USA Today and AP uncritically reported GOP claims that terrorists will "follow us home" after Iraq withdrawal

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER

In recent articles on the standoff between President Bush and Congress over funding for the Iraq war, USA Today and the Associated Press uncritically reported Republican claims that terrorists in Iraq will "follow us home" if the United States withdraws its troops from the country. However, both news outlets did not report, as others recently have, that security and terrorism experts have challenged that view.

In a May 3 article, USA Today asserted that just days after President Bush's veto of the $124 billion war funding bill, "Republicans argued that Iraq is an important front in the fight against al-Qaeda militants that began with the Sept. 11, 2001" terrorist attacks. The article then uncritically quoted House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) asking: "Who doesn't believe that if we don't deal with terrorists in Iraq, we will be dealing with them on the streets of America?" Similarly, in a May 1 article on the standoff between Bush and Congress over funding for the Iraq war, the Associated Press uncritically reported the assertion by Matt David, Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) presidential campaign spokesman, that U.S. troop withdrawals from Haiti in 2000 and Somalia in 1994 cannot be compared to the current situation in Iraq because "Haitians and Somalians [sic] do not want to follow us home and attack us on American soil." However, both the USA Today and AP articles did not report, as several news outlets recently have, that security and terrorism experts have challenged the view that terrorists in Iraq will attack Americans inside the United States once U.S. military forces exit Iraq.

USA Today reported that the House failed to override Bush's war funding bill veto but that "Democrats vowed to continue their efforts to end the Iraq war." The article then quoted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Boehner:

Congressional leaders from both parties predicted quick approval of emergency funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan on Wednesday, after the House fell 62 votes short of overriding President Bush's veto of a bill setting a deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Democrats vowed to continue their efforts to end the Iraq war.

"The Congress will not support a permanent commitment to a war without end," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Republicans argued that Iraq is an important front in the fight against al-Qaeda militants that began with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "Who doesn't believe that if we don't deal with terrorists in Iraq, we will be dealing with them on the streets of America?" asked House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The May 1 AP article contrasted Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) effort in 1993 to bring U.S. troops home from Somalia with his claim that setting a date certain for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is "like sending a 'memo to our enemies to let them know when they can operate again'":

In 1993, Sen. John McCain led an effort to cut off funds immediately for military operations in Somalia after a firefight in Mogadishu killed 18 U.S. troops. The former prisoner of war in Vietnam brought a hush to the chamber floor when he asked what would happen if Congress failed to act and more Americans died.

"On whose hands rest the blood of American troops? Ask yourself this question," said McCain, R-Ariz.

Congress ultimately agreed to back President Clinton's request to give him until March 1994 to get troops out, with funding denied after that date. In 1999, Congress passed similar legislation prohibiting money spent to keep U.S. troops in Haiti after May 2000.

"When Americans are imperiled, ultimately the president has to bear that responsibility," Clinton said at the time of the Somalia vote.

Now, McCain -- a GOP presidential contender for 2008 -- says setting a date certain on the war in Iraq is like sending a "memo to our enemies to let them know when they can operate again."

The article then uncritically quoted McCain campaign spokesman Matt David claiming that comparing the two conflicts is "intellectually dishonest" because Somalis (whom David labeled "Somalians") were not going to follow U.S. troops home to fight Americans on U.S. soil:

Matt David, McCain's campaign spokesman, said it is "intellectually dishonest" to compare Iraq to Haiti and Somalia because of the volatility now in the Middle East and terrorist threat.

"Haitians and Somalians do not want to follow us home and attack us on American soil," David said in a statement.

Yet, as Media Matters for America has noted, according to an April 6 McClatchy Newspapers article, "[m]ilitary and diplomatic analysts" say that a similar claim Bush has repeatedly made about the Iraq war -- that "this is a war in which, if we were to leave before the job is done, the enemy would follow us here" -- "exaggerate[s] the threat that the enemy forces in Iraq pose to the U.S. mainland." The article continued: "U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic experts in Bush's own government say the violence in Iraq is primarily a struggle for power between Shiite and Sunni Muslim Iraqis seeking to dominate their society, not a crusade by radical Sunni jihadists bent on carrying the battle to the United States." Moreover, according to a March 18 Washington Post article, "U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts" have said that Al Qaeda in Iraq "poses little danger to the security of the U.S. homeland," as Media Matters also noted.

In addition, like the McClatchy article, a recent report from National Public Radio's All Things Considered explored Bush's oft-used defense of his Iraq war policy -- "If we do not defeat the terrorists and extremists in Iraq, they won't leave us alone. They will follow us to the United States of America." NPR correspondent David Welna noted that "Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison repeated the president's claim, saying if terrorists are not defeated in Iraq, they will follow U.S. troops home." He added that "Utah Republican Orrin Hatch said the same. So did Arizona Republican John McCain."

Welna then cited experts challenging that claim. He reported that retired Brig. Gen. John H. Johns considers that warning "propaganda" and that, according to Johns, "[i]t's actually leaving American forces in Iraq ... that increases the chances of a terrorist attack on the U.S." Welna also reported that retired Army Lt. Col. James Carafano, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, "calls asserting that terrorists will follow U.S. troops home naive and poor rhetoric." Welna then featured a clip of Carafano saying: "There's no national security analyst that's really credible who thinks that people are going to come from Iraq and attack the United States -- that that's a credible scenario."

Welna also included a clip of Sen. John Thune (R-SD) arguing that "[w]e've got them pinned down" in Iraq and that the "United States military presence is there, and so, that's kind of where the fight is. And they are where the fight is." Welna then stated that, according to former CIA official Paul Pillar, "that's true," adding: "But only if you assume there's a fixed number of terrorists out there to bedevil the U.S." Pillar was then heard saying:

PILLAR: We are either engaging them or killing them in Iraq, or they're doing something else where we don't have a fixed number, of course. And the longer that we stay engaged in what has become in the eyes of the Islamist jihadists the biggest and foremost jihad, namely Iraq, the more likelihood we will breed even more terrorists.

Welna also reported that, according to Thomas Sanderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "the president and his allies are not likely to stop repeating that terrorists will follow us out of Iraq. That's because, for some, it's politically persuasive." Sanderson then said:

SANDERSON: I do think it has the effect of galvanizing support among a percentage of our population, but I think a lot of people won't buy it in the first place. Or number two: assume that we're already in that pipeline of attacks that the terrorists are planning.

From the April 30 edition of NPR's All Things Considered:

MELISSA BLOCK (co-host): During the recent debate over funding the war in Iraq, some of those opposed to a timetable for a troop pullout repeated something President Bush is fond of saying.

BUSH [audio clip]: If we do not defeat the terrorists and extremists in Iraq, they won't leave us alone. They will follow us to the United States of America.

BLOCK: That was the president a couple of weeks ago at the White House. Among experts, however, there's widespread skepticism about that assertion, as NPR's David Welna reports.

[begin audio clip]

WELNA: Shortly before final passage last week of the war spending bill President Bush says he'll veto, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd [D-WV] rose on the Senate floor. Byrd chided the president for trying, in Byrd's words, to scare the pants off the public by suggesting the bill could lead to death and destruction in America.

BYRD: What utter nonsense. What hogwash.

WELNA: And yet, right after Byrd spoke, Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison repeated the president's claim, saying if terrorists are not defeated in Iraq, they will follow U.S. troops home. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch said the same. So did Arizona Republican John McCain, but in South Carolina, where he'd skipped the vote to campaign for president.

McCAIN: If we withdraw from Iraq, there will be chaos, there will be genocide. They will follow us home and it will be one of the worst challenges America has ever faced as a nation, and we need to see this thing through.

WELNA: Just as McCain fought in Vietnam, so did retired Brigadier General John Johns, a national security expert who helped develop counterinsurgency doctrine there. But Johns considers that "they'll follow us home" warning propaganda. It's actually leaving American forces in Iraq, he says, that increases the chances of a terrorist attack on the U.S.

JOHNS: The longer we stay there, the more we're going to create people who will volunteer to come here.

WELNA: That same point was made in the National Intelligence Estimate released last fall, says Senate Intelligence Committee member and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden.

WYDEN: So, if the administration feels that the real concern here is the prospect of terrorists coming to the United States or anywhere else, you ought to think about the fact that the National Intelligence Estimate is reporting that their policies are the ones creating more terrorists.

WELNA: But it's not only liberals like Wyden who questioned whether a U.S. troop pullout from Iraq would be the trigger of a terrorist attack on the American mainland.

CARAFANO: There's no national security analyst that's really credible who thinks that people are going to come from Iraq and attack the United States -- that that's a credible scenario.

WELNA: That's retired Army Lieutenant Colonel James Carafano, a specialist in international security threats at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Carafano calls asserting that terrorists will follow U.S. troops home naive and poor rhetoric.

CARAFANO: It's not that if the United States leaves Iraq that terrorists are going to come to the United States. The problem is if the United States leaves Iraq, the problems aren't going to go away. The problems then are going to go and fester.

WELNA: Still the president's allies in Congress, such as South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune, insists the Iraq war has kept terrorists at bay.

THUNE: We've got them pinned down. I mean, right now they are -- the United States military presence is there, and so, that's kind of where the fight is. And they are where the fight is.

WELNA: That's true, says Paul Pillar, a former deputy CIA counterterrorism chief who now teaches at Georgetown University. But only if you assume there's a fixed number of terrorists out there to bedevil the U.S.

PILLAR: We are either engaging them or killing them in Iraq, or they're doing something else where we don't have a fixed number, of course. And the longer that we stay engaged in what has become in the eyes of the Islamist jihadists the biggest and foremost jihad, namely Iraq, the more likelihood we will breed even more terrorists.

WELNA: Other experts question whether it's even possible to defeat terrorists in Iraq no matter how long U.S. forces are deployed there. Harvard's Jessica Stern thinks terrorists based there may well pose a threat to the U.S., but she says that's because the invasion of that country beefed up Al Qaeda's mobilization strategy.

JESSICA STERN (lecturer in public policy at Harvard University): I think that we really have created a very dangerous situation, and it will probably get more dangerous for civilians around the globe when U.S. troops leave Iraq -- but that will happen whenever we leave Iraq.

WELNA: Still, the president and his allies are not likely to stop repeating that terrorists will follow us out of Iraq. That's because, for some, it's politically persuasive, says Thomas Sanderson of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

SANDERSON: I do think it has the effect of galvanizing support among a percentage of our population, but I think a lot of people won't buy it in the first place. Or number two: assume that we're already in that pipeline of attacks that the terrorists are planning.

WELNA: One thing all the experts agree on is it's not a question of if such attacks will occur, but when.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
USA Today, Associated Press
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