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Fact checking the CNN national security debate

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Hello, “Steve Gates.” While Rep. Michele Bachmann may have trouble living that blooper down, here are some of the more dubious assertions and facts we heard at the fascinating CNN debate Tuesday night, organized with the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. We examine 15 statements in all, and as is our practice, may come back to do a deeper look in the coming days.

“This is one thing we know about Barack Obama: He has essentially handed over our interrogation of terrorists to the ACLU. He’s outsourced it to them. Our CIA has no ability to have any form of interrogation for terrorists.”

— Rep. Michele Bachmann

Bachmann’s rhetoric is over the top here. The American Civil Liberties Union has actually been critical of President Obama for continuing many Bush-era anti-terror policies. On the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the ACLU issued a report entitled, “A Call to Courage: Reclaiming Our Liberties Ten Years after 9/11.”

The report noted: “President Obama claimed the unchecked authority to use lethal force against a United States citizen, far from any battlefield, on the basis of his own unilateral determination that the citizen poses a threat to the nation.”

Bachmann, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is also incorrect to say the CIA cannot interrogate terrorists. The CIA is part of the High Value Interrogation Group, established by Obama in 2009, which brings “together the most effective and experienced interrogators and support personnel from across the Intelligence Community, the Department of Defense and law enforcement.”

The Washington Post reported earlier this year that intelligence officials for more than two months interrogated a suspect on a U.S. Navy ship off the coast of Somalia before indicting him.

“But here’s the other issue that I think we’ve really failed at, and that is in our ability to collect intelligence around the world. And this administration in particular has been an absolute failure when it comes to expending the dollars and supporting the CIA and the military intelligence around the world to be able to draw in that intelligence that is going to truly be able to allow us to keep the next terrorist attack from happening on American soil.”

— Texas Gov. Rick Perry

We’re not quite sure what Perry is saying here, but he appears to be saying the military intelligence budget had not grown. The Washington Post examined this question last year and concluded the publicly announced budget is 2 ½ times larger than the size before the Sept. 11 attacks. But the figure doesn’t include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.

Here are some other facts from the Post investigation:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

*In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings — about 17 million square feet of space.

“Until Pakistan clearly shows that they have America’s best interests in mind, I would not send them one penny, period…. absolutely we need to be engaged in that part of the world. I never said for us not to be engaged. I just said we need to quit writing blank checks to these countries and then letting them decide how these dollars are going to be spent. We’ve got Afghanistan and India working in concert right now to leverage Pakistan. I think if we would create a trade zone in that part of the world, where you have all of those countries working together, that may be the answer to getting Pakistan to understand that they have to work with all of the countries in that region.”

— Perry

Another confusing statement by Perry, in which he first suggested the U.S. should not be engaged in South Asia (cut off aid to Pakistan) and then said it should be engaged. And he said that Afghanistan and India were trying to “leverage” Pakistan, when in fact India and Pakistan are trying to leverage Afghanistan.

As Bachmann pointed out during the debate, Perry is wrong to say the U.S. is writing “blank checks” to Pakistan. The United States gets things in return for the money, much of which is simply underwriting Pakistan’s military expenses in the fight against al Qaeda. Moreover, the Obama administration has already suspended and threatened to cancel aid to punish Pakistan for lack of cooperation.

“Israel has 200-300 nuclear missiles.”

— Rep. Ron Paul

Israel’s nuclear capability is shrouded in mystery but it clearly has nuclear weapons, with an average estimate of perhaps 200 warheads, according to the Federation of American Scientists. (The Defense Intelligence Agency thinks it is closer to 80.) But estimates of Israel’s missiles capable of carrying such warheads generally do not top 100.

“When you sanction the Iranian central bank, that will shut down that economy.”

— Perry

In foreign policy, if there are really such easy solutions, they would have been tried already.

It is not so simple to sanction the Iranian central bank. Such a move could also harm allies such as Japan, which gets oil from Iran, or countries such as Russia and China with substantial investments in Iran, thus harming other U.S. foreign-policy interests. Taking this step could also push oil prices higher, potentially harming the U.S. economy. Our colleagues at PolitiFact have a comprehensive look at the potential pitfalls in this approach.

“Almost every decision that the president has made since he came in has been one to put the United States in a position of unilateral disarmament, including the most recent decision he made to cancel the Keystone pipeline.”

— Bachmann

This is wrong. Obama did not cancel the Canadian oil pipeline. The State Department delayed the decision until after next year’s election, purportedly to consider alternative routes. The move meant the president did not have to choose between environment groups opposed to the project and labor groups pushing for it because of the jobs it supposedly would create — at least until after 2012.

“It’s because Iran has announced they plan to strike Israel. They’ve stated as recently as August — just before President Ahmadinejad came to the U.N. General Assembly, he said that he wanted to eradicate Israel from the face of the Earth. He has said that if he has a nuclear weapon, he will use it to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, he will use it against the United States of America.”

— Bachmann

Bachmann is again overstating the case here. Iran appears to be pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but Iranian officials have never said they have a nuclear weapon. In fact, they have repeatedly denied having such a program.

Moreover, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has never said he would use a nuclear weapon against Israel and in fact, as we examined recently, he may not have ever said he wanted to wipe Israel off the map. There is substantial dispute on whether this was actually a mistranslation of his words.

“What they’re doing is cutting a trillion dollars out of the defense budget. They’re cutting a trillion dollars out of the defense budget, which just happens to equal the trillion dollars they’re putting into ‘Obamacare.’”

— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney

“They’re nibbling away at baseline budgeting.”

— Ron Paul

This is a classic Washington dispute. Romney is talking about cuts from anticipated budgets which would go up over time to account for inflation and population growth. Paul is talking about cuts in real dollars.

There is no easy answer here, but it is simplistic to only look at real numbers.

Defense spending, for instance, remained constant from 1987 to 1994 — $282 billion a year. In other words, using the preferred lexicon of someone like Ron Paul, defense spending wasn’t cut at all. But look what happened to the military during those seven years: The number of troops fell from 2.2 million to 1.6 million, the number of Army divisions was slashed from 28 to 20, Air Force fighter wings dropped from 36 to 22 and Navy fighting ships declined from 568 to 387. That’s because inflation over time ate away at the value of those dollars.

At same time, Romney likely overstates the case when he asserts that the defense cuts — which would take effect because of the failure of the debt supercommittee to agree to a plan — would irrevocably harm the military. Pentagon spending has been inflated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many experts think there is excessive spending that can be reined in.

Of course, Democrats might also argue that additional tax revenues would certainly help deal with any Pentagon budget crunch.

Romney’s jab at Obama’s health-care plan conveniently only looks at the cost equation ($1 trillion), ignoring the fact that the bill included new taxes and spending cuts to eke out a small reduction in the deficit, at least as scored by the Congressional Budget Office.

“The first 350 billion [dollars], what did they cut? They stopped the F- 22.”

— Romney

Actually, funding for the F-22 fighter was cut in 2009, two years before the debt ceiling deal was reached that would cut the Pentagon budget.

“The result is, in Chile, for example, they have 72 percent of the GDP [gross domestic product] in savings.”

— Former House speaker Newt Gingrich

In making the case for private Social Security accounts, Gingrich pitched the Chilean model with a figure that on the surface, appears astonishingly high. In fact, as far as we can determine, it is three times too high. The country’s second-quarter report for 2011 said that nominal gross savings accounted for 24.5 percent of GDP. That is also in line with historical figures for the country.

UPDATE: Our colleagues at PolitiFact originally reached the same conclusion we did but on Nov. 28 noted that Gingrich would have been more or less correct if he had said “the savings held in the Chilean accounts are equal to 72 percent of the nation’s GDP.” That’s different than suggesting the savings rate is equal to 72 percent of GDP, which is how we interpreted his remarks.

“I think their [Iran’s] largest embassy in the world is in Venezuela.”

— Perry

This is a dubious statement, especially since Iran has much deeper interests in countries closer to Tehran, such as Iraq and Syria. After all, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was embarrassed in 2009 when it turned out her claim that Iran was building a mega-embassy in Nicaragua was untrue. The extent of Iranian influence in Latin America is often overstated.

“We know that terrorists have come into this country by way of Mexico.”

— Herman Cain

Cain is wrong. The Houston Chronicle looked closely at this question and found that no one arrested at the border has faced terror-related charges or carried out a terrorist act.

“President Obama apologizes for America.”

— Romney

No matter how many times Romney makes this claim, it is still a Four-Pinocchio whopper. Unfortunately, he appears determined to keep saying it, no matter how many times we call him on it.

“I’m Mitt Romney and yes, Wolf, that’s also my first name.”

— Romney

Hmmm, possibly the strangest comment of the night. Romney’s full name is Willard Mitt Romney. But “Wolf” is really Wolf Isaac Blitzer’s first name.

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