FACT CHECK: Hyperbole on terror interrogations

November 22, 2011 - 11:00 PM
Republicans Debate

Republican presidential candidates former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left, listens to Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., answer a question during a Republican presidential debate in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Michele Bachmann did not intend to be taken literally when she told the Republican presidential debate Tuesday that civil-liberties activists have taken over the interrogation of terrorists from the CIA. But even as a rhetorical point, it didn't hold water.

Her hyperbole on the American Civil Liberties Union was one of the more notable stretches in the national security and foreign policy debate. A look at some of the claims and how they compare with the facts:

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BACHMANN: "This is one thing we know about Barack Obama: He has essentially handed over our interrogation of terrorists to the ACLU. He's outsourced it to them. Our CIA has no ability to have any form of interrogation for terrorists."

THE FACTS: The CIA still has the ability to interrogate terrorists. President Obama formed the High Value Interrogation Group, which includes the FBI, the CIA and the Pentagon. It centralizes expertise so that when a terrorism suspect is caught, everyone with a stake in the issue is involved in the questioning. The CIA also can sit in on interrogations in other countries, asking questions directly or through officials of the host government.

Whether the policy on interrogating suspects should be tougher is a matter of authentic debate. But the CIA is hardly emasculated. The agency has dramatically expanded its on-the-ground operations worldwide since 2001, and the U.S. killing of a succession of al-Qaida figures in Pakistan — Osama bin Laden chief among them — demonstrates the potency of the hunt for terrorists. Moreover, the U.S. killing of an American citizen abroad — the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki — is well outside the range of action that would be condoned by civil liberties advocates.

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MITT ROMNEY: "What they're doing is cutting a trillion dollars out of the defense budget."

RON PAUL: "They're nibbling away at baseline budgeting. ... There's nothing cut against the military. And the people on the Hill are nearly hysterical because they're not going — the budget isn't going up as rapidly as they want it to."

THE FACTS: Paul was more accurate than Romney in describing what is happening with defense spending. Constraints in the military budget are much more modest than Romney suggested.

Both Romney and rival Rick Perry have been criticizing Obama for looming defense cuts that are triggered by the failure of the deficit supercommittee to act. But the cuts would only slow the rate of growth of Pentagon spending, which has been vastly increased because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now winding down. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the planned Pentagon budget for 2021 would be some $700 billion, an increase over the current level of about $520 billion. The cuts agreed to last summer plus the automatic reductions would trim the projected 2021 budget by about $110 billion.

Moreover, the spending cuts set in motion by the supercommittee's failure to reach an agreement are not to begin until January 2013, which gives lawmakers time to try again to produce a debt plan. That's what Obama has in mind — using the threat of defense cuts to push lawmakers to make a deal.

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RICK PERRY: "When you sanction the Iranian central bank, that will shut down that economy. ... This president refuses to do that, and it's another show of lack of leadership from the president of the United States."

THE FACTS: Obama, like George W. Bush before him, hasn't issued a blanket ban on dealings with Iran's central bank. Perry could try as president, but he'd find himself with some angry allies and perhaps some economic damage for the United States.

U.S. sanctions already severely restrict what contact American and foreign companies can have with Iranian banks. That has made the central bank the primary conduit for purchasing Iranian oil exports.

Blacklisting the central bank entirely would put energy companies and banks from places such as Japan in a dilemma: either find new oil sources, or risk punishment in the United States. The same applies for China, Russia, Turkey and other countries with investments in Iran — and the rush for new fuel providers could lead to a spike in gasoline prices that hampers the American economic recovery.

In reality, however, it's unlikely the U.S. would be prepared to blacklist Japan's banks for financial transactions with Iran's central bank. So the power of the sanction would be unclear.

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BACHMANN: "Almost every decision that the president has made since he came in has been one to put the United States in a position of unilateral disarmament, including the most recent decision he made to cancel the Keystone pipeline. That would have not only created jobs, but it would have helped us in energy independence."

THE FACTS: Obama didn't cancel the Canadian oil pipeline. Instead, his administration delayed the decision in order to explore an alternative route to avoid areas of Nebraska that include wetlands and an aquifer providing water crucial to huge swaths of U.S. cropland. Bachmann also overlooked that the delay came under pressure from Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican. When the pipeline was delayed, Heineman hailed the decision and called it "an exceptional moment for Nebraskans."

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Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper, Matt Apuzzo, Donna Cassata and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.