliban fighters in exchange for Bergdahl, naming specifically Khairkhwa, Fazi and Wasiq. In January 2012, the Guardian newspaper reported that Washington would free Khairkhwa and Noori, and possibly Fazi, in exchange for getting the Taliban to open an office in Qatar for peace talks.

In a March 9, 2012, report, the Afghanistan Analysts Network issued a long report on the Guantanamo Five, which actually found that the men were less hard-line than believed.

Then in August 2012, Reuters reported that the Obama administration had offered to trade “five senior Taliban leaders” — including Khairkhwa, Wasiq, Noori and Fazi — for Bergdahl. The headline on Business Insider’s Web site was: “The US Wants To Trade Five Taliban Leaders In Guantánamo For This One American POW.”

In April 2013, Post columnist David Ignatius reported that the same deal nearly came together in 2011: “They worked out a deal in which the United States would release five Taliban prisoners and send them to Qatar. The Taliban, in return, would condemn international terrorism and release U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whom the militants had been holding since 2009.” But it fell through because of a conflict with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

In other words, these names were not a secret — and in any case, McCain sits on the relevant Senate committees (Armed Services and Foreign Relations), with security clearances, and thus could have found out about the names and the background of the individuals.

Indeed, Rolling Stone reported in 2012 that McCain called them “the five biggest murderers in world history” during a 2011 briefing on a possible prisoner exchange to spur peace negotiations. “McCain reluctantly came around on the prisoner exchange, according to those present at the meeting, but he has continued to speak out against negotiating with the Taliban,” the article added.

Now let’s turn to the conversation on Feb. 18 with Anderson Cooper. Here’s the full exchange, and note that, in the wake of The Washington Post article, Cooper announces that McCain “has a new position:”

COOPER: New efforts being made tonight to bring home the only American soldier in captivity. Bowe Bergdahl is his name. The Army sergeant was seized in Afghanistan back in 2009. He’s been held this long. He’s believed to be held by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network inside Pakistan.

Over the years, several proof-of-life videos of Bergdahl have been released. CNN is unable to independently confirm their authenticity. But just weeks ago the U.S. military obtained a new video that’s never been publicly released. It’s raised concerns, though, about Bergdahl’s health.

The Taliban has long demanded the release of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo in exchange for his release. Well, today a U.S. official confirmed that new discussions led by diplomats and the Pentagon are underway.

As you know the United States has long policy saying they don’t negotiate with terrorists. That’s the official policy. But time may be running out. With U.S. troops set to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, there’s the prospect of leaving a man behind.

Senator John McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, of course, has been a vocal opponent of negotiating with the Taliban in years past.

Tonight only on 360 he has a new position. I spoke to him earlier.

COOPER: Would you oppose the idea of some form of negotiations or prisoner exchange? I know back in 2012 you called the idea of even negotiating with the Taliban bizarre, highly questionable.

McCAIN: Well, at that time the proposal was that they would release Taliban, some of them really hard-core, particularly five really hard-core Taliban leaders, as a confidence-building measure. Now this idea is for an exchange of prisoners for our American fighting man. I would be inclined to support such a thing depending on a lot of the details.

COOPER: Of anybody on Capitol Hill, you know better than anybody what this young man must be going through. Obviously it’s a very different time. How do you get through something like this? I mean, for somebody in this situation?

McCAIN: Well, I was fortunate in where he is not that I had fellow POWs that even though I was a long time in solitary confinement we would tap on the wall to each other and stay in communication. If it wasn’t for that, it would have been a very different story for most of us. And this is why I feel especially sympathetic for Mr. Bergdahl because he is all there by himself.

COOPER: So if there was the possibility of some sort of exchange, that’s something you would support?

McCAIN: I would support — obviously I’d have to know the details — but I would support ways of bringing him home, and if exchange was one of them I think that would be something I think we should seriously consider.

While McCain twice offered the caveat of “the details,” he also specifically referenced “five really hard-core Taliban leaders” and said he was “inclined to support” the change in the proposal from a confidence-building measure to an exchange of prisoners. He made these remarks one day after the Post article appeared; that article specifically mentioned protective custody in Qatar.

(Note: Under all of the previous deals discussed, the protective custody was only expected to last until the end of 2014. But because of the delays in striking an agreement, that meant the released detainees would have only had six months left in Qatar. So the negotiators settled on a one year stay in Qatar. But if the deal had been reached in, say, 2012, the men would have been allowed to leave at the end of this year. The Post article in February did not mention a possible time limit for their stay in Qatar.)

But when McCain returned to Anderson Cooper’s show this week and was asked about those comments in February, this is what he said:

“Well, first of all, I said it twice: ‘Depending on a lot of the details.’ In other words, do not trade one person for five hard-core — the hardest of the hard-core murdering war criminals who will clearly reenter the fight and send them to Qatar, of all places, where they will be free to roam including to the Taliban headquarters there in Qatar and then after a year will be allowed to go back into the fight in Afghanistan.”

McCain is hanging a lot on the question of details — which are obviously important — but the issues he raises were apparent back in February. His previous dispute had been on releasing the men as a confidence-building measure, not on the character of the men themselves. He certainly did not say he would have objected to these men being part of the prisoner exchange.

In between February and June, he gave an interview to the Associated Press for an article on the status of the talks and apparent disorganization in the effort to win Bergdahl’s return. Here’s what he said:

McCain, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for more than five years, also said Obama administration officials first told Congress that they wanted to release five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo as a confidence-building measure to jump-start talks with the Taliban.

“I said that was insane … to do that,” said McCain, a frequent critic of the Obama administration who believes the government’s approach to getting Bergdahl back is in disarray. “Then it was the swap for Bergdahl. I said, ‘OK, fine. How are you going to do that?’ They never explained anything to anybody about how it would be done…. How can you get him back if you are totally disorganized?”

Yet, on CNN this week, McCain insisted he was never told about a possible exchange in briefings by the administration:

McCAIN: There was never discussion that any of us know about this straight-up and all of the aspects of this trade for Sergeant Bergdahl. And that’s just a fact.

CHRIS CUOMO: Is this semantics? Is this semantics?

McCAIN: Yeah, it’s semantics.

CUOMO: Well, on whose side, senator? Is the president hiding the ball of what types of Taliban guys were involved? Or is your side hiding the ball that you knew, but you didn’t know everything, so you’re going to say you knew nothing?

McCAIN: Well, we were never told that there would be an exchange of Sergeant Bergdahl for five Taliban. We told they were considering, and we steadfastly, both Republican and Democrats, rejected the notion that they were going to release some of these Taliban in exchange for, quote, “confidence-building measures,” so that negotiations could continue. What we were briefed on was an entirely different scenario from the one that took place.

“Had Cooper asked if Senator McCain would support a deal that freed five hard-core Taliban leaders, two of whom are wanted by the U.N. for war crimes for slaughtering thousands of Shiite Muslims, under terms that allowed them to potentially return to the battlefield against America in a year, the answer would have been ‘Hell no,’” Rogers said. “As he’s always said, Senator McCain does not oppose all prisoner exchanges, but his decision would depend directly on the details of any deal — as it would on any important issue — and he’d obviously oppose any deal that threatens the safety and security of our nation and our troops.”

The Pinocchio Test

We fully appreciate that the details of a prisoner exchange are important, and McCain certainly made that caveat clear. But since the deal was announced, he has suggested that the question of trading the Taliban Five for Bergdahl was a surprise — and that’s certainly not the case. These five men were always part of the prisoner swap, so that is not a detail that can be in dispute. Indeed, only a day after The Washington Post revealed that a deal was in the works to trade the five men for Bergdahl, McCain appeared on television with what was billed as a “new position.”

McCain is on a bit stronger ground when he objects to a one-year stay in Qatar. The length of the detention was not clear in February, though the former detainees will remain longer in Qatar (to mid 2015) than was contemplated under earlier proposals (end of 2014.)

But what is the point of a prisoner swap if the released prisoners are not at some point going to be free? By the very nature of such a deal, an experienced lawmaker (and former POW) like McCain should expect that the Taliban Five would have been able to go free eventually.

McCain may have thought he left himself an out when he said his support was dependent on the details. But then he can’t object to the most important detail — the identity of the prisoners — that was known at the time he indicated his support. McCain earns an upside-down Pinocchio, constituting a flip-flop.

An Upside-Down Pinocchio

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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