Wait. Not so fast. The U.S. has a history of negotiating with terrorists

Critics claim Bergdahl marks a change in policy

WASHINGTON, D.C. - It didn’t take long for public glee over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to turn into political gloom.

Bergdahl was freed Saturday by the Taliban in exchange for five Guantanamo detainees, and within hours Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a statement saying,  "America has maintained a prohibition on negotiating with terrorists for good reason."

By Sunday, Sen. Ted Cruz was on the talk shows stating that this exchange was a change in U.S. policy "The reason why the U.S. has had the policy for decades of not negotiating with terrorists is because once you start doing it, every other terrorist has an incentive to capture more soldiers," the Texas Republican said.

According to the axiom, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” But, according to the facts and history, we very much do. 

Slate’s Fred Kaplan did a good job taking on that misperception:

“The United States and practically every other nation that’s ever fought a war have made these sorts of exchanges for centuries. In recent years, American officers have turned over hundreds of detainees to the Afghan government, which in turn freed them in exchange for favors of one sort or another from the Taliban. During the Iraq war, American commanders frequently made similar swaps. The Israeli government (which can’t be considered soft on terror) trades prisoners with Hamas and Hezbollah all the time. In the most dramatic case, Gilad Shalit, an Army private abducted by Hamas, was traded for 1,027 Palestinian and Arab prisoners, 280 of whom had been serving life sentences for terrorist attacks against Israel.

“The Israelis are particularly devoted to the commandment: Thou shalt not leave one soldier behind. The fate of Shalit was a national cause, his picture plastered on the walls of many Israelis’ homes, and his release celebrated as a national holiday. This is a natural artifact of a small, extremely homogenous country where nearly everyone serves in the military and where bombs explode in local neighborhoods during wartime.”

Perhaps the most famous example of the United States negotiating with terrorists was the Iran-Contra affair in which the Reagan administration sold missiles to Tehran to secure the partial release of seven American hostages held in Lebanon.  In fact, it was known at the time as the “arms-for-hostages” deal.

A lesser-known hostage swamp happened in Iraq in 2010 and involved a British civilian named  Peter Moore. Moore was kidnapped by Shiite militiamen in 2007 and spent 31 months in captivity.  He was released after American authorities agreed to free Qais al-Khazali, a former spokesman for the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Khazali was implicated in the killing of five American soldiers in Karbala. 

In his book, Negotiating with Evil, Mitchel Reiss wrote that America has a detailed history of negotiating with terrorists and rogue regimes that support terrorist activity.

According to Reiss, "American presidents have negotiated with terrorists and rogue regimes to secure the release of hostages, to arrange temporary cease fires and to explore whether a more permanent truce might be possible."

Here are a few more examples of the U.S. negotiating with terrorists, according to Reiss’ book, as compiled by Politifact:

  • After the North Koreans captured the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson apologized for spying as part of negotiations to secure the release of 83 American prisoners.
  • In 1970, President Richard Nixon pressured Israel, Switzerland, West Germany and Britain to release Palestinian prisoners after two airlines were hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
  • During the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, President Jimmy Carter agreed to unfreeze $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets after more than a year of negotiations with the Iranian revolutionaries.
  • President Bill Clinton’s administration sat down with Hamas in attempts to negotiate peace with Israel. His administration also worked directly with the Taliban nearly two decades ago on several occasions to see if the group would hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
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