One of our all-time great fact checks was The Fact Checker’s March 21, 2008, report on Hillary Clinton’s false claim that she arrived in Bosnia “under sniper fire.” The article, written by our former colleague Michael Dobbs, was quickly followed by CBS News, PolitiFact and others — and ultimately became a defining moment in the 2008 campaign for the former first lady. The incident even earns a mention in a recent attack ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Readers constantly ask us about Clinton’s Bosnia tale, and ask whether we will fact check it. As noted, The Fact Checker did so eight years ago. But the original version now appears on the web in very small type, so here it is again. We have also included new material on what happened next.
“I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”
–Hillary Clinton, speech at George Washington University, March 17, 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.
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 Force 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 Force 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,” said Pomfret.
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, above, shows a smiling Clinton bending down to receive a kiss.
“There is peace now,” Emina told Clinton, according to Pomfret’s report in The Washington Post the following day, “because Mr. Clinton signed it. All this peace. I love it.”
The first lady’s schedule, released on Wednesday and available here, confirms that she arrived in Tuzla at 8:45 a.m. and was greeted by various dignitaries, including Emina Bicakcic, (whose name has mysteriously been redacted from the document.)
You can see CBS News footage of the arrival ceremony below. The footage shows Clinton walking calmly out of the back of the C-17 military transport plane that brought her from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
Among the U.S. officials on hand to greet Clinton at the airport was Maj. Gen. William Nash, commander of U.S. troops in Bosnia. Nash told me that 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 on her way. (See clarification below.)
According to Sinbad, who provided entertainment on the trip along with the singer Sheryl Crow, the “scariest” part was deciding where to eat. As he told Mary Ann Akers of The Post, “I think the only ‘red-phone’ moment was: ‘Do we eat here or at the next place.'” Sinbad 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 Hillary 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.
UPDATE: March 21, 6:45 p.m.
Lissa Muscatine, who served as Hilary Clinton’s chief speechwriter in 1996 and accompanied her on the Bosnia trip, feels that I have failed to provide a full picture of what took place. She gave me her “vivid recollections” of the arrival in Tuzla, which I quote below:
I was on the plane with then First Lady Hillary Clinton for the trip from Germany into Bosnia in 1996. We were put on a C-17 — a plane capable of steep ascents and descents — precisely because we were flying into what was considered a combat zone. We were issued flak jackets for the final leg because of possible sniper fire near Tuzla. As an additional precaution, the First Lady and Chelsea were moved to the armored cockpit for the descent into Tuzla. We were told that a welcoming ceremony on the tarmac might be canceled because of sniper fire in the hills surrounding the air strip. From Tuzla, Hillary flew to two outposts in Bosnia with gunships escorting her helicopter.
UPDATE: March 22, 8:45 a.m.
Gen. Nash says that I misquoted him in saying he was unaware of any “security threat” to the first lady. While he was unaware of any “sniper threat,” he now tells me there were a couple of “security concerns” that day, which he found out about after returning to his headquarters after greeting Clinton at the airport. There was a “non-specific report” of a possible truck bomb in the area. The military also had information that “some of the communications associated with the First Lady’s visit were being monitored.”
“In both cases, we took appropriate security action,” said Nash, adding that Clinton’s visit was not disrupted.
The Pinocchio Test
Clinton’s tale of landing at 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.
Michael Dobbs’s Four Pinocchio ruling – and the attention paid to Clinton’s false recounting – ultimately led her campaign to concede that “it is possible in the most recent instance in which she discussed this that she misspoke in regard to the exit from the plane.” But officials continued to insist that she was “going to a potential combat zone” – even though the war had ended three months earlier.
Finally, in an effort to put the controversy behind her, Clinton told the Philadelphia Daily News:
“Now let me tell you what I can remember, OK — because what I was told was that we had to land a certain way and move quickly because of the threat of sniper fire. So I misspoke — I didn’t say that in my book or other times but if I said something that made it seem as though there was actual fire — that’s not what I was told. I was told we had to land a certain way, we had to have our bulletproof stuff on because of the threat of sniper fire. I was also told that the greeting ceremony had been moved away from the tarmac but that there was this 8-year-old girl and, I can’t, I can’t rush by her, I’ve got to at least greet her — so I greeted her, I took her stuff and then I left, now that’s my memory of it.”
Over time, the incident became etched in the minds of Clinton’s detractors, which is why it resonates today.
There is one interesting update to the episode. Former ambassador Christopher R. Hill, who accompanied Clinton on the trip, published a memoir in 2014, “Outpost,” in which he recounted that just before landing in Bosnia, the staff and reporters received an unusually intense briefing about the security situation. Hill’s account does not necessarily excuse Clinton’s false statement, but it is an example of how memories can be forged in unexpected ways. Here’s what he wrote on pages 114-115:
[During the landing at Tuzla], I ventured over to listen to a member of the security detail briefing the first lady and her team on the situation we would likely encounter on the ground. As she did for every briefing she received, she listened attentively, glancing at her reading material as he talked and talked.
I found myself almost rolling my eyes as the briefer went on and on about the possibility of snipers and what the plan of action would be (essentially, making a beeline to the armored vehicles parked nearby). As the briefing continued for what seemed like half an hour, one of the journalists, a little worried, asked me if it was going to be that dangerous.
I explained I was not going to contradict the briefer, but, whispering, I told him I seriously doubted we would encounter any such threat. For heaven’s sake, I explained, it was a U.S. military base with thousands of troops, where there had not been a single such incident in the three months they had set up camp. He was relieved, but those more attentively listening to the briefer were not, as they contemplated that soon they could be running for their lives across an open tarmac a la “sniper alley” in Sarajevo.
There were of course no snipers, and as the nervous passengers exited from the rear of the aircraft off an enormous steel ramp that could handle tanks and other tactical vehicles, we were greeted by a group of Bosnian children in colorful native dress. Hope none of them is a sniper, I thought. They presented Mrs. Clinton with bright bouquets of spring flowers that were quickly gathered up by aides while the first lady patted the children on the head … The visit seemed over before it began by the time we made our way back to the airstrip and boarded the C-17 for the flight to Germany. But the threat of snipers seemed to be all most people could remember.
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