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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Misleading Appeal To Fear

Pro-Bush group misstates key facts about anti-terror campaign.


The pro-Bush group Progress for America is running a TV ad appealing directly to Americans’ fear of terrorists, saying bluntly “These people want to kill us.”

That’s true enough. But the ad falsely attributes the recent thwarting of a hijack plot to the President’s warrantless NSA wiretaps, when it was actually British authorities who uncovered it.

The ad also distorts the position of Iraq war critics, implying they propose to withdraw from “the Middle East” and not just Iraq.

And in a bit of bad luck, the ad cites the case of al-Qaeda affiliate Zarqawi as evidence of the success of Bush’s anti-terror campaign – one day before the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report saying Saddam Hussein considered him an outlaw and tried to have him arrested.


The ad was announced Sept. 7. PFA said it is the ‘first flight’ and is appearing initially in Missouri and on the organization’s Web site, with plans to keep it running for the week that will include the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Its sponsor is a group formed in 2001 for the express purpose of backing the “Bush agenda,” and it spent $38 million in 2004 promoting the President’s re-election.

Progress for America Ad:
“The War on Terror”

Announcer: These people want to kill us. Whether called Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, they’re terrorists who want to kill everyone who don’t submit to their extreme ideology, submit to a system where women have no rights, where innocent civilians are political pawns.

Many seem to have forgotten the evil that happened only five years ago.

They would cut and run in the Middle East, leaving Al-Qaeda to attack us again.

Many times before 9/11, Al-Qaeda attacked America, and we took little action: the first World Trade Center bombing, our embassies, the USS Cole.

But after 9/11, we struck back, destroying Al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. Terrorists like Zarqawi who want to kill us.

Now, we have narrowly escaped “another 9/11,” using proven surveillance that some would stop.

The War on Terror is a war for our country’s freedom, security and survival.

The ad is a raw appeal to fear, saying “these people want to kill us” while showing weapons-toting fighters and a huge crowd chanting “Death to America.” It adds, “Many seem to have forgotten the evil that happened only five years ago,” while showing an orange fireball billowing from the World Trade Center south tower as United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into it Sept. 11, 2001.

Strictly speaking, the ad is clearly false on that point. We know of nobody who has “forgotten” the events of 9/11, and we doubt that Progress for America can name a single person who has. If what PFA means by this statement is that “many” people don’t see 9/11 as justification for the military campaign in Iraq or the President’s domestic anti-terror actions, they are correct. Many do disagree.

We asked PFA about this. They cited a poll showing only about a third of Americans are worried they will be victims of terrorism. That’s not the same as “forgetting.”

Misleading Claim: NSA Wiretaps

The ad seriously misleads viewers when it shows a Newsweek cover story about the foiled plot to blow up US-bound airliners, and claims that “we have narrowly escaped ‘another 9/11,’ using proven surveillance that some would stop.” That’s a reference to the National Security Agency wiretaps that President Bush ordered to be undertaken without seeking judicial warrants. In fact, there is no evidence that the NSA wiretaps played any significant role at all in the discovery or thwarting of the alleged plot. British authorities had been watching the accused plotters since December 2005, and only informed the White House about the plot a few days prior to making arrests.

We have been over this before, and what we said then bears repeating. White House adviser Fran  Townsend revealed in an interview on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews that the US simply played a supporting role:

Townsend: We put every tool at our disposal into use to help our British colleagues. But this really was a British investigation for the longest time. We didn’t see an American threat. It was only recently we developed the American angle working with our British colleagues, but this was really a British threat.

We know of no evidence that the the NSA wiretaps turned up any trace of the alleged British plot prior to the British discovery of it. And the British had been watching the accused plotters since December, roughly eight months before giving President Bush a “detailed briefing” about it on Aug. 4, which in turn was less than a week prior to making arrests. No less an authority than the President himself gave the British, not the NSA, credit for exposing the plan. He said on the day of the arrests, Aug 10:

Bush Aug. 10: I want to thank the government of Tony Blair and officials in the United Kingdom for their good work in busting this plot.

According to news accounts, the British first got onto the plan after receiving a tip from a worried member of the Muslim community.

When we asked PFA about this they cited news accounts saying that the British had used wiretaps in their months-long investigation of the suspected terrorists. We consider that a particularly lame response. We know of nobody who suggests that the British end “surveillance.” As for the NSA taps, critics generally aren’t calling for them to end either – they propose that Bush get judicial warrants for them from the same special panel of judges that approves other secret intelligence-agency wiretaps.

Misleading Claim: ‘Leaving al Qaeda free to attack’

The ad also claims that “They would cut and run in the Middle East, leaving Al-Qaeda to attack us again,” apparently referring to the President’s critics. But we know of nobody who advocates US withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, much less from the entire Middle East. The ad is artfully worded to avoid mention of an unpopular subject, Iraq, which is the one place in the Middle East that some Bush critics want the US to leave.

In fact, a number of Bush critics have said for years that the administration should have put more troops into the hunt for bin Laden and the remnants of his leadership in the mountains of the Pakistani-Afghan border region. For example, on March 5, Democratic Rep. John Murtha said on CBS News’s Face the Nation:

Murtha, March 5: Let me tell you, the only people who want us in Iraq is Iran and al-Qaeda, and I talked to a top level commander the other day, who’s–about two weeks ago, and he said China wants us there also. Why? Because we’re depleting our resources. Our phys–our mental–not our mental–our troop resources and our fiscal resources.

Q: Well, now, Congressman, when you say al-Qaeda wants us there, why would al-Qaeda want us there?

A: Because we’re depleting our resources. A very small proportion to what’s going on in Iraq, and they’ve diverted their attention away from the war on terrorism.

Describing such criticism as proposing to leave al Quaeda unmolested is as false as it can be. And the fact is that despite all Bush’s efforts bin Laden still remains at large and – in theory – “free to attack us again.”

Misleading Claim: ‘Terrorists like Zarqawi who want to kill us’

The ad specifically cites the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in support of Bush policy in Iraq. It says the US destroyed al Qaeda terrorists “in Afghanistan and Iraq. Terrorists like Zarqawi who want to kill us.” But just one day after the ad appeared, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its long-awaited “Phase II” report on Iraq, concluding that Saddam Hussein not only offered no support for al Qaeda but repeatedly turned down requests for aid. As for Zarqawi, to whom some Bush allies once pointed as evidence of Saddam’s supposed ties to al Qaeda, the Senate report said Saddam tried and failed to capture him when he slipped into Baghdad under an alias in 2002, possibly seeking medical treatment. It said Saddam’s regime “did not have a relationship with, harbor or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi.” In fact, the Senate cited information from an al Qaeda detainee that Saddam “considered al-Zarqawi to be an outlaw.”

Zarqawi left and “he did not return to Baghdad until June 2003, after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime,” according to the report.


Watch PFA Ad: “War on Terror”


Craig Whitlock and Dafna Linzer, “Tip Followed ’05 Attacks on London Transit,” Washington Post 11 Aug 2006: A1.

President Bush Discusses Terror Plot Upon Arrival in Wisconsin,” White House. 10 Aug. 2006.

White House Press Briefing, Tony Snow. 11 Aug. 2006

CBS News Transcripts, “Face the Nation: Representative Jack Murtha, House Appropriations Committee, discusses war in Iraq and Iran, and Dubai ports deal,” 5 March 2006.

Jim Abrams, ” Senate: No prewar Saddam-al-Qaida ties,” The Associated Press, 8 Sep 2006.

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, ” Postwar Findings about Iraq’s WMD Programs and Links to Terrorism and How they Compare with Prewar Assessments,” released 8 Sep 2006.