“Obama notes that Biden opposed Bin Laden raid”

— USA Today headline featured in Preserve America PAC ads

“He opposed taking out Osama bin Laden”

— retired veteran speaking in Preserve America PAC ad

A reader contacted The Fact Checker saying he and his wife had recently visited an area near Pittsburgh and were moved to request a fact check. “Before the holiday we saw on TV wall-to-wall ads — trust me, every hour on all stations — on how Vice President Biden opposed taking out Osama bin Laden,” the reader wrote. “Some of these ads are with wounded veterans or relatives of deceased soldiers pronouncing Biden ‘too soft’ to lead, unwilling to stand up, etc. The theme is clear.”

These ads are being aired by Preserve America PAC, which has said it would air a $30 million advertising blitz attacking Joe Biden. There are four ads, such as this one, mostly featuring wounded veterans but also the parents of Kayla Mueller, a human rights activist killed in Syria in 2015.

Biden is vulnerable on bin Laden, mostly because of the way he has described his own advice to President Barack Obama. Earlier this year, we gave Biden Three Pinocchios when he denied having told Obama not to go after the al-Qaeda leader at the time Obama’s advisers were debating the issue.

But these ads have an opposite problem — they flatly say Biden opposed killing bin Laden. “He opposed taking out Osama bin Laden,” Leroy Petry, a retired Army veteran, says in one ad. President Trump, in his campaign speeches, also frames it this way: “Joe Biden opposed the mission to take out Osama bin Laden,” Trump said in a campaign rally Sept 21 in Swanton, Ohio.

This is an interesting example of how fact checks depend so much on how the claim is framed.

The main piece of evidence in the ads is a newspaper headline that, frankly, we believe is based on a misinterpretation of what Obama said.

The Facts

First, let’s start with the USA Today article, a short item that was framed around this quote by Obama during one of his presidential debates with Mitt Romney: “Those decisions generally are not poll-tested. And even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did.”

The article says Obama was discussing the 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound. But we believe that was a misinterpretation. Instead, the transcript makes clear that Obama talking about criticism he received during his 2008 run, from both Romney and Biden (at the time both presidential candidates), for saying he would go after bin Laden even if the Pakistani government were unwilling to help.

Here’s the relevant part of the transcript of the debate on Oct. 22, with the key sections in bold.

OBAMA: When it comes to going after Osama bin Laden, you said, well, any president would make that call. But when you were a candidate in 2008, as I was, and I said if I got bin Laden in our sights I would take that shot, you said we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man. And you said we should ask Pakistan for permission. And if we had asked Pakistan permission, we would not have gotten him. And it was worth moving heaven and earth to get him.

You know, after we killed bin Laden, I was at Ground Zero for a memorial and talked to a young woman who was 4 years old when 9/11 happened. And the last conversation she had with her father was him calling from the twin towers, saying, “Peyton, I love you and I will always watch over you.” And for the next decade, she was haunted by that conversation. And she said to me, “You know, by finally getting bin Laden, that brought some closure to me.”

And when we do things like that — when we bring those who have harmed us to justice, that sends a message to the world and it tells Peyton that we did not forget her father. And I make that point because that’s the kind of clarity of leadership, and those decisions are not always popular. Those decisions generally — generally are not poll-tested. And even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did.

David Jackson, the reporter who wrote the article, declined to comment. We sought a comment from Obama’s office but did not receive a response.

“I just reread David Jackson’s piece from 2012 and didn’t notice any pushback from Obama or Biden sources,” said an official at Preserve America PAC. “Both were protected by a phalanx of aggressive press secretaries, and it’s noteworthy none of them quibbled with his interpretation in the story.”

Okay, it was the final few weeks before an election, so maybe the press folks couldn’t be bothered with a brief article. But here it is, eight years later, and the headline lives on in attack ads.

The problem for Biden is that his story on his advice to Obama has changed over time. The memories of other participants in the debate certainly place him in the skeptical camp. Here again is a summary of what Biden said — and what others have said or reported about Biden’s advice.

Bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011, after fierce debate among Obama’s top advisers about whether the intelligence was strong enough to merit an attack that would violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Biden’s first version of his role in the discussion was best expressed in January 2012, when he spoke to House Democrats at a retreat. Biden at the time probably did not expect to run again for president. He was clearly trying to make Obama look like a gutsy decision-maker in the face of antsy aides.

“The president, he went around the table with all the senior people, including the chiefs of staff, and he said, ‘I have to make a decision. What is your opinion?’ He started with the national security adviser, the secretary of state, and he ended with me,” Biden said. “Every single person in that room hedged their bet except [CIA Director] Leon Panetta. Leon said, ‘Go.’ Everyone else said, 49, 51. He got to me. He said, ‘Joe, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists around the table.’ I said, ‘We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there.’ ”

As you can see, Biden suggested that he was not against a raid per se but believed more work needed to be done, such as sending an unmanned aerial vehicle to confirm that bin Laden lived in the home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, identified by the CIA. Others also have reported Biden raised concerns.

  • Panetta, in his book “Worthy Fights,” said Biden wanted to take more time: “Biden argued that we still did not have enough confidence that bin Laden was in the compound, and he came out firmly in favor of waiting for more information.’”
  • Peter Bergen, in his 2012 book “Manhunt,” depicted Biden as worried about the possibility of local fallout from the raid. “We need greater certainty that bin Laden is there,” Biden is quoted as saying. “The risks to the Pakistani relationship and its importance are such that we need to know more before acting.”
  • Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his book “Duty,” said that he and Biden were the “two primary skeptics, although everyone was asking tough questions. Biden’s primary concern was the political consequences of failure.”
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her memoir “Hard Choices,” said Biden was “skeptical,” adding: “I respected Bob and Joe’s concerns about the risks of a raid, but I came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success.”

Significantly, Gates slept on the matter and changed his mind in the morning.

Mark Bowden reported in his 2012 book, “The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden”: “The only major dissenters were Biden and Gates and, by the next morning, Gates had changed his mind.” Former deputy CIA director Mike Morell confirmed that in his memoir, “The Great War of Our Time,” saying Obama polled the principals in the final meeting: “The vice president and Bob Gates voted no; everyone else voted yes,” but then Gates called the next morning and switched to yes.

Biden now asserts that he sent a different message in a private conversation with Obama after the Situation Room debate. First, he suggested he told Obama to “go with your gut”:

  • In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in May 2012: “I get to be the last guy to be with the president. We walked up toward the residence, toward his office. And I knew he was going to go. And what I always tell him, when he said — looked at me again, I said, ‘Follow your instincts, Mr. President. Your instincts have been close to unerring. Follow your instincts.’ I wanted him to take one more day to do one more test to see if he was there.”
  • In an interview in the New York Times magazine in January 2013: “I remember walking up to his office and saying: ‘Look, follow your instincts. Follow your instincts,’ and him coming down the next morning to say, ‘Go.’ ”

Then, Biden in 2015 started to say he told Obama to go:

  • In October 2015, Biden told a public forum: “So as we walked out of the room and walked upstairs, I said, uh, I told him my opinion that I thought he should go but follow his own instincts.”
  • In an interview a week later with CBS: “Everything I said was completely accurate. I just never until last Tuesday night told the whole story.” He claimed that Panetta was a strong “yes” and Gates was a strong “no.” Biden said “the reporting was accurate” that he did not say “go” but instead had said, “Try one more thing,” such as one more pass with a drone to make certain. He argued that since Obama had not made a final decision, he did not want to be on record in front of other administration officials as urging the mission in case Obama ultimately decided against it. “We walked up to the Oval. I said: ‘Mister President, follow your instincts. I know you should do it, but follow your instincts.’ ”

Other aides have confirmed they saw Biden and Obama talk after the discussion, but Obama has not given his version of it.

The Pinocchio Test

Memories change and shift over time. We are keenly interested in how Obama himself describes the debate in the Situation Room — and any conversation with Biden afterward. The bin Laden raid will be covered in the first volume of Obama’s memoir — but it will be published on Nov. 17, two weeks after the election.

There is a difference between saying “don’t go now” and “being opposed to taking out bin Laden.” In the Situation Room, there is little dispute Biden urged caution about the intelligence and suggested taking time to get more information. Even in Biden’s original telling, he said: “My suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there.” Biden’s later efforts to say he privately advised Obama to go remain unconfirmed.

Biden, in front of other aides, clearly said more time was needed to confirm bin Laden had been located. But there is no evidence Biden was opposed to “taking out” bin Laden. The ad uses a newspaper headline that suggests Obama publicly said Biden opposed the raid, but we believe the newspaper misinterpreted Obama’s remarks.

The difference may seem subtle — and certainly Biden has not helped his case with his shifting comments — but it’s still worthy of Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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