Media outlets uncritically reported McCain's false assertion that Obama "once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan"

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI

The Wall Street Journal and washingtonpost.com's The Trail both quoted Sen. John McCain's false assertion that Sen. Barack Obama "once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan." McClatchy Newspapers -- apparently quoting from the prepared text of McCain's January 19 speech -- reported that McCain said Obama "once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan." In fact, in an August 2007 speech, Obama stated: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf won't act, we will."

In their coverage of the February 19 primary elections, both The Wall Street Journal and washingtonpost.com's The Trail quoted Sen. John McCain's false assertion that Sen. Barack Obama "once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan." The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes wrote in a February 20 article that McCain "asked whether the next president will have the experience to counter the world's threats" and quoted McCain claiming that Obama "once suggested bombing our ally Pakistan." Similarly, in a February 19 post on the washingtonpost.com blog The Trail, staff writer Glenn Kessler wrote that "McCain asked: 'Will the next president have the experience? Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate' who, he said, threatened to bomb Pakistan and would sit down with rogue dictators?" Kessler then added that "[w]hile McCain did not mention Obama, both referenced statements that [sic] have caused Obama grief in the primaries." However, neither Calmes nor Kessler reported Obama's actual comments about Pakistan, which McCain misrepresented: In an August 1, 2007, foreign policy speech, Obama stated: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf won't act, we will."

Contrary to McCain's assertion, Obama did not say he would take action against Pakistan -- he made any action against "high-value terrorist targets" inside Pakistan conditional -- and he did not specify what the action would be.

From McCain's February 19 speech:

McCAIN: A self-important bully in Venezuela threatens to cut off oil shipments to our country at a time of skyrocketing gas prices. Each event poses a challenge and an opportunity. Will the next president have the experience, the judgment experience informs, and the strength of purpose to respond to each of these developments in ways that strengthen our security and advance the global progress of our ideals?

Or will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan, and suggested sitting down without preconditions or clear purpose with enemies who support terrorists and are intent on destabilizing the world by acquiring nuclear weapons?

I think you know the answer to that question.

In a February 19 article, McClatchy Newspapers -- apparently quoting from the original text of McCain's speech as prepared for delivery -- reported that McCain said Obama "once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan." However, this, too, is false. As Media Matters for America has previously noted, Obama did not say he would "invade" Pakistan. Indeed, in an August 7, 2007, blog entry, ABC News senior national correspondent Jake Tapper reported that he had emailed ABC News national security analyst Anthony H. Cordesman to determine whether "the media (and I) overstate[d] the case by using the term 'invade' " in their reports about Obama's statement. Tapper wrote that Cordesman "told me that Obama is correct, what he's talking about militarily would not be considered an 'invasion' " [emphasis in original].

In contrast to The Wall Street Journal, the washingtonpost.com, and McClatchy, a February 19 Associated Press article by Liz Sidoti quoted McCain's attack against Obama and noted that "[l]ast August, Obama had said if the United States had actionable intelligence about top terrorist targets in Pakistan and President Pervez Musharraf wouldn't act, the U.S. would."

Moreover, McCain's mischaracterization of Obama's position notwithstanding, The Wall Street Journal, washingtonpost.com, and McClatchy did not note that The Washington Post reported on February 19 that the United States recently used a CIA predator aircraft to launch missile strikes inside Pakistan and that "the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval" of the Pakistani government. In a February 19 post on the blog Talking Points Memo, managing editor David Kurtz noted McCain's mischaracterization of Obama's position on Pakistan and wrote that "[i]ronically enough, the Washington Post is reporting today on just such a U.S. military strike into Pakistan." Indeed, Post staff writers Joby Warrick and Robin Wright reported that on January 29, a CIA Predator aircraft in Pakistan, "relying on information secretly passed to the CIA by local informants," fired missiles that killed "Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda commander." According to the Post, "Having requested the Pakistani government's official permission for such strikes on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval. The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was notified only as the operation was underway, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities." The article then stated that the "incident was a model of how Washington often scores its rare victories these days in the fight against al-Qaeda inside Pakistan's national borders: It acts with assistance from well-paid sympathizers inside the country, but without getting the government's formal permission beforehand."

From the February 20 Wall Street Journal article:

In his victory speech last night, Sen. McCain left no doubt which Democrat he expects to run against -- Sen. Obama. Without naming the 46-year-old first-term senator from Illinois, the 71-year-old fourth-term Sen. McCain clearly had his younger rival in mind in drawing a blistering contrast between his own national-security experience and "an eloquent but empty call for change."

Further previewing a potential anti-Obama campaign -- while ignoring Sen. [Hillary] Clinton -- Sen. McCain asked whether the next president will have the experience to counter the world's threats, or "will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate, who once suggested bombing our ally Pakistan and suggested sitting down without preconditions or clear purpose with enemies who support terrorists and are intent on destabilizing the world by acquiring nuclear weapons?"

Sen. Obama, already campaigning in Texas last night, used his Wisconsin valedictory speech not only to re-emphasize his message of political inclusiveness and an end to partisan gridlock, but to answer both his Democratic and potential Republican rivals.

From the February 19 post on washingtonpost.com's The Trail:

In his victory speech, McCain appeared to set his sights on silver-tongued Barack Obama as his competitor in the general election, ignoring the fact that Sen. Hillary Clinton is still running neck and neck with the Illinois senator.

"I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change," which McCain said "promises no more than a holiday from history."

Ticking off global hot spots, such as the elections in Pakistan, the unexpected retirement of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's threat to cut off oil supplies to the United States, McCain asked, "Will the next president have the experience? Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate" who, he said, threatened to bomb Pakistan and would sit down with rogue dictators. While McCain did not mention Obama, both referenced statements that have caused Obama grief in the primaries.

In a line that garnered his biggest applause of the night, McCain declared, "My friends, I am not the youngest candidate, but I am the most experienced."

From the February 19 McClatchy Newspapers article:

McCain declared victory moments after the polls closed. He had no harsh words for [Republican presidential candidate Mike] Huckabee, whom he beat 55 to 37 percent in Wisconsin, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. But he wasted no time in taking a veiled shot at the Democrat who's now inescapably the front-runner to oppose him in the fall:

"I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure that Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change," McCain said. Obama's crusade for change is the signature issue of his campaign.

"Will the next president have the experience, the judgment experience informs and the strength of purpose to respond to each of these developments in ways that strengthen our security and advance the global progress of our ideals?" McCain asked. "Or will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan, and sitting down without preconditions or clear purpose with enemies who support terrorists and are intent on destabilizing the world by acquiring nuclear weapons?"

Network/Outlet
Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post
Stories/Interests
Barack Obama, John McCain, 2008 Elections
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