The White House insisted Wednesday that its decision to give Cuba three of its spies back had nothing to do with Cuba's decision to return Alan Gross back to the United States — a claim that was rejected as baloney by members of Congress, and was also revealed as untrue by the White House's own spokesman.
Gross had been held prisoner in Cuba for years, and while Congress pushed the Obama administration to negotiate his release, members were careful to warn against swapping the three spies to win Gross's return.
In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry rejected the idea outright of trading Gross for Cubans convicted of espionage.
"They were, and have been, attempting to trade Alan Gross for the five spies that are in prison here in the United States," Kerry said, back before two of them were released. "And we have refused to do that because there is no equivalency."
"Alan Gross is wrongly imprisoned," Kerry added. "And we are not going to trade as if it is a spy for a spy, which they are trying to allege. We are trying to work this out on a humanitarian basis."
On Wednesday, the administration claimed it was finally successful in getting Cuba to release Gross for humanitarian reasons. It said the decision to release three Cuban spies was part of a separate agreement that won the release of one U.S. intelligence agent in Cuba.
Specifically, a House aide with knowledge of the situation said Obama commuted the sentences of the three spies.
"The fact of the matter is, Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds at the request of this administration, and the spy swap that was executed between the United States and Cuba did secure the release of this intelligence asset that is now on American soil," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
That statement drew immediate criticism from the White House press corps. ABC News's Jonathan Karl was incredulous, and asked if Earnest was really asking people to believe that Gross's release had nothing to do with the prisoner swap.
When Karl said Earnest can't possibly say the two are unrelated, Earnest insisted, "Yes I can, and I just did." But his very next comment indicated that the two events were related.
"The agreement on a spy swap would not have been reached, and was not reached, without the standalone agreement to release Mr. Gross on humanitarian grounds," he said. That statement suggests that all Cuba had to do to win the release of its three spies was to release Gross — in essence, a swap that the Obama administration had insisted it would not make.
But aside from the White House's verbal gymnastics, members of Congress immediately saw the deal for what it was — a package that included Gross's release and the release of Cuban spies as key elements.
"Let's be clear, this was not a 'humanitarian' act by the Castro regime," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). "It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) blasted the swap as one that went against prior statements from Kerry and other U.S. officials. "Ever since Gross had been unjustly imprisoned, several high ranking administration officials reiterated to Congress and to the American people that there was no equivalency between the Cuban Five and Alan Gross and reaffirmed that no swap would take place," she said.
Ros-Lehtinen and other members noted that the three remaining Cuban spies were responsible for the death of three Americans when their plane was shot down by Cuba in 1996. The shooting down of that "Brothers to the Rescue" mission quickly led to passage of legislation that tightened the embargo against Cuba.
"The manner in which the White House has negotiated this prisoner swap is a slap in the face to the families of the Brothers to the Rescue and poses a threat to our national security," Ros-Lehtinen said.