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Uribe Gives McCain a Going Away Present

MEXICO CITY — Even though McCain campaign staff initially announced there would be no media avail during today’s Straight Talk Express flight from Colombia to Mexico — because Sen. John McCain was napping — there was still plenty of excitement. Approximately one hour into the flight, we received news that Colombian military forces had rescued a group of 15 hostages — including three Americans and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who had been held by FARC, left-wing insurgents, for six years.

McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan came back into the press area and informed us that during last night’s meeting between McCain, Sens. Lindsay Graham and Joseph I. Lieberman, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe informed the senators that the Colombian government had a plan to liberate the hostages. Buchanan said the rescue was a coincidence and McCain did not know in advance the rescue would take place today.

However, McCain and Lieberman soon came back to give an impromptu press conference as every reporter on the plane crowded into the small open space at the front of the press area. McCain acknowledged that Uribe informed him last night that the mission to liberate the hostages would go forward today. Here is part of McCain’s statement:

“I just finished a phone conversation with President Uribe. He told me some of the details of the dramatic rescue of 15 people who were held hostage. Three Americans are free. Ingrid Betancourt is also free. He says that they are in good condition. He is, of course, pleased with the success of the operation. These are very high-risk operations. Sometimes in the past they have killed the hostages rather than allow them to be rescued. I congratulate President Uribe, the military and the nation of Colombia…Last night, just before dinner, President Uribe and the defense minister did brief us that the operation was going to take place today.”

McCain declined to elaborate on the details of the operation, saying that he didn’t know how much of the information was classified. He also said his visit was not a factor in the decision to move forward with the mission today. McCain dismissed one reporter’s suggestion that the rescue was tied to his visit.

“These kinds of operations require weeks or months of planning…I’m just glad it happened.”

According to The New York Times, the White House was involved in the planning of the operation.

Lieberman said the timing of the rescue was “fortuitous” and Uribe’s willingness to share information about the planned rescue was a “sign of confidence in McCain.”

McCain had repeatedly called for the release of the Americans – and all hostages held by FARC – during his visit to Colombia. He said it was not unusual that Uribe would share plans for a covert operation with him, because he has "been informed [about American operations] as a member of the [Senate] Armed Services Committee for years."

Of course, as news of the rescue spread throughout the press corps, a flurry of speculation erupted about the nature of the timing of the operation. The rescue was compared to Iran’s release of its U.S. hostages in 1981, just hours after President Ronald Reagan took office. It has been suggested that the Reagan campaign secretly negotiated the release – and prolonged the captivity of the hostages in the process.

Without knowing the details of the operation, it seems plausible that the planning did indeed take weeks or months. McCain’s visit was first reported in the press several weeks ago. What is certain is that Uribe values McCain’s unwavering support for the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. While the treaty is currently tied up in Congress, McCain has almost single-handedly kept it in the news by constantly talking about it at campaign appearances and press conferences.

Whether or not the timing of the rescue was a coincidence, however unlikely that might seem, Lieberman was right. It is fortuitous for McCain. It helps to bolster the image McCain seeks to project – an experienced statesman who can get things done. He can consider this a nice going away gift from his friend in Bogota.

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