Network fact-checks equated possible Kerry misstatement with flagrant Bush falsehood


In September 30 post-debate coverage on NBC, ABC, and MSNBC, the "fact check" segment of all three programs appeared to equate Senator John Kerry's tally of the cost of the Iraq war -- which some critics charge is inflated because it includes spent and projected funds -- to President George W. Bush's false statement concerning the number of Iraqis that have been effectively trained to serve in the war. Meanwhile, CNN inaccurately accused Kerry of misstatements.

During the debate, Kerry placed the cost of the Iraq war at $200 billion; in fact, only $120 billion has been spent, while the remaining $80 billion has been projected (a small portion of which is designated for Afghanistan). Bush, on the other hand, presented a specific and flagrant distortion, stating that "We got 100,000 [Iraqi citizens] trained now, 125,000 by the end of the year, over 200,000 by the end of next year."

On NBC (and later on MSNBC), anchor Brian Williams described "an obvious difference in numbers" between the number of trained Iraqis Bush claimed and the number given by Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. On September 23, Allawi stated: "The Iraqi government now commands 50,000 armed and combat ready Iraqis. By January it will be some 145,000 and by the end of next year some 250,000 Iraqis."

But Allawi's numbers also appear to be inflated. NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw noted that "NBC's Richard Engle is reporting this week from Iraq that they had about 100,000 Iraqis in training, but they had to fire 40,000 of them in the past five days or so because of their suspect origins. They may have been infiltrators or because they were simply incompetent. Those numbers will go up and down over the course of the next several weeks." And, as MSNBC noted on September 24 (though not during their debate coverage), recently released Pentagon documents reveal that "only about 53,000 of the 100,000 Iraqis on duty now have undergone training"; "fewer than 100,000 will be trained by the end of this year"; and "only 8,169 have had the full eight-week academy training."

NBC, MSNBC, and ABC all mentioned Kerry's statement and noted that $200 billion has not been spent on the war in Iraq. All three networks reported that, according to the Office of Management and Budget, only $120 billion has been spent thus far on the Iraq war; none noted that at least an additional $80 billion is expected to be spent.

On CNN, political analyst Bill Schneider's fact-checking of Bush consisted of one major criticism: that by stating "the enemy attacked us" as the defense for his decision to launch a preemptive war in Iraq, the president "was implying in that statement that the United States was attacked by Saddam Hussein or Saddam Hussein was in league with or behind the 9-11 attacks." Schneider noted that "the 9-11 Commission found no evidence that Saddam Hussein was in league with Osama bin Laden or had any role in the 9-11 attacks" and also pointed out that "Kerry caught that immediately."

CNN national security correspondent David Ensor's subsequent fact-checking of Kerry contained three faulty claims: 1) that Kerry made an error when he "left off Poland as one of the allies that's in Iraq, a minor thing like that but Bush caught him right away"; 2) that "Kerry said that Afghanistan is where Osama bin Laden is"; and 3) that Kerry said "that it was during the Iraq war that North Korea got nuclear weapons."

In each instance, Ensor misrepresented Kerry's actual statement:

• "Kerry left off Poland"

KERRY: [W]hen we went in, there were three countries: Great Britain, Australia and the United States. That's not a grand coalition. We can do better.

LEHRER: Thirty seconds, Mr. President.

BUSH: Well, actually, he forgot Poland.

Ensor described Kerry's omission of Poland as an "error." But Kerry did not claim to be providing a comprehensive list of countries with troops in Iraq; Ensor also failed to mention that Kerry went on to explain his criticism of the coalition:

KERRY: But you can't tell me that when the most troops any other country has on the ground is Great Britain with 8,300, and below that the four others are below 4,000, and below that, there isn't anybody out of the hundreds, that we have a genuine coalition to get this job done.

Poland committed approximately 2,500 troops to Iraq, but not "when we went in." As The Washington Post noted on October 1, "Poland later supplied troops and commanded a zone in Iraq. But, except for a few commandos, Polish troops were not part of the original ground invasion." *

• "Kerry said that Afghanistan is where Osama bin Laden is"

Ensor claimed that this statement was an "error" because "the CIA says they believe Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan. And Pakistan won't let U.S. troops go in." Had Ensor considered Kerry's statement -- "[t]he president moved the troops, so he's got ten times the number of troops in Iraq than he has in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden is" -- in its proper context, he would have recognized Kerry was simply reiterating his prior point: that when bin Laden was in Afghanistan, Bush relied on "Afghan warlords" to capture him while he diverted American troops to Iraq. **

KERRY: Unfortunately, he escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded. But we didn't use American forces, the best-trained in the world, to go kill him. The president relied on Afghan warlords and he outsourced that job too. That's wrong.

• Kerry said "that it was during the Iraq war that North Korea got nuclear weapons"

In ostensibly correcting this "fundamental error," Ensor noted that "the CIA has said for some years now and prior to the Iraq war that it believed North Korea might have one or two nuclear weapons." However, Kerry did not claim that North Korea lacked nuclear weapons prior to the Iraq war. His statement indicates that he was referring to North Korea's recent dramatic increase in nuclear capabilities:

KERRY: Thirty-five to forty countries in the world had a greater capability of making weapons at the moment the president invaded than Saddam Hussein. And while he's been diverted, with nine out of ten active duty divisions of our Army, either going to Iraq, coming back from Iraq, or getting ready to go, North Korea's gotten nuclear weapons and the world is more dangerous.


KERRY: [F]or two years, this administration didn't talk at all to North Korea. While they didn't talk at all, the fuel rods came out, the inspectors were kicked out, the television cameras were kicked out. And today, there are four to seven nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea.

CBS and FOX News Channel did not present fact check segments.

*added on October 1 [return to article]

**added on October 1 [return to article]

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Defense Funding, War in Iraq
Media Ethics
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