USA Today uncritically reported President Bush's denial, during a March 20 appearance in Cleveland, Ohio, that his administration had ever claimed a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9-11 terrorist attacks in making the case for war with Iraq. In addition, the article neglected to report that, in his response to an audience member's question, Bush created a straw-man argument by misrepresenting the substance of the question the attacks. In fact, Bush did claim such a connection existed, often generally and specifically in a letter to Congress at the start of the war.
In a March 21 USA Today article, staff writer David Jackson reported uncritically President Bush's denial during a March 20 appearance in Cleveland, Ohio that his administration had ever claimed a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9-11 terrorist attacks in making the case for war with Iraq. In addition, the article neglected to report that, in his response to an audience member's question, Bush created a straw-man argument by misrepresenting the substance of the question, saying, "I was careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack on America." In contrast, National Public Radio (NPR) White House correspondent Don Gonyea reported during the March 20 broadcast of All Things Considered that Bush had "reframed" the question, making it "more narrow" in order to avoid addressing the charge that the administration claimed a broad link between Hussein and the 9-11 attacks. As other news outlets -- including The Washington Post and Knight Ridder -- have noted, Bush claimed such a connection existed, often generally and specifically in a letter to Congress at the start of the war. In addition, Vice President Dick Cheney claimed that Iraqi intelligence officers met with 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta prior to the attacks, despite no confirmed reports of such a meeting, and also asserted that war in Iraq would constitute "a major blow" against the 9-11 terrorists.
Jackson reported that an audience member asked Bush to address three of his administration's pre-war claims -- in Jackson's words, "that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, sponsored the 9/11 terrorists, and had purchased nuclear-bomb materials." Jackson then simply and uncritically reported only part of Bush's reply: "I don't think we ever said -- at least I know I didn't say -- that there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein. We did say he was a state sponsor of terror."
By contrast, The Washington Post reported in a March 21 article on Bush's speech:
One man in the audience asked about Bush's credibility given that some of the reasons he originally gave for the war proved false. The president quarreled with the contention in one instance, denying that he ever made a "direct connection" between Hussein and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even though he often linked Baghdad with al-Qaeda generally.
Knight Ridder pointed out on March 21 that, in a letter Bush sent to Congress at the beginning of the Iraq war, the president asserted that military action was "consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."
Vice President Cheney has also repeatedly linked Iraq and the 9-11 attacks. On the December 9, 2001, edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked Cheney if he "still believe[s] there is no evidence that Iraq was involved in September 11?" The vice president responded falsely that it was "pretty well confirmed" that an Iraqi intelligence officer met with September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta shortly before the attacks. On the September 14, 2003, edition of Meet the Press, Cheney repeated his claim that Iraq and 9-11 are linked, saying: "If we're successful in Iraq ... we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9-11."
From Jackson's March 21 USA Today article:
A man asked about what he said were the administration's prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, sponsored the 9/11 terrorists, and had purchased nuclear-bomb materials. "All three of those turned out to be false," the questioner said. Bush disputed him: "I don't think we ever said -- at least I know I didn't say -- that there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein. We did say he was a state sponsor of terror."
From the March 20 broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered:
MELISSA BLOCK (host): NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea is traveling with the president. He joins us from the filing center in Cleveland. And, Don, this speech today, obviously coinciding with the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq; it comes at a time when the president's poll numbers are very low. What do you make of his use of the example of Tal Afar in this speech?
GONYEA: He's really trying to broaden the view that Americans have of the situation in Iraq, beyond the bombings, beyond the violence that they are seeing in Baghdad and elsewhere. He did acknowledge, though, that right now it is the story of one city and not the story of Iraq as a whole. It remains to be seen if Americans really do look at this city and start to change their view of the mission there.
BLOCK: The president also took some unscripted questions from the audience today. That's a pretty unusual thing for him. And we wanted to talk about one of those questions from a man in the Cleveland audience. Let's listen to part of that question.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Before we went to war in Iraq, we said there were three main reasons for going to war in Iraq: weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists who had attacked us on 9/11, and that Iraq had purchased nuclear materials from Niger. All three of those turned out to be false. And my question is, how do we restore confidence that Americans may have in their leaders and to be sure that the information they are getting now is correct?
BLOCK: Well, Don, how did the president handle that question?
GONYEA: First, on the weapons of mass destruction, the president used an answer he's used in the past, that the world thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Same with the uranium-from-Niger part of the question, that the intelligence was wrong, that we need to work to make our intelligence better, and that the U.S. is doing that. But on the question that the gentleman asked about implied links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden prior to 9-11, if there was a link there, what the president did is he reframed the question when he answered it. He made it a more narrow question, and he said that he was always very careful never to say Saddam ordered the attacks on America. But what he does not really address in that answer is the very real charge that has been out there for some time, that the administration did create an implied link with its language and its discussion of 9-11 before the war in Iraq.
BLOCK: You know, Don, this gentleman in the audience was asking a broader question, though. He was asking, "Why should we trust you?"
GONYEA: He was exactly, and the president, again, says that you should trust me because I was hired to protect America. That is the most important job the president says he has. Again, it's not a direct answer to that question. But he says that 9-11 did change things, and that it is his job to make difficult decisions, as he says the war in Iraq was, to do what is necessary to make sure Americans are safe. That part of what the president says is nothing new at all.
BLOCK: NPR's Don Gonyea with the president in Cleveland, Ohio. Don, thanks very much.
GONYEA: My pleasure.