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PunditFact fact-checks the Sunday June 1 news shows

Saturday's news of the release of America's lone prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, launched a debate about whether the United States should be negotiating with terrorists.

Conservative pundits and politicians argued on the Sunday news shows that President Barack Obama's decision to deal with the Taliban increases the likelihood that more American soldiers could be targeted by terrorists.

Democrats, meanwhile, said that terrorists don't need extra motivation to target U.S. troops and argued that the United States didn't negotiate with terrorists in the first place.

After White House national security adviser Susan Rice explained and defended the prisoner swap on ABC's This Week, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz took to criticizing it.

"The idea that we're now making trades, what does that do for every single soldier stationed abroad? It says 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 incentive to capture other soldiers."

Everyone's likely heard about a U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists, but we wanted to see whether the policy is real, and whether the Bergdahl case constitutes a policy shift.

The United States has a long history of negotiating prisoner trades in times of war. But does it have a history of negotiating with terrorists, as some might classify the Taliban?

According to experts we spoke with, it does.

"There's little that's actually new here," said Mitchell Reiss, who worked in the State Department under President George W. Bush and served as national security adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "It may be new to certain individuals."

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.

Later, President Ronald Reagan agreed to send missiles to Iran after seven Americans were captured in Beirut, Lebanon, in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

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 whether the group would hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.

One recent example came in 2010, when the United States released Shia cleric Qais al-Khazali in exchange for Peter Moore, a private British contractor, and the bodies of Moore's security officers.

We rate Cruz's claim Mostly False.

Aside from talk about Bergdahl's release, most of the Sunday shows spent time discussing Hillary Rodham Clinton and her yet-to-be released memoir Hard Choices. At one point, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace claimed Clinton "defended Syria's President (Bashar) Assad as a possible reformer at the start of that country's civil war."

We decided to look into the history.

Clinton talked about the developments in Syria on CBS' Face the Nation on March 27, 2011. Host Bob Schieffer pressed her on why the U.S. reaction would be different from its response to Libya with air strikes. Syria, Schieffer noted, is no friend of the United States as an enemy of Israel and ally of Iran, and Assad's father had "killed 25,000 people, at a lick" in 1982.

Clinton answered, "Well, if there were a coalition of the international community, if there were the passage of a Security Council resolution, if there were a call by the Arab League, if there was a condemnation that was universal, but that is not going to happen because I don't think that it's yet clear what will occur, what will unfold.

"There is a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer," Clinton said. "What's been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there's a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities than police actions which, frankly, have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see."

So Clinton did refer to Assad as "a reformer." But she crafted the line as the opinion of "members of Congress of both parties," not her opinion. And she never defended (as Wallace said) Assad, instead saying in that interview that he "exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see."

Still, as a secretary of state speaking on national television, her decision to discuss such beliefs without knocking them down suggests that she lent them at least some credibility.

PunditFact rates Wallace's claim Half True.

Staff writers Steve Contorno and Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman is the editor of PunditFact.com.

The statement

Says Barack Obama broke a decades-old policy of "not negotiating with terrorists."

Sen. Ted Cruz, on ABC's "This Week"

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Mostly False

Even though presidents and officials often say "we do not negotiate with terrorists," it has not proven to be a hard-and-fast rule. Obama's actions so far do not signal a change in policy, but rather the latest in a long line of exceptions presidents have made throughout recent history. We rate Cruz's statement Mostly False.

The statement

Says Hillary Clinton "defended Syria's President Assad as a possible reformer at the start of that country's civil war."

Chris Wallace, "Fox News Sunday"

The ruling

PunditFact ruling: Half True

Clinton's original comments in March 2011 were not that straightforward. Clinton was talking about the beliefs of Congress and didn't "defend" Assad, as Wallace put it. Still, Clinton's choice to talk about those members' opinions of Assad without knocking them down suggests she may have found them credible and bolsters Wallace's claim. We rate her statement Half True.

PunditFact fact-checks the Sunday June 1 news shows 06/01/14 [Last modified: Sunday, June 1, 2014 10:31pm]
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