Fact-checking the third presidential debate

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney shake hands at the final presidential debate. Moderator Bob Schieffer looks on.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney shake hands at the final presidential debate. Moderator Bob Schieffer looks on.

Updated Wednesday, October 24, 2012, at 4:45 p.m.

President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney clashed Monday over foreign policy, trading talking points that sometimes stretched the truth.

Bob Schieffer of CBS News moderated the third and final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., guiding conversation that touched on Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan — even Russia.


Obama accused Romney of living in the past, saying, "A few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida." Romney did describe Russia as "our No. 1 geopolitical foe," saying the Russians "fight for every cause for the world's worst actors." But he said that the biggest "threat" is Iran. We rated Obama's statement Half True.


Obama said that Romney has conflicting signals on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. "Now, you just gave a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops in Iraq," Obama said. "That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East." Romney has criticized the pace of the withdrawal and did so recently, saying too many troops were removed too soon. We rated Obama's statement Mostly True.


Obama claimed his administration "organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy." We haven't rated that claim, but in a related fact-check we noted that the Congressional Research Service, which provides nonpartisan analysis to Congress, calls U.S. sanctions the "most sweeping sanctions on Iran of virtually any country in the world," and "what many now consider to be ‘crippling’ sanctions."

Romney criticized Obama for his reaction to protests that followed elections in Iran in 2009. "And then, of course, with regards to standing for our principles, when the students took to the streets in Tehran and the people there protested, the Green Revolution occurred, for the president to be silent I thought was an enormous mistake," Romney said. We reviewed Obama's public remarks and found that he showed a muted response in the days following the start of the protests. But it is an exaggeration to say that he was "silent." We rated Romney's statement Mostly False.


Romney noted that during an early foreign trip by the president, he "skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region." Romney has previously claimed in an ad that as president, Obama "has never visited Israel." Romney specified that Obama has not been to Israel "as president," and that assertion is correct. That historical context is noteworthy: A majority of the last 11 presidents did not visit Israel. But Romney's claim was accurate. We rated it True.

Romney also claimed Obama "said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel." It’s not as simple in this case as going to the tape to see what Obama said. The comment was reported secondhand by the Washington Post, based on anonymous interviews. Obama was reported as saying that during the George W. Bush presidency, "there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states." Romney fairly characterized the quot, which the White House has not denied. We rated Romney's statement Mostly True.


Romney went into details on Pakistan, saying "Pakistan is important to the region, to the world and to us, because Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads and they’re rushing to build a lot more. They’ll have more than Great Britain sometime in the relatively near future." We wondered if Romney's numbers were accurate, as well as the possibility that Pakistan could surpass Great Britain. The experts we spoke with all considered it plausible, and his numbers on nuclear warheads are correct. We rated his statement Mostly True.

Osama bin Laden

Obama said to Romney, "When you were a candidate in 2008, as I was, and I said if I got (Osama) bin Laden in our sights I would take that shot, you said we shouldn't move heaven and earth to get one man." We previously checked an Obama campaign ad that suggested Romney wouldn’t have aggressively pursued bin Laden. The Obama campaign was right that Romney used those words, but it glossed over comments describing his broader approach. We rated the ad's claim Half True.

Obama added, "And you said we should ask Pakistan for permission." The reality is somewhat more complex. Romney did express a preference for working with the Pakistanis, and he attacked Obama for saying he would strike inside Pakistan if Musharraf wouldn’t. But Romney’s clearest objection was to Obama saying the United States would attack without approval — not to the option itself. "We keep our options quiet," Romney said. Obama oversimplified Romney’s stance four years ago. We rated his statement Half True.


Obama claimed, "We had a tire case in which (China was) flooding us with … cheap Chinese tires. And we put a stop to it and as a consequence saved jobs throughout America. I have to say that Gov. Romney criticized me for being too tough in that tire case." An Obama TV ad made a similar case, saying that Chinese tire imports threatened 1,000 American jobs, so Obama "stood up to China and protected American workers. Mitt Romney attacked Obama's decision." We rated the ad's claim Mostly True.

Latin America

Romney touted Latin America as a region that’s ripe for expanding trade with the United States."Trade grows about 12 percent year," Romney said. "It doubles about five or so years. We can do better than that, particularly in Latin America. The opportunities for us in Latin America, we have just not taken advantage (of them) of fully. As a matter of fact, Latin America’s economy is almost as big as the economy of China. We’re all focused on China. Latin America is a huge opportunity for us — time zone, language opportunities." We looked at whether Latin America and China are roughly the same size and found that Latin America is approximately two-thirds the size of China. That's not so close in size. So we rated the claim Half True.


Romney kicked off a round of discussion about the budget, economy and jobs, calling debt a threat to national security.

He said, "You can't have kids coming out of college, half of them can't find a job today, or a job that's commensurate with their college degree." We've previously checked his statement that, "Fifty percent of kids coming out of school can't get a job." In that version, he missed a key qualifier — according to the research, about a quarter of recent college grads literally can’t find a job, while another quarter have found a job, but one that doesn’t require a college degree. We rated his previous claim Mostly True.

Romney also said, "The president said by now we'd be a 5.4 percent unemployment." We've rated a similar claim in a TV ad from American Crossroads, that "this is what President Obama said the jobless rate would be if we passed the stimulus: 5.6 percent." But we found that's a stretch. We rated the ad's statement Mostly False.

The president countered that Romney's budget math doesn't work, noting Romney "wants to spend another $2 trillion on military spending that our military is not asking for." In the first presidential debate, Obama made a nearly identical claim. We looked at Romney's budget proposal and found the number was accurate. We didn't find reports that top brass was asking for the money. We rated Obama's statement True.

Romney said he balanced the budget of the Salt Lake City Olympics, claiming, "I went to the Olympics that was out of balance, and we got it on balance." It’s correct that Romney more than balanced the the Salt Lake Organizing Committee’s budget. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, since he helped secure at least $400 million — and possibly up to $1.5 billion — in government funding that's not included in the balance sheet. We rated Romney’s claim Mostly True.

Obama told Romney, "You are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas." A related Obama TV ad claims that Romney's private equity firm invested in companies that were "pioneers in outsourcing U.S. jobs to low-wage countries." As the founder of Bain Capital, Romney assembled a team that looked to make high returns. One strategy was to invest in companies that played off the trend in outsourcing. We found little evidence that the particular firms were "pioneers in outsourcing" (a phrase Obama didn't use at the debate) and rated the ad's claim Half True.

Obama also claimed, "veterans’ unemployment is actually now lower than (the) general population. It was higher when I came into office." Whether you’re talking about all veterans or just those who served after 9/11, Obama gets one number right but one number wrong. So we rate his claim Half True.

Obama also said Romney was opposed to the bailout that rescued the American auto industry. "You were very clear that you would not provide government assistance to the U.S. auto companies, even if they went through bankruptcy. You said that they could get it in the private marketplace," Obama said. Actually, Romney was not very clear at all, suggesting that companies could get help from the government, but avoiding specifics on how that might happen. We rated Obama's statement Mostly False.

Obama also said he wasn't responsible for a sequester scheduled to cut government spending next year -- including heavy cuts to defense. "The sequester is not something that I've proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed," Obama said. But that's not what independent reporting shows about how the sequester came about. We rated Obama's statement Mostly False.

Military and diplomatic strength

Obama criticized Romney for wanting more defense spending. Romney "wants to spend another $2 trillion on military spending that our military is not asking for," Obama said. We found the number accurately represents Romney's suggestions, and that military leaders have not asked for the extra funding. We rated Obama's statement True.

Romney said he would invest in the military, noting that "our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917," and "our Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947."  He's previously made a similar claim about the Navy and Air Force, but added that the nation was at risk of losing its military superiority as a result. Judging by the numbers alone, Romney was close to accurate. However, a wide range of experts told us it’s wrong to assume that a decline in the number of ships or aircraft automatically means a weaker military. Quite the contrary: The United States is the world’s unquestioned military leader today, not just because of the number of ships and aircraft in its arsenal but also because each is stocked with top-of-the-line technology and highly trained personnel. When we evaluated Romney's earlier statement that included a claim about the military's strength, we rated it Pants on Fire.

Romney also claimed, "the president began what I have called an apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America." We've repeatedly rated versions of this claim from Romney, including at the Oct. 16 presidential debate. A review of Obama’s foreign travels and remarks during his early presidency showed no evidence to support such a blunt and disparaging claim. (In later years, we found two formal apologies, but they were not at the start of his presidency and not part of a tour.) While Obama's speeches contained some criticisms of past U.S. actions, he typically combined those passages with praise for the United States and its ideals, and he frequently mentioned how other countries had erred as well. We found not a single, full-throated apology in the bunch. Calling those remarks "an apology tour" is a ridiculous charge. We rated his statement Pants on Fire.


We'll post additional fact-checks here as we finish them.

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