McCain Briefed Yesterday on Hostage Rescue Operation
By Juliet Eilperin
ABOARD THE MCCAIN CAMPAIGN PLANE -- While Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke repeatedly over the past 24 hours about how he would work as president to free three American hostages held by leftist guerrillas in Colombia, he did not reveal one key fact: Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and his aides had briefed him Tuesday night 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 this afternoon, adding that Colombian officials would continue working to free "all the other innocent people who are being held hostage" by the FARC.
The presumptive GOP nominee only revealed his knowledge of the Colombian military's mission after the hostages -- including Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans, Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell -- were freed today. The leftist guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, captured Betancourt six years ago when she was campaigning for president, and took the three Americans, who were serving as military contractors, a year later.
"These are very high-risk operations," McCain said, adding that the plan was unconnected to his visit yesterday to Colombia. "I would remind you that these things require incredibly long planning and coordination, etc., 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 other senators traveling with him, Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), about the rescue mission in detail last 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. Just this year Betancourt's mother publicly released a letter from her daughter, in which she wrote of becoming increasingly despondent in captivity.
"It was really a brilliant plan," Lieberman said. "I think the timing was fortuitous. They just felt they had it ready to implement."
The fact that Colombian officials chose to disclose the plan in advance to McCain, Lieberman said, 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 by phone with Uribe shortly before 4 p.m. local time, but only revealed a few details because he said the operation was "classified."
A McCain aide, who asked not to be identified, said that while it was somewhat unusual for the Colombian officials to notify McCain about the raid in advance, "It's a sign of the closeness of their relationship."
"I don't think that there is an established protocol" for such briefings, the aide said. "Protocol is not a word I would associate with this."
McCain learned that the effort had succeeded more than an hour after his plane took off from Cartagena. Local reporters questioned him about what he intended to do about freeing the three U.S. captives: in a press conference Wednesday morning, he said he would support the Colombian government in its rescue efforts, adding that FARC's detention of the men was "in violation of all standards" of human rights.
"I would leave the modalities to the government of Colombia. It's a sovereign nation," McCain said. "But I intend to do everything I can do to support an increase in their capabilities."
Posted at 7:16 PM ET on Jul 2, 2008
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