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John McCain gets unfair criticism on Bergdahl swap

bergdahl mccain

While we’ve been having fun chronicling the travails of the Obama administration as it tries to extricate itself from the observation deck of the Hindenburg that the ransoming of Bowe Bergdahl has become, it has also been amusing watching others who had put themselves out on a limb.

Pat Leahey and Claire McCaskill are running like scalded dogs from their emphatic cheerleading for Obama on the deserter-for-terrorist swap.

Hillary Clinton, to her credit, was mute on Bergdahl and has used her silence to take a page from her “husband’s” leadership manual and toss Barack Obama under an oncoming bus.

Naturally, our attention has also turned to various Republicans who cheered the Bergdahl release then recanted.

Both Senator Kelly Ayotte and Representative Rich Nugent (FL-11) were extravagant in their encouragement to bring Bergdahl back home.

As much as it pains me to say this, though, Senator John McCain has come in for unfair criticism.

The Huffington Post in GOP Urged White House To ‘Do All It Can’ To Get Bowe Bergdahl makes a sad trombone version of tu quoque to criticize John McCain:

Some lawmakers who have spoken critically in recent days of the Bergdahl deal had appeared, not too long ago, to have endorsed the concept of a prisoner swap, in which he could be exchanged for Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Take Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). On Feb. 18, 2014, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he could support such an arrangement, albeit reserving judgment for some of the details:

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: So if there was some — 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.
(Watch video of the exchange here.)

The day after Bergdahl’s release was secured, however, McCain was on the Sunday morning talk shows questioning why the administration would release the “hardest of the hard core.” On Monday, the following day, he stressed that he “would not have made this deal.”

“I would have done everything in my power to repatriate him and I would have done everything I possibly could. But I would not have put the lives of American servicemen at risk in the future,” he said.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said the senator’s objections lie in the details.

As you can see, McCain’s agreement on the swap is hardly a blanket statement of support.

Slate’s Dave Weigel follows suit:

A Democrat reminds me that McCain appeared on CNN four months ago, when the Bergdahl case was receiving far less coverage, and did not sound so bearish on the potential of a trade. He hadn’t wanted the five Taliban to be released as a “confidence” measure, but “this idea is for an exchange of prisoners for our American fighting man. I’d be inclined to support such a thing, depending on the details.”

In all fairness, McCain’s defense about the “details” has a substantial amount of contemporaneous support. Drawing upon the suddenly popular Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings called America’s Last Prisoner of War. Mind you this is from June 2012.

Officially, Bowe remains a soldier in good standing in the United States Army. He has continued to receive promotions over the past three years, based on his time in uniform, and he now holds the rank of sergeant. Unofficially, however, his status within the military is sharply contested. According to officials familiar with the internal debate, there are those in both Congress and the Pentagon who view Bowe as a deserter, and perhaps even a traitor. As with everything in Washington these days, the sharp political discord has complicated efforts to secure his release.

“The Hill is giving State and the White House shit,” says one senior administration source. “The political consequences­ are being used as leverage in the policy debate.” According to White House sources, Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was given a direct warning by the president’s opponents in Congress about trading Bowe for five Taliban prisoners during an election year. “They keep telling me it’s going to be Obama’s Willie Horton moment,” Grossman warned the White House. The threat was as ugly as it was clear: The president’s political enemies were prepared to use the release of violent prisoners to paint Obama as a Dukakis-­like appeaser, just as Republicans did to the former Massachusetts governor during the 1988 campaign. In response, a White House official advised Grossman that he should ignore the politics of the swap and concentrate solely on the policy.

“Frankly, we don’t give a shit why he left,” says one White House official. “He’s an American soldier. We want to bring him home.”

The tensions came to a boil in January, when administration officials went to Capitol Hill to brief a handful of senators on the possibility of a prisoner exchange. The meeting, which excluded staffers, took place in a new secure conference room in the Capitol visitor center. According to sources in the briefing, the discussion sparked a sharp exchange between Senators John McCain and John Kerry, both of whom were decorated for their service in Vietnam. McCain, who endured almost six years of captivity as a prisoner of war, threw a fit at the prospect of releasing five Taliban detainees.

“They’re the five biggest murderers in world history!” McCain fumed.

Kerry, who supported the transfer, thought that was going a bit far. “John,” he said, “the five biggest murderers in the world?”

McCain was furious at the rebuke. “They killed Americans!” he responded. “I suppose Senator Kerry is OK with that?”

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. Opposition has also come from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia who won election with a vicious smear campaign against former Sen. Max Cleland, a decorated Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs in the war. Chambliss, according to Bowe’s father, has insisted that America shouldn’t make a prisoner trade for a “deserter.”

So despite my personal misgivings about Senator McCain, it appears that he’s getting a bad rap on Bergdahl. It appears that McCain might have supported a swap of prisoners for Bergdahl but it is highly unlikely that he would have supported releasing these particular men.

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