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Media Fund Twists the Truth More Than Michael Moore

Radio ad claims most air traffic was grounded when bin Laden's family was allowed to leave. Not true. In fact, the FBI questioned 22 of them and found no links to terrorism.

October 27, 2004

Modified: October 27, 2004

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Summary

 

This anti-Bush radio ad is among the worst distortions we've seen in what has become a very ugly campaign. It states as fact some of the most sensational falsehoods that Michael Moore merely insinuated in his anti-Bush movie Farenheit 9/11 .

The ad was released Oct. 25 by The Media Fund, an independent Democratic group run by former Clinton deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. It  falsely claims that members of the bin Laden family were allowed to fly out of the US "when most other air traffic was grounded," though in fact commercial air traffic had resumed a week earlier.

The ad also falsely claims that the bin Laden family members were not "detained," when in fact 22 of them were questioned by the FBI before being allowed to leave -- and their plane was searched as well.

And by the way, the man who gave approval for the flight wasn't Bush or even any of his close aides, it was former White House anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, now one of Bush's strongest critics.

Analysis

 

This one is wrong, wrong, wrong. Let us count the ways:

 Media Fund Radio Ad

"Flight Home"

Announcer: After nearly 3,000 Americans were killed, while our nation was mourning the dead and the wounded, the Saudi royal family was making a special request of the Bush White House. As a result, nearly two dozen of Osama bin Laden's family members were rounded up...

Not to be arrested or detained, but to be taken to an airport, where a chartered jet was waiting...to return them to their country. They could have helped us find Osama bin Laden. Instead the Bush White House had Osama's family flown home, on a private jet, in the dead of night, when most other air traffic was grounded.

We don't know whether Osama's family members would have told us where bin Laden was hiding. But thanks to the Bush White House...we'll never find out.

Air Traffic Not Grounded

The ad is as false as it can be when it claims the bin Laden family members flew home "when most other air traffic was grounded" following the attacks of September 11, 2001. In fact, according to the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission), the bin Laden flight was on Sept. 20. (See footnote 28 in the 9/11 Commission's report in "supporting documents" at right). That was one week after the FAA allowed commercial air traffic to resume at 11am on Sept. 13. 

By that time all major airports in the US had re-opened, with the sole exception of Washington DC's Reagan National airport, which the bin Laden flight didn't use.

The bin Laden family members were among a number of other Saudi citizens and government officials who left the US on special charter flights because they feared possible reprisals in the emotional aftermath that swept the US in the days after the 9/11 attacks. Neither the FBI nor the 9/11 Commission has found any of the departing Saudis had any links to terrorism:

9/11 Commission (page 330): The FBI interviewed all persons of interest on these flights prior to their departures. They concluded that none of the passengers was connected to the 9/11 attacks and have since found no evidence to change that conclusion.
Our own independent review of the Saudi nationals involved confirms that no one with known links to terrorism departed on these flights .

Bin Laden Family Was Questioned

The ad is also false when it says members of the bin Laden family were not "detained." In fact, the 9/11 Commission report states that the FBI questioned 22 of the 26 passengers on the bin Laden flight, some of them in detail. The FBI first checked faces of the passengers against passports to confirm identities, and also ran all names through several law-enforcement databases. It even searched the aircraft:

9/11 Commission (page 557 & 558): Twenty-two of the 26 people on the Bin Ladin flight were interviewed by the FBI. Many were asked detailed questions. None of the passengers stated that they had any recent contact with Usama Bin Ladin or knew anything about terrorist activity. . . . The FBI checked a variety of databases for information on the Bin Ladin flight passengers and searched the aircraft.

The FBI had previously investigated two of the passengers on the bin Laden flight but had closed their cases prior to 9/11 after turning up "no derogatory information," according to the Commission's report. And in the years since then, the FBI has found no reason to re-open those cases.

Furthermore, the 9/11 Commission said the bin Laden family members might not have been interviewed had they simply departed the country in the usual way, rather than on a charter flight with special White House clearance:

9/11 Commission (page 557): Having an opportunity to check the Saudis was useful to the FBI. This was because the U.S. government did not, and does not, routinely run checks on foreigners who are leaving the United States. This procedure was convenient to the FBI, as the Saudis who wished to leave in this way would gather and present themselves for record checks and interviews, an opportunity that would not be available if they simply left on regularly scheduled commercial flights.

In other words, had the bin Laden family members merely driven across the border to Canada and flown home from there, they probably would not have been questioned at all.

Bush White House

The ad gives a false impression when it says the "Bush White House" made the decision agreeing to the Saudi government's request. Neither President Bush nor any of his immediate aides had anything to do with the decision.

Richard Clarke -- the national security aide who later became one of Bush's strongest public critics -- testified repeatedly that he  made the decision to allow the flights, after consulting with the Federal Bureau of Investigation:

9/11 Commission (page 329): We found no evidence that anyone at the White House above the level of Richard Clarke participated in a decision on the departure of Saudi nationals. . . . Clarke told us, "I asked the FBI, Dale Watson . . . to handle that, to check to see if that was all right with them, to see if they wanted access to any of these people, and to get back to me. And if they had no objections, it would be fine with me." Clarke added, "I have no recollection of clearing it with anybody at the White House."

Clarke had been the top anti-terrorism aide in the White House under Clinton, then stayed on under Bush. Since leaving the Bush White House he has become an outspoken critic of the current administration, accusing the Bush team of ignoring his recommendations prior to the September 11 attacks.

What Michael Moore Didn't Say

This ad rushes in where even Michael Moore feared to tread in his anti-Bush movie Fahrenheit 9/11 . Moore merely led viewers to believe -- but never actually stated -- that the bin Laden flight left while US airspace was closed. And viewers who listened closely -- very closely -- might have heard Moore acknowledge that the bin Ladens were in fact interviewed by the FBI before being allowed to leave. Here's the way Moore manipulated his viewers:

Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11): In the days following September 11th, all commercial and private airline traffic was grounded. The FAA has taken action to close all of the airports in the United States. Even grounding the President's father, former President Bush, on a flight forced to land in Milwaukee. Dozens of travelers stranded, among them, Ricky Martin, due to perform at tonight's Latin Grammy awards. Not even Ricky Martin would fly. But really, who wanted to fly? No one. Except the bin Ladens.

(video of plane taking off... song, "We've got to get out of this place") . . .
It turns out that the White House approved planes to pick up the bin Ladens and numerous other Saudis. At least six private jets and nearly two dozen commercial planes carried the Saudis and the bin Ladens out of the U.S. after September 13th. In all, 142 Saudis, including 24 members of the bin Laden family, were allowed to leave the country.

(video of Osama bin Laden)

Notice that Moore drops in the words "after September 13" without explaining the significance of that date -- the day airspace reopened to commercial traffic at 11am. Viewers were invited to believe from all that Moore said before that airspace was still closed, when in fact it was not. That's a false insinuation, but not a false statement.

Moore went on to interview a retired FBI agent who stated that "I think it would have been prudent, hand the subpoenas out, have 'em come in, get on the record. You know, get on the record." Perhaps, being retired, that agent wasn't aware that the FBI had interviewed the bin Laden family members. In any case, Moore didn't correct him.

Moore also presented an interview with Craig Unger, author of the book House of Bush, House of Saud :

Moore: Did the authorities do anything when the bin Ladens tried to leave the country?

Unger: No, they were identified at the airport, they looked at their passports, and they were identified.

Moore: But that's what would happen to you or I if we were...

Unger: Exactly. Exactly.

Moore: So a little interview, check the passport, what else?

Unger: Nothing.

So Moore knew the bin Ladens had been interviewed when he made the movie. Those three words -- "a little interview" -- are difficult to hear on the movie soundtrack, however. One blogger who posted an "unofficial transcript" of the movie missed them at first, recording that line as "So what did they do , they checked the passports, what else?" He later went back to correct the transcript after another pointed out the discrepancy.

(Unger's book, published in March of this year, reports that the FBI was only able to check papers and identify everyone on the bin Laden flight. That is contradicted by the more authoritative Commission report, published July 22, 2004. The Commission interviewed, among others, the FBI agent who supervised the questioning of the bin Laden family members.)

So, as misleading as Moore's sly insinuations are on this point, his movie isn't as bad as the Media Fund's outright falsehoods.

Sources

 

"The 9/11 Commission Report : Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States," (New York, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. July 2004) pages 329, 330, 556-58.

Janelle Carter, "Members of Congress, Airline and Airport Workers Hope for Reagan National to Reopen," The Associated Press, 21 Sep 2001.