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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Crossroads Skips Context in Colorado

The conservative group Crossroads GPS attacks Colorado Sen. Mark Udall for saying the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant isn’t an “imminent threat” to the United States. The ad leaves off the rest of the senator’s remarks and then cites a news article that actually supports what Udall said.

Udall went on to say, “But if we don’t respond to the threat it represents, they will be a threat to this country.” And a USA Today article cited on-screen in the Crossroads ad quotes Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as telling the newspaper that the terrorist group isn’t a threat to the homeland “at this point.”

The ad, which is airing on a $3.5 million buy, according to the New York Times, features a woman named Melissa, a mother of five and a Marine, who says she worries about her kids’ “future and safety.” She says it “bothered” her when Udall said this, and a clip is shown of Udall saying, “that ISIL does not present an imminent threat to this nation.”

That’s a truncated quote from the senator during an early September debate. Here are the fuller remarks:

Udall, Sept. 6 debate: I said last week that ISIL does not present an imminent threat to this nation, and it doesn’t. I sit on the armed services committee and intelligence committee. But if we don’t respond to the threat it represents, they will be a threat to this country.

Udall went on to say that the U.S. should respond by standing together, not playing politics. He said, “We are pushing back ISIL right now as we sit here with airstrikes and special forces in Iraq.” And he said Arab nations and moderate Sunnis should “stand up and rub out this threat that’s in their midst.”

Udall didn’t dismiss ISIL as nothing to worry about. Instead, he said the terrorist group wasn’t an “imminent” threat to the U.S. but will be in the future if the country doesn’t respond in the Middle East now.

This isn’t the only attack ad to pick up on the Udall quote. The NRSC highlighted it in an ad also portraying Udall as soft on terrorism, as did Udall’s Republican opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner.

But the Crossroads ad is the only one to actually cite a news article that supports what Udall said. While the woman in the ad says, “As a mom and a Marine, I know the danger is closer to home than Sen. Udall seems to think,” an on-screen graphic cites an August USA Today article headlined, “Returning Islamic State fighters could threaten USA.” That article quotes experts saying that an attack on U.S. soil isn’t an imminent threat, but there’s concern about what could happen if fighters holding Western passports return home.

USA Today, Aug. 28, 2014: After U.S. planes bombed its forces in Iraq, the jihadist juggernaut that calls itself the Islamic State threatened to attack Americans “in any place,” adding for good measure: “We will drown all of you in blood.”

For now, facing a multi-front war and bombs falling on their fighters’ heads, the Islamic State’s leaders probably lack the time and opportunity to plot a strike on the U.S. homeland.

That could change if thousands of fighters with Western passports return home, terrorism analysts warn.

“Right now, they have plenty of other things to worry about and bigger fish to fry,” says Mia Bloom, an expert on suicide terrorism. But “everybody’s worried about what happens when these guys come back” – especially after the U.S. bombing. …

An attack could come later from returning fighters, experts say, or sooner from Americans who’ve never been to the Middle East but are inspired by Islamic State propaganda.

But the thrust of the Islamic State’s polished online recruiting pitch is to come on over and join the fight, not to stay home and plot terrorism.

The article does include quotes from two former military and intelligence officials who expressed a greater concern over an attack on U.S. soil. Gen. John Allen, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the Islamic State was “a clear and present danger to the U.S,” and former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin told the paper the group’s rivalry with al Qaeda makes an attack on the U.S. more likely, because “success would contrast sharply with al-Qaeda’s inability to pull off another major attack here after 9/11.”

But then the paper quotes the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying that the Islamic State isn’t a threat to the homeland “at this point.”

USA Today, Aug. 28, 2014: The Islamic State is not a threat to the homeland “at this point,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told USA TODAY. Unchecked, however, it will threaten Israel and Europe, he said, describing the group’s world view as virtually “apocalyptic. … This is not a group that can stop. It has to stay on the offensive.”

The woman in the ad says, “I know the danger is closer to home than Sen. Udall seems to think,” but Dempsey’s comments back up Udall.

There can be a difference of opinion over whether ISIL poses a threat to U.S. interests and allies, or an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland. But this ad implies that Udall doesn’t think ISIL is a threat at all, and that’s not accurate.

The ad ends with the woman correctly citing the Denver Post editorial that endorsed Gardner. She says Udall was “running a single-issue campaign that insults all of us.” Indeed, the editorial board wrote of Udall’s focus on advertising claims that Gardner wanted to ban birth control: Udall’s “obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince.”

— Lori Robertson