NBC's Williams allowed Bush to make false and misleading assertions about Katrina recovery, pre-war WMD claims, and Iraqi links to 9-11

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN & JULIE MILLICAN

In his interview with President Bush, NBC's Brian Williams allowed Bush to falsely claim that "we delivered" on the promises Bush made during a September 2005 address to the nation in New Orleans; that Saddam Hussein had an active weapons of mass destruction program prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq; and that Bush had never suggested ties between Iraq, Saddam, and the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Williams also left unchallenged Bush's objection to the argument that the Iraq war has acted as a recruitment tool for terrorists.

During his August 29 interview with President Bush, portions of which aired on various NBC and MSNBC programs on August 29 and 30, Nightly News anchor Brian Williams allowed Bush to falsely claim that "we delivered" on the promises Bush made during a September 2005 address to the nation in New Orleans. In fact, only one of Bush's three proposals to help "rebuild" the Gulf Coast has been implemented to date. Additionally, Williams did not challenge Bush's false suggestion that Saddam "had the capacity to make" weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Nor did Williams rebut, in a separate portion of the interview, Bush's denial -- again -- that he had ever suggested ties between Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Williams also left unchallenged Bush's objection to the argument that the Iraq war has acted as a recruitment tool for terrorists, a claim Bush said is "not based upon fact."

Hurricane Katrina

In a segment of the interview devoted to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Williams left unchallenged Bush's claim that "we delivered" on promises made during his September 15, 2005, address to the nation from Jackson Square in New Orleans. Bush said: "When it's all said and done, the people down here know that I stood in Jackson Square and I said we're going to help you, and we delivered." In fact, while Bush originally laid out three proposals to help the Gulf Coast "not just rebuild" but "build higher and better," only one has been implemented. The proposed initiatives included a "Gulf Opportunity Zone," "Worker Recovery Accounts," and an "Urban Homesteading Act." According to a White House fact sheet, the "GO Zone" would "provide tax relief and loans for businesses and entrepreneurs to invest in the region," and to date, it is the only measure passed by Congress and signed into law. As the Associated Press reported on August 29, Congress has taken no action on Bush's proposed "Worker Recovery Accounts" and "Urban Homesteading Act," which would have awarded a $5,000 grant for job-seeking related activities to qualified recipients who became unemployed due to the storm and would have made available -- for free -- government-owned property to people who wished to rebuild. Williams did not mention any of these programs.

By contrast, during an interview with Donald E. Powell, the Gulf Coast region recovery and rebuilding coordinator, on the August 27 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace noted that two of Bush's three promises from the Jackson Square speech were "never kept":

WALLACE: In fact, Mr. Powell, two of the three promises that the president made that night to fight poverty were never kept: the worker recovery accounts to help evacuees as they were looking for jobs after the displacement of the hurricane and the Urban Homestead Act [sic], which was going to provide free land. Neither of those things ever happened.

Would New Orleans be in better shape today if the president and Congress had kept those promises?

This portion of Williams's interview with Bush aired on the August 29 editions of both NBC's Nightly News and MSNBC's Scarborough Country, as well as the August 29 and August 30 editions of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews.

Pre-Iraq war WMD claims

Later in the interview, Bush continued to repeat the thoroughly debunked claim that Saddam possessed "the capacity" to build weapons of mass destruction at the time the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Bush told Williams that Saddam "had weapons of mass destruction at one time and had the capacity to make 'em, and that's a dangerous mix." Bush added: "[O]ne of the lessons of September the 11th was, when you see a threat, you have to deal with it, and ... I saw a threat. The Congress saw the threat. The United Nations saw the threat, and I will tell you here, getting rid of Saddam Hussein has made the world safer." At no point did Williams challenge Bush on his WMD claims.

At least three different U.S. or U.K. government-sanctioned reports have found that before the U.S.-led invasion, Saddam was not in possession of illegal WMDs and did not have an active chemical, biological, or nuclear WMD program. With regards to the specific issue of Saddam's "capacity," the Iraq Survey Group's final report -- more commonly known as the Duelfer report -- specifically addressed the state of Saddam's WMD programs at the time of the invasion, noting that "Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq's WMD capability -- which was essentially destroyed in 1991 -- after sanctions were removed and Iraq's economy stabilized" and that Iraq "had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions." The former head of Iraq's nuclear program under Saddam, Jafar Dhia Jafar, confirmed in 2004 that Iraq had ceased nuclear development following the imposition of U.N. sanctions in 1991 and had never started up again. "There was no capability," Jafar told the BBC. "There was no chemical or biological or any of what are called weapons of mass destruction."

This portion of the interview aired on the August 30 broadcast of Hardball.

Saddam's ties to 9-11 terrorist attacks

Additionally, Bush repeated his claim that he had never said "that Iraq ordered" the 9-11 terrorist attack. Responding to Williams's question as to whether there "has ... ever been an effort to link Iraq with 9-11," Bush stated: "No, I really haven't [done that] because I'm very careful. ...You know, I personally do not believe Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said to Al Qaeda, 'Attack America.' " In fact, as Media Matters for America has repeatedly noted (here, here, and here), Bush claimed such a connection existed, often generally and specifically in a letter to Congress at the start of the war. In addition, Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed that Iraqi intelligence officers met with alleged 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta prior to the attacks, despite no confirmed reports of such a meeting, and also asserted that war in Iraq would constitute "a major blow" against the 9-11 terrorists. Nonetheless, Williams did not challenge Bush's suggestion during this segment of the interview.

This portion of the interview aired on the August 29 editions of Nightly News and Scarborough Country, and the August 30 editions of NBC's Today and Hardball.

Iraq war as a terrorist recruitment tool

At one point in their discussion of Iraq, Williams asked Bush about "the argument that some on the left make that the war in Iraq has amounted to a colossal recruitment poster in the fundamentalist world." In his rebuttal, Bush dodged the actual argument about which Williams asked, noting simply that Islamic fundamentalists existed prior to the Iraq war. Bush said: "The fundamentalist world attacked the United States and killed 3,000 people before I even thought about removing Saddam Hussein from power." Bush further claimed that such arguments are "not based upon fact." But rather than press Bush on the specific issue he had raised -- whether the terrorist ranks have grown worldwide as a result of the Iraq war -- Williams shifted to the topic of domestic military recruiting, recalling the story of a "kid who joined the National Guard angry about what they did to us on 9-11, thought he was going to Afghanistan, killed in Iraq."

To counter Bush's claim that the argument is "not based upon fact," Williams could have noted that several government analyses have found that U.S. actions in Iraq have aided terrorist groups' recruiting and provided them with a training ground for their new followers, as Media Matters documented. Indeed, the State Department's 2005 annual terrorism report found: "Foreign fighters appear to be working to make the insurgency in Iraq what Afghanistan was to the earlier generation of jihadists -- a melting pot for jihadists from around the world, a training ground, and an indoctrination center." A January 2005 report from the CIA's National Intelligence Council similarly noted: "The al-Qa'ida membership that was distinguished by having trained in Afghanistan will gradually dissipate, to be replaced in part by the dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq." Independent analyses have perceived a similar trend in terrorist recruitment. In a 2005 report, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a British think tank that focuses on political-military conflict, concluded that it "is probable that [Al Qaeda] recruitment generally has accelerated on account of Iraq." "Al-Qaeda has added Iraq to its list of grievances," the report stated. "With Osama Bin Laden's public encouragement, up to 1,000 foreign jihadists may have infiltrated Iraq."

This portion of the interview aired on the August 30 editions of Nightly News and Hardball.

From the August 29 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

WILLIAMS: You could not have been more contrite, as you were in today's remarks: "The government at all levels fell short of its responsibilities." You have apologized for the damage, but what about the damage to your presidency? And, Mr. President, here's what I mean: Most of the analysts call it your low point. A lot of Americans are always going to believe that that weekend, that week, you were watching something on television other than what they were seeing. And Professor [Michael Eric] Dyson from the University of Pennsylvania said on our broadcast last night it was because of your patrician upbringing, that it's a -- it's a classic --

BUSH: Dyson doesn't know -- I don't know Dyson, and Dyson doesn't know me. But I will tell you this: When it's all said and done, the people down here know that I stood in Jackson Square and I said, "We're going to help you," and we delivered. And that's -- what matters, Brian, is that we help the good people here rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and we're going to do that.

You know, commitments in politics sometimes mean nothing. I made a commitment that means something. And that's what's going to happen. And look, I understand people are second-guessing decisions, and Professor Dysons of the world say things. My heart and my soul is to help these people. And they know it. And they understand that when the federal government makes a commitment it's part of a renewal process. And that's what we need to be focused on.

From the August 30 edition of MNSBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

WILLIAMS: When you take a tour of the world, a lot of Americans email me with their fears that, you know, some days they wake up and it just feels to them like the end of the world is near, and you go from North Korea, to Iran, to Iraq, to Afghanistan and you look at how things have changed. How Americans are viewed overseas, if that is important to you. Do you have any moments of doubt that we fought the wrong war, that there is something wrong with the perception of America overseas?

BUSH: Well, those are two different questions. Did we fight the wrong war? And the answer is, I have no doubt. The war came to our shores, remember that. We had a foreign policy that basically said, "Let's hope calm works," and we were attacked.

WILLIAMS: But those weren't Iraqis.

BUSH: No, I agree. They weren't Iraqis, nor did I ever say that Iraq ordered that attack. But they are part of -- Iraq is part of the struggle against the terrorists. These terrorists have made it clear they want us to leave Iraq prematurely. And why is it? Because they want a safe haven. They'd love to get a hold of oil. They have territorial ambitions. And no, I think fighting this war is the absolute right thing to do.

Now, in terms of image, of course I worry about American image. We're great at TV, and we're getting crushed in the PR front. And so, we try to work hard and try to work smart about how we get a message out that says we respect Islam. We just reject the ideology of extremists who kill innocent people to achieve political objectives. And we've got to do a harder job.

But somehow people -- if what you're saying is if we retreat for the sake of popularity, is that the smart thing to do? And my answer is absolutely not. It would be a huge mistake to give the battlefield to these extremists. We retreat; they follow us. And I see it as clearly as day. And I understand the challenge, and I understand -- I also understand the frustrations of our citizens.

WILLIAMS: Let's, if we might, get back to 9-11 for one second. Has there ever been an effort to link the two? How far have you gone?

BUSH: No, I really haven't. Because I'm very careful. I understand what happens when you lay something out that people can tear apart. It hurts credibility. And you know, I personally do not believe Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said to Al Qaeda, "Attack America."

WILLIAMS: How close was he associated with Al Qaeda, in your view?

BUSH: Well, he was -- he was on our state sponsor of terrorists list. And he was paying families of suiciders. He has -- he also, by the way, had weapons of mass destruction one time and had the capacity to make them. And that's a dangerous mix. We didn't put him on the state sponsor of terrorists list. The previous administrations put him on the state sponsor of terrorists list.

[...]

WILLIAMS: Do you see that the argument that some on the left make that the war in Iraq has amounted to a colossal recruitment poster in the fundamentalist world?

BUSH: No, I don't see that at all. The fundamentalist world attacked the United States and killed 3,000 people before I even thought about removing Saddam Hussein from power. I just don't buy that argument. It is an argument that's not based upon fact.

WILLIAMS: But it's that tie -- it's the story in the paper recently of the kid who joined the National Guard, angry about what they did to us on 9-11, thought he was going to Afghanistan, killed in Iraq.

BUSH: Brian, all I can tell you is, is that we have a volunteer army full of motivated, decent, honorable citizens wearing our uniform and morale is high. Morale is really high. You talk to the families and you talk to these kids who are fighting for this country, they understand the stakes and they're proud to be doing it. And this country owes them a debt of gratitude.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Network/Outlet
MSNBC, NBC
Person
Brian Williams
Show/Publication
Scarborough Country, Hardball, NBC Nightly News
Stories/Interests
Propaganda/Noise Machine
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