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For the moment, the Obama administration is losing in the court of public opinion for its decision to release five Taliban prisoners in exchange for American serviceman Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The Pew Research Center and USA Today report that 43 percent of Americans say it was the wrong thing to do while 34 percent say it was the right move.
There’s no question where Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., stands. Right after the deal was announced, McCain called it ill-founded.
"It is a mistake and it is putting the lives of American servicemen and women at risk and that to me is unacceptable," McCain said at a Republican news conference June 3.
On CNN’s State of the Union on June 8, McCain affirmed he would never have released the five Taliban officials.
"What we're doing here is reconstituting the Taliban government, the same guys that are mass murderers," McCain said.
But MSNBC host Rachel Maddow criticized McCain of flip-flopping.
"Sen. McCain did not think that very same exchange of prisoners would be ‘unacceptable to the American people’ when he himself suggested it in February," Maddow said on her June 4 program.
In this fact-check, we examine if Maddow has it right when she says McCain gave this exchange the nod four months ago. (A hat tip here to the Washington Post Factchecker for its work on this question.)
Maddow cited an interview between McCain and CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Feb. 18. Bergdahl’s fate was in the air. A day earlier the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon, White House and State Department were ready to free five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo to win Bergdahl’s release after an intercepted video of Bergdahl suggested his condition was deteriorating.
Here is the exchange between Cooper and McCain:
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."
This sort of deal was not McCain’s suggestion per se but he was okay with the concept. However, neither Cooper nor McCain named the five Taliban prisoners, and for that matter, neither did the Washington Post article from the day before.
But McCain referred to a previous version of the American offer and a Reuters report from Aug. 7, 2012, that listed four of the five men that became part of the current exchange. Reuters said the U.S. wanted to "sweeten the deal" to free Bergdahl by offering Mullah Mohammed Fazl (Fazi), Noorullah Noori, Abdul Haq Wasiq and Khairullah Khairkhwa.
Three of those names had come up as early as 2011 as bargaining chips.
In the CNN interview, McCain said he never signed off on any of those individuals. McCain sits on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees and was familiar with who was in play when he spoke to Cooper, calling them "five really hard-core Taliban leaders."
In the past week, several news organizations have taken McCain to task for backtracking on his position in February. McCain said his opinion back then hinged on details related to guarantees that the Taliban officials would not return quickly to the battlefield.
Maddow said the deal that McCain opposes today is one he suggested in February. In a key interview, McCain did say he "would be inclined to support" an exchange involving five hard-core Taliban leaders. The identities of four of those five were public knowledge and McCain sat on committees that would discuss such matters.
McCain did not propose the swap but said he was ready to entertain it if it led to Bergdahl’s release. He has since said the swap would put Americans at risk, which is pretty much the same as calling it dangerous.
We rate Maddow’s claim Mostly True.
MSNBC, The Rachel Maddow Show, June 4, 2014
Washington Post, Did John McCain flip-flop on the Bergdahl deal?, June 6, 2014
Washington Post, U.S. seeks prisoner swap with Taliban to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Feb. 17, 2014
Reuters, U.S. sweetens Taliban prisoner proposal in bid to revive peace talks, Aug. 7, 2012
CNN, Anderson Cooper 360, Feb. 18, 2014
National Journal, A Brief History of John McCain Loudly Reprimanding People for Endorsing the Same Thing He Endorsed, June 6, 2014
CNN, State of the Union with Candy Crowley, June 8, 2014
NY Daily News, Sen. McCain blasts deal with Taliban for Sgt. Bergdahl as a ‘mistake’, June 3, 2014
Pew Research, Public Has Doubts about Bergdahl Prisoner Exchange, June 9, 2014
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