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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Gingrich Overshoots the Truth

Republican Newt Gingrich mistakenly claimed on "Meet the Press" that a U.S. helicopter involved in the Osama bin Laden raid "was shot down." There’s no evidence of that. U.S. officials say it crash landed and was destroyed by Navy SEALs. Gingrich also was wrong to say Pakistan’s intelligence chief did not apologize for "failing to find" bin Laden. He may not have apologized to Gingrich or the U.S. public, but he did apologize to the Pakistani Parliament.

On domestic affairs, Gingrich exaggerated or overstated the facts on food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid fraud, and the uninsured — making bad situations appear even worse.

U.S. Helicopter ‘Shot Down’?

The former House speaker, who announced May 9 that he will run for the Republican presidential nomination, appeared on "Meet the Press" May 15. Asked if he still believes the U.S. is losing the war on terror after Navy SEALs killed bin Laden, Gingrich criticized Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the chief of the nation’s top spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. In doing so, he made false claims about the fate of a U.S. helicopter during the raid and Pasha’s actions after the raid.

Gingrich, May 15: Does anybody — and notice, by the way, what the intelligence chief has apologized for. He’s apologized for the Americans getting bin Laden. He didn’t apologize for nine and a half years of failing to find him. He didn’t apologize for Pakistan having failed to do its duty. And who did the — who did the Pakistanis call the minute the American covert helicopter was shot down? They called the Chinese. Now, I would just suggest to you, we need to rethink carefully what do we mean by the word, ‘ally.’

Although there has been some unfounded speculation among bloggers about what brought down the U.S. helicopter, there is no evidence that it was shot down. The U.S. hasn’t disclosed precisely why the helicopter went down — perhaps because, as the Army Times reported, it was a "secret stealth Black Hawk" whose existence wasn’t public knowledge. At a May 2 press briefing, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said there was "no engagement with Pakistani forces." The American Forces Press Service, which is part of the Department of Defense, wrote on May 9 that the helicopter was damaged during a "hard landing." State Department spokesman Mark Toner on May 13 said it "crashed landed, or however you want to phrase it, and it was destroyed by the [Navy SEALs] team on the ground."

As for an apology, Pasha did apologize to the Pakistani Parliament on May 13 for intelligence failures and offered to resign. Two Pakistan news outlets reported on Pasha’s apology: 

Daily Times, May 15: In a historic, unprecedented step, the DG ISI Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha presented himself before an in-camera joint session of parliament. Admitting the failure to detect the presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the incursion by US SEALs to kill Osama and his companions, the DG apologised to the nation, offering to resign.

The Nation, May 14: Admitting intelligence failure in Abbottabad fiasco, ISI Director General Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha Friday sought apology from the nation and offered to resign if the parliament so demands.

Pasha was not asked to resign. The New York Times reported that after Pasha apologized for his agency’s failures he "rallied Parliament behind him" by denouncing the U.S. for violating Pakistan’s airspace without its knowledge.

Paying ‘Crooks’ a Trillion Dollars?

In discussing domestic affairs, Gingrich inflated some figures to make U.S. economic conditions look worse than they are. Gingrich overstated the amount of fraud in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Gingrich, May 15: We — between Medicare and Medicaid — we pay between $70 billion and $120 billion a year to crooks. And IBM has agreed to help solve it, American Express has agreed to help solve it, Visa’s agreed to help solve it. You can’t get anybody in this town to look at it. That’s, that’s almost $1 trillion over a decade. So there are things you can do to improve Medicare.

It’s true that Medicare and Medicaid paid about $70 billion in "improper payments" in 2010, but not all of those payments were fraudulent. Furthermore, Congress has already passed a law implementing the very kinds of solutions that Gingrich claimed "you can’t get anybody in this town to look at."

The federal government estimates that in 2010 it made $125 billion in "improper payments" in all federal programs — not just the two cited by Gingrich. And the improper payments did not all go to "crooks." They represent waste, fraud and abuse. The government defines "improper payments" as: payments that go to the wrong recipient; payments that go to the right recipient but are the wrong amount; payments that are made without proper documentation; and payments to recipients who use the money improperly. 

About half of improper payments, or $70.4 billion, were in Medicaid ($22.5 billion), Medicare’s traditional fee-for-services program ($34.3 billion), and Medicare Advantage ($13.6 billion). That’s the low end of Gingrich’s range, although we repeat that not all payments went to "crooks."

So, can the federal government save “almost $1 trillion over a decade” if it stops paying "crooks," as Gingrich claims? That’s not possible. Even if the government eliminated all improper payments in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, it wouldn’t amount to $1 trillion.

Gingrich said that "IBM has agreed to help solve it," and it’s true that the Technology CEO Council, chaired by IBM President Samuel J. Palmisano, has said better use of technology could cut down on fraud. But the group didn’t say the government could eliminate all improper payments, or that it could save $1 trillion over a decade by even eliminating some of them. Instead, the Technology CEO Council issued a report in October 2010 estimating that the government could recoup $200 billion in fraudulent payments in all federal programs over 10 years by applying "advanced analytics technology."

Technology CEO Council, Oct. 6, 2010: Stop Fraud with Analytics – An estimated $200 billion could be saved by applying advanced analytics technology to reduce fraud and errors in federal grants, food stamps, Medicare reimbursements, tax refunds and other programs.

The report also said that the federal government could save $1 trillion by 2020 overall through better use of technology, not just by reducing improper payments.

The Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, which became law a few weeks before the council’s report, requires the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to use advanced analytic technology in an attempt to reduce fraud. A March 2011 report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said the new law — coupled with provisions in the new federal health care law — "could help in reducing fraud, waste, and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid." 

Are the Uninsured Living Large?

In explaining why he once supported an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, Gingrich exaggerated when he said "a large number of the uninsured earn $75,000 or more a year" and are buying second homes or other luxuries instead of insurance.

Gingrich, May 15: And, and so a large number of the uninsured earn $75,000 or more a year, don’t buy any health insurance because they want to buy a second house or a better car or go on vacation. And then you and I and everybody else ends up picking up for them. I don’t think having a free rider system in health is any more appropriate than having a free rider system in any other part of our society.

Gingrich said "a large number of the uninsured earn $75,000 or more a year." How large? Matt Brault, a Census Bureau statistician, walked us through the agency’s online data tools to calculate how many uninsured people earned more than $75,000. The answer: 1.1 million, or about 2 percent of the 50.7 million who were uninsured in 2009. 

Gingrich didn’t say family income, but we looked at that, too. Census figures show that in 2009 about 16.6 percent (8.4 million) of the 50.7 million of the uninsured lived in families earning more than $75,000. Yes, 8.4 million is a large number, but $75,000 a year — while well above the median income of $49,777 in 2009 — is generally well short of what’s required for a family to own multiple homes. And about 83 percent of the uninsured have family incomes less than that.

Finally, we looked at a December 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report, "The Uninsured: A Primer," which said 40 percent of all the uninsured in 2009 lived below poverty.

Food Stamp Inflation

The former speaker — while explaining what he meant when he called Obama a "food stamp president" in a May 13 speech in Georgia — also overstated the number of Americans receiving food stamps by 3 million people.

Gingrich, May 15: Forty-seven million Americans are on food stamps. One out of every six Americans is on food stamps.

The actual numbers are lower, though not much better. The Department of Agriculture’s most recent data show that there were about 44.2 million Americans receiving food stamps in February. The U.S. population is now 311.4 million, so that means about one in seven Americans is on food stamps. Not as high as Gingrich claimed.