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Clinton Appears Weary Of Taking 'Sniper Fire'

In this 1996 photo, Clinton is shown meeting U.S. soldiers at an outpost near Tuzla, Bosnia.
In this 1996 photo, Clinton is shown meeting U.S. soldiers at an outpost near Tuzla, Bosnia. (By Doug Mills -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hillary Clinton has finally admitted that she "misspoke" when claiming that she came "under sniper fire" in Bosnia during a March 1996 visit to U.S. troops enforcing the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. At first, the Clinton campaign maintained that the "misstatement" was limited to one occasion on March 17 when she talked about running across the tarmac "with our heads down." In an interview yesterday with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the senator from New York attributed the mistake to her "sleep-deprived" condition.

A review of the record shows that she provided embellished stories of her visit to Bosnia on at least two previous occasions, while campaigning in Iowa in December and in Texas in February. By the end of the day, Clinton was making a joke of her ordeal: "I made a mistake. That happens. It proves I'm human, which, you know, for some people is a revelation."

THE FACTS

While Bosnia may have still been considered a "potential war zone" in March 1996, there were no open hostilities. NATO troops were patrolling the area in force, engaged in tasks such as clearing mines and blowing up old ammunition dumps. According to Adrian Pandurevic of Associated Press TV, "there were no armed groups roaming Bosnia, or any significant threat," and "the former front lines had been bulldozed." He described claims of "sniper fire" in and around the Tuzla air base as "simply ridiculous."

Rick Atkinson, a longtime military correspondent for The Washington Post, was also in the Tuzla region around the time of Clinton's visit, reporting on the activities of the 1st Armored Division. He remembers hiring a rental car and roaming by himself over back roads between the air base and the city. He said in an e-mail that "the only danger was from mines, and those had all been removed from the air base area," and from plane crashes caused by bad weather conditions, of the kind that killed Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and 34 others near Dubrovnik, Croatia, in April 1996.

Atkinson recalled that the Tuzla story had "become so boring" by late March that The Post had practically lost interest, and he was reassigned to a different part of Bosnia.

It is, of course, entirely plausible that the Secret Service was nervous about escorting the first lady into what had recently been a combat zone and insisted that she and her traveling companions wear flak jackets for the landing in Tuzla. It is also possible that Clinton heard reports about "snipers in the hills around the airstrip," as she recalled in her 2003 autobiography, "Living History." But there is no evidence that she was "forced to cut short an event on the tarmac with local children" because of sniper activity. TV news reports from the time show a smiling Clinton walking across the tarmac and bending down to greet an 8-year-old Bosnian girl.

On the campaign trail, Clinton began providing further embellishments on the Tuzla tale. In Dubuque, Iowa, on Dec. 30, she said she was the first high-profile American to go to Bosnia after the signing of the peace agreement, overlooking President Clinton's trip to Tuzla in January 1996. "We landed in one of those corkscrew landings and ran out because they said there might be sniper fire," she said in Iowa. "I don't remember anyone offering me tea on the tarmac there."

The reference to not being offered tea on the tarmac was evidently a riposte to a claim by Barack Obama a few days earlier that Clinton's eight years in the White House as first lady were a glorified "tea party."

A corkscrew landing is a technique used by military pilots to land in a war zone to limit the risk of being hit by ground fire. Instead of beginning its descent 20 miles from the runway, the plane arrives over the airport at a high altitude and then twists down in a tight spiral, like a corkscrew. Other passengers aboard the C-17 that brought Clinton from Ramstein Air Base in Germany remember a steeper-than-usual approach but not a classic corkscrew landing.

Clinton repeated the claim of sniper fire in a Feb. 29 campaign rally in Waco, Tex. Contrasting her foreign policy experience with that of Obama, she mentioned her visit to Bosnia when a welcoming ceremony "had to be moved inside because of sniper fire."

Questioned about this speech yesterday while campaigning in Pennsylvania, Clinton said that she remembered being told by the military and the Secret Service that "we were going into a war zone," adding: "I was the first first lady taken into a war zone since Eleanor Roosevelt." But she said she acknowledged that she had "made a mistake" in talking about her Tuzla experiences, both on March 17 "and recently."

Pressed about her statement that she had "misspoken" only once in 12 years, she said she was joking.

"Gosh, lighten up, guys," she told reporters.

Clinton spokesman Phil Singer declined to answer any more questions about the incident.

THE PINOCCHIO TEST

In an effort to polish her foreign policy credentials, Clinton has been telling exaggerated stories about her April 1996 trip to Bosnia for many months. After a week of missteps, she has finally come up with a reasonable strategy for putting the story behind her: Acknowledge her mistake, make a gracious joke about being "human," and attempt to move on. Since I have already awarded her a maximum four Pinocchios for her depiction of the event, it seems churlish to add any more.

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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