A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Questionable Quotes

Vets for Freedom ad attributes CIA chief's viewpoint to a critical newspaper.


Summary

Vets for Freedom, a group made up of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, launched a new ad this week that falsely attributes a quote to the Washington Post. The ad gives the impression that the Post was a critic of the surge in Iraq and is now admitting it was wrong. But the words the group uses are the views of the head of the CIA, not the newspaper.

Analysis

The independent group Vets for Freedom released its second in a pair of ads about the presidential campaign on July 16, saying it will air in Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and in some cable markets. The organization earlier launched two Web ads in May that were critical of Sen. Barack Obama and the fact that he hadn’t visited Iraq since January 2006. Vets for Freedom calls itself a nonpartisan organization that supports both Democrats and Republicans "who have stood behind our great generation of American warriors on the battlefield." But its chairman also conceded to the Washington Post that the message in its ads is nearly identical to what McCain has been saying in his campaign. McCain supporters Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham also stepped down from the group’s board of advisers in May, citing "McCain campaign guidelines."

Neither of the two recent ads mention presidential candidates by name. They both feature several veterans saying that "the surge worked" and that "we need to finish the job" in Iraq "no matter who is president." Several quotes are also displayed on screen. But in one case, the ads misrepresent the words of the Washington Post.

[TET ]

Vets for Freedom Ad: "Some in Washington"

Veteran 1: Some in Washington told us the war was lost.
On screen: "I believe … that this war is lost," Senator Harry Reid. CBS/AP 4/19/07
Veteran 2: Others said the surge would fail.
On screen: "It is a course that will not succeed," Senator Barack Obama. Huffington Post 9/13/07
Veteran 3: But while they argued…
On screen: "[The Surge]  … is wrong," Senator Chuck Hagel. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing 1/11/07
Veteran 4: We continued to fight.
Veteran 5: Today, even the harshest critics agree, the surge worked.
Veteran 6: The surge worked.
Veteran 7: Al Qaeda has been decimated …
On screen: Washington Post 5/31/08 "essentially defeated."
Veteran 3: And the Iraqi government grows stronger each day.
Veteran 4: These are the facts.
Veteran 1: They cannot be denied.
Veteran 3: While some many not like this war…
Veteran 7: Those that fought it…
Veteran 5: Know we can’t afford to lose.
Veteran 1: We need to finish the job.
Veteran 4: We need to finish the job.
Announcer: No matter who is president.[/TET]

In the most recent ad, one of the veterans says, "Today, even the harshest critics agree, the surge worked," and another repeats, "The surge worked." Then, the quote "essentially defeated" appears on screen, attributed to the Washington Post, as another veteran adds, "al Qaeda has been decimated." But the Post never said that al Qaeda had been "essentially defeated." Those are the paraphrased words of CIA Chief Michael Hayden.

The newspaper described Hayden’s remarks in an interview with the Post in late May. (Actually, the story ran May 30, not May 31 as the ad says.):

Washington Post, May 30: Less than a year after his agency warned of new threats from a resurgent al-Qaeda, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden now portrays the terrorist movement as essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the rest of the world, including in its presumed haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The ad gives viewers the impression that the Post had been one of the "harshest critics" of the surge and that the paper had recently confessed it was wrong. But the quote the ad uses is not the assessment of the newspaper – it’s the view of the head of the CIA.

Filching the credibility of news organizations isn’t a new tactic: We’ve taken issue with it before, most recently in parsing ads that ran in both the Republican and Democratic primaries.

For those who might be curious, in the same story, the Post included differing views on the condition of al Qaeda:

Washington Post: The sense of shifting tides in the terrorism fight is shared by a number of terrorism experts, though some caution that it is too early to tell whether the gains are permanent. Some credit Hayden and other U.S. intelligence leaders for going on the offensive against al-Qaeda in the area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where the tempo of Predator strikes has dramatically increased from previous years. But analysts say the United States has caught some breaks in the past year, benefiting from improved conditions in Iraq, as well as strategic blunders by al-Qaeda that have cut into its support base.

Obama Quote

One of the veterans in the ad also says that politicians "said the surge would fail," as a quote from Obama – "It is a course that will not succeed" – is displayed. But Obama wasn’t predicting that the surge would fail to reduce the level of violence. His words actually referred to Bush’s stewardship of the war overall. The words that are quoted were said in September 2007, eight months after the president announced the surge plan. Here’s the quote in context:

Obama: So, I think it is fair to say that the president has simply tried to gain another six months to continue on the same course that he’s been on for several years now. It is a course that will not succeed. It is a course that is exacting an enormous toll on the American people, enormous toll on our troops who have performed brilliantly and done everything that’s been asked of them and is not making us more safe.

– by Justin Bank, with Lori Robertson


Sources

"Mashup Transcript: Barack Obama." Huffington Post, 13 Sept. 2007.

Warrick, Joby. "U.S. Cites Big Gains Against Al-Qaeda." Washington Post, 30 May 2008.