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Pundits won't stop spinning Clark's phone call

By Ben Fritz
September 3, 2003

The story of who called retired general Wesley Clark on September 11, 2001 won't seem to die, with pundits left and right continually getting their facts wrong. Clark's story, while ambiguously phrased at first, has actually been quite consistent.

In an interview with Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press" on June 15, Clark, who is widely believed to be considering a run for president as a Democrat, asserted that some in the White House tried to connect Iraq to the attacks of September 11 and also that he had received a call that day urging him to make that connection:

GEN. CLARK: I think it was an effort to convince the American people to do something, and I think there was an immediate determination right after 9/11 that Saddam Hussein was one of the keys to winning the war on terror. Whether it was the need just to strike out or whether he was a linchpin in this, there was a concerted effort during the fall of 2001 starting immediately after 9/11 to pin 9/11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein.
MR. RUSSERT: By who? Who did that?
GEN. CLARK: Well, it came from the White House, it came from people around the White House. It came from all over. I got a call on 9/11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, "You got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein." I said, "But--I'm willing to say it but what's your evidence?" And I never got any evidence. And these were people who had--Middle East think tanks and people like this and it was a lot of pressure to connect this and there were a lot of assumptions made. But I never personally saw the evidence and didn't talk to anybody who had the evidence to make that connection.

A careful reading shows Clark never said the White House had anything to do with the call he received. Instead, he describes the call in reference to his statement that pressure also came from "all over," which is why he mentions "Middle East think tanks and people like this." But because he referred to the two so closely together, some viewers reached a hasty conclusion that Clark said the White House made the call.

The first critic to pick up on Clark's statements was at the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). In a media advisory several days after his "Meet the Press" appearance, the group didn't say Clark's accusations against the Bush administration and the call were related, but failed to differentiate them either, making the lack of a connection even more hazy for readers: "Former General Wesley Clark told anchor Tim Russert that Bush administration officials had engaged in a campaign to implicate Saddam Hussein in the September 11 attacks-- starting that very day. Clark said that he'd been called on September 11 and urged to link Baghdad to the terror attacks, but declined to do so because of a lack of evidence."

A week later, syndicated columnist Gene Lyons was the first to assert that Clark had said it was the White House that called to pressure him to connect Iraq to the terrorist attacks. Lyons explicitly referred to the unclear FAIR release while doing so. "Now in a rational world, the media watchdogs at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting pointed out, this would be newsworthy," he wrote. "The former NATO Supreme Commander says the Bush White House pressured him to blame 9/11 on Iraq even as the World Trade Center Towers were still smoking. Perhaps because Clark's own political ambitions remain unclear, however, little has been made of the allegation."

Lyons helped his case by selectively quoting from Clark's "Meet the Press" appearance. In response to Russert's question "Who did that?" he quotes Clark as saying:

"Well, it came from the White House," Clark said. "It came from people around the White House. . . I got a call on 9/11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, 'You got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein.' I said, 'But-I'm willing to say it but what's your evidence?' And I never got any evidence. . . It was a lot of pressure to connect this and there were a lot of assumptions made. But I never personally saw the evidence and didn't talk to anybody who had the evidence to make that connection."

Notice how the quotes Lyons leaves in ellipses are the two that make it more clear Clark wasn't referring to the White House - the phrase "it came from all over" and the reference to "Middle East think tanks and people like this."

The reference to Middle East think tanks become more important in a July 1 appearance by Clark on Fox News Channel's "Hannity and Colmes." When co-host Sean Hannity asked him to specify who in the White House hyped the connection between Iraq and the September 11 attacks. Clark refused to say whom but, in a non sequitur, replied that, "I personally got a call from a fellow in Canada who is part of a Middle Eastern think tank who gets inside intelligence information. He called me on 9/11."

In a July 15 column in the New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman repeated Lyons' assertion, stating, "Wesley Clark says that he received calls on Sept. 11 from 'people around the White House' urging him to link that assault to Saddam Hussein." Krugman misrepresented Clark's statement, alleging that the phrase in quotes referred to the call when it came before Clark even brought up the call. Clark actually mentioned "people around the White House" in response to Russert's question about who was attempting to connect Saddam Hussein to September 11.

Clark may not have seen Lyons' column, but he clearly saw Krugman's, as he wrote a letter (reprinted in its entirety here) to the Times correcting the columnist:

I received a call from a Middle East think tank outside the country, asking me to link 9/11 to Saddam Hussein. No one from the White House asked me to link Saddam Hussein to Sept. 11. Subsequently, I learned that there was much discussion inside the administration in the days immediately after Sept. 11 trying to use 9/11 to go after Saddam Hussein.
In other words, there were many people, inside and outside the government, who tried to link Saddam Hussein to Sept. 11.

For unknown reasons, although Clark's letter was dated July 18, it wasn't published until August 13, nearly a month after Krugman's column. The month-long delay and the failure to correct the misquotation, which could easily have been checked in the Nexis news database, speaks very poorly for the paper.

In an item in its "Scrapbook" in the August 25 issue, the Weekly Standard quoted excerpts from these appearances and the letter, purporting to show that "Clark has now provided three versions of this story." But while Clark did add details about the Middle East think tank in Canada on "Hannity" and in the Times, none of these statements contradict any others, if one properly understands Clark's two separate statement about White House pressure and the phone call.

The Standard also says, "If you read version three [the letter to the Times] carefully, you will see that Clark has now exonerated the White House of his most serious accusation. Much as he wants to put a sinister spin on the matter, all Clark is saying is that the White House was more sensitive to the Iraqi threat after 9/11." But Clark's letter to the Times squares with his original accusation against the White House in the "Meet The Press" appearance - that the Bush administration tried to link Saddam Hussein to September 11.

In the next issue of the Standard, dated September 1, an article about Clark makes a new accusation - that he couldn't have received the call on September 11 as he describes it because, "There isn't really a 'Middle East think tank' in Canada" according to an expert who was interviewed. But as a post on the weblog The Clark Sphere noted, the Standard's accusation may not be accurate. It links to two think tanks with offices in Canada that study the Middle East: the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research. Clark continues to stand behind the charge, saying in an August 25 appearance on "Buchanan and Press" that the call came from, "A man from a -- of a Middle East think tank in Canada, the man who's the brother of a very close friend of mine in Belgium. He's very well connected to Israeli intelligence and he follows Middle Eastern events very closely."

Finally, in an August 31 column in the Washington Post, George Will changed the order of Clark's quotes from the "Meet the Press" appearance to make it appear that he originally said the phone call came from the White House. Will then selectively quotes from Clark's "Hannity" and "Buchanan" appearances, along with the Times letter, to repeatedly conflate the phone call and accusations about the White House connecting 9/11 and Iraq, making it look like he contradicted his supposed original story:

As Clark crisscrosses the country listening for a clamor for him ("I expect to have my decision made by Sept. 19," when he visits Iowa -- feel the suspense), he compounds the confusion that began when he said on June 15 that on 9/11 "I got a call at my home" saying that when he was to appear on CNN, "You've got to say this is connected" to Iraq. "It came from the White House, it came from people around the White House. It came from all over." But who exactly called Clark?
July 1: "A fellow in Canada who is part of a Middle Eastern think tank." There is no such Canadian institution. Anyway, who "from the White House"? "I'm not going to go into those sources ... People told me things in confidence that I don't have any right to betray."

(Hannity was not asking who "from the White House" made the call, but who made an effort to connect Saddam Hussein to September 11.)

July 18: "No one from the White House asked me to link Saddam Hussein to Sept. 11."

(Note that Will ignores Clark's mention of a call from "a Middle East think tank outside the country" in that same letter.)

Aug. 25: It came from "a Middle East think tank in Canada, the man who's the brother of a very close friend of mine in Belgium. He's very well connected to Israeli intelligence... I haven't changed my position. There's no waffling on it. It's just as clear as could be."

The question of who called Wesley Clark continues to be a mystery. But pundits on both the left and right just won't stop spinning a clearly false story that he alleged that he received a phone call from the White House on September 11 asking him to connect Iraq and the terrorist attacks. They need to stop the distortions and do some basic fact checking.

Update 9/5 8:57 AM EST: In a column a week after the one discussed in this piece, Gene Lyons wrote that Clark had called him to correct the record:

Contrary to last week's column, Gen. Wesley Clark says the Bush White House did not urge him on 9/11 to blame the terrorist attacks upon Saddam Hussein. Clarifying his June 15 remarks on "Meet the Press," Clark phoned to emphasize that he'd gotten calls from persons he knew to be familiar with White House thinking, but no direct contact nor overt pressure. He remains firm, however, in his view that the administration has shown no persuasive evidence that a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda ever existed.

We regret the omission of this detail.

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