Whopper of the week: Donald Rumsfeld.

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April 25 2002 1:12 PM

Whopper of the Week: Donald Rumsfeld

How were things in Tora Bora?

"Q: Mr. Secretary, could you first address the reports today that some in the government have come to the conclusion that [Osama] Bin Laden was present in Tora Bora at the time of the battle there in early December, that he got away, and that this represented a failure by General Franks not to take the initiative?

Donald Rumsfeld: Well, first, I know—I knew of, nor do I know today of any evidence [italics Chatterbox's] that we—he was in Tora Bora at the time, or that he left Tora Bora at the time, or even where he is today."

Exchange at the Defense secretary's April 17 press briefing.Rumsfeld was being asked to respond to an article by Barton Gellman and Thomas E. Ricks in that day's Washington Post.


"Q: A few days ago, he was in Tora Bora. Is that a good working assumption?

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem: Yes, a few days ago we believed that he was in that area."

Videotaped exchange between ABC's John McWethy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff's deputy director of operations, Dec. 1. McWethy excerpted the tape in an April 17 report off  the Post story.


"Q: Mr. Wolfowitz, what kind of progress is being made in the Tora Bora area and Jalalabad? And do you believe that Osama Bin Laden is still in that area?

Paul Wolfowitz: Well, I guess it's a question of what constitutes belief; if you have to go by—the best indications we have of where he might be, tend to point, I would say, almost entirely, but mostly to that area. I can't guarantee there isn't some crank caller right now saying that he's in another country, but we don't have any credible evidence of him being in other parts of Afghanistan or outside of Afghanistan. But the kinds of reports that we're working on are very fragmentary—not very reliable. We're not talking about eyewitnesses who came in right afterwards and said, 'I saw him in such and such a place.' So—but the reports that we get tend to leave him in that area." [Italics Chatterbox's.]

Exchange with the deputy Defense secretary at a Dec. 10 press briefing. McWethy excerpted this tape also in his April 17 report.


"[I]nside the government there is little controversy on the subject. Captured al Qaeda fighters, interviewed separately, gave consistent accounts describing an address by bin Laden around Dec. 3 to mujaheddin, or holy warriors, dug into the warren of caves and tunnels built as a redoubt against Soviet invaders in the 1980s. One official said 'we had a good piece of sigint,' or signals intelligence, confirming those reports.

"'I don't think you can ever say with certainty, but we did conclude he was there, and that conclusion has strengthened with time,' said another official, giving an authoritative account of the intelligence consensus. 'We have high confidence that he was there [italics Chatterbox's], and also high confidence, but not as high, that he got out. We have several accounts of that from people who are in detention, al Qaeda people who were free at the time and are not free now.' "

The April 17 Post story.


Discussion. Rumsfeld's April 17 claim not to know of "any evidence" that Bin Laden was in Tora Bora makes one wonder how Stufflebeam came to believe on Dec. 1 that "he was in that area." Wolfowitz's Dec. 10 comment explains that the evidence locating Bin Laden at Tora Bora was "very fragmentary" and "not very reliable." But "very fragmentary" and "not very reliable" evidence is still evidence. Anyway, the Post story makes clear that the evidence has become much more reliable since December. It's inconceivable that by April 17 Rumsfeld had not been told that eyewitnesses saw Bin Laden at Tora Bora.

Got a whopper? Send it to chatterbox@slate.com. To be considered, an entry must be an unambiguously false statement paired with an unambiguous refutation, and both must be derived from some appropriately reliable public source. Preference will be given to newspapers and other documents that Chatterbox can link to online.