Colombia's Commandos Perform Remarkably

Wonderful news: The Colombian military yesterday rescued a group of 15 hostages held for years by the narcoterrorist FARC organization, including the French-Colombian one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, held for six years, and three Americans--Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves--held for three years. This was a brilliant sting operation: The Colombians evidently infiltrated the FARC at several levels, ordered FARC officials in the name of a top commander to gather hostages from three locations and deliver them to a helicopter manned by operatives of a nongovernmental aid organization. Except that the helicopter was actually operated by the Colombian military. Inside the helicopter, they disarmed and tied up the two FARC operatives they had let aboard, as other army personnel arrested the 15 FARC operatives left on the ground. No shots were fired. Betancourt tells what happened next on the helicopter: "The chief of the operation said, 'We're the national army. You're free.' The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another. We couldn't believe it."

On one count, Betancourt went a little too far when she said, "Such a perfect operation is unprecedented." Perhaps, but it reminds me of the Israeli rescue of 105 hostages held at the Entebbe airport in Uganda on July 3-4, 1976, a much more complex operation and one that resulted in several deaths, including that of the head of the rescue team, Jonathan Netanyahu. The Israelis relied on main force, the Colombians on stealth, but both performed brilliantly. I trust the Colombian military will not be insulted by saying that their competence and ingenuity is comparable to that of the Israeli Defense Force.

To be sure, the Colombians did have the advice and cooperation of U.S. military, which has been advising the Colombians under the Plan Colombia program originally put in place by Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress in 1998. And they may have benefited from information found on the computer of FARC leader Raul Reyes, who was killed in a cross-the-border raid in Ecuador earlier this year. U.S. diplomats were briefed on the rescue operation, and so was John McCain, who was in Colombia meeting with President Alvaro Uribe on the day the raid occurred--surely a coincidence, since the operation must have been months in the planning.

The Reyes computers, whose contents have been independently verified, showed the Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez has been sending aid in money and other forms to the FARC for some time. Some Americans are inclined to see Chavez and the FARC as romantic champions of the people responding to oppressive governments. Congressional Democrats, in justifying their opposition to the Colombia free trade agreement by echoing U.S. labor union cries that Colombian union leaders are being murdered (although the number of such murders are down by 80percent since 2002, in part because the Uribe government has set up a special unit to prevent them), have given some support to such fantasies. But Uribe's government is far from oppressive; he was re-elected by an overwhelming margin, and his job rating is something on the order of 70 percent positive.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's rejection of the Colombia free-trade agreement, by changing House rules in a way that may have destroyed the fast track procedure by which the United States has secured free-trade agreements for more than four decades, seems to me to be the one truly shameful act of this Congress. This rejection of an ally, the third largest country in Latin America, a nation that is threatened by authoritarian and terrorist opponents, and has nonetheless succeeded in strengthening human rights and stimulating economic growth, is as disgusting as anything I've seen Congress do. John McCain hailed Colombia's action; Barack Obama, an opponent of the Colombia trade agreement, unblshingly chimed in a bit later. I wonder how he reconciles this with his message on the Colombia trade pact, summed up aptly in the title of a Washington Post editorial, "Drop Dead, Colombia."

Readers of this blog will know that I have long criticized the FBI investigation of the anthrax attacks that began on Sept. 18, 2001. So you will not be surprised to learn that I was fortified in my dismay by this account by ABC News's Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent who played a lead role in the investigation. It ran after the government agreed, last Friday, when news coverage was likely to be light, to pay $5,825,000 to scientist Steven Hatfill, who was named as a "person of interest" in the investigation by none less than Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002. Garrett doesn't mention, unfortunately, the role of the "profiler" who apparently helped convince the FBI it should look for a disgruntled, loner scientist (read right-wing nut?) as the perpetrator. An appalling performance from an agency that earned a reputation for excellence in many respects. And quite a contrast, I think, with the performance of the Colombian military.

By Michael Barone