Huffpost Politics
Sam Stein Headshot

McCain Was Strong Supporter Of Group Accused Of Terrorist Activities

Posted: Updated:

During the closing weeks of the election, Sen. John McCain has gone to great lengths to present his opponent, Barack Obama, as someone too willing to coddle to groups that have ties to terrorists or terrorist activity.

It is important to understand which individuals and organizations Obama has been associated with, the refrain usually goes, as it is reflective of his foreign policy as a whole.

But if that is indeed the standard by which voters are to judge the candidates, than McCain has some questions of his own.

During the late 1990s, the Senator supported and reportedly helped arm an organization that, while eventually tolerated by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, was accused of terrorist activities and -- among it's more fringe critics -- allegedly having ties to al Qaeda.

During the late stages of the Balkan War, the Kosovo Liberation Army was known for committing incredible atrocities in its efforts to facilitate Kosovo's independence from Yugoslavia. The guerrilla group often was responding to acts of violence committed against its own people. But its tactics were, nevertheless, viewed as condemnable: abductions and murders, systematic burning and looting of homes, and harassment and intimidation of Yugoslav officials.

President Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, described the KLA in 1998 as, "without any questions, a terrorist group."

Eventually, the KLA went from being criticized for threatening a fragile peace process to, gradually, being recognized as a military force that had popular roots within the Albanian community and a shared mission with America. But within the United States, the group was never publicly praised and often considered dangerous.

"As far as I know, no one ever turned around and said, 'these were freedom fighters and I support them,'" said Fred Abrahams, who documented the Balkans War for Human Rights Watch.

Indeed, when the Clinton administration considered forging a stronger relationship with the KLA as a means of bringing all parties to the bargaining table, GOP officials questioned whether such a policy would be a tacit support for a "group with terror, drug ties."

"Such an effusive embrace by top Clinton Administration officials of an organization that only a year ago one of its own top officials labeled as 'terrorist' is, to say the least, a startling development," read a paper put together by the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

And yet, John McCain, the current Republican standard-bearer, was, it seems, an outspoken supporter of the KLA. Back in May 1999, when it appeared as if NATO air raids would prove ineffective in stopping the violence, and calls were being made to send in ground troops, McCain suggested that the U.S. simply fund the KLA instead.

"It wouldn't bother me if you arm the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] forces," he said.

Moreover, this past February, former Rep. Joe DioGuardi, a prominent Albanian lobbyist, was quoted as saying that McCain even help get arms for KLA forces.

"Even in 1998 when we had problems with Milosevic, McCain did everything that we asked of him to the benefit of the Albanian people, including arming the KLA," he said. "We are American Albanians and we need a leader who will strengthen this country... We must support John McCain because he did everything we asked of him for Kosovo, from supporting the Kosovo Liberation Army to supporting the independence of Kosovo."

DioGuardi, a bundler for McCain, did not immediately return requests for comment. Brian Rogers, a spokesman for the McCain campaign replied: "You've cracked the code, Sam!"

The Senator's support for the KLA, puts him near one of the far ends of his party's mainstream during that conflict. It also represents another potential blemish on a foreign policy record that McCain has held up as virtuous compared to Barack Obama's problematic associations. Earlier it was reported that the Arizona Republican had a served on the board of a far-right conservative organization that had supplied arms to paramilitary organizations in Latin America.

McCain's involvement in the U.S. Council for World Freedom became problematic for his candidacy because of that group's past ties to anti-Semitic figures and its efforts to circumvent U.S. law and fund militant anti-communists.

McCain's support for the KLA was less clandestine than his service on the U.S. Council for World Freedom board. But it is similarly telling of his world policy views.

While the U.S., as Abrahams noted, generally turned a blind eye on the KLA because the two "shared a common enemy," there is scant evidence of public officials cheer-leading the guerrilla group at the time. Indeed, conservative officials hung the issue over Clinton's head during the late 1990s as of a lack of foreign policy morals.

Part of it had to do with alleged ties to al Qaeda -- the Washington Times reported in May 1999 that several members of the KLA were trained in terrorist camps run by Osama bin Laden himself, charges that Abrahams says are unlikely. "The KLA did everything it could to reject militant Islamic help because it didn't want to alienate the United States," he noted.

But much of the criticism had to do with the KLA's brutal tactics. According to a 2001 report by Human Rights Watch:

The KLA was responsible for serious abuses... including abductions and murders of Serbs and ethnic Albanians considered collaborators with the state. Elements of the KLA are also responsible for post-conflict attacks on Serbs, Roma, and other non-Albanians, as well as ethnic Albanian political rivals... widespread and systematic burning and looting of homes belonging to Serbs, Roma, and other minorities and the destruction of Orthodox churches and monasteries.

Register To Vote