The Cable

Who knew about McCain’s secret trip to Syria?

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) pulled a fast one this Memorial Day weekend, sneaking into Syria for “several hours” to meet with rebel fighters, as the Daily Beast reported, and sneaking back before anyone noticed. In a town terrible at keeping secrets, the war zone visit of the highest-ranking U.S. official to date raised an immediate ...

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Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) pulled a fast one this Memorial Day weekend, sneaking into Syria for “several hours” to meet with rebel fighters, as the Daily Beast reported, and sneaking back before anyone noticed.

In a town terrible at keeping secrets, the war zone visit of the highest-ranking U.S. official to date raised an immediate question: Who knew?

This morning, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reassured reporters that the White House was aware of McCain’s trip and “looks forward” to hearing from him on his return, according to CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller. But officials at the State Department and National Security Council would not elaborate about the trip’s planning or logistics. “As is standard practice, we don’t comment on congressional delegations,” NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told The Cable.

But Elizabeth O’Bagy, political director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, the group that helped organize McCain’s trip, told The Cable the voyage went through a maze of vetting ahead of time and earned approval by the State Department.

“Yes the State Department knew about the visit beforehand and helped coordinate security issues,” she said. “Truth be told, organizing a trip of this nature is a huge pain in the ass because of security concerns, which the State Department is rightly concerned about. I heard from State that they actually got Sec. John Kerry‘s approval before McCain made the trip.”

To be sure, the White House probably isn’t too concerned about taking heat for slow travel approval. It is, however, concerned about pushing back against McCain’s overall notion that the administration’s Syria policy is on cruise control: failing to lend military aid to the rebels and, as McCain said this month, drawing a red line on chemical weapons with “disappearing ink.”

Carney rebuffed that criticism today, telling reporters the White House “strongly disagrees” with that criticism and is looking to get the facts about chemical weapons use before any major action is taken. In any event, despite the two sides’ differences, they were able to keep a secret long enough for McCain to cross the Turkey-Syria border with the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, Gen. Salim Idris, and even pose for a few photo ops.

 The post was updated to reflect a clarification by the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

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