Fact Checking the President

George W. Bush believes that "words must be credible" -- unless they appear in his State of the Union address.

| Mon Jan. 26, 2004 4:00 AM EST

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush uttered 16 now-infamous words implying that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Africa. When the phrase was finally revealed to be based on questionable intelligence and forged documents, the White House parsed it within an inch of its life and insisted that Bush should not be held accountable for everything he said. As one senior White House official memorably put it, "The president is a not a fact checker"

A year later, Bush seemed to acknowledge last year’s controversy during his 2004 speech to Congress, declaring “words must be credible -- and no one can now doubt the word of America.” Sadly, there’s no indication that the president has added fact checking to his job description over the past 12 months. And, as much as we’d like to give the president and his speechwriters the benefit of the doubt, we figured it might be worth our time to check some of his new assertions for accuracy, and note what he misstated, oversimplified, or didn’t bother to mention.

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Bush: “As of this month, [Afghanistan] has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school. With the help from the new Afghan army, our coalition is leading aggressive raids against surviving members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free, and proud and fighting terror-- and America is honored to be their friend.”

Fact check: It is true that Afghanistan has a new constitution that provides for elections and women’s political participation, but the country’s nowhere close to being a stable democracy. The Taliban, far from just ‘surviving’, have re-emerged as a serious threat, and the new Afghan army Bush speaks of is dwarfed by the private forces of several regional warlords. As the New York Times editorialized this week, “despite the presence of more than 10,000 American troops and nearly 6,000 international peacekeepers in Afghanistan, warlord armies, criminal bandits, drug traffickers and resurgent Taliban make travel perilous and threaten people in their homes and villages.” Bush’s claim that life has returned to normal in much of the country is wildly optimistic. Health care and girls’ access to education have improved, but Afghanistan still has the world’s second highest maternal mortality rate, but less than half of all girls are in school and girls’ schools have been harassed and attacked. There’s still much to be done to “finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan.”

Bush: “We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror, and expect a higher standard from our friends.”

Fact check: One has to wonder what that “higher standard” is. Does it include the routine use of torture, including electric shock and rape, the banning of political parties, and total press censorship? These are a few of the abuses of human and other rights documented by the State Department in Uzbekistan, a key ally in the war on terror. Among other things, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has been famously accused of boiling political dissidents to death. Still, the Bush administration has looked the other way as Karimov escalated his suppression of political dissidents and ordinary Muslims.

Bush:“As part of the offensive against terror, we are also confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists, and could supply them with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.”

Fact check: Again, support for the War on Terror seems to trump the facts. In talking about the fight against nuclear proliferation (“America is committed to keeping the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous regimes.”), Bush mentioned only Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Pakistan, meanwhile, featured only in relation to Islamabad’s support in hunting down Al Qaeda planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Never mind that Pakistan is believed to have accumulated enough highly enriched uranium to build between 30 and 50 nuclear bombs, or that ongoing investigations have found evidence that scientists working on Islamabad’s nuclear weapons programs provided technical information and possibly materials to the “dangerous regimes” Bush seems so focused on.

Bush: “We’re seeking all the facts -- already the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations. Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day.”

Fact check: Bush quotes the Kay Report accurately, but selectively. He blithely doesn’t acknowledge that large parts of the report actually undermine the administration’s past claims about Iraqi WMDs. In short, it’s not so easy connecting the dots between “WMD-related program activities” and the much-hyped predictions of a mushroom cloud over a U.S. city. For example, the Kay Report found that Iraq did not have an ongoing chemical weapons program after 1991, and that it no took significant steps to build nukes after 1998. Asked about the missing WMDs stockpiles last week, David Kay told Reuters, "I don't think they existed.”

Bush: “In two weeks, I will send you a budget that funds the war, protects the homeland, and meets important domestic needs, while limiting the growth in discretionary spending to less than four percent. This will require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending, and be wise with the people’s money. By doing so, we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years.”

Fact check: Bush tried hard to sound like a fiscal conservative here, but his prediction that the deficit can be halved in five years is a serious stretch. Between 2002 and 2004, discretionary spending jumped 22 percent, from $734 billion to $873 billion. Talking about his 2005 budget, Bush has already proposed a 9.7 percent increase in funding for homeland security. Add to that the new Medicare drug benefit, ballooning defense costs, and a new tax cut, and you’ve got a recipe for much, much bigger deficits -- $2.3 trillion by 2011, according to recent estimates. As one analyst from the die-hard conservative Heritage Institute recently told the Christian Science Monitor, “The Republican party is simply not interested in small government now. They’re worse than the Democrats they replaced.”

Bush: “Activist judges, however, have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives. On an issue of such great consequence, the people’s voice must be heard.”

Fact check: With this reference to “activist judges” who “redefin[e] marriage by court order,” Bush took a swipe at the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s Nov. 18 decision to protect gay unions in that state. But did that court really ignore “the will of the people”? Polls suggest otherwise. A January Zogby poll showed that Massachusetts residents were almost evenly split on whether to support a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. Forty-eight percent stated that they did not want the state legislature to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples (versus 46 percent who did). And in October, before the ruling, a Decision Research poll had found that 77 percent of Massachusetts voters supported civil unions for homosexual couples. Nationwide, a recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that 58 percent of Americans are against amending the constitution to ban gay marriage.

Bush: “We’re providing more funding for our schools—a 36 percent increase since 2001.”

Fact check: Yes, but not because of anything Bush did. Federal funding for elementary and secondary education has risen from $25 billion to $33 billion between 2001 and 2003. But that $8 billion increase was partially the result of Congress exceeding Bush’s own budget requests for his No Child Left Behind program by $6.6 billion. “[He’s] claiming credit for money he’s never asked for,” Joel Packer of the National Education Association told Bloomberg News.