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After the killing of Osama bin Laden in a special forces attack on May 1, 2011, it didn’t take long for conservative bloggers to offer up a 2006 quote from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that expressed skepticism about the importance of eliminating the terrorist who masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
On May 2, 2011, the conservative PowerLine blog posted a quote it said came from Pelosi in 2006. Others followed, including Michelle Malkin’s blog, Fox Nation and Commentary magazine. Here’s the PowerLine version:
"(E)ven if (Osama bin Laden) is caught tomorrow, it is five years too late. He has done more damage the longer he has been out there. But, in fact, the damage that he has done is done. And even to capture him now I don’t think makes us any safer."
The blog paired that with a statement that Pelosi -- the former House speaker and now the House minority leader -- released shortly after President Barack Obama announced bin Laden’s death to the nation on May 1:
"The death of Osama bin Laden marks the most significant development in our fight against al-Qaida. I salute President Obama, his national security team, Director Panetta, our men and women in the intelligence community and military, and other nations who supported this effort for their leadership in achieving this major accomplishment. … (T)he death of Osama bin Laden is historic."
PowerLine went on to argue that her seemingly different sentiments may have been colored by the fact that the White House in 2006 was occupied by a Republican (George W. Bush) and in 2011 by a Democrat (Obama).
"It is unfortunate that many public figures are unable to view events otherwise than through a partisan prism," PowerLine argued. "Osama bin Laden's operational significance had undoubtedly dwindled over the years, and al-Qaida, after nine years of relentless attacks, is a shadow of its former self. But bin Laden's death is obviously an important and helpful milestone in the long war against radical Islam. …"
Several readers asked us whether Pelosi had really said that capturing Osama bin Laden does not make "us any safer". So we decided to look into it.
Pelosi did indeed say those words in a Sept. 7, 2006, press conference. In her opening remarks -- made just days before the fifth anniversary of the attacks -- she criticized the Bush administration and the then-Republican Congress for not enacting all the recommendations of the 9/11 commission.
Here’s a transcript of the full exchange that bloggers would eventually pick up on.
Reporter: "Madam Leader, you mentioned Osama bin Laden, but that is a name we haven't heard in months, and now suddenly every time you turn around it is Osama bin Laden, Osama bin Laden. Now, not to throw you a real softball here, but what do you make of the idea that that is all in fact what we are hearing now? Do you think it is designed specifically to whip up fervor, fear, prior to the midterm elections?"
Pelosi: "You know, I'm never one to question the motivation of people. I just want to question their effectiveness. Five years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden, who was going to be taken 'dead or alive'... you know what the president said at the time, and I wish that he had been... five years later he is still on the loose. The president said, 'You can run but you can't hide, Osama bin Laden.’ Apparently he could. And even if he is caught tomorrow, it is five years too late. He has done more damage the longer he has been out there. But, in fact, the damage that he has done is done. And even to capture him now I don't think makes us any safer."
We think the bloggers are accurate in reporting Pelosi’s 2006 quote. She did indeed say that taking out bin Laden wouldn’t make the U.S. any safer, though we should also note that, from the context, it’s clear that she thought bin Laden should be pursued regardless.
The bloggers’ reporting of the second Pelosi quote -- the one from after bin Laden’s killing -- is incomplete, however. The final sentence of Pelosi’s statement reads, "Though the death of Osama bin Laden is historic, it does not diminish our relentless pursuit of terrorists who threaten our country" (emphasis added). In other words, the full text of what Pelosi said on May 1 communicates a more nuanced view, and one that’s less in conflict with her 2006 statement.
As it happens, Pelosi doubled down on this more nuanced view during her weekly news conference on May 5, 2011. Osama bin Laden, she told reporters, "is a person, he is a symbol. It is a historic event. ‘Hail to the Chief.’ (Obama) did a fabulous job. But it isn't an end to the threat to our national security... ."
Ultimately, we think the bloggers overstated the degree to which Pelosi’s 2006 and 2011 comments were contradictory. They are correct that Pelosi in 2006 said she didn’t think capturing Osama Bin Laden "makes us any safer" and then five years later celebrated his killing as "historic." But, because they left out the rest of her sentence referring to the threat that remains after bin Laden's death, we rate their claim Half True.
PowerLine blog, "Compare and Contrast," May 2, 2011
Nancy Pelosi, transcript of a news conference, Sept. 7, 2006 (accessed via Lexis-Nexis)
Nancy Pelosi, "Pelosi Statement on President Obama’s Announcement on Osama bin Laden," May 1, 2011
Interview with Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, May 5, 2011
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