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Distortions and Misstatements At First Presidential Debate

Bush and Kerry both have problems with the facts at their meeting in Coral Gables

October 1, 2004

Modified: October 29, 2004

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Summary

 

In the first of three scheduled debates between Bush and Kerry both candidates sometimes departed from the facts.

Bush glossed over significant problems with US reconstruction efforts in Iraq when he claimed that the US is "spending money" and that 100,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained. And Kerry overstated the case when he said Bush allowed Osama bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora by "outsourcing" fighting to Afghans.

Bush misquoted Kerry, distorting his position on withdrawing troops from Iraq. And Kerry said the Iraq war has cost $200 billion, when the cost so far is actually just over $120 billion.

Analysis

 

Bush gave a rosy picture of progress in Iraq, glossing over significant problems with reconstruction contracts and training of Iraqi security forces.

"Spending Reconstruction Money"

Bush: (Referring to Iraq) There will be elections in January. We're spending reconstruction money. And our alliance is strong.

Bush's "Reconstruction" & "100,000 trained now"

Bush cited as a sign of progress in Iraq that the US is "spending reconstruction money," when in fact the slow pace of spending has become a major problem for US officials.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage testified to a House Appropriations subcommittee Sept. 24 that only $1.2 billion in reconstruction money had actually been spent so far, out of the total of $18 billion that was appropriated almost a year earlier in "emergency" funds for Iraq and Afghanistan.

"100,000 trained now"

Bush: Let me first tell you that the best way for Iraq to be safe and secure is for Iraqi citizens to be trained to do the job.
And that's what we're doing. We've got 100,000 trained now, 125,000 by the end of this year, 200,000 by the end of next year. That is the best way.

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Bush: There are 100,000 troops trained, police, guard, special units, border patrol. There's going to be 125,000 trained by the end of this year. Yes, we're getting the job done. It's hard work.

Bush also said "100,000 troops" and other Iraqi security personnel have been trained to date. That's the official figure, but the President failed to mention that many trainees have received nothing more than a three-week course in police procedures -- what Armitage referred to as "shake-and-bake" forces.

Only 8,000 of the total are police who have received a full eight-week course of training, Armitage told the House:

Armitage: It's 100,000 total security forces, and I don't want anyone to make the mistake that security force equals soldier -- could be policemen, and it could be the eight-week trained policemen, of which there are a little over 8,000, or it could be what I refer to as the shake-and-bake three-week police force, which are previous policemen who are now given a three-weeks course. So it's a mixed bag , but there are about 100,000 total security forces.

Tora Bora "Outsourcing"

"Outsourcing" Osama's Capture  

Kerry: I would not take my eye off of the goal: Osama bin Laden. 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 U.S. forces allowed Osama bin Laden to escape in 2001 during the battle at Tora Bora in Afghanistan because the administration "outsourced" fighting to Afghan "warlords." Actually, it's never been clear whether bin Laden actually was at Tora Bora.

It is true that military leaders strongly suspected bin Laden was there, and it is also true that the Pentagon relied heavily on Afghan forces to take on much of the fighting at Tora Bora in an effort to reduce US casualties. But Kerry overstates the case by stating flatly that "we had him surrounded."

(Update: Oct. 28 -- Peter Bergen, a fellow at the non-partisan New America Foundation and one of the few journalists ever to interview bin Laden personally, reported on his website Oct. 21 that he has concluded "there is plenty of evidence that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, and no evidence indicating that he was anywhere else at the time." Bergen cites an audio tape released on Al Jazeera television last year in which bin Laden is heard relating his own memories of the battle there: "We were about three hundred holy warriors. We dug one hundred trenches over an area of one square mile, so as to avoid the huge human losses from the bombardment."

Earlier, Gen. Tommy Franks stated in a New York Times opinion article Oct. 19 that "we don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Some intelligence sources said he was; others indicated he was in Pakistan at the time; still others suggested he was in Kashmir." Franks was in command of US forces in the region at the time, and he is now endorsing Bush for re-election.)

Out of Iraq in 6 Months?

Bush: I know putting artificial deadlines won't work. My opponent at one time said, "Well, get me elected, I'll have them out of there in six months." You can't do that and expect to win the war on terror.

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Kerry: The time line that I've set out -- and again, I want to correct the president, because he's misled again this evening on what I've said. I didn't say I would bring troops out in six months. I said, if we do the things that I've set out and we are successful, we could begin to draw the troops down in six months.

Bush's False Quote

The President misquoted Kerry's position on how quickly troops might be withdrawn from Iraq. Bush claimed Kerry once said "I'll have them out of there in six months," which is false. Kerry complained, "he's misled us again."

What Kerry actually said was that he believed he could "significantly reduce" US troop levels in Iraq within six months of taking office -- not at all the same thing as having all troops "out of there."

Kerry's remark was on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" Aug 6, in an interview with Steve Inskeep:

Kerry: I believe that within a year from now, we could significantly reduce American forces in Iraq, and that's my plan. I believe we can.

Q: Within a year from right now?

Kerry: I believe we can. Absolutely we can.

Q: A year from August.

Kerry: I believe we can. Absolutely we can reduce the numbers. You bet.

Kerry "$200 Billion"

Kerry: And so, today, we are 90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the cost: $200 billion -- $200 billion that could have been used for health care, for schools, for construction, for prescription drugs for seniors, and it's in Iraq.

Kerry's $200 Billion Exaggeration

Kerry continued to refer to "the cost" of the Iraq war as $200 billion, when it fact the cost to date is just over $120 billion, according to budget officials. Kerry is counting money that has been appropriated to be spent in the fiscal year that started Friday, Oct. 1. Much of the money Kerry counts has not even been requested formally by the Bush administration, and is only an estimate of what will be sought sometime in the coming year, to be spent later. We've pointed this out before  in detail.

Al Qaeda

The President said twice that "75 percent" of al Qaeda leaders have been "brought to justice." But as The Associated Press reported Oct. 1, Bush was referring to the deaths or arrests of 75 percent of bin Laden's network at the time of the September 11 attacks -- not those who are running the terrorist organization today. The AP also reported that the CIA said earlier in the year two-thirds of those leaders are gone; at his acceptance speech in September, Bush increased his count to three-fourths based on unreleased intelligence data.

Furthermore, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies reported May 25 that the occupation of Iraq has helped al Qaeda recruit more members. The institute quoted "conservative" intelligence estimates as saying that al Qaeda has 18,000 potential operatives and is present in more than 60 countries.

Other Factual Stumbles

Bush said that 10 million people had registered to vote in the coming presidential election in Afghanistan, which he called a "phenomenal statistic." But that's a disputed figure. Human Rights Watch issued a report  Sept. 29 citing "widespread multiple registration of voters." It said the 10 million figure is probably inflated.

Bush said he has increased spending on curbing nuclear proliferation by "about 35 percent" since he took office. But The Washington Post reported Oct. 1 that Bush proposed a 13 percent cut in his first budget as President -- about $116 million. Much of the increases since then have been added by Congress, the Post reported. 

The Post also said Kerry misspoke when he asserted that Bush is spending "hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons" when in fact the budget for research on that weapon is less that $35 million. The Post said the administration has set aside nearly $500 million for future budgets -- but that's contingent on Congress approving production of such a weapon.

The AP noted that Kerry misspoke when he said "we got weapons of mass destruction crossing the (Iraq) border every single day, and they're blowing people up." Kerry meant terrorists were crossing the border, not nuclear weapons.

The AP also caught Kerry's mistake when he referred to looking at KGB records in Treblinka Square in a visit to Russia. Treblinka was a Nazi death camp. Kerry meant Lubyanka Square.

The New York Post noted that Kerry was mistaken when he said "they had to close the subway in New York when the  Republican Convention was there," blaming Bush for not supplying money to fix tunnels and bridges. Actually, New York subways continued to run during the convention. "We did not stop any trains," said Transit Authority spokesman Paul Fleuranges. "I will not guess or opine what he (Kerry) was talking about."

And Bush overstated matters when he said "My administration worked with the congress to create the department of homeland security."  In fact, Bush opposed creation of the separate department for nearly nine months before turning around and supporting it.

Sources

 

Federal News Service, "Testimony of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage," Hearing of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Subcommitee of the House Appropriations Committee, 24 Sept. 2004.

Carolyn Skorneck, "Senate Clears War Spending Bill Over Objections From Byrd and Hollings," Congressional Quarterly Daily Monitor, 3 Nov. 2003.

"The Rule of the Gun: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in the Run-up to Afghanistan’s Presidential Election," Human Rights Watch 29 Sept. 2004.

"Strategic Survey 2003/04," International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, 25 May 2004.

Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus, "Few Factual Errors, But Truth at Times Got Stretched ," The Washington Post , 1 Oct. 2004; A10.

Calvin Woodward, "Iraq And Terrorist Record Stretched Two Ways In Debate ," The Associated Press , 1 Oct. 2004.

Gersh Kuntzman, "Subway Flub Derails Challenger," New York Post, 1 Oct. 2004.

Peter Bergen, "Tora Bora: What Really Happened?" website article, 21 Oct. 2004

Tommy Franks, "War of Words," The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2004.

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