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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s ISIS Conspiracy Theory

Donald Trump said a report on a conservative news site proved he was “right” in suggesting President Obama supported terrorists. It doesn’t.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, also claimed, “Hillary Clinton received a classified intelligence report stating that the Obama administration was actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that became the Islamic State.” That’s not what the “intelligence report” said.

Trump first touted the article from Breitbart on Twitter on June 15:

That tweet came after he made vague comments on June 13 that President Obama had “something else in mind” that was “inconceivable” in regards to terrorism and the Orlando mass shooting.

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump said on Fox News. “And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

Trump refused to explain what he meant. “I’ll let people figure that out for themselves,” he told radio talk show host Howie Carr in an interview on June 13.

When the Washington Post ran an article headlined “Donald Trump suggests President Obama was involved with Orlando shooting” (which was later changed to say, “Donald Trump seems to connect President Obama to Orlando shooting“), Trump said he was banning the Post from covering his events. But now he claims he was “right” about the implication.

Trump then tied Clinton, the Democratic presumed presidential nominee, to the claim in a Facebook post on June 15: “Hillary Clinton received a classified intelligence report stating that the Obama administration was actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that became the Islamic State.” He again linked to a June 14 Breitbart report, which makes that allegation, too. But the government memo it cites doesn’t support that claim.

The August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency memo, which was posted online by the group Judicial Watch last year, says it is an “information report, not finally evaluated intelligence.” It describes “the general situation” in Syria:

DIA memo, August 2012: A. Internally, events are taking a clear sectarian direction.

B. The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.

C. The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China, and Iran support the regime.

The memo goes on to say, “AQI supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning.”

So, the U.S. and al Qaeda in Iraq both opposed the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But concluding that that means the U.S. supported AQI is false logic. And such a leap would mean “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey” were all in on it, too.

“The US never supported AQ in Iraq – not sure where that came from,” Andrew Tabler, the Martin J. Gross fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told us in an email.

Perry Cammack, an associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and formerly a Middle East policy staffer of Secretary of State John Kerry, said the claim was wrong both in terms of its illogical reading of the memo and “in terms of the history of the Obama administration’s Syria policy.”

He calls the Breitbart article “amazingly poor reporting” and says it’s “silly” to present the memo as some kind of smoking gun.

“If anything the Obama administration has been criticized for doing too little to support the Syrian opposition, and it’s frankly for exactly this reason,” Cammack told us in a phone interview.

In May 2012, a few months before the DIA memo, Obama was criticized by Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, for not arming the Syrian opposition to fight against the Assad regime. The administration’s concern was having those weapons fall into the wrong hands. In 2014, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the administration should have armed rebels sooner — a position Hillary Clinton has also taken. By October 2015, the administration abandoned a program to train and equip a new rebel force to fight the Islamic State, and said instead it would provide equipment to other existing groups.

Tabler, who lived in the Middle East for 14 years, co-founded an English-language magazine in Syria and authored the 2011 book “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria,” said the argument linking the administration to the Islamic State seemed to come from the idea that U.S. policy led to the creation of the Islamic State, but the U.S. supported the non-jihadist opposition.

“The reason for the growth of terror groups in Syria is due to the breakdown of the Assad regime (which controls now only 1/3 of Syrian territory) due to its response to the Syrian uprising,” Tabler said. “The US supported the non-jihadist opposition, not Jihadists like AQ’s Jebhat al-Nusra.”

In fact, al-Nusra (or the Nusra Front) was designated a foreign terrorist group by the Obama administration in December 2011. The State Department memo on the designation called the Nusra Front an “alias” of al Qaeda in Iraq, which the U.S. had declared a foreign terrorist group in 2004.

That State Department memo said that through 600 attacks since November 2011, “al-Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.” The memo highlighted the United States’ “non-lethal” and humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.

“The violent, sectarian vision of al-Nusrah is at odds with the aspirations of the Syrian people, including the overwhelming majority of the Syrian opposition, who seek a free, democratic, and inclusive Syria and have made clear their desire for a government that respects and advances national unity, dignity, human rights, and equal protection under the law – regardless of faith, ethnicity, or gender,” the State Department memo said.

Robert Ford, who was U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, told the Washington Post that the memo highlighted by Breitbart had been “circulating on the Internet for years” and that it was likely a report of a briefing by the Iraqi military. Ford has criticized the administration’s policy in Syria.

As for this memo going to Clinton when she was secretary of state, Cammack said the fact that it lists “RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHINGTON DC” as a recipient — something Breitbart noted — is “meaningless.” The memo likely would have been read by “worker bees,” and potentially incorporated into a briefing for the secretary.

Indeed, State Department spokesman John Kirby told the Washington Post Fact Checker that “[a]ll reports that come to Washington have that address” and that “it does not indicate it was sent to the secretary of state or the secretary’s office.”

Cammack said it was “outrageous” that any American president would be accused of supporting a terrorist group bent on destroying the U.S.

We agree. It’s the kind of claim that we’d debunk in an article on viral conspiracy theories.

Update, June 17: Michael Morell, the deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2010 to 2013, who also served under the Bush administration, wrote a June 16 piece for Politico, saying that Trump “resurrected an old conspiracy theory … that has no place in our public discourse.” Morell wrote that the Obama administration “went to great lengths to ensure that any aid provided by the United States to the opposition would not fall into the hands of extremists, including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.” He said the DIA memo was the view of one DIA official in Iraq, and “it was simply wrong in its facts when it indicated that the West was supporting extremists in Syria.”