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July 03, 2008

McCain's UNdiplomatic missions
Posted by Moira Whelan

McCain’s gaffe confusing Shia and Sunni in Iraq is perhaps his most notable foreign travel experience of the campaign thus far. This week, McCain attempted to trump that by sliding into the news coverage of US hostages being released in Colombia just after he’d left. Trouble is that for John McCain, this trip, the release of hostages and what John McCain knew, could cause him more trouble than his infamous trip to Iraq.  Couple that with questions about how he conducted himself on his trip to Canada, and it looks like the guy who wants to be diplomat-in-chief may be rather…undiplomatic.

Just as John McCain was wheels up from Cartagena earlier this week, three US hostages were freed by the FARC after years in captivity. Good news, most certainly. However, at issue now is what John McCain knew, when he knew it, and whether or not he should have known it at all.

John McCain took the trip south—billed as official Congressional travel--with his two colleagues Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. It’s been reported that prior to the trip, John McCain spoke to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at around 4pm and Uribe gave him some highlights of the operation to spring the hostages. When the Senators had dinner with Uribe that night, they were briefed on the operation but none revealed it because they said it was “classified.”

When McCain was asked about the operation once the hostages were freed, he revealed the fact that he’d been briefed, and praised the operation.

Here’s the problem, there’s a law known as the Logan Act that reads:

"Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."

The conversation with Uribe definitely qualifies as "correspondence or intercourse" and we have a "controversy" with the Colombian government because the United States has been on their back for years to get these hostages freed. To be sure, the trip itself was cleared by the US government, but that's different from State expressly allowing McCain to have a direct "classified” conversation with President Uribe about an ongoing controversy.  If McCain was going to have private conversations with a foreign leader, the conversation itself would have to be cleared.

John McCain’s conversation with Uribe raises some serious questions that make more investigation necessary. Namely:

  • Was John McCain’s conversation with Uribe classified?
  • Did McCain have prior approval for this conversation?
  • Did McCain’s staff (or that of Liebermann’s or Graham’s) clear the content of the conversation with Uribe through the State Department?
  • Once McCain knew this information, did he—in good faith—make that information known to the State Department?

When asked about it, McCain’s aide reportedly said:

"I don't think that there is an established protocol" for such briefings, said a McCain aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. " 'Protocol' is not a word I would associate with this."

Perhaps there isn’t protocol, but there are laws. And for someone who wants to have the top job of enforcing them, voters deserve to know the due diligence he did on this trip to ensure that he upheld the same laws that govern our diplomats.

Questions are also circulating about McCain’s recent trip to Canada . It too was billed as not being political but rather Senatorial. Therefore, he needs to act like a senator, and not as a presidential candidate. This is because according to the Hatch Act, US government resources and personnel cannot be used in support of political purposes. As the principal on the trip, McCain would have to adhere to these rules, and save the conversation about his campaign for his own plane, at his own events, and not those done on the taxpayer dime.  However, in his remarks while in Canada, McCain repeatedly referred to his presidential campaign including in the trip’s headline speech.

Diplomatic work by senators—be they running for President or not—is important. That said, it’s also important that Senators set aside their own political interests while doing these trips, and pursue the facts tax payers have paid for them to go find. At very least, John McCain needs to be transparent about the steps taken by his staff to ensure that he’s following both the spirit and the letter of the law when it comes to these trips.

UPDATE: At writing, the general welcoming the hostages back to the United States and briefing on their care in a live press conference reveals that he found out yesterday from officials in Colombia about this operation. So...did John McCain know before the US government?

H/T to a friend of Democracy Arsenal on this one.


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Over the course of my career I have often heard discussion of the Logan Act. I have even raised it myself when negotiations were being undercut by well connected outsiders. But I have never, even in egregious cases, heard of it being applied. As a statement of principle, it is great. As an enforceable law, it falls a bit short. After a long history of not being used (your link to Wikipedia says that there has never been a prosecution under the act and the one and only inditement was over 200 years ago). There have been far stronger cases than this in which members of congress and private citizens actually undercut US foreign policy so I don't see the value of discussing it in this context as though it actually matters.

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