As Lt. Col. Robert Bateman explained, throughout its history the United States has engaged in prisoner swaps to gain the freedom of its servicemen captured in battle. And as it turns out, the one modern president who actually negotiated with terrorists is the same one conservatives revere most,Ronald Reagan.
On December 4, 1983, President Reagan ordered carrier-based jets to strike targets in Lebanon after reconnaissance aircraft protecting U.S. peacekeeping forces there were fired on. The raid was a disaster. Syrian anti-aircraft batteries downed two jets, killing one pilot and capturing another. As Reagan wrote in his diary that night, "We're trying to get a confirmation & will open negotiations for their return."
As it turned out, the surviving airman was returned to the United States, but only after the unsanctioned intervention of the Reverend Jesse Jackson. On January 4th, 1984, Reagan had to admit, "You can't quarrel with success. As the AP reported that day:
"The United States, said Reagan, was ready to approach the problems of the Middle East "with a renewed spirit."
Reagan also applauded Democratic rival Jesse Jackson for the personal unofficial mission which gained the release of Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman, Jr ... To Jackson, the president said "it is a great day here in Washington. All Americans thank you. There have been a lot of prayers here in Washington. I have been praying for you. I couldn't be happier."
Please read below the fold for more on this story.
To be sure, Reagan was happier than he would be two years later, when his efforts to secure the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon blew up in his face in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Iran-Contra, as you'll recall, almost laid waste to the Reagan presidency. Desperate to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, President Reagan provided weapons Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein (who, of course, was backed by the United States). In a clumsy and illegal attempt to skirt U.S. law, the proceeds of those sales were then funneled to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And as the New York Timesrecalled, Reagan's fiasco started with an emissary bearing gifts from the Gipper himself:
A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Tehran last May, Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders.
According to a person who has read the committee's draft report, the retired C.I.A. official, George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had 10 falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ''opening'' to Iran.
As his diaries published in 2005 show, President Ronald Reagan was under no illusions about either the illegality of the scheme or that it constituted anything other than a swap of arms for hostages. On Thursday, December 5, 1985, Reagan wrote in his diary:
N.S.C. briefing--probably Bud's last. Subject was our undercover effort to free our 5 hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon. It is a complex undertaking with only a few of us in on it. I won't even write in the diary what we're up to.
Nevertheless, just two days later the Gipper wrote about that very topic. On Saturday, December 7, Reagan noted in his diary:
Day opened with "Rex" (our new dog) on our bed. I then had a meeting with Don R., Cap W. and Bud M., John P., Geo. Schultz and Mahan of C.I.A. This had to do with the complex plan which could return our 5 hostages & help some officials in Iran who want to turn that country from its present course & on to a better relationship with us. It calls for Israel selling some weapons to Iran. As they are delivered in installments by air our hostages will be released. The weapons will go to the moderate leaders in the army who are essential if there is to be a change to a more stable govt. We then sell Israel replacements for the delivered weapons. None of this is a gift--the Iranians pay cash for the weapons--so does Israel.
George S. Cap and Don are opposed--Cong. has imposed a law that we can't sell Iran weapons or sell any other country weapons for resale to Iran. Geo. also thinks this violates our policy of not paying off terrorists. I claim the weapons are for those who want to change the govt of Iran & no ransom is being pd. for the hostages. No direct sale would be made by us to Iran but we would be replacing the weapons sold by Israel.
In case there was any doubt that Ronald Reagan blessed the delivery of hundreds of advanced anti-tank weapons to Tehran, the president himself removed it with his January 17, 1986 diary entry, "I agreed to sell TOWs to Iran."
"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."
Of course, the pathetic saga didn't end there. Then Lt. Colonel and now Fox News commentator Oliver North saw his Iran-Contra conviction overturned by an appellate court led by faithful Republican partisan and later Iraq WMD commissioner Laurence Silberman. And in December 1992, outgoing President George H.W. Bush offered Christmas pardons to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra scandal figures. Among them were John Poindexter and Elliott Abrams, men who eight years later reprised their roles in the administration of George W. Bush. (As it turns out, Abrams—one of the people who brought you the Iraq War—also served as an adviser for Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign. In that capacity, he argued that Congress should give the president the authorization to use force against Iran for a preventive war to destroy Tehran's nuclear program.)
Nevertheless, Republicans are furious about the deal that freed POW Sgt. Bergdahl from captivity at the hands of the Taliban. On Sunday, 2016 White House hopeful Ted Cruz (R-TX) protested, "What does this tell the terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?" Then again, back in January Senator Cruz tweeted a front page picture of Ronald Reagan's first inauguration with the message:
"Now there is a man who knew how to deal with the Iranians."