Three days after Media Matters for America exposed FOX News Channel host Bill O'Reilly echoing dubious and discredited Bush administration claims that Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi constitutes a direct link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, O'Reilly did it again. This time, he interrupted a former Clinton administration official who tried to correct the record. He also allowed a conservative guest to repeat without challenge other discredited claims about Iraq's supposed involvement in terrorism -- claims O'Reilly has himself cited in the past.
On the September 27 edition of FOX News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, in a segment purportedly devoted to evaluating Senator John Kerry's recent claim that Iraq "was not a terrorist haven before the war," guest Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense under former President George H.W. Bush, declared: "Mr. Kerry is just flatly wrong." Babbin then claimed: "[I]f you look at, for example, the Salman Pak training camp, we know that the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists, and probably quite a few others, were given safe haven there and, what's more, given training and equipment." Later Babbin repeated his claim more succinctly: "Salman Pak was a terrorist training camp."
O'Reilly himself has cited Salman Pak in the past to justify the Bush administration's claims of a dangerous Iraq-Al Qaeda connection. On the May 25 edition of The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly explained: "Salman Pak is located 15 miles southwest of Baghdad. It was here that Saddam Hussein trained terrorists. Both Iraqi and non-Iraqi Arabs learned how to hijack airlines, make and plant bombs, and stage assassinations, among other things."
In fact, though some U.S. intelligence officials before the U.S. invasion believed Hussein was training terrorists at Salman Pak, The New Yorker's Seymour M. Hersh -- an investigative reporter and frequent O'Reilly Factor guest -- reported in the May 12, 2003, New Yorker that Salman Pak was probably a counter-terrorism training center built in the 1980s with U.S. support:
In separate interviews with me, however, a former C.I.A. station chief and a former military intelligence analyst said that the camp near Salman Pak had been built not for terrorism training but for counter-terrorism training. ...
[Hersh then explained the differences between terrorist and counter-terrorist training and evidence for the conclusion about Salman Pak.]
Salman Pak was overrun by American troops on April 6, 2003. Apparently, neither the camp nor the former biological facility has yielded evidence to substantiate the claims made before the war.
On March 2, 2004, Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay, and John Walcott of Knight Ridder's Washington bureau reported the same thing: "Iraqi defectors alleged that Saddam's regime was helping to train Iraqi and non-Iraqi Arab terrorists at a site called Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The allegation made it into a September 2002 white paper that the White House issued. The U.S. military has found no evidence of such a facility."
O'Reilly confronted his other September 27 guest, Dan Feldman, a National Security Council member under former President Bill Clinton, with O'Reilly's own false claims about Zarqawi: "[H]e [Babbin] didn't say [it], but I [O'Reilly] will, I'll throw in Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda operative who was wounded on the battlefield of Afghanistan, then went to Iran, and went over to Iraq for work on his leg, and who's now there beheading people." When Feldman tried to explain that Zarqawi was not an Al Qaeda "operative," O'Reilly interrupted him:
FELDMAN: Zarqawi has very negligible ties to Al Qaeda. It's unclear whether he's even affiliated --
O'REILLY: Negligible, sir? Whoa, whoa, whoa, he was one of the top commanders in the Taliban training camps of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Negligible?
But as MMFA previously explained, Zarqawi's training camp in Afghanistan was located hundreds of miles from Al Qaeda camps and was the base of Zarqawi's own terrorist group, Al Tawhid. That group actually competed with Al Qaeda, according to a former associate of Zarqawi whom German officials interrogated.
Apparently mystified that Babbin had not mentioned Zarqawi himself, O'Reilly asked Babbin to "jump in here with the Zarqawi. I think Zarqawi's the key here." Babbin obliged, repeating the false claim that Zarqawi is "the key and senior Al Qaeda operative in Iraq today." When Feldman again objected, saying Zarqawi's connections to Al Qaeda are "nebulous at best," O'Reilly again interrupted:
FELDMAN: [T]he ties between Zarqawi and Al Qaeda are nebulous at best. He operated out of a part of Iraq that was not controlled by Saddam. And if you want to say that it's a terrorist haven for anyone that happens to go in transit through a country and have medical treatment for a few months, then you could probably find a terrorist haven in half the countries of the world ...
O'REILLY: I mean, I'm just going on what U.S. intelligence told my researcher face to face, that Zarqawi was a major Al Qaeda trainer in Afghanistan, was wounded on the Afghan battlefield, went then for treatment in Baghdad, where he remains, in Fallujah, beheading people. Now, if you want to diminish this threat, go right ahead ...
O'REILLY: I want to make this clear. Zarqawi, according to U.S. intelligence -- and we spoke to them directly, this isn't taken from The New York Times or anything like that -- trained Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. That's where he trained them from the year 2002 up until the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. forces. He was wounded on the battlefield, then he went to Iraq, where he was treated in a hospital run by Uday Hussein.
MMFA previously cited a March 3, 2003, Newsweek article that reported: "The Iraqi government's role in arranging for the treatment is 'unknown,' U.S. officials confess, and the hospitalization does not prove any Iraqi government 'complicity.'"