PolitiFact knows McCain's Iran statement is "[f]alse" -- but doesn't want to "pile on"

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI & KIRSTIN ELLISON

In noting Sen. John McCain's false statement that "[i]t'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," PolitiFact.com asserted: "We're not trying to pile on to Sen. John McCain over his misstatement on the link between Iran and al-Qaida. Maybe he was confused just for a moment. He did correct himself quickly." PolitiFact did not mention that McCain made the same error twice, and that he had made it the previous day.

In a recent PolitiFact.com article purporting to examine Sen. John McCain's admittedly false claim at a March 18 press conference that "[i]t'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," PolitiFact echoed the McCain campaign by characterizing his misstatement as a momentary lapse, asserting: "Maybe he was confused just for a moment. He did correct himself quickly." PolitiFact added later, "McCain recovered quickly, but we still rate his statement False." But McCain was not "confused just for a moment" -- he made the same error twice during the press conference, which PolitiFact did not note. Moreover, PolitiFact did not mention that McCain had made a similar misstatement the previous day -- further undermining PolitiFact's claim that "McCain correct[ed] himself" or "recovered quickly." 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."

PolitiFact introduced its rating of McCain's statement as "False" by writing the following: "We're not trying to pile on to Sen. John McCain over his misstatement on the link between Iran and al-Qaida." In an examination of critical articles about statements by Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, Media Matters for America could find no instance in which PolitiFact expressed concern that calling attention to what it deemed to be a false statement by Clinton or Obama might constitute "piling on." Nor could Media Matters find a similar statement or suggestion that the Democrat making the flawed statement may have been "confused just for a moment." As Media Matters noted, NBC News political director Chuck Todd observed of McCain's misstatement: "[H]ad Clinton or Obama done something like this, this would have been played on a loop, over and over."

In a March 18 statement, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers claimed, "In a press conference today, John McCain misspoke and immediately corrected himself by stating that Iran is in fact supporting radical Islamic extremists in Iraq, not Al Qaeda -- as the transcript shows. 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."

The Washington Post's Cameron W. Barr and Michael D. Shear reported on March 18 that McCain made the misstatement twice during the press conference -- 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.

Video of McCain's first March 18 misstatement, in which he said Iranian operatives are "taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back," can be found here at 2 minutes and 3 seconds into the video. Video of McCain's second misstatement, in which he 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," can be found here.

According to its website, PolitiFact.com is a project of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly intended "to help voters separate fact from falsehood in the 2008 presidential campaign."

From the March 2008 PolitiFact.com article:

We're not trying to pile on to Sen. John McCain over his misstatement on the link between Iran and al-Qaida. Maybe he was confused just for a moment. He did correct himself quickly. Still, it's worth exploring why McCain's statement is wrong.

"It's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaida is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran; that's well known. And it's unfortunate," McCain said during a press conference in Jordan, where he was traveling.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who was also at the press conference spoke softly in McCain's ear, and McCain corrected himself to say "Islamic extremists" were going into Iran.

Most experts do not believe Iran is helping al-Qaida because their respective religious affiliations are at odds with each other. Both sides are Muslim, but the Iranian government is Shiite while al-Qaida is Sunni. And al-Qaida adheres to a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam that considers Shiites to be apostate. It's not likely the two groups would work together, certainly not "common knowledge."

In Iraq, both al-Qaida and Shiite extremists are commonly believed to be committing acts of violence. But it was al-Qaida that was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, not Shiite extremists.

[...]

McCain recovered quickly, but we still rate his statement False for saying everyone knows Iran and al-Qaida are working together.

Posted In
Elections, National Security & Foreign Policy
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Politifact.com
Stories/Interests
John McCain, 2008 Elections
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