Equally serious misstatements by Bush and Kerry? The Washington Post seemed to think so

››› ››› DUNCAN BLACK

In a September 30 Washington Post article titled "A Primer for Tonight's First Debate," reporters Glenn Kessler and Ceci Connolly said of statements made by the candidates on the campaign trail: "At first glance, a candidate's assertion may have the ring of truth. But on close examination, many of their pronouncements turn out to be exaggerated, lacking in context or wrong."

Kessler and Connolly examined claims by the candidates in areas of foreign policy, economic policy, and health policy, providing what are portrayed as comparable examples of misleading claims from both candidates. On close examination, however, the examples chosen by Kessler and Connolly were often not very similar. Of the three policy areas covered in the article, in only one did Kessler and Connolly offer an example of Senator John Kerry actually making an inaccurate statement (and a minor one at that), while President George W. Bush made several, including serious mischaracterizations.

This led Matthew Yglesias, writing for The American Prospect Online, to ask: "So why is the headline for the pre-debate article 'Both Bush and Kerry Have Set the Stage With Some Misleading Claims' instead of 'Bush Has Set the Stage With Some Misleading Claims?'"

In the area of health policy, Kessler and Connolly wrote that Bush mischaracterized Kerry's plan by claiming that Kerry wants to "nationalize" health care, without offering any similar mischaracterization by Kerry of Bush's plans. On economic policy, they noted only that both candidates are using statistics selectively. On foreign policy, they wrote that Bush mischaracterized his attempts to use diplomacy before the start of the Iraq war, comparing that mischaracterization to Kerry's assertion that the cost of the Iraq war is $200 billion, when $80 billion of that figure, though requested and authorized, has not yet been spent. As Yglesias wrote:

That's not really the same, is it? Bush said Iraq had WMD. It didn't. Bush said Iraq had ties to al-Qaeda. It didn't. Kerry said the war has cost $200 billion when in fact $200 billion is merely the pricetag for paying for everything we're currently committed to doing. Meanwhile, every cost estimate the administration has ever put forward for the war has proven to be an underestimation.

The Post reporters also defended the Bush administration against the following accusation by Kerry: "The administration misled America, the United Nations and the world. This administration rushed to war without a plan to win the peace." About this, Kessler and Connolly wrote:

But there is little evidence the Bush administration purposely tried to deceive Americans and other world leaders about the threat posed by the alleged weapons -- and, in fact, there was a broad consensus among experts that Iraq did have at least some banned weapons.

As quoted, Kerry did not claim that the Bush administration "purposely" misled anyone, nor did Kerry limit the scope of his accusation to the issue of weapons of mass destruction. However, there are plenty of examples of statements by the Bush administration presented as undeniable facts that were either known to be incorrect at the time or that later turned out to be false. For instance, members of the administration several times claimed that they were certain that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These claims were made as statements of fact, not stated as opinions. As no weapons of mass destruction have yet been found, they were clearly misleading people about their degree of certainty about their existence. For example:

  • "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." -- Vice President Dick Cheney in an August 26, 2002, speech to the VFW National Convention.
  • "We know for a fact that there are weapons there." -- Then-press secretary Ari Fleischer in a January 9, 2003, press briefing.
  • "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat." -- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a March 30, 2003, interview with ABC.

Bush also mistakenly claimed in a September 9, 2002, press conference:

I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied -- finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic -- the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] that they were six months away from developing a weapon.

As reported in the September 27, 2002, edition of The Washington Times, the chief spokesman of the IAEA at the time, Mark Gwozdecky, denied that they had released such a report in 1998, when the inspectors were denied access. Subsequently, Scott McClellan, who was then the deputy press secretary for the Bush administration, claimed that Bush was talking about a 1991 report. Gwozdecky also denied the existence of that report.

At times, members of the administration later claimed they had misspoken when their claims were disproven. For example, on the March 16, 2003, edition of NBC's Meet the Press, Cheney said to host Tim Russert: "And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

This quote, without any additional clarification or explanation, was reported in a March 17, 2003, Washington Post article by Dana Milbank. It was also mentioned the following day in another Post article by Milbank and Walter Pincus, where they point out that Cheney had "contradicted himself" regarding this claim in the same interview. It was not until a full six months later, when Cheney again appeared on Meet the Press on September 14, that he admitted that he had misspoken and had in fact meant to say "reconstituted nuclear weapons programs." An MMFA Nexis search of "Major U.S. Papers" found that quote appearing in at least 35 major newspaper articles up until that time, and there is no evidence that Cheney tried to correct the record prior to his second Meet the Press appearance.

An July 28, 2003, article by Tim Dickerson at MotherJones.com, titled "West Wing Pipe Dream," noted that Bush made this erroneous claim in his 2002 State of the Union Address: "Our intelligence sources tell us that he [Saddam Hussein] has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."

According to Dickerson, the IAEA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and intelligence employees in the State Department had all concluded they "were not directly suitable' for uranium enrichment."

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