The day after the Orlando shooting, GOP candidate Donald Trump railed against the president and warned Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S., while Democratic rival Hillary Clinton called for changes to gun laws. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

“Media fell all over themselves criticizing what Donald Trump “may have insinuated about @POTUS.” But he’s right”

– tweet by Donald Trump, June 15, 2016

On June 13, Donald Trump revoked the credentials of The Washington Post to cover his campaign events because of an article that said he suggested President Obama identified with radicalized Muslims who have carried out attacks in the United States. He said the coverage was “incredibly inaccurate.”

But then on June 15, he tweeted this:

The tweet linked to a Breitbart article that claimed “Hillary Clinton received a classified intelligence report stating that the Obama administration was actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that became the Islamic State.”

The turn of events is confusing, since Trump appears to affirming exactly what he had said was a false interpretation of his remarks on Monday. But his tweet lit up the Twitterverse, so now we are going to fact check whether the memo suggests what Trump claims — that the Obama administration “actively supported” al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The Facts

The Breitbart article that Trump touted was based on a memo circulated by the Defense Intelligence Agency in August 2012, stamped “secret” and distributed across the U.S. government. A declassified version was obtained by Judicial Watch. The claim that the memo — labeled an“information report, not finally evaluated intelligence” — showed that the Obama administration “supported” al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is based on these two sentences:

THE SALAFIST, THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA. THE WEST, GULF COUNTRIES, AND TURKEY SUPPORT THE OPPOSITION; WHILE RUSSIA, CHINA, AND IRAN SUPPORT THE REGIME.

There was little profound in this analysis. Moreover, the idea that Western support for opposition to the Syrian regime translated into Obama administration support for AQI is rather loopy, especially if you know anything about the policy debates in the administration at the time.

It was precisely the fear that radical jihadists were involved in the Syrian fight that made the administration hesitate about committing any resources to the opposition, for fear the aid could end up going to terrorist groups. The Obama administration, in fact, drew sharp distinctions between the rebel groups.

The DIA memo highlights the fact that “AQI conducted a number of operations in several Syrian cities under the name of Jaish al Nusra (Victorious Army), one of its affiliates.” Well, in late 2012, the Obama administration designated Jabhat al-Nusra, also called the al-Nusra Front, as a foreign terrorist organization — a designation that infuriated others in the rebel alliance, including many moderates.

At the time, the State Department noted that Jabhat al-Nusra had claimed 600 attacks in Syria. “Through these attacks, al-Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” the State Department said in announcing the designation.

The DIA memo “shows there are some elements of the Syrian opposition that were vulnerable to extremists, and that is one of the main reasons the USG has been so careful about who we are supporting with what kind of assistance,” said Derek Chollet, who in 2012 managed policy concerning the Syrian conflict as the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. “It is why we were so concerned about others who were less judicious about that support — the Turks and Persian Gulf partners — and pressed them to support only the moderate opposition.”

Chollet noted that although the memo is dated August 2012, it was not until a year later that the United States provided any military support to the opposition. He said this decision was made “only after policymakers were satisfied that the vetting requirements were strong enough that we could be confident where the assistance was going and how it would be used — for the very purpose of fighting terrorists.” Chollet added that one major criticism by Republicans at the time was that the vetting requirements for the administration train/equip program were too strict.

James Jeffrey, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2012, said the reporting in the memo “looks like routine headquarters analysis” that actually turned out to be wrong. While the memo said that AQI wanted to organize and exploit the Syrian resistance, it failed to do so; Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, or ISIS, are only a fraction of the resistance, he said. “The administration’s covert support program was minimalist as it only supported groups and people who clearly were not part of ISIS or AQI,” Jeffrey added.

Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told our colleagues Karen DeYoung and Jose A. DeReal that the document has been “circulating on the Internet for years.” He said he was “90 percent sure” that the cable was a report by a U.S. military official in Baghdad of a briefing by the Iraqi military. “To be really cynical,” he said, “it’s the Iraqis giving the Iranian line.”

Chollet said the material in the memo “does not strike me as overly sensitive stuff — I bet the Washington Post had even better reporting at the time!”

Indeed, on Aug. 19, 2012, the Post published an article titled, “In Syria, group suspected of al-Qaeda links gaining prominence in war to topple Assad.”

The Post article, in far greater detail than the DIA memo, reported on the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra:  “Its growing role has prompted concerns that the 17-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is becoming radicalized as the bloodshed soars.” The article noted that al-Nusra’s growing visibility “highlights one of the reasons the United States and its allies have been reluctant to arm Syrian rebels.”

Finally, although Breitbart claimed that one of the distribution addresses on the memo — “RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHINGTON DC” — meant that the report was sent to Clinton’s office, that’s false, according to the State Department.

“Reports addressed in this manner reflect an institutional address for the State Department writ large. All reports that come to Washington have that address,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. “To be clear — a report addressed in this way does not indicate it was sent to the secretary of state or the secretary’s office.”

Thousands of cables are sent to the State Department every day, addressed to the “Secretary of State.” Similarly, every cable sent from the Washington headquarters has the secretary’s signature.

A second address on the memo — RUEHC/DEPT OF STATE WASHINGTON DC — is actually not a real State Department address and thus no cable would be received, a State Department official said.

The Pinocchio Test

This is what happens when people with little understanding of policy or context choose to willfully misinterpret documents. This is a relatively unimportant memo, with little information not in newspapers at the time. Rather than showing that the Obama administration is supporting terrorist groups, the information in the memo demonstrates why the administration was so reluctant to back rebel groups in Syria, often to the annoyance of Republican hawks.

Moreover, the memo was not sent directly to Clinton’s office, as asserted by Breitbart.

Trump, as a presumptive presidential nominee, really needs to rely on more accurate information when making factual claims. He yet again earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

 


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