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It's a good warning to fact-checkers everywhere. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes even official transcripts are wrong.
We were reminded of this when we got an e-mail from a reader questioning whether White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had made a mistake in describing President Barack Obama's legal experience. It all hinged on a White House transcript that indicated Gibbs had said that Obama never taught constitutional law.
The reader pointed us toward a few blogs criticizing Gibbs for saying so. The conservative Power Line blog, for example, opined that Gibbs had distorted Obama's resume and said that Obama "could use a new spokesperson."
Indeed, it looked like Gibbs had made a mistake.
We checked the transcript for Gibbs' briefing that the White House e-mails to reporters and found the statement in an exchange about prisoners being held at the Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.
Human rights advocates have sought the names of the prisoners and details about their incarceration. The American Civil Liberties Union says more prisoners are held there than at Guantanamo Bay, and under worse conditions.
The Obama administration has accepted that prisoners in Guantanamo Bay may challenge their detentions in U.S. courts, but not prisoners held at Bagram. The legal concept is known as habeas corpus, and it means that the government can be questioned in court when it is holding someone in prison or detention.
The Obama administration has argued in court that the situation at Bagram is different than at Guantanamo because Afghanistan is an active war zone.
Columnist Helen Thomas — a longtime Washington reporter and one of the briefing room's more aggressive questioners — asked Gibbs about the prisoners at Bagram in a fractured exchange on April 14, 2009.
Here's what the transcript says:
Thomas: "Why is the president blocking habeas corpus from prisoners at Bagram? I thought he taught constitutional law. And these prisoners have been there —"
Gibbs: "You're incorrect that he taught on constitutional law."
Thomas: "— for many years with no due process."
Gibbs: "Well, there are several issues relating to that that have to do differently than in some places than others, particularly because you have detainees in an active theater of war. There's a review that's pending of court cases and decisions, and we want to ensure — we want to ensure protection and security of the American people as well as rights that might be afforded."
So Gibbs was saying that Obama had never taught constitutional law? We knew that wasn't right. Obama taught "Constitutional Law III: Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process" at the University of Chicago Law School every fall from 1996 to 2003, according to records we obtained from the law school during the campaign. (We asked for the records when we fact-checked Obama's statement that he had been working in public service for 20 years.)
We asked Gibbs about the comment. He said he wouldn't have said that, that it couldn't be right. "I would never have said Obama didn’t teach constitutional law — in fact, I have said he has probably a thousand times," he said in an e-mail.
We then turned to YouTube to check the briefing. You can hear the exchange for youself here . Gibbs isn't speaking that loudly, but we hear him say pretty plainly, "You're not incorrect that he taught on constitutional law." (Emphasis added.)
Gibbs is using a double negative to tell Thomas that she's right, that Obama did indeed teach constitutional law. The transcript missed the "not."
So if you read on the Internet that Gibbs said Obama never taught constitutional law, that's not what Gibbs said. Obama did teach constitutional law, and even Gibbs says so.
University of Chicago, Barack Obama: Curriculum Vitae, class schedule
University of Chicago, Constitutional Law III: Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process
American Civil Liberties Union, Group Files FOIA Request For Records About Detention And Treatment Of Prisoners At Afghanistan Detention Center , April 23, 2009
The Associated Press, Judge: Bagram prisoners can challenge detention , April 2, 2009
The New York Times, Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Slightly Apart , July 30, 2009
Interview with Robert Gibbs