Media uncritically reported Rumsfeld's claim he "never painted a rosy picture" about Iraq war

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN & KURT DONALDSON

Numerous media outlets failed to challenge Donald Rumsfeld's claim to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton that he had "never painted a rosy picture" about the Iraq war, despite Sen. Clinton's proffer of specific instances in which she claimed he did just that.

On August 3 and 4, numerous media outlets uncritically reported Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's claim, made during an exchange with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, that he had "never painted a rosy picture" about the Iraq war, that he has "been very measured" in his previous statements, and that one would "have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic." Rumsfeld was responding to Clinton's comment that he had made "many assurances that have frankly proven to be unfulfilled." These media reported Rumsfeld's statement without any challenge, even though Clinton had -- as promised at the end of her exchange with Rumsfeld -- inserted into the official hearing record a statement that included several instances in which she claimed the defense secretary had painted a "rosy picture" -- certainly rosier than other reports of the situation in Iraq -- and in the case of Rumsfeld's predictions, nothing like that dire situation that has resulted.

Some of the examples Clinton cited:

  • March 9, 2006: Senate Appropriations Committee hearing

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D-WV): Mr. Secretary, how can Congress be assured that the funds in this bill won't be used to put our troops right in the middle of a full-blown Iraqi civil war?

RUMSFELD: Senator, I can say that certainly it is not the intention of the military commanders to allow that to happen. The -- and to repeat, the -- at least thus far, the situation has been such that the Iraqi security forces could for the most part deal with the problems that exist."

  • February 1, 2006: Department of Defense news briefing

QUESTION: One clarification on "the long war." Is Iraq going to be a long war?

RUMSFELD: No, I don't believe it is.

  • February 4, 2004: Senate Armed Services Committee hearing

"The increased demand on the force we are experiencing today is likely a 'spike,' driven by the deployment of nearly 115,000 troops in Iraq. We hope and anticipate that that spike will be temporary. We do not expect to have 115,000 troops permanently deployed in any one campaign."

  • March 30, 2003: ABC's This Week

"We know where [Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction] are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."

  • February 20, 2003: PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

JIM LEHRER (anchor): Do you expect the invasion, if it comes, to be welcomed by the majority of the civilian population of Iraq?

RUMSFELD: There's obviously the Shia population in Iraq and the Kurdish population in Iraq have been treated very badly by Saddam Hussein's regime, they represent a large fraction of the total. There is no question but that they would be welcomed."

  • February 7, 2003: Town-hall meeting with U.S. troops in Aviano, Italy

"And it is not knowable if force will be used, but if it is to be used, it is not knowable how long that conflict would last. It could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."

Nonetheless, on August 4, numerous media outlets uncritically reported Rumsfeld's comments without noting his previous statements on the war:

  • From an Associated Press report that, according to the Nexis database, was last revised just after midnight on August 4:

He rejected some of her specific criticisms as simply wrong and said the war against terror will be a drawn-out process.

"Are there setbacks? Yes," said Rumsfeld. "Is this problem going to get solved in the near term? I think it's going to take some time."

The testy exchange between Clinton and Rumsfeld came after a top general told the panel violence in Iraq is probably as bad as he's ever seen it and the country may be descending into civil war.

"We hear a lot of happy talk and rosy scenarios, but because of the administration's strategic blunders -- and frankly the record of incompetence in executing -- you are presiding over a failed policy," she said. "Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?"

Rumsfeld vehemently denied he'd ever glossed over the difficulties of the fighting in Iraq or elsewhere.

"There's a track record here," countered Clinton. "This is not 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, when you appeared before this committee and made many comments and presented many assurances that have frankly proven to be unfulfilled."

"Senator, I don't think that's true," Rumsfeld fired back. "I have never painted a rosy picture. I've been very measured in my words and you'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic. I understand this is tough stuff."

  • From an August 4 article in the Los Angeles Times:

Clinton listed mistakes she said the administration had made in Iraq. She said the U.S. force was too small to keep order, and she criticized the decision to disband the Iraqi army. She accused Rumsfeld of providing Congress with unrealistic assessments.

"We hear a lot of happy talk and rosy scenarios, but because of the administration's strategic blunders and, frankly, the record of incompetence in executing, you are presiding over a failed policy," Clinton said. "Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?"

While Clinton spoke, Rumsfeld stared at his legal pad, jotting notes with a pencil. When she finished, Rumsfeld stopped, looked up and said, "My goodness."

He issued a point-by-point defense and insisted that he had not been overly positive about Iraq.

"I have never painted a rosy picture," Rumsfeld said. "I have been very measured in my words. And you'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic."

Clinton later said in an interview with the Associated Press that Rumsfeld should resign, echoing calls from retired military officers and administration critics.

[Sen. John] McCain [R-NV] took issue with the new U.S. strategy for Baghdad, saying he worried that the U.S. was simply moving its troops from hot spot to hot spot, potentially jeopardizing gains that American forces have made in Sunni Arab cities such as Fallouja.

  • From the August 4 edition of NBC's Today:

CAMPBELL BROWN (co-host): NBC's Jim Miklaszewski is at the Pentagon for us this morning. Mik, good morning.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Good morning, Campbell. It's the first time Senator Clinton has called for Rumsfeld's resignation, just as the military's top generals warn that the war in Iraq is at a dangerous break point.

[begin video clip]

MIKLASZEWSKI: It was General John Abizaid, head of Central Command, who delivered the military's most sobering assessment yet of the war in Iraq.

ABIZAID: I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war.

MIKLASZEWSKI: But it was Senator Hillary Clinton who took dead aim at Secretary Rumsfeld and his record on the war.

CLINTON: We hear a lot of happy talk and rosy scenarios, but because of the administration's strategic blunders and, frankly, the record of incompetence in executing, you are presiding over a failed policy.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Rumsfeld fired right back.

CLINTON: And --

RUMSFELD: Senator, I don't think that's true. I have never painted a rosy picture. I've been very measured in my words, and you'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic. I understand this is tough stuff.

MIKLASZEWSKI: When Rumsfeld first declined to appear at the hearing, Hillary wrote a letter saying, "As the top official at the Pentagon, the American people should hear directly from you."

  • From an August 4 article in Newsday:

Hours earlier, Clinton grilled Rumsfeld during an Armed Services Committee hearing, prompting the secretary to mutter, "Oh my goodness."

Rumsfeld initially said he was too busy to attend yesterday's hearing. But he reversed course Wednesday after Clinton sent him a letter saying he needed to explain himself to the American people.

Like a prizefighter, Clinton smiled and shook hands with Rumsfeld before attacking his policies. "You did not go into Iraq with enough troops," said Clinton, ticking off her grievances. "You disbanded the entire Iraqi army ... You underestimated the nature and strength of the insurgency, the sectarian violence and the spread of Iranian influence."

Clinton, who voted for the October 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraq invasion, has been under fire by some Democrats for her pro-war stance. She has recently softened her support of the war and burnished her party credentials by attacking Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush.

" . . . You are presiding over a failed policy," she said. "Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?"

"Senator, I don't think that's true," he responded. "I have never painted a rosy picture ... You'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic."

In addition, several August 3 reports also uncritically reported Rumsfeld's response. Even without Clinton's statement, a quick search would have produced examples contradicting his claim, as evidenced by the fact that the weblog Think Progress reported examples less than two hours after Rumsfeld's exchange with Clinton.

  • From the August 3 edition of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams:

[video clip]

MIKLASZEWSKI: Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton provided the political fireworks taking dead aim at Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.

CLINTON: Yes, we hear a lot of happy talk and rosy scenarios, but because of the administration's strategic blunders and, frankly, the record of incompetence in executing, you are presiding over a failed policy. Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?

RUMSFELD: My goodness. Are there setbacks, yes. Does the enemy have a brain and continue to make adjustments on the ground requiring our forces to continue to make adjustments? You bet. That does not mean that we have to spend the rest of our lives as the United States armed forces in Iraq. The Iraqis are going to have to take that over. We can't want freedom more for the Iraqi people than they want for themselves.

CLINTON: There's a track record here. This is not 2002, 2003, 2004, 5 when you appeared before this committee and made many comments and presented, you know, many assurances that have frankly proven to be unfulfilled and --

RUMSFELD: Senator, I don't think that's true. I have never painted a rosy picture. I've been very measured in my words. And you'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic. I understand this is tough stuff.

[end video clip]

MIKLASZEWSKI: And it could get even tougher. After today's hearing, Senator Clinton called on Secretary Rumsfeld to resign and on President Bush to accept the resignation. Asked tonight for a response, a Pentagon spokesman said, "We don't do politics." Brian.

WILLIAMS: All right. Jim, thanks for that. Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon for us tonight.

  • From the August 3 edition of the CBS Evening News:

[video clip]

JIM AXELROD (correspondent): Abizaid said U.S. forces could see increased casualties in Baghdad. Senator John McCain, a longtime supporter of the White House on Iraq, was clearly not happy.

McCAIN: What I worry about is we're playing a game of Whac-A-Mole, here. We move troops, it flares up, we move troops there.

[end video clip]

AXELROD: Secretary Rumsfeld got into it with Senator Hillary Clinton, who said he'd been painting too rosy a picture of the situation in Iraq. He disputed that. And that all fell well within the range of the expected. What was extraordinary today were these generals and the pessimistic views that they expressed. Bob.

  • From the August 3 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

KITTY PILGRIM (guest host): We turn first to Barbara Starr, Barbara.

STARR: Well, Kitty, on Capitol Hill today, there was one thing that didn't happen. There was no talk about when the troops are coming home.

[begin video clip]

STARR: One day after feeling the heat and agreeing to testify in public, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not let his Senate critics use the television cameras to corner him about the war in Iraq.

CLINTON: This is not 2002, 2003, 2004-5, when you appeared before this committee and made many comments and presented, you know, many assurances that have, frankly, proven to be unfulfilled.

RUMSFELD: Senator, I don't think that's true. I have never painted a rosy picture. I've been very measured in my words. And you'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic.

STARR: Rumsfeld's generals used the opportunity to sound a warning about the rising violence.

ABIZAID: I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it in Baghdad in particular. And that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could -- could move towards civil war.

GEN. PETER PACE (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): Sir, I believe that we do have the possibility of that devolving to a civil war, but that does not have to be a fact.

STARR: Some committee members still pressing on the overall strategy and whether there are enough troops.

McCAIN: Is the situation under control in Ramadi?

ABIZAID: I think the situation in Ramadi is workable.

McCAIN: And the troops from Ramadi came from Fallujah, isn't that correct?

ABIZAID: I can't say, Senator. I know --

McCAIN: Well, that's my information. What I worry about is we're playing a game of Whac-A-Mole, here. We move troops, it flares up, we move troops there.

[end video clip]

STARR: And Kitty, just to be very clear, there was no talk about bringing the troops home any time soon. That was something they hoped to be talking about, but the sectarian violence means there's no plan to bring anybody home anytime soon now.

And as for the question of civil war, what General Pace and General Abizaid said was they're worried about it, but they don't think there's civil war right now. And the reason they say that is that they say the Iraqi central government maintains control of the armed forces. So right now it's not what you would call a classic civil war. Kitty.

PILGRIM: All right. A fine point.

  • From the August 3 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

[video clip]

JIM ANGLE (Fox News chief Washington correspondent): But Senator Hillary Clinton, under liberal criticism for not favoring an immediate pullout from Iraq, delivered a lengthy critique of Rumsfeld and U.S. policy, accusing him of one mistake after another.

CLINTON: Yes, we hear a lot of happy talk and rosy scenarios, but because of the administration's strategic blunders, and frankly, the record of incompetence in executing, you are presiding over a failed policy.

RUMSFELD: My goodness.

ANGLE: Rumsfeld sorted through Senator Clinton's criticisms one by one, conceding the violence, but arguing such acts by those who wantonly kill innocent civilians are not the result of a failed policy.

RUMSFELD: Are there setbacks? Yes. Are there things that people can't anticipate? Yes. Does the enemy have a brain and continue to make adjustments on the ground requiring our forces to continue to make adjustments? You bet. Is that going to continue to be the case? I think so.

[end video clip]

ANGLE: Secretary Rumsfeld had already agreed to testify before the entire Senate behind closed doors, but several Democrats made a big issue yesterday of insisting they get to question him in public. Asked today if he thought politics were involved, Rumsfeld said, "You've got to be kidding. There's gambling in this casino?" Chris.

CHRIS WALLACE (guest host): Jim, thanks for that.

[...]

WALLACE: As Jim Angle reported earlier, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was on defense today as Democrats and the Senate Armed Services Committee went after him for what they described as his failures in the Iraq war. But as usual, Rumsfeld gave as good as he got. Here are some key moments from his exchange with New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

[...]

[video clip]

CLINTON: Well, Mr. Secretary, I know you would and I know you feel strongly about it, but there's a track record, here. This is not 2002, 2003, 2004-5 when you appeared before this committee and made many comments and presented, you know, many assurances that have, frankly, proven to be unfulfilled and --

RUMSFELD: Senator, I don't think that's true. I have never painted a rosy picture. I've been very measured in my words. And you'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic. I understand this is tough stuff.

[end video clip]

WALLACE: Next on Special Report, we'll talk with the Fox "All-Stars" about the grilling those Pentagon leaders got today and what they said about the situation in Iraq. All of that after this break.

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