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Inside Jesse Jackson’s negotiation to win release of U.S. vet

George Curry | 10/15/2013, 12:26 p.m.
Jesse Jackson was eager to talk to the media after secret talks Butch Wing

Pablo Catatumbo carefully explained that Sutay was being held deep in the jungle and in order to bring him out, the Colombian government would have to agree to a ceasefire for a specified time – something that had to be clearly communicated to the field – and a properly identified International Red Cross helicopter would also be part of the rescue effort.

In order to not disclose the location of their fighters in the jungle, Catatumbo said, the Red Cross helicopter would be airborne before FARC would provide the coordinates to where Sutay would be picked up and flown to safety. The rebels would also need time to safely retreat from the area. Coordinating these actions takes time, usually a minimum of four or five days, and a mistake at any point could doom the mission, he said.

Once the danger of the rescue mission was absorbed, the discussion turned to publicizing FARC’s decision to release Sutay to Jackson as a humanitarian gesture. The decision was made for Cordoba to release a statement at 9 a.m. the next day applauding FARC’s decision to release Sutay and saying she would not be a part of the process because she did not want to be an impediment to Sutay’s release. FARC agreed to issue a statement an hour later announcing that it would unconditionally release Sutay to Jackson.

With the announcements set for the next day, the 3-hour meeting ended and we were driven back to the hotel around 11 p.m.

Saturday morning was filled with anxiety for Jackson, who observed members of the press camped out at the hotel awaiting word on his next move. But Jackson couldn’t say anything to the media until it had been confirmed that the two statements had been issued.

Cordoba’s statement wasn’t released until around 10 a.m. Jackson had a staffer check several times to see whether FARC had released its statement and it hadn’t. Jackson’s delegation left the hotel around 11:30 a.m. for lunch at a local restaurant. An hour later, the statement still hadn’t been issued and there was an obvious shift in Jackson’s mood. Normally, Jackson loves banter, joking and talking. And he loves talking to the media as much as anything else. Having covered him for nearly four decades, including his 1984 presidential campaign, I have always said the most dangerous place in the world is standing between Jackson and a television camera.

In the restaurant, Jackson grew sullen, sitting in a chair off to himself, saying very little. However, when news came around 2:30 p.m. that FARC had issued its statement, the old, playful, energized Jackson quickly returned. After a brief stop at an office to see the English translation of FARC’s statement, we headed back to the hotel where Jackson held court in the courtyard near the ocean.

“We accept this obligation and opportunity to render service to Kevin Scott, his family and our nation,” Jackson told reporters.

Late Saturday night, the BBC reported that Santos had rejected the offer to help Jackson retrieve the American veteran.

Santos tweeted, “Only the Red Cross will be authorised to arrange for the handover of the North American kidnapped by the FARC. We will not allow a media spectacle.”

Except for Sutay and his family, no one was more despondent than Jackson.

True, he craves media attention. Equally true, however, is that he recognizes that he has a unique ability to bring back dozens of Americans captured around the world when government-to-government efforts fail. In the past, he has persuaded the government holding prisoners to release them to him. In this instance, a third party rather than a government is holding an American prisoner. And this time, Jackson says the pressure has shifted from him to the U.S. government to make sure Sutay, a Navy veteran who fought in Afghanistan, returns home safely.

“An American veteran has been captured and accused of being a terrorist when, in fact, he was a tourist,” Jackson said in an interview with the NNPA. “I have been given permission to get him, but I can’t bring him home by myself.”