Reuters and Special Report both reported that Sen. John McCain simply "misspoke" when he said in a March 18 press conference that "it's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran." But McCain did not refer to Al Qaeda training in Iran just once during the press conference -- he did so twice. Moreover, he made the same misstatement the day before on Hugh Hewitt's radio program.
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On the March 18 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, during a report on Sen. John McCain's admittedly false claim at a March 18 press conference that "it's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran," chief political correspondent Carl Cameron said McCain "misspoke in the way he accused Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq" -- echoing a position that the McCain campaign has taken. Additionally, in a March 18 Reuters article, reporter Steve Holland wrote that McCain "got tangled up briefly on Tuesday on which Islamic extremist group Iran is accused of supporting" and later quoted McCain spokesman Brian Rogers claiming that McCain "misspoke and immediately corrected himself." But McCain did not refer just once to Al Qaeda training in Iran -- he did so twice during the press conference, a fact that neither Cameron nor Holland reported. Moreover, neither reported that McCain had made a similar misstatement the previous day. As the blog Think Progress noted, McCain said to nationally syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt during a March 17 interview: "As you know, there are Al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they're moving back into Iraq."
The Washington Post's Cameron W. Barr and Michael D. Shear reported on March 18 that McCain made the misstatement twice -- once in remarks, and again when he was "[p]ressed to elaborate" on it:
He said several times that Iran, a predominately Shiite country, was supplying the mostly Sunni militant group, al-Qaeda. In fact, officials have said they believe Iran is helping Shiite extremists in Iraq.
Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back."
Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was "common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that's well known. And it's unfortunate." A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate's ear. McCain then said: "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda."
The mistake threatened to undermine McCain's argument that his decades of foreign policy experience make him the natural choice to lead a country at war with terrorists.
From the March 18 Reuters article:
Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who is touting his foreign policy credentials, got tangled up briefly on Tuesday on which Islamic extremist group Iran is accused of supporting.
McCain, at a news conference in the Jordanian capital of Amman, accused Iran of supporting the Sunni extremist group al Qaeda in Iraq.
U.S. officials believe Iran has been backing Shi'ite extremists in Iraq, not a Sunni group like al Qaeda.
"Well, it's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al Qaeda is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That's well known and it's unfortunate," McCain said.
Connecticut Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, traveling with McCain on a swing through the Middle East and Europe, whispered in his ear and McCain quickly corrected himself.
"I'm sorry; the Iranians are training the extremists, not al Qaeda. Not al Qaeda. I'm sorry," McCain said.
Democrats quickly jumped on McCain, a strong backer of President George W. Bush's troop build-up in Iraq.
"After eight years of the Bush administration's incompetence in Iraq, McCain's comments don't give the American people a reason to believe that he can be trusted to offer a clear way forward," said Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney.
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said McCain "misspoke and immediately corrected himself."
"Democrats have launched political attacks today because they know the American people have deep concerns about their candidates' judgment and readiness to lead as commander in chief," Rogers said.
McCain's next stop was Europe on Wednesday where Bush has been heavily criticized for a perceived "go it alone" approach on a wide range of international issues.
From the March 18 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
McCAIN: There's no doubt in the king's mind, as he stated very explicitly, if the United States pulls out of Iraq prematurely, it will lead grave challenges and difficulties in the region.
CAMERON: Including, McCain repeatedly warned, strengthening Iran's influence across the Middle East. But in a news conference with local reporters, McCain misspoke in the way he accused Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq.
McCAIN: -- common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran.
CAMERON: Except that Al Qaeda in Iraq is largely Sunni, and Iran's government is largely Shia. The two sects have feuded for centuries. After a whispered reminder from Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, McCain immediately corrected himself.
McCAIN: I'm sorry. The Iranians are training extremists, not Al Qaeda.
CAMERON: From the Arab and Muslim world, McCain went straight to Israel to meet President Shimon Peres and promised to maintain the special U.S. relationship with the Jewish state.