Did PBS' Lehrer and CBS' Pelley agree not to challenge Bush with follow-up questions?

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

In recent interviews with President Bush, Jim Lehrer and Scott Pelley did not challenge several false or misleading claims that President Bush made about Iraq.

In two recent interviews with President Bush, neither PBS anchor Jim Lehrer nor CBS correspondent Scott Pelley challenged or otherwise followed up on several claims Bush made concerning Iraq. For instance, during an interview on the January 17 edition of PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Lehrer twice did not challenge Bush's discredited claim that "sectarian violence" did not start "spiraling out of control" until after Al Qaeda bombed a prominent Shiite mosque in Samarra in February 2006, despite previously stating that, while he would not call someone a "liar," he would present evidence rebutting an interviewee's false claims. In fact, as Media Matters for America has noted, while the situation in Iraq has significantly worsened since then, the violence there before the bombing was already substantial and rising.

Likewise, on the January 14 edition of CBS' 60 Minutes, Bush claimed that Iraq "is a different situation" from Vietnam because "[t]his is a volunteer Army" and "a military where people understand there may be additional deployments." Although Pelley did not challenge this claim, the military, in fact, uses several policies that involuntarily extend the commitment of U.S. troops. Bush also asserted, to no response, that his new plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq demonstrates that he is "a flexible, open-minded person," despite statements by leading Democrats that they were not consulted about the troop increase. Pelley also did not challenge Bush's claim that "[e]verybody was wrong on [prewar] weapons of mass destruction" intelligence claims. As Media Matters has repeatedly noted (here, here, here, and here), many members of the intelligence community challenged the accuracy of the intelligence indicating Iraq had WMDs or was reconstituting its WMD programs.

Below are several false or disputable claims Bush made that Lehrer and Pelley left unchallenged during their respected interviews. Media Matters has included suggestions for follow-up questions that would seem to flow logically from Bush's answers:

BUSH CLAIM: During the NewsHour interview, Bush claimed: "[T]here was actually a fair amount of constraint by the Shias after the Samarra bombing, which took place I think in February or March last year. And the sectarian violence really didn't start spiraling out of control until the summer." Later, Bush again referred to the Samarra bombing as the beginning of the sectarian violence in Iraq.

RESPONSE: Lehrer initially asked Bush why we didn't "move the troops" into Baghdad after the sectarian violence, in Bush's words, "start[ed] spiraling out of control" in "the summer." Lehrer did not offer any follow-up when Bush repeated his suggestion at the end of the interview.

POSSIBLE FOLLOW-UP: Reports indicate that sectarian violence was already present and increasing "at least 15 months" prior to the Samarra bombing. For instance, in early 2005, reports began to emerge from the region that Shiite death squads were attacking Sunni Muslims and former Baath Party members, which prompted then-spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry Sabah Kadhim to state: "It's the beginning, and we could go down the slippery slope very quickly. . . . Both sides are sharpening their knives." How do you explain the discrepancy between your assertion and reports from the ground throughout 2005?

BUSH CLAIM: Lehrer also asked: "[W]hy have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans ... to sacrifice something?" Bush responded by asserting that "a lot of people are in this fight" and that the American people share in the sacrifice of the Iraq war because they "sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night."

RESPONSE: Lehrer asked Bush, "[H]ave you considered some kind of national service program that would be civilian as well as military ... to kind of muster the support of young Americans, and other Americans, in this struggle that you say is so monumental and so important?"

POSSIBLE FOLLOW-UP: Do you really suggest that the "peace of mind" Americans "sacrifice ... when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night" constitutes sharing "in this fight" with the more than 3,000 troops who have lost their lives and the nearly 48,000 injured in Iraq?

BUSH CLAIM: In his 60 Minutes interview, Bush claimed that Iraq is "different" from Vietnam because "[t]his is a volunteer Army ... where people understand there may be additional deployments."

RESPONSE: None.

POSSIBLE FOLLOW-UP: How can you consider the military to still be composed entirely of volunteers when, since 2002, under your authority, the military has instituted a "stop-loss" program that has prevented at least 85,000 service members from retiring upon completion of their military commitment? What about the Pentagon's decision to invoke a rarely used clause to recall inactive service members who have not actively served in several years?

BUSH CLAIM: On 60 Minutes, Bush characterized himself as "flexible" and "open-minded," specifically regarding his Iraq policy, stating: "I think I'm a flexible, open-minded person. I really do. Take this [Iraq] policy. I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of people."

RESPONSE: Pelley replied by asking whether the pressures of the Iraq war are "crushing" Bush's "spirit": "You know, a lot of people have asked me to ask you whether all of this is just crushing. It has to be. You read the polls; you know what people are saying. The war has not gone the way you had hoped it would, and they wonder whether it's just crushing on your spirit."

POSSIBLE FOLLOW-UP: Why would you consider yourself to be "flexible" and "open-minded" regarding your Iraq policy when you rejected several key recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and reportedly decided to send more troops to Iraq without seeking input from Democratic members of Congress?

BUSH CLAIM: Also during the 60 Minutes interview, Bush claimed to be "as surprised as anybody" that Saddam Hussein "didn't have" weapons of mass destruction and asserted that "[e]verybody was wrong on" prewar WMD claims.

RESPONSE: None.

POSSIBLE FOLLOW-UP: How can you claim to be "as surprised as anybody" that Saddam did not have WMDs when, prior to the invasion, members of the U.S. intelligence community challenged intelligence indicating that Iraq possessed WMDs or was reconstituting its WMD programs?

From the January 14 edition of CBS' 60 Minutes:

PELLEY: But even among Americans in uniform, there is growing frustration. A poll three weeks ago in the respected Military Times newspapers showed for the first time more troops disapprove than approve of the way he's handling Iraq. I mentioned to Mr. Bush that thousands of those troops have been sent to the war two, three, even four times already. Would he impose a limit?

When is enough enough for these families?

BUSH: You know, Scott, it is -- we're fortunate that people are willing to continue to serve. I've talked to some wives and their husbands been over there for their second time. I said, "How you doing?" "I'm doing fine. My husband understands what we're doing." The military is motivated.

PELLEY: In Vietnam, as you know, you served 365 and you were done.

BUSH: This is a different situation. This is a volunteer Army. In Vietnam, it was "We're going to draft you, and you go for a year." This is a military where people understand there may be additional deployments.

[...]

PELLEY: You know that there's a perception in some quarters of the country that you're stubborn.

BUSH: Oh, yeah, well.

PELLEY: You agree with that? I mean, people said -- people say that.

BUSH: Do I agree that I'm stubborn or do I agree that people think I'm stubborn?

PELLEY: People think you do. What do you think?

BUSH: I think I'm a flexible, open-minded person. I really do. Take this policy. I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of people because, Scott, I fully understand the decisions I make could affect the life of some kid who wears the uniform or could affect the life of some child growing up in America 20 years from now.

PELLEY: You know, a lot of people have asked me to ask you whether all of this is just crushing. It has to be. You read the polls; you know what people are saying. The war has not gone the way you had hoped it would, and they wonder whether it's just crushing on your spirit.

[...]

PELLEY: But the perception, sir, more than any one of those points is that the administration has not been straight with us.

BUSH: Well, I strongly disagree with that, of course. I strongly reject that this administration hasn't been straight with the American people. The minute we found out we -- they didn't have weapons of mass destruction, I was the first to say so.

PELLEY: You seem to be saying that you may have been wrong, but you weren't dishonest.

BUSH: Oh, absolutely. Everybody was wrong on weapons of mass destruction, and there was an intelligence failure, which we're trying to address. But I was as surprised as anybody he didn't have them.

PELLEY: Most Americans at this point in time don't believe in this war in Iraq. They want you to get us out of there.

From the January 16 edition of PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:

LEHRER: What does success mean in these terms now, Mr. President?

BUSH: Yeah. Well, success, Jim, means a government that is providing security for its people. A success means for the American people to see Iraqi troops chasing down killers, with American help initially. A success means a Baghdad that is, you know, is relatively calm compared to last year so that people's lives can go forward and a political process can go forward along with it. Success means the government taking steps to share the oil wealth, or to deal with a de-Baathification law, or to encourage local elections. Success means reconstruction projects that employ Iraqis. Success also means making sure Al Qaeda doesn't get a foothold in Iraq, which they're trying to do in Anbar province. So success is measurable, it's definable, and last year was a year in which there was a setback to success.

LEHRER: I guess the real question that remains on top of all of this, how was this allowed to happen if it was a bad 2006? I mean, that's 365 days. It was reported on a daily basis. People kept talking about it. There were all kinds of comments about it. So how did this happen, Mr. President?

BUSH: Well, first of all, let's start with the Samarra bombing. And there was actually a fair amount of constraint by the Shias after the Samarra bombing, which took place I think in February or March last year. And the sectarian violence really didn't start spiraling out of control until the summer. Part of the failure for our reaction was ourselves. I mean, we should have found troops and moved them. But part of it was that the Iraqis didn't move troops. And I take responsibility for us not moving our own troops into Baghdad --

LEHRER: Why didn't we move the troops, Mr. President?

BUSH: Well, because I think the commanders there felt like it was important to make sure the Iraqis did first, or that the Iraqis made a focused, concerted effort. And they just didn't.

[...]

LEHRER: Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you've just said -- and you've said it many times -- as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it's that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military -- the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They're the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.

BUSH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.

Now, here in Washington, when I say, "What do you mean by that?" they say, "Well, why don't you raise their taxes? That'll cause there to be a sacrifice." I strongly oppose that. If that's the kind of sacrifice people are talking about, I'm not for it because raising taxes will hurt this growing economy. And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life's moving on, that they're able to make a living and send their kids to college and put more money on the table. And, you know, I am interested and open-minded to the suggestion, but this is going to be --

LEHRER: Well --

BUSH: -- this is like saying, "Why don't you make sacrifices in the Cold War?" I mean, Iraq is only a part of a larger ideological struggle. But it's a totally different kind of war than ones we're used to.

LEHRER: Well, for instance, Mr. President, some people have asked why -- and I would ask you about -- have you considered some kind of national service program that would be civilian as well as military, that would involve more people in the effort to -- not just militarily, but you talk about ideology, all this sort of stuff -- in other words, to kind of muster the support of young Americans, and other Americans, in this struggle that you say is so monumental and so important?

[...]

LEHRER: And you're an optimist -- you're optimistic about it all at this point?

BUSH: I am. No question there's a -- look, a year ago, if we'd been having this discussion prior to the Samarra bombing, I'd have been -- look what happened. And then the enemy responded. And by the way, it was Al Qaeda that bombed the Samarra mosque. It was Al Qaeda that said, "We're losing. Democracy is something we can't stand, so let us kill innocent lives and bomb a holy site in order to try to provoke sectarian violence." And they were successful. This guy [Abu Musab Al-] Zarqawi [deceased leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq] did a good job.

It's important for the American people to understand it is Al Qaeda that is doing a lot of these spectacular bombings. Why? Because they want a safe haven. They still have ambitions about hurting America. The very same guys -- type of guys that flew those airplanes on September 11th are still the ones that are battling against a young democracy in Iraq. And we've got to defeat them. We got to defeat them there. And what changed in 2005 was this level of -- in 2006, was this level of sectarian violence that you accurately described. And the decision I had to make was, does it make sense to help the Iraqis with additional U.S. forces go in and secure those neighborhoods? And not only drive them out, drive the insurgents out, but to have enough troops to hold them, and so that the politics and the reconstruction could go forward. And I spent a lot of time thinking about it, Jim, obviously. You mentioned five weeks. This is what presidents do, they take time, they listen. I listened to a lot of folks, a lot of good, decent folks, and came up with this answer as the best way to succeed. And my only call to Congress is that if you've got a better way to succeed, step up and explain it. I fully understand your skepticism, I say to them, but if you share with me the concern that failure's not an option, then what is -- what's your -- what's your prescription for success? And I think they owe that explanation to the American people.

LEHRER: Mr. President, thank you very much.

BUSH: Yes, sir. Thank you.

Network/Outlet
PBS, CBS
Person
Scott Pelley, Jim Lehrer
Show/Publication
PBS NewsHour, 60 Minutes
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