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Fact Check: Did Obama selectively quote Usama bin Laden in counterterror speech?

 

President Obama is being accused of selectively quoting Usama bin Laden, by using a snippet of an anti-America screed to make it sound like Al Qaeda was breaking under the weight of the U.S. drone program. 

Obama quoted the Al Qaeda leader during his wide-ranging speech on counterterrorism policy last Thursday in Washington. As part of his argument in defense of the lethal drone program, Obama suggested bin Laden himself deemed the strikes to be effective. 

"Don't take my word for it," Obama said. "In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden's compound, we found that he wrote, 'We could lose the reserves to enemy's airstrikes. We cannot fight airstrikes with explosives.'" 

It is without question that the strikes have killed key terror leaders, and have changed the way Al Qaeda and its affiliates operate. The bin Laden document Obama referenced said as much. 

But the document -- one of several bin Laden writings published by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center -- showed bin Laden discussing how drones strikes have changed his organization's tactics, not necessarily how they have Al Qaeda on the run. 

The document, which refers repeatedly to the "ummah," or Muslim population, says: "The Ummah should put forward some, but enough, forces to fight America. The Ummah must keep some of its forces on reserve. This will be in the Ummah's best interests. The Ummah will use the reserve in the future, but during the appropriate time. 

"In the meanwhile, we do not want to send the reserves to the front line, especially in areas where the enemy only uses airstrikes to attack our forces. So, the reserves will not, for the most part, be effective in such conflicts. Basically, we could lose the reserves to enemy's airstrikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives!" 

The document goes on to say that "we still have a powerful force which we can organize and prepare for deployment." 

Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that bin Laden's full quote has a far different meaning than that conveyed by the excerpt Obama cited last week. 

"When you look at the context of the whole statement, it doesn't support their story," he told FoxNews.com. 

He acknowledged that the drones have killed senior terrorists, but said "it's just more complicated than that." 

Joscelyn wrote in The Weekly Standard: "The full quote actually supports a different argument -- that al Qaeda's 'reserves' have been removed from the drones' kill box. It is quite obvious that improvised explosive devices, car bombs, small arms and the like cannot take out unmanned drones. So, Al Qaeda has simply moved some of its forces elsewhere." 

Joscelyn said the "selective citation" speaks to a broader problem -- "the president and his administration only see what they want to see in the fight against Al Qaeda and affiliates groups." 

In his counterterrorism speech, Obama said the "core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat," while at the same time acknowledging Al Qaeda affiliates continue to threaten U.S. interests. 

Obama vowed to put new limits on the U.S. drone program, while defending the need for it in an unconventional war. 

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, speaking on "Fox News Sunday," accused Obama of "sounding retreat" in the address. 

"At the end of the day, this is the most tone-deaf president I ever could imagine," he said. 

Other lawmakers praised Obama for taking new steps to disclose details about the U.S. drone program. 

"I am also encouraged that the administration is taking steps to improve transparency as it pertains to the use of lethal force, particularly when it comes to the possible targeting of U.S. citizens," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said last week.