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As Donald Trump attacked the family of a Muslim soldier killed in the Iraq war, his spokeswoman blamed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for Capt. Humayun Khan’s 2004 death.
It all began when Khizr Khan, Humayun’s father, seared Trump in an emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention. Trump responded by criticizing Khizr’s wife, Ghazala (who responded in the Washington Post) and crying foul over Khizr’s "vicious attacks."
This earned him the censure of just about everyone. But all this criticism is misdirected, Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said Aug. 2 on CNN: "It was under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that changed the rules of engagement that probably cost (Khan’s) life."
Given that Khan died five years before Obama became president and Clinton secretary of state, we were perplexed by this statement, so we reached out to Pierson.
Pierson told us her point was Clinton voted for the war in Iraq in 2002 and "decided not to provide support" and that Obama continued George W. Bush’s rules of engagement policy and "further restricted engagement in Afghanistan." Trump (who, in at least one interview, also supported the invasion) had nothing to do with either decision, Pierson said.
Pierson reiterated those points in an Aug. 3, interview with CNN. "Apologize for the timeline. What I was talking about is the fact that Donald Trump has no connection to anything having to do with Capt. Khan, who was a brave war hero. The timeline is very simple and true ... Hillary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq. She did not support the surge. Barack Obama made things worse by invading more countries than President Bush did"
Pierson is well within her rights to critique Clinton’s voting record and Obama’s defense policies. But in her original CNN interview, she went further and said Obama and Clinton changed the rules of engagement that "probably cost" Khan’s life.
That’s nonsensical. Even if we put the anachronism aside, experts told us restrictive rules of engagement — military directives that regulate the use of force in armed conflict — were not an issue in Khan’s death.
Lt. Col. David G. Bolgiano is a retired military officer who served with Special Operations Forces and the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq and Afghanistan and currently practices military and security law in Washington.
He told us the rules of engagement, which really haven’t changed since the Reagan years, give all troops the right to use deadly force to defend themselves. Though the Obama administration has been criticized for directives that seek to limit civilian deaths, that right still applies today.
And that was the case in 2004, when Capt. Khan died in a suicide bombing at age 27. On June 8, 2004, a taxi packed with explosives drove into the gate of his compound in Baqubah, Iraq, while he was inspecting soldiers on guard duty.
According to his commanding officer, Khan ordered his man to "hit the ground" as he approached the vehicle and motioned for it to stop. The bomb then exploded, killing Khan as well as the two suicide bombers and two Iraqi civilians.
"Capt. Khan had all the authority in the world to use deadly force" under the rules of engagement, said Bolgiano, who was serving in Iraq in 2004. He added that Khan’s actions were a testament to his bravery and selflessness.
"The officer makes a judgement call," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised General Stanley McChrystal. "They are very difficult calls to make. But the officer did what a good officer should do, he took the risk and made a command decision."
Khan was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Experts warned that politicization of the rules of engagement were not appropriate and potentially dangerous.
"I can’t think of anything worse than somehow getting into a tactical situation where you’re going to have to deal with concerns in the field over campaign rhetoric," Cordesman said.
Pierson said, "It was under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that changed the rules of engagement that probably cost (Capt. Khan’s) life."
First, Pierson’s point about rules of engagement is inaccurate and irrelevant. Under the rules of engagement in 2004 and today, Khan would have been able to use deadly force to defend himself.
More importantly, Khan died five years before Obama became president and Clinton his secretary of state.
We rate Pierson’s claim Pants on Fire.
(Update: This fact-check has been updated to include Pierson's comments on CNN from Aug. 3.)
CNN, "Trump spokeswoman: Obama probably caused Khan's death," Aug. 2, 2016
PolitiFact, "The backstory of the Muslim soldier's dad who said Trump 'sacrificed nothing'," July 29, 2016
United States Marine Corps, "Law of War: Introduction to Rules of Engagement," accessed Aug. 3, 2016
Library of Congress, "Operational Law Handbook 2015: Rules of Engagement," accessed Aug. 3, 2016
Human Rights Watch, "Appendix E: Rules of Engagement for U.S. Military Forces in Iraq," January 2003
Email interview with Katrina Pierson, national spokeswoman for Donald Trump, Aug. 3, 2016
Interview with Anthony Cordesman, national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Aug. 3, 2016
Interview with David G. Bolgiano, counsel at Tully Rinckey PLLC and author of Combat Self-defense: Saving America's Warriors from Risk-averse Commanders and Their Lawyers, Aug. 3, 2016
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