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Center for American Progress responds

February 5, 2004

On Jan. 27, 2004, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, "I think some in the media have chosen to use the word 'imminent.' Those were not words we used." That was a lie. We pointed that out. And we make no apologies for that. We stand by every document we wrote comparing that statement to earlier statements by McClellan and other Administration officials.

The irony of the Spinsanity coverage of this issue: while repeatedly chastising us for careless work, it is the reporting of Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan that is rife with inaccuracies and distortions. Even the title of their most recent analysis - "Misquote in imminent danger of hardening into fact" - is misleading. The issue with our analysis isn't that we misquoted McClellan (we did not), it's that some believe we took the quote out of context.

The reality is we did not take McClellan's Feb. 10, 2003 comment out of context. Fritz and Nyhan take us to task because we said McClellan's comments ("This is about imminent threat") were given as the reason "NATO should go along with the Administration's Iraq war." But that is only a partial quote. What we said was the McClellan's comment was given as the reason that "NATO should go along with the Administration's Iraq war plan." And that was exactly what McClellan did.

Part of the Administration's war plan was to have a military buildup along the Turkish/Iraqi border prior to the war. McClellan was arguing that Belgium, a NATO member, should allow Turkey to do that (and others to provide assistance) because Iraq was an "imminent threat" to Turkey. According to Article 5 of the NATO charter, an attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on another. That means that, according to our international commitments, if Iraq was an imminent threat against Turkey, it was an imminent threat against the United States. We'd like to see the President or anyone else from the Administration go on the record and say an imminent threat to a NATO member is not an imminent threat to the United States. We'd especially like to see the Administration tell the thousands of US soldiers stationed at Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey a few hundred miles from the Iraqi border that an imminent threat to Turkey from Saddam Hussein is not an imminent threat to US interests.

But even if you ignore the realities of our NATO commitments, our comparison is still not out of context. On Jan. 27, 2004, McClellan said (referring to the phrase "imminent threat") "those were not the words we used." He didn't say "we never used those words to describe the threat of Iraq against the United States." Or "we used those words but only to describe the threat of Iraq against Turkey." He said "those were not the words we used." And that was all he said. The arguments that we "took the quote out of context" to disprove McClellan's denial assumes a qualifier that McClellan himself did not provide.

The most ridiculous charge against us is that McClellan's comments only applied to Iraq after the United States invaded. If that were true, then why would the Administration be pushing a war? If that were true, why did the Administration repeatedly say Iraq was an "immediate," "urgent" and "mortal" threat? The reality is, Turkey was requesting immediate assistance. McClellan was explaining that the United States supported that request now because Iraq was an imminent threat now - not after the invasion.

Finally, our analysis is consistent with other Administration comments. On Jan. 26, 2003, CNN television asked White House communications director Dan Bartlett "is he (Saddam) an imminent threat to US interests, either in that part of the world or to Americans right here at home?" Bartlett replied, "Well, of course he is." Similarly, on May 7, 2003, Ari Fleischer was asked, "Well, we went to war, didn't we, to find these -- because we said that these weapons were a direct and imminent threat to the United States? Isn't that true?" to which he replied "Absolutely." To say that, in spite of these comments, McClellan's denial that they ever described Iraq as an "imminent threat" is "technically true" takes word parsing to a new low.

David Sirota, Christy Harvey, Judd Legum
Center for American Progress
February 4, 2004


Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan respond:

Sirota, Harvey and Legum make two valid points. First, due to an editing error, our Feb. 2 post, the second on this topic, omitted the last word of a quote from CAP that read in full, "NATO should go along with the Administration's Iraq war plan." In addition, we inaccurately used the word "misquote" in the title of our February 2 post. We are grateful to CAP for pointing out these errors and corrected them last night in response.

This is hardly evidence that our analysis was "rife with inaccuracies and distortions," however. The issue at hand is whether CAP took Scott McClellan's February 10, 2003 use of the term "imminent threat" out of context -- and their explanation in this letter is not an adequate defense.

Before we delve into the details of their elaborate backstory about NATO, Turkey and "imminent threat," let's be very clear. CAP didn't make this argument in their original newsletter. By doing so, they left the unmistakable impression that McClellan was talking about an imminent threat directly against the United States.

To review, here is what CAP wrote in its Progress Report email newsletter on Jan. 29:

[I]nstead of explaining why it ignored repeated warnings from the intelligence community that the White House's WMD case was weak, newswires report the Administration responded by "denying it ever warned that Saddam Hussein posed an 'imminent' threat to the United States." But a closer look at the record shows the Administration not only used exact phrase "imminent threat," but also buttressed it with claims that Iraq was a "mortal threat," "urgent threat," "immediate threat," "serious and mounting threat," "unique threat," and a threat that was actively seeking to "strike the United States with weapons of mass destruction" – all just months after Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted that Iraq was "contained" and "threatens not the United States." See a long list of the Administration's "threat" rhetoric in this new American Progress backgrounder.

"IMMINENT THREAT," PART I: White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday lashed out at reporters yesterday saying "some in the media have chosen to use the word 'imminent'. Those were not words we used." But almost exactly a year ago, it was McClellan who said the reason NATO should go along with the Administration's Iraq war plan was because "this is about imminent threat."

Clearly, CAP's defense that, "according to our international commitments, if Iraq was an imminent threat against Turkey, it was an imminent threat against the United States" comes much too late. If this is the key issue, why didn't they mention it in the newsletter? The Jan. 29 Progress Report offered no specifics about Turkey, the Incirlik Air Force Base or our responsibilities under the NATO charter.

By leaving out this critical context, readers were led to believe that McClellan was talking about an imminent threat directly against the US Why? Because CAP's argument was based on that premise. Sirota, Harvey and Legum brought up the topic by writing that, "instead of explaining why it ignored repeated warnings from the intelligence community that the White House's WMD case was weak, newswires report the Administration responded by 'denying it ever warned that Saddam Hussein posed an 'imminent' threat to the United States.'" Anyone reading that sentence would expect CAP was going to provide evidence that showed the Bush administration actually did say Iraq posed an imminent threat to the US.

The CAP writers then try to justify their analysis by saying they were simply responding to McClellan's statement that "those were not the words we used." They are correct that McClellan's specific statement did not include the words "Iraq" or "Turkey." But that was undeniably the context of the exchange. What matters is whether McClellan was talking about an imminent threat against the United States, not whether he simply uttered the words "imminent threat."

The three CAP writers also accuse us of making a "ridiculous charge" that "McClellan's comments only applied to Iraq after the United States invaded." (their emphasis) But that's exactly what was going on according to press reports at the time. "Turkey requested access to the equipment from its NATO allies last month in light of the threat of a war in Iraq," the New York Times wrote on Feb. 7, 2003. In a Feb. 10, 2003 article, the Washington Post stated, "The Belgian government said today that it would veto a US request that NATO provide military materiel for Turkey to defend itself in the event of a conflict with neighboring Iraq."

Finally, the CAP writers correctly observe that their analysis is consistent with several statements by the Bush administration. We made the same argument in an update to our Feb. 2 post. (It is inconsistent with many other statements by the White House, however, as we previously argued, but that is ultimately a separate question.)

In short, CAP's defense boils down to two points: a complicated claim about the definition of a threat under the NATO charter and the fact that, regardless of whether he was talking about Turkey or the US, McClellan did utter the words "imminent threat." The first argument is not only based on incorrect assertions about Bush administration requests for NATO involvement at the time, but was entirely absent from the newsletter we were criticizing, which presented McClellan's statement in a blatantly misleading context. And the latter relies on a literal reading of McClellan's statement that has nothing to do with the issue as CAP presented it.

After being taken in by Sirota, Harvey and Legum's original claim, both Noam Scheiber of The New Republic and Dan Froomkin of WashingtonPost.com promptly corrected their errors. CAP should do the same.

Related links:
-Out-of-context quote in imminent danger of hardening into fact (Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan, 2/2/04)
-Context is everything (Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan, 1/30/04)

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