(Published March 25, 2008)
During an introduction to a foreign policy speech on Iraq on March 17, 2008, Sen. Hillary Clinton reminisced about her days as first lady and a trip to Tuzla, Bosnia, she made in March 1996.
"I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base."
But that's not what happened, as demonstrated by CBS News video that shows Clinton arriving on the tarmac under no visible duress, and greeting a child who offers her a copy of a poem. The Washington Post Factchecker also turned a skeptical eye on Clinton's comments, reporting that a review of more than 100 news stories from the time documented no security threats to the First Lady.
CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson, who covered Clinton on the Bosnia visit, wrote of her memories of the trip : "To be sure, it was not the 'safest' trip for a first lady to take: there were serious risks in traveling to Bosnia, even for the president's wife under the vigilant protection of the U.S. military. It took some guts for her to go. But I don't recall, and did not note, any close calls on this trip with sniper fire or any other dangers. "
Immediately after the speech that day, a reporter asked Clinton about remarks from others on the trip who suggested the trip was for photo opportunities rather than foreign policy and she stood by her account of sniper fire. "There was no greeting ceremony, and we basically were told to run to our cars. Now, that is what happened," she said.
But she retracted the remarks a week later, telling the Philadelphia Daily News editorial board on March 24, 2008, that she "misspoke," correcting herself to say she had been told there was a threat of sniper fire in the area. The next day she told reporters, "So I made a mistake. That happens. It shows I'm human, which for some people is a revelation."
On the campaign trail, Clinton has discussed the danger of the trip before and how it gave her important foreign policy experience. The Des Moines Register reported her saying on Dec. 30, 2007, "We landed in one of those corkscrew landings and ran out because they said there might be sniper fire. I don't remember anyone offering me tea on the tarmac there."
Interestingly, Clinton's memoir Living History depicts an arrival that, though dangerous, included neither actual sniper fire nor running. It matches the CBS footage and appears to contradict Clinton's later retelling:
"Security conditions were constantly changing in the former Yugoslavia, and they had recently deteriorated again. Due to reports of snipers in the hills around the airstrip, we were forced to cut short an event on the tarmac with local children, though we did have time to meet them and their teachers and to learn how hard they had worked during the war to continue classes in any safe spot they could find. One eight-year-old girl gave me a copy of a poem she had written entitled 'Peace.'"
We have questioned Clinton's previous remarks about her foreign policy experience. We found her statements that she helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and that she stood up to the Chinese government on women's rights to be Half True. We found her statement that she negotiated open borders for Kosovars to be Barely True.
There's no doubt flying into Bosnia was dangerous back in 1996, but the threat of sniper fire is not the same as actual sniper fire, and hustling off the tarmac is not the same as running with your head down. Yes, Clinton later acknowledged that she was mistaken, but it's hard to understand how she could err on something so significant as whether she did or didn't dodge sniper bullets. Quite simply, this kind of hyperbole deserves our harshest assessment. We rule Pants on Fire.