Colombians Briefed McCain Before Rescue

Sen. John McCain greets workers in Cartagena. He revealed his knowledge of the rescue mission only after it ended.
Sen. John McCain greets workers in Cartagena. He revealed his knowledge of the rescue mission only after it ended. (By Fernando Vergara -- Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

CARTAGENA, Colombia, July 2 -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke repeatedly Tuesday and early Wednesday about how he would work as president to free three American hostages held by leftist guerrillas in Colombia, but he declined to reveal one key fact: Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and his aides had briefed him Tuesday evening about the plan to rescue the Americans, along with 12 other captives.

"I congratulate President Uribe, the military, the nation of Colombia. This is great news," McCain told reporters Wednesday afternoon, adding that Colombian officials would continue working to free "all the other innocent people who are being held hostage" by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The presumptive GOP nominee revealed his knowledge of the Colombian military's mission only after the hostages -- including Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans, Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell -- were freed Wednesday. The FARC captured Betancourt six years ago when she was campaigning for president and took the three Americans, who were military contractors, a year later when their plane crashed.

"These are very high-risk operations," McCain said, adding that he did not know the rescue was being put together before he decided to visit Colombia. "I would remind you that these things require incredibly long planning and coordination, et cetera. There's no way possible that it could have had anything to do with our visit that I could imagine. . . . It's a very happy moment."

Uribe and his defense minister told McCain and the two senators traveling with him, Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), about the mission in detail Tuesday night before they all had dinner together.

Just as U.S. authorities have been pressing for the Americans' release, French authorities have been lobbying for years for the release of Betancourt, who is also a French citizen. In December, Betancourt's mother made public a letter from her daughter, in which she wrote of becoming increasingly despondent.

"It was really a brilliant plan," Lieberman said. "I think the timing was fortuitous. They just felt they had it ready to implement."

While in Washington a shake-up in McCain's campaign organization focused attention on the doubts many Republicans have voiced about his strategy and message, Lieberman said the fact that Colombian officials chose to disclose their rescue plan in advance to McCain testified to his colleague's international standing.

"I think it was a sign of confidence of President Uribe and the defense minister in Senator McCain, and maybe in the two of us, that they were prepared to share this information last night, which was highly classified."

McCain spoke with Uribe by telephone shortly before 4 p.m. local time but revealed only a few details because he said the operation was "classified."

"I don't think that there is an established protocol" for such briefings, said a McCain aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. " 'Protocol' is not a word I would associate with this."

McCain learned that the effort had succeeded more than an hour after his plane left Cartagena.

Earlier, local reporters questioned him about what he intended to do about freeing the three U.S. captives, and at a news conference Wednesday morning, he said he would support the Colombian government in its rescue efforts.

"I would leave the modalities to the government of Colombia," McCain said. "But I intend to do everything I can do to support an increase in their capabilities."

Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, issued a statement on the freeing of the hostages as he campaigned in Colorado on Wednesday. He celebrated their liberation and also took a hard line against the FARC.

"I strongly support Colombia's steady strategy of making no concessions to the FARC, and its targeted use of intelligence, military, law enforcement, diplomatic, and political power to achieve important victories against terrorism," Obama said in the statement. "I congratulate President Uribe and the Colombian government, express my gratitude for everyone who aided in this rescue, and will do everything that I can to assure the success of future efforts to free the FARC's hostages and to defeat this terrorist organization."

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