Media Fail to Correct Obama’s Claim of No Al-Qaeda in Iraq Before Invasion

Since Friday’s presidential debate, all three major broadcast networks have highlighted one of Barack Obama’s more commanding moments when he charged that John McCain was wrong in some of his pre-Iraq war predictions, but the media have so far ignored Obama’s incorrect assertion that "there was no Al-Qaeda" presence in Iraq before America’s invasion in 2003. Before the 2003 invasion, various news sources – some American, some from other countries – were already citing the governments of various countries as they reported that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, not only was already in Iraq plotting attacks to be carried out in Europe, but that he already had an association with Osama bin Laden and had spent time in Afghanistan. But during Friday’s debate, Senator Obama asserted: "Now, keep in mind that we have four times the number of troops in Iraq, where nobody had anything to do with 9/11 before we went in, where, in fact, there was no Al-Qaeda before we went in, but we have four times more troops there than we do in Afghanistan."

By contrast, ABC, CBS, and NBC have all played the following soundbite of Obama from the debate which is more favorable to the Illinois Democrat: "John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003. And, at the time, when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy, you said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni. And you were wrong."

Notably, back in January 2003 and again in March 2004, the NBC Nightly News relayed claims that the Bush administration had "passed up several opportunities to take [Zarqawi] out well before the Iraq war began." The below was first posted on February 29 of this year, and lists some of the relevant reporting on Zarqawi from various sources and countries:

While it is currently conventional wisdom in the media that there was no Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, as evidenced by the media's failure to correct Barack Obama's recent claim that "there was no such thing as Al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq," for several years dating back before the Iraq invasion, there have been media reports of former Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's connections to Osama bin Laden, and his use of Iraq as a base to plot terror attacks against other countries before the war. In fact, four years ago, the NBC Nightly News claimed not only that there was an Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before the invasion, busy plotting attacks against Europe, but that the Bush administration intentionally "passed up several opportunities" to attack terrorist bases in Iraq "long before the war" in 2002 because of fear it would "undercut its case" for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. (Transcripts follow)

On the March 2, 2004 NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw introduced the report: "[Abu Musab al-Zarqawi] is widely believed to have ties to Al-Qaeda, and the Bush administration apparently passed up several opportunities to take him out well before the Iraq war began."

And on the January 27, 2003 NBC Nightly News, after revelations of a plot to attack targets in Europe with the poison ricin, which was believed to have been hatched by Zarqawi in Iraq, correspondent Jim Miklaszewski reported that "U.S. Special Forces had plans to launch a covert raid against the Kirmadara complex [in northern Iraq], but Pentagon officials say it was called off because the Bush administration feared it would interfere with upcoming UN weapon inspections."

Although some have tried to argue that Zarqawi did not declare allegiance to bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization until after the Iraq invasion, as far back as April 4 and May 16, 2001, AP's Jamal Halaby reported that Jordanian authorities suspected Zarqawi, also known as Ahmad Fadeel Al-Khalayleh, of plotting attacks in Jordan, and relayed that Zarqawi was "believed to be in Afghanistan."

On November 9, 2002, a London Times article by Roger Boyes and Daniel McGrory, citing Hans-Josef Beth of the German secret service BND, claimed that Zarqawi "used London as his base until Osama bin Laden ordered him to move to Afghanistan in 2000 to run one of al-Qaeda's training camps."

On December 18, 2002, after the arrests of several terror suspects in France amid fears of a chemical weapon attack, Sebastian Rotella of the Los Angeles Times reported that "A top Al Qaeda suspect said to be commanding a campaign targeting Europe is Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian reputedly knowledgeable about chemical warfare, according to German and Italian intelligence officials."

On December 19, 2002, Knight Ridder's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported, citing Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abu al Ragheb, that Zarqawi was behind the murder of American diplomat Lawrence Foley, and was believed to be "an ally of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden." Ragheb further contended that Zarqawi "was probably in northern Iraq working with Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Muslim extremist group." Jordanian officials were also cited as claiming that the men suspected of carrying out Foley's murder met Zarqawi "in Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan."

Months before the Iraq invasion, on January 7, 2003, after revelations of a ricin terror plot targeting London was uncovered, NBC's Miklaszewski contended that U.S. officials "report that Islamic extremists tied to al-Qaeda had produced ricin in a terrorist lab at Kirma in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq."

On the February 9, 2004, World News Tonight on ABC, correspondent Brian Ross relayed reports that Zarqawi "fled the U.S. bombing of Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and moved on to Iran and then into Iraq," and, referring to the same ricin terror plot, further contended that "intelligence officials in Britain and France say Zarqawi also had a hand in a thwarted plan to use the chemical poison ricin, produced by his followers in northern Iraq."

On the April 26, 2004 Nightline, in light of the revelation of a bomb plot targeting Amman, Jordan, ABC's Chris Bury described Zarqawi as "a long-time associate of Osama bin Laden," and correspondent Michel Martin contended that Zarqawi "ran a camp for Jordanian recruits in Afghanistan."

On the September 26, 2004 edition of CBS's 60 Minutes, Ben Bradley, citing Jordanian terror expert Oraib al-Rantawi, contended that, following his release from a Jordanian prison in 1999, Zarqawi left the country and "went to Pakistan and Afghanistan where he trained with al-Qaeda and then set up his own training camp."

And on the May 1, 2007 The O'Reilly Factor on FNC, a clip of which was replayed on the February 28, 2008 show, former CIA director George Tenet argued that after Zarqawi left Afghanistan, "he shows up in Baghdad in May of 2002" and "creates a safe haven for Al-Qaeda" in northern Iraq with the terror group Ansar al-Islam.

All three of the February 27, 2008 broadcast evening newscasts reported on the exchange between John McCain and Barack Obama over Al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq, as McCain picked up on Obama's missatement from Tuesday's debate that seemed to assume Al-Qaeda was not currently in Iraq. McCain: "I have some news. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called 'Al-Qaeda in Iraq.'"

Each show then played a clip of Obama claiming that "there was no such thing as Al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq," but did not clarify that, while eventual Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Zarqawi had not yet publicly coined that name for his terror group before the invasion, there has been plenty of reason to believe that Zarqawi not only was already in Iraq using it as a base of operations, but was already associated with bin Laden.

Below are transcripts of relevant portions of the Wednesday February 27, 2008 CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC's World News with Charles Gibson, followed by the relevant March 2, 2004 story by Jim Miklaszewski from the NBC Nightly News:

From the February 27 CBS Evening News:

KATIE COURIC: And a line, by the way, from the debate had John McCain and Barack Obama trading barbs today. Last night, Obama repeated his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, but said he'd send them back, quote, "if Al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq." Today, McCain jumped on that, and Obama answered right back.

JOHN MCCAIN: You know, I have news for Senator Obama. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. And that's why we're fighting in Iraq, and that's why we're succeeding in Iraq.

BARACK OBAMA: I have some news for John McCain, and that is that there was no such thing as Al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.

 

From the February 27 NBC Nightly News:

ANDREA MITCHELL: But the debate also had its pitfalls for Obama, answering a hypothetical question about whether he would send U.S. troops back into Iraq if Al-Qaeda re-emerged after a U.S. withdrawal.

OBAMA: And if Al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.

MITCHELL: John McCain pounced on that today.

JOHN McCAIN: I have some news. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called "Al-Qaeda in Iraq."

MITCHELL: And in a preview of what might be the fall match-up, Obama immediately responded.

OBAMA: But I have some news for John McCain. And that is that there was no such thing as Al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.

MITCHELL: So did anyone win the debate?

HOWARD FINEMAN, Newsweek: Politically, it was a draw. And the draw goes to the champ. And at this point, ironically, the champ, the person wearing the belt and wearing the crown is Obama.

 

From the February 27 World News Tonight on ABC:

DAVID WRIGHT: Today in Columbus, Obama was brimming with confidence.

BARACK OBAMA: We had a terrific debate last night in Cleveland.

WRIGHT: But one of his debate answers drew fire today from the likely Republican nominee. The question was hypothetical. After President Obama withdraws all U.S. troops from Iraq, if Al-Qaeda resurges there, would he re-invade?

OBAMA: If Al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.

WRIGHT: Today McCain mocked Obama's answer.

JOHN MCCAIN: I have some news. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called "Al-Qaeda in Iraq."

OBAMA: Well, first of all, I do know that Al-Qaeda is in Iraq-

WRIGHT: Obama didn't hesitate to fire back.

OBAMA: -but I have some news for John McCain. And that is that there was no such thing as Al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.

WRIGHT: A preview, perhaps, of the contest to come. But first, Obama has to get past Ohio and Texas.

 

From the March 2, 2004 NBC Nightly News:

TOM BROKAW: The spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was among those blaming the United States for the attacks, saying American forces have not done enough to secure the borders. But the real suspect in the attacks is a well-known terrorist: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He is widely believed to have ties to al-Qaeda, and the Bush administration apparently passed up several opportunities to take him out well before the Iraq war began. More on all of this tonight from NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, who's at the Pentagon.

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: With today's attacks, al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with ties to al-Qaeda, is blamed for more than 700 terrorist killings in Iraq. But NBC News has learned that long before the war, the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam, perhaps kill Zarqawi himself, but never pulled the trigger. June 2002, U.S. government officials say intelligence revealed that Zarqawi and members of al-Qaeda had set up a weapons lab at Kirma in northern Iraq, producing deadly ricin and cyanide. The Pentagon quickly drafted plans to attack the camp and sent them to the White House, where, say government sources, the plans were debated to death.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, Brookings Institution: Here we had targets, we had opportunities, we had a country willing to support casualties or risk casualties after 9/11, and we still didn't do it.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Four months later, intelligence showed Zarqawi was planning to use ricin in terrorist attacks in Europe. The Pentagon drew up a second strike plan, and the White House again killed it. By then, the administration had set its course for war with Iraq.

ROGER CRESSEY, NBC Terrorism Analyst: People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the President's policy on preemption against terrorists.

MIKLASZEWSKI: January 2003, the threat turned real. Police in London arrested six terror suspects and discovered a ricin lab connected to the camp in Iraq. The Pentagon drew up still another attack plan, and, for the third time, the National Security Council killed it. Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi's operation was airtight. But the administration feared that destroying the terrorist camp inside Iraq could undercut its case for going to war against Saddam. The U.S. did attack the camp at Kirma at the beginning of the war, but it was too late. Zarqawi and many of his followers were gone.

CRESSEY: Here's a case where they waited. They waited too long, and now we're suffering as a result inside Iraq.

MIKLASZEWSKI: And despite the Bush administration's tough talk about hitting the terrorists before they strike, Zarqawi's killing streak continues today. Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News, the Pentagon.