WASHINGTON – Democrat John Edwards (search) and Vice President Dick Cheney (search) stretched the findings of U.S. intelligence to their own ends Tuesday night in tangling over Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to Al Qaeda.
Edwards said the connection between Saddam and the terrorist network was minimal or nonexistent; Cheney asserted Saddam's Iraq "had an established relationship with Al Qaeda."
Both statements mask what intelligence sources have said. The contacts were limited and sketchy, mostly Iraqi intelligence agents and Al Qaeda operatives, and did not amount to state sponsorship of Al Qaeda (search) or any link to the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. intelligence officials have said.
But the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report on flawed Iraqi intelligence did conclude that the CIA reasonably assessed there probably were several contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda throughout the 1990s, although they did not add up to a formal relationship.
The exchange was typical of a night in which each accused the other of mangling facts and traded accusations at a faster pace than in the presidential debate last week.
"More attacks, more problematic facts," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, comparing this debate with the last. She said Edwards and Cheney had more of a chance to challenge each other on distorted claims than President Bush and Democrat John Kerry did, but "still a lot of factual inaccuracies were left standing."
In perhaps the most awkward blooper of the evening, Cheney told Edwards to his face that they had never met before the debate, despite evidence they had.
Edwards' campaign later provided a transcript of a February 2001 prayer breakfast at which Cheney began his remarks by acknowledging the North Carolina senator. The campaign said the two also met when Edwards accompanied the other North Carolina senator, Elizabeth Dole, to her swearing-in ceremony.
Cheney was trying to make the point that Edwards was an absentee senator. "The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight."
At one point, Edwards attacked Cheney for the administration's decision to give billions of dollars in new contracts to the vice president's former company, Halliburton. But congressional auditors recently reviewed those contracts and concluded U.S. officials met legal guidelines in awarding the business without competition — in part because Halliburton was the only company capable of doing some of the work.
He also asserted, "They sent 40,000 American troops into Iraq without the body armor they needed," a comment that might suggest they had no body armor at all, when in fact they did.
Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said 40,000 troops did not have the brand new, improved armor but, "every soldier and Marine on the ground over had body armor."
Cheney accused Kerry of voting for taxes 98 times. That's down from the 350 times wrongly claimed by Republicans, but it's still a stretch. Those 98 votes include times when Kerry voted for lower taxes — but not as low as Republicans wanted. And times when many procedural votes were cast on a single tax increase or package.
Touching on one of the Democratic ticket's favorite themes, Edwards declared the Bush administration is "for outsourcing jobs," taking out of context comments from Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (search) and a report by a council of economists who advise the president. Bush and Cheney have not said they support the practice of U.S companies sending jobs from the United States to cheaper labor in other countries.
The Council of Economic Advisers said job outsourcing is part of a healthy dynamic in which free trade in return benefits Americans. And Chao said last month that the concerns about job losses ignore that foreign-owned companies are creating many jobs in the United States at the same time.
Chao said employers have eliminated about 300,000 jobs in the United States in favor of cheaper labor elsewhere, but about 9 million Americans currently work for U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies.
Also in the debate:
—Edwards said that while U.S. troops were fighting in Iraq, the Bush administration "lobbied the Congress to cut their combat pay. This is the height of hypocrisy."
It's also arguable. When the government faced prospects that increased allowances for the troops would expire as stipulated by Congress, the Pentagon said it would make up any shortfall through incentive pay or similar means.
—Cheney took Kerry out of context in quoting him as saying that he favored a global test before he would deploy U.S. troops to pre-empt an attack on the United States.
Kerry said in his debate that he would not cede to anyone the right to move pre-emptively against a threat but that he would do so in a way that proved to Americans and the world that he had taken the action for a legitimate reason.