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Sniper Fire, and Holes In Clinton's Recollection

Hillary Rodham Clinton gets a kiss from Emina Bicakcic, 8, after landing at Tuzla Air Base during a March 1996 trip to Bosnia.
Hillary Rodham Clinton gets a kiss from Emina Bicakcic, 8, after landing at Tuzla Air Base during a March 1996 trip to Bosnia. (DOug Mills -- Associated Press)
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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Hillary Clinton has been regaling supporters on the campaign trail with hair-raising tales of a trip she made to Bosnia in March 1996. In her retelling, she was sent to places that her husband, President Bill Clinton, could not go because they were "too dangerous." When her account was challenged by one of her traveling companions, the comedian Sinbad, she upped the ante and injected even more drama into the story. In a speech earlier this week, she talked about "landing under sniper fire" and running for safety with "our heads down."

There are numerous problems with Clinton's version of events.

THE FACTS

As a reporter who visited Bosnia soon after the December 1995 Dayton peace agreement, I can attest that the physical risks were minimal during this period, particularly at a heavily fortified U.S. air base, such as Tuzla. Contrary to the claims of Hillary Clinton and former Army secretary Togo West, Bosnia was not "too dangerous" a place for President Clinton to visit in early 1996. In fact, the first Clinton to visit the Tuzla Air Base was not Hillary, but Bill, on Jan. 13, 1996.

Had Hillary Clinton's plane come "under sniper fire" in March 1996, we would certainly have heard about it long before now. Numerous reporters, including The Washington Post's John Pomfret, covered her trip. A review of nearly 100 news accounts of her visit shows that not a single newspaper or television station reported any security threat to the first lady. "As a former AP wire-service hack, I can safely say that it would have been in my lead had anything like that happened," Pomfret said.

According to Pomfret, the Tuzla airport was "one of the safest places in Bosnia" in March 1996 and "firmly under the control" of the 1st Armored Division.

Far from running to an airport building with their heads down, Clinton and her party were greeted on the tarmac by smiling U.S. and Bosnian officials. An 8-year-old Muslim girl, Emina Bicakcic, read a poem in English. An Associated Press photograph of the greeting ceremony, below, shows a smiling Clinton bending down to receive a kiss.

"There is peace now," Emina told Clinton, according to Pomfret's report in The Post the next day, "because Mr. Clinton signed it. All this peace. I love it."

The first lady's schedule, released on Wednesday by the National Archives, confirms that she arrived in Tuzla at 8:45 a.m. and was greeted by various dignitaries, including Emina (whose name has mysteriously been redacted from the document). Footage from CBS shows Clinton walking calmly out of the back of the C-17 military transport plane that brought her from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Among the U.S. officials on hand to greet Clinton at the airport was Maj. Gen. William Nash, the commander of U.S. troops in Bosnia. Nash told me he was unaware of any security threat to Clinton during her eight-hour stay in Tuzla. He said, however, that Clinton had a "busy schedule" and may have got the impression that she was being hurried.

Sinbad, who provided entertainment on the trip along with singer Sheryl Crow, said the "scariest" part was deciding where to eat. As he told Mary Ann Akers of washingtonpost.com, "I think the only 'red phone' moment was 'Do we eat here or at the next place?' " He questioned the premise behind the Clinton version of events. "What kind of president would say 'Hey, man, I can't go 'cause I might get shot, so I'm going to send my wife. Oh, and take a guitar player and a comedian with you'?"

Replying to Sinbad earlier this week, Clinton dismissed him as "a comedian." Her campaign referred me to Togo West, who was also on the trip and is a staunch Clinton supporter. West could not remember "sniper fire" himself but said there was no reason to doubt the first lady's version of events. "Everybody's perceptions are different," he told me.

Clinton made no mention of "sniper fire" in her autobiography "Living History," published in 2003, although she did say there were "reports of snipers" in the hills around the airport.

THE PINOCCHIO TEST

Clinton's tale of landing at the Tuzla airport "under sniper fire" and then running for cover is simply not credible. Photographs and video of the arrival ceremony, combined with contemporaneous news reports, tell a very different story. Four Pinocchios.

ONE PINOCCHIO: Some shading of the facts. TWO PINOCCHIOS: Significant omissions or exaggerations. THREE PINOCCHIOS: Significant factual errors. FOUR PINOCCHIOS: Real whoppers. THE GEPPETTO CHECK MARK: Statements and claims contain the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


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