NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell uncritically reported President Bush's misleading response to an audience question at the City Club of Cleveland on March 20 where Bush was giving a speech. O'Donnell aired Bush's statement -- "I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America" -- but failed to note that Bush was answering a question he had not been asked. The audience member to whom Bush was responding never accused Bush of "say[ing] that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America."
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On the March 20 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News and the March 21 broadcast of NBC's Today, NBC News White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell uncritically reported President Bush's misleading response to an audience question at the City Club of Cleveland on March 20 where Bush was giving a speech. O'Donnell aired a clip of Bush addressing an audience member's question about his administration's assertion of a link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with the statement: "I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America." However, O'Donnell failed to note that the audience member to whom Bush was responding never actually accused Bush of "say[ing] that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America." In doing so, O'Donnell repeated a common media practice, frequently documented by Media Matters for America, of simply reporting responses by Bush administration officials to mythical arguments that the officials attribute to administration critics, but that critics did not actually make.
Moreover, O'Donnell failed to inform viewers that Bush and members of his administration made repeated references to alleged links between Saddam and Al Qaeda terrorists, including claiming that Saddam sponsored terrorists.
During her reports, O'Donnell included footage of the questioner, who asked about the Bush administration's "claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists who had attacked us on 9-11," which "turned out to be false," and aired a portion of Bush's reply, in which he stated: "I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America." But at no point did O'Donnell note that Bush did not answer the audience member's question, and simply reported his answer as though it were responsive. The audience member did not accuse Bush of saying, as Bush rephrased the question, "Saddam Hussein ordered the [9-11] attacks on America," yet O'Donnell reported Bush's response as though that had been the audience member's question.
From the March 20 exchange at the City Club of Cleveland:
QUESTION: Mr. President, at the beginning of your talk today you mentioned that you understand why Americans have had their confidence shaken by the events in Iraq. And I'd like to ask you about events that occurred three years ago that might also explain why confidence has been shaken. Before we went to war in Iraq, we said there were three main reasons for going to war in Iraq: weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists who had attacked us on 9-11, and that Iraq had purchased nuclear materials from Niger. All three of those turned out to be false. My question is: How do we restore confidence that Americans may have in their leaders and to be sure that the information they are getting now is correct?
BUSH: That's a great question. First, just if I might correct a misperception. I don't think we ever said -- at least I know I didn't say -- that there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein. We did say that he was a state sponsor of terror -- by the way, not declared a state sponsor of terror by me, but declared by other administrations. We also did say that [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi, the man who is now wreaking havoc and killing innocent life, was in Iraq. And so the state sponsor of terror was a declaration by a previous administration. But I don't want to be argumentative, but I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America.
The audience member did allege that the Bush administration made "the claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists who had attacked us on 9-11," a charge Bush simply did not address. And as O'Donnell should have noted, the audience member was correct: Bush and members of his administration did accuse Saddam of sponsoring Al Qaeda terrorists.
In an October 7, 2002, speech, Bush stated:
BUSH: We know that Iraq and Al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some Al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior Al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein's regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America.
Additionally, in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, Bush stated:
BUSH: Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.
And in a February 6, 2003, statement, Bush asserted:
BUSH: Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and Al Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s. Iraq has sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.
Similarly, in a December 2, 2002, speech, Vice President Dick Cheney stated:
CHENEY: Saddam Hussein is harboring terrorists and the instruments of terror. He is pressing forward with weapons of mass destruction -- weapons he's already used in his war against Iran and against his own people. His regime has had high-level contacts with Al Qaeda going back a decade and has provided training to Al Qaeda terrorists.
And then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his February 5, 2003, address to the United Nations Security Council -- in which he outlined a case for war against Iraq -- cited a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder." Citing a suspected terrorist network headed by Jordanian-born Zarqawi, Powell went on to state:
POWELL: Al Qaeda affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money, and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they've now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months.
Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with Al Qaeda. These denials are simply not credible. Last year, an Al Qaeda associate bragged that the situation in Iraq was, quote, "good,'' that Baghdad could be transited quickly.
In its final report, the 9-11 Commission found, among other things, that Iraq was not involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, nor did it have any "collaborative relationship" with Al Qaeda, as the Bush administration had repeatedly asserted and implied.
From the March 20 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:
O'DONNELL: But others sharply challenged Mr. Bush on issues, including the mounting cost of the conflict, the president's warrantless spy program, and the rationale for war.
[begin video clip]
QUESTION: Weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists who had attacked us on 9-11 and that Iraq had purchased nuclear materials from Niger. All three of those turned out to be false.
BUSH: I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America.
[end video clip]
O'DONNELL: And the president tried to turn those questions about events more than three years ago into issues that resonate today. He did acknowledge that the U.S. credibility on intelligence matters must be restored in order to deal with present-day threats whether in Iraq or Iran.
From the March 21 broadcast of NBC's Today:
O'DONNELL: But the audience had other issues in mind, asking nearly a dozen unscreened questions. That set up a rarely seen and respectful confrontation between citizen and president. Here on the war's cost.
[begin video clip]
QUESTION: How do you expect a generation of young people such as ourselves to afford college at a time like this when we're paying for a war in Iraq?
BUSH: My point to you is economic growth enables us to do more than one thing. And that's what we will continue to do.
[end video clip]
O'DONNELL: On prewar intelligence and U.S. credibility.
[begin video clip]
QUESTION: Weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists who had attacked us on 9-11.
BUSH: I don't want to be argumentative, but I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America.
[end video clip]
O'DONNELL: On the threat of Iran, the president stressed diplomacy but delivered a warning.
BUSH [clip]: I'll make it clear again that we will use military might to protect our ally Israel.