Politics

06.10.14

The Right Didn’t Mind When Bush Paid a Ransom to Terrorists

Republicans are howling (with no proof) that Obama paid a ransom for Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom. Funny. They weren’t howling when Bush actually did it.

The Bowe Bergdahl story moves to the hearing stage this week, so we’ll be treated to the sight of preening House Republicans trying to press Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on when it was that he, too, started hating America. Meanwhile, over in the fever swamps, speculation is growing about an alleged “ransom” the Obama administration may have paid to bring Bergdahl home. That Ollie North, of all people, started this talk is one of those laugh, cry, or shoot-the-television moments that now assault our synapses with such regularity; it’s like Judas calling John or James a traitor, or Bernie Madoff aspersing Warren Buffett as a swindler.

North aside, the charge is picking up steam. Fox “News” “reported” that a ransom was on the table last year. The Free Beacon the other day quoted a “senior intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press,” who “speculated” that a cash payoff to the Haqqani Network, Bergdahl’s captors, surely had to be involved; the whole story made no sense otherwise. Get the picture? The typical evidence-free allegation, oxygenated by rife speculation from the usual suspects, who have no knowledge of anything but just want to get a meme started. So far, among elected officials, only House GOPer Steve “I’m Even Too Out There for Texas Republicans” Stockman has uttered the r-word.

But what starts with Stockman rarely ends with Stockman. And so I predict this charge is going to become a central talking point on the right in the coming days and weeks. Why wouldn’t it? It’s as high-voltage an allegation as Republicans can muster up. It carries, in its crude form, a subtext not only of colossally naive misjudgment but quite possibly of treason: the idea that not merely did the Manchurian president pay too high a price in the form of the Taliban Five to get back a good-for-nothing deserter, but now he (the theory will go) paid cash money to an evil terrorist network, thus helping to finance the group’s operations against America. As North, who knows whereof he speaks on the subject of abetting terrorists, put it: “Was there a ransom paid? Did the government of the United States, either directly or indirectly, finance a terrorist organization?”

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Abu Sayyaf rebels are seen in the Philippines in this video grab made available February 6, 2009. (Reuters)

This would all be quite shocking if proved true, right? And maybe even legitimate grounds for impeachment. Funny, though—it somehow wasn’t either of those things in 2002, when the Bush administration did it.

We turn now to the Philippines, where the Abu Sayyaf terror network—Islamic fundamentalist, al Qaeda-linked, occupant of a slot on the State Department’s official terrorist-organization list since Bill Clinton put it there in 1997—was rampaging around the southern archipelago and taking Westerners hostage. Two such hostages were an American husband-and-wife missionary team, Martin and Gracia Burnham. They were kidnapped in May 2001. Their captivity was a pretty big story for a while, but then came September, and the inferno of Lower Manhattan.

It was after 9/11. Bush was our Churchill. We were strong then, united! And sure enough, I find little record of conservative talking heads criticizing Bush.

The Abu Sayyaf M.O. was the normal one—to demand large (or oddly not so large; the original demand for the Burnhams’ safety was $1 million) sums of money for their captives’ safe return. There were talks, and they bled into 2002. In April of that year, Bush gave a speech that included the line: “No nation can negotiate with terrorists, for there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.”

A nice line. But of course, at that exact moment, the United States was negotiating intently with Abu Sayyaf for the Burnhams’ release. And not only that: The Bush administration arranged an indirect payment to Abu Sayyaf of $300,000, as reported a little later by ABC’s John McWethy, the veteran Pentagon correspondent, and even by Fox’s Brent Baier, whose phrasing had it that “the U.S. government facilitated a ransom payment to al Qaeda-linked terrorists.”

It seems that the payment was indirect rather than direct. But these days, that’s good enough for Ollie North (go reread his quote above). Even an indirect payment by the Obama administration to the Haqqani Network would clearly have these people screaming for impeachment hearings.

But then? Well, that was different. It was after 9/11. Bush was our Churchill. We were strong then, united! And sure enough, I find little record of conservative talking heads or elected Republicans criticizing Bush then, and alas not even any sense that cowed Democrats said much of anything. Those were the days of watching what you said, watching what you did.

Oh. I forgot one detail. We “facilitated” the ransom, but even then we still failed: Poor Martin Burnham was killed in a skirmish when the Philippine army stormed the compound to rescue the couple. Gracia lived, and lives on now. But just imagine that Obama had “facilitated” a ransom to Haqqani, and yet Bergdahl had been killed during a rescue mission. I don’t think I need to complete that thought.

And so here we are again, in the land of conservative forgetting. I do hope, as these hearings commence and House Republicans start raising questions about a possible ransom, that some of their colleagues remind them.