Following U.S. Sen. John Kerry's appearance on CBS' Face the Nation, conservative weblogs and radio hosts falsely claimed that he had called American troops "terrorists" while ignoring the substance behind his statement. The distortion eventually found its way into the mainstream press.
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On the December 4 broadcast of CBS' Face the Nation, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) criticized President Bush's "policy of failure" in Iraq, and said, "there is no reason ... that young American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women, breaking sort of the customs of the -- of -- the historical customs, religious customs. ... Iraqis should be doing that." Kerry's comment regarding the sometimes abusive treatment of Iraqi civilians during American-led raids is supported by an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report, a United States Institute of Peace (USIP) report, and news accounts detailing such raids. Almost immediately after Kerry's CBS appearance, conservative weblogs posted Kerry's comments and falsely claimed that Kerry had called American troops "terrorists." Conservative radio hosts and pundits followed suit -- distorting Kerry's statement to claim he had called American soldiers "terrorists," while ignoring the substance behind his claims. Media Matters for America examines how this distortion of Kerry's words eventually made its way to the mainstream press.
Kerry's comment on Face the Nation is supported by various sources. Excerpts of a confidential ICRC report were leaked to The Wall Street Journal in May 2004. According to one excerpt, recounted in a May 10, 2004, Associated Press article:
"Arresting authorities entered houses usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard while searching the rest of the house and further breaking doors, cabinets and other property," the report said.
"Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people," it said. "Treatment often included pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles."
The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) "is an independent, nonpartisan federal institution created by Congress to promote the prevention, management, and peaceful resolution of international conflicts." The USIP's board of directors are appointed by the president, and confirmed by the Senate. According to a USIP special report released in April 2005:
As attacks by the insurgency increased, coalition forces relied more and more on using speed and armor in their patrols, thereby reducing positive contacts with local citizens. More significantly, as U.S. combat troops were used to search homes, operate traffic checkpoints, and control public demonstrations, tensions increased, further reducing popular support for the CPA. Iraqis specifically complained that soldiers searched private areas without permission, entered homes without men present, and addressed wives and daughters directly, offensive acts in a conservative Muslim society. Further, the growing risk of insurgent attacks resulted in more frequent incidents of U.S. troops dealing harshly with and even firing on Iraqis. Human Rights Watch reported that U.S. military forces killed at least ninety-four Iraqi civilians at checkpoints and during house raids in Baghdad between June 1 and September 30, 2003. Since U.S. activity was concentrated mainly in Sunni areas, insults, abuse, and violations of local codes of honor only bolstered the number of those willing to join the insurgency, perpetuating the cycle of violence.
According to a January 23 Washington Post article:
Often, soldiers on raids find illegal weapons, ringleaders and vital information that can prevent more attacks. But often, the raids turn up little and leave hard feelings among civilians who resent foreign soldiers bursting into their homes, breaking doors and gates and pointing guns at their heads. They resent these men catching their wives and daughters in their bedclothes. They resent them barking orders, telling them to get on the ground, invading their homes, emptying drawers and turning over mattresses.
Right-wing bloggers seized upon Kerry's use of the word "terrorizing," ignoring the substantive point Kerry was making about tactics used by U.S. soldiers -- a point also made by the ICRC and USIP -- and instead caricatured Kerry's remarks as an accusation that U.S. soldiers are "terrorists." The December 4 Face the Nation ended at 11 a.m. ET. At 11:44 a.m., C-Log, the weblog of the conservative website Townhall.com, posted a review of the Sunday morning talk shows by Brian Phillips. According to Phillips's C-Log "analysis" of Kerry's appearance:
Did you read that quote? Read it again. Is it me or is Kerry calling our soldiers terrorists? It's also odd because he then suggests that it's not that he disagrees with the practice, but rather it's just that Iraqis should be the ones doing it.
This guy is a piece of work. He is so angry about the election -- despite his ramblings about looking forward -- that it seeps through the television screen. The entire interview was a tirade against Bush. Kerry acknowledges none of the positive political changes that are going on in Iraq and only mentions the brave job our troops are doing just enough to call them terrorists.
By 2 p.m., Mark Kilmer of the conservative weblog RedState.org posted his own review of the Sunday shows:
Kerry said that there was "so much more that unites Democrats than divides us," then he accused Joe Lieberman of supporting "a policy of failure." He accused our soldiers of breaking into Iraqi homes and terrorizing families and children: "Iraqis should be doing that!" (NOTE: This time Kerry DID NOT go so far as accusing our soldiers of having "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires with portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.") *
On December 5, nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh played clips of Kerry's appearance on the air, and claimed Kerry's comments show that the Democratic Party "feels no compunction whatsoever to characterize them [U.S. troops] as terrorists." From the December 5 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show:
LIMBAUGH: It is clear what he [Kerry] thinks of the U.S. military. His view is common throughout the Democratic Party. The only Senate Democrat who sounds like FDR or Truman right now is Joe Lieberman. You've got the likes of John Kerry and [Sen.] Dick Durbin [D-IL] now echoed by [Senate Democratic Leader] Harry Reid [D-NV] and [Sen.] Ted Kennedy [D-MA] as the voice of the modern Democratic Party, which despises the U.S. military and feels no compunction whatsoever to characterize them as terrorists.
Why don't you just admit what you want us to do! You want us to cut and run! You want us to give up! You want us to quit! You've gone so far as sending Kerry out on the Sunday shows to tell the American people that American troops are terrorists.
John O'Neill, founder of the discredited Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (now Swift Vets and POWs for Truth), appeared on the December 5 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes to discuss Kerry's comments, and joined co-host Sean Hannity in falsely accusing Kerry of calling American troops "terrorists":
HANNITY: I don't care how angry the left gets. John Kerry, United States senator, the candidate for the president of the United States of the Democratic Party, accused our American soldiers in the dead of night, going into the home of Iraqis -- this is what he said this weekend -- terrorizing children, terrorizing kids, and women, and breaking the customs of their religion. That's what he said. It is very similar to what he said about our troops back in Vietnam, is it not, sir?
O'NEILL: It's the same thing all over again, Sean, except this time he actually is the guy who voted to send them there. I'd like to see him sit and talk to my nephew, who's over there, and explain exactly how he voted to send him there and then makes comments about him -- characterizing he [sic] and the other troops as terrorists.
HANNITY: How are -- it's very similar. What's amazing about this, our enemies, our allies, and more importantly, these brave men and women that are out there fighting for this country, they're hearing their president daily being called a liar, who hyped and misled, and now John Kerry basically accusing them of terror.
O'Neill was confronted by co-host Alan Colmes with excerpts from the ICRC report. O'Neill dismissed the ICRC's findings, claiming that "the Red Cross didn't call that terrorizing people":
COLMES: Let me show you, Mr. O'Neill, what the International Committee for the Red Cross said when they did a report on this, and let me read you that. This is not John Kerry speaking; this is a Red Cross report. "Arresting authorities entered houses, usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard, searching the rest of the house, further breaking doors, cabinets and other property. They arrested suspects, tying their hands in the back with FlexiCuffs, putting them, taking them away. Sometimes they arrested all adult males present, including elderly, handicapped or sick people, and including pushing people, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking with striking with rifles." This is the International Red Cross, not John Kerry, saying these things.
O'NEILL: But this is -- it's also a war. And even the Red Cross didn't call that terrorizing people.
COLMES: You don't call that terrorizing --
O'NEILL: We're in a war, Alan. People do --
COLMES: -- kicking people in the head, hitting them with rifles? You don't call that terrorizing, elderly people, children in those houses, innocent people, that's not terrorism?
O'NEILL: No, there wasn't anything about innocent people, from what you read, Alan.
COLMES: Yes, elderly, children, exactly -- it's in that report, John.
O'NEILL: There are a lot of kids out there with Christmas approaching that are in a more dangerous situation tonight because John Kerry chose to characterize them as terrorizing women and children. That's a comment that will obviously be played all over the Arab world, like the comments made by Murtha that our Army is broken, worn out, and so on.
COLMES: You got it wrong. It was the Red Cross that said that, John. And he was [inaudible] what was in a well-researched report. We've got to run. We thank you for --
O'NEILL: No, I do not agree you adequately characterized the report of the Red Cross.
COLMES: I read exactly what they said. We've got to run. We thank you.
O'NEILL: Yes, there was nothing about -- there was nothing about terrorizing.
On the December 6 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show, Limbaugh continued his tirade against Kerry:
LIMBAUGH: We got John Kerry going on television Sunday talking about how our soldiers terrorize Iraqi women and children, sneaking into their homes under the cover of darkness. This whole picture of the U.S. as a torturous, torturing, barbaric institution is taking hold among Democrats and, apparently, some Republicans. And it's taking up all of our congressional time. And it's gotten to the point now, we're gonna talk about granting them constitutional rights after 9-11? 9-11 Commission didn't say anything about this, did it? Was there anything about torture from the 9-11?
[Vice President Dick] Cheney made a speech today. And finally, the administration's fighting back on some of this stuff. But these people have all joined forces while the Democrats are out there trying to characterize our military personnel as the barbarians, as the terrorists, as those who torture.
By December 6, the issue began appearing on cable news programs, such as CNN's The Situation Room. On The Situation Room, anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, who twice claimed that Kerry "compared American troops to terrorists." From the December 6 edition of The Situation Room:
MEHLMAN: When it's a war against terrorists, it's a very different kind of battle. The fact is, we're making progress. We're going to see that progress next week when the Iraqi people vote. There are more than 200,000 Iraqi troops who have been trained. And again, the question is, does saying we can't win the war, which is what Mr. [Democratic National Committee chairman Howard] Dean said, does saying it -- comparing our troops to terrorists, which John Kerry did this past weekend? Does saying retreat and defeat is the right strategy with [House Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA]?
BLITZER: Now, what were you saying about John Kerry?
MEHLMAN: John Kerry was on Face the Nation this past weekend and talked about American troops terrorizing Iraqi people, going into Iraqis' homes. I thought that was an incredibly irresponsible comment. I thought that Nancy Pelosi's echoing the retreat-and-defeat strategy that was laid out earlier was also wrong. I think Democrats all around the country need to stand up and be counted.
BLITZER: What about -- arguing the Murtha -- the Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, who wants a six-month phased pullout, redeploy the U.S. troops over the horizon in Kuwait and elsewhere?
MEHLMAN: I don't agree with Mr. Murtha. I think he's wrong about that. I think it would be a very problematic policy. The Iraqi prime minister came out just this past couple days and made the same point, and so did Joe Lieberman. But here's the question, Wolf. Do Democrats stand with [Sen.] Joe Lieberman [D-CT], who says we're making progress, we have to win this victory, or do they stand with Dean who says we can't win the war, with Kerry who says -- who compared American troops to terrorists, and with Nancy Pelosi who's adopted retreat and defeat? That's an important question that every American ought to ask if you're represented by a Democratic Congressman or Senator. Where do you stand on this issue?
Later in the program, Blitzer replayed the interview with Mehlman, then interrupted the video to play a clip of Kerry's Face the Nation appearance because he wanted viewers "to see and hear exactly what he's talking about." Blitzer then read a statement from a Kerry spokesman:
MEHLMAN [video clip]: And again, the question is, does saying we can't win the war, which is what Mr. Dean said, does saying it -- comparing our troops to terrorists, which John Kerry did this past weekend?
BLITZER: All right, let's stop Ken Mehlman right there. I spoke with him earlier in the day. I want you to see and hear exactly what he's talking about. Here is Senator John Kerry, what he said this past Sunday about U.S. troops in Iraq.
KERRY [video clip]: There is no reason, Bob, that young American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, women, breaking sort of the customs of the historical customs, religious customs.
BLITZER: That's what Ken Mehlman was referring to and was angry about. After he had back at John Kerry, the senator's spokesman responded sending this statement right here into The Situation Room. Let me read it to you: "Ken Mehlman's filthy and shameful lie about a decorated combat veteran is disgraceful. Political hack Ken Mehlman and draft-dodging, donut-eating Rush Limbaugh have something in common. Neither of them know anything about how to make American troops safe. John Kerry will continue to speak out about how to succeed in Iraq and protect brave American troops."
Hannity also continued to falsely accuse Kerry of calling U.S. troops terrorists on the December 6 edition of Hannity & Colmes:
HANNITY: But your party every step of the way, [Democratic strategist] Bob Beckel, with Howard Dean now saying we're losing, with others calling for a pullout, with John Kerry calling them terrorists in the dark of the night against women and children, you have undermined a president while we are at a war, a war that we are winning to make the world and safer, for liberty and freedom in the region and at home.
HANNITY: Bob, Bob, I want you to do something. You say you're not undermining the president at war. I want you, on national TV, to have the courage to say what Howard Dean says and continues to say is so over the top while we're at war. Ask for him to resign. Ask for John Kerry to apologize for calling our troops terrorists. Ask him right now, Bob, on national TV. Do you have the moral courage to do it?
HANNITY: Let's have John Kerry apologize.
BECKEL: Apologize to who?
HANNITY: Apologize for calling our troops terrorists, in the dark of the night, going after women and children, Bob.
On the December 6 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, Republican strategist Jack Burkman claimed that Kerry "is out on television calling our soldiers terrorists," and was challenged by Air America Radio host Jerry Springer, who alluded to the ICRC report. From the December 6 Scarborough Country:
SCARBOROUGH: Jack Burkman, let me step in here, Jack. During the Kosovo -- lead-up to the Kosovo war, I was very concerned about that. I said America shouldn't get involved in a three-sided civil war that had been going back to the 1400s. Had that war gone badly, and the president -- let's face it, President Clinton was right in that we were able to win that war with airpower and some people on the ground. But let's say that war had gone badly. At what point would it be safe for me to get out and start criticizing the president and saying, "Bring our troops home"?
BURKMAN: Joe, I think it's a very different kind of conflict. I think, in a situation like Iraq -- I mean, Jerry asked the question, why do you have to label people? Because his nominee, John Kerry, is out on national television calling our soldiers terrorists. I mean, I would ask Jerry --
BURKMAN: -- do you support John Kerry's characterization of our soldiers as terrorizing Iraqi women and children? Do you endorse that now?
SPRINGER: No. What John Kerry was saying, as I understand it -- I didn't hear it personally -- but as I understand it, because we talked a little bit about it on my radio show this morning -- is the Red Cross -- no, excuse me, not -- I think it was the Red Cross. Please forgive me if I am wrong, but some international institution issued a report about certain activities that were going on, and those particular activities involved some American soldiers. He was referring to that. Do -- are American soldiers terrorists? No. Are there any American soldiers that ever committed a crime over there, that ever did anything wrong? Yes.
*This is a quote from Kerry's 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Contrary to the RedState.org "analysis," Kerry did not accuse Vietnam veterans of committing atrocities, but was instead relating the stories of other Vietnam veterans who had returned and testified to their experiences, as Media Matters for America documented.