A Web ad from President Barack Obama’s campaign about the death of Osama bin Laden asks, "Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?"
The ad features former President Bill Clinton saying Obama "took the harder, and more honorable path," when he approved the May 2, 2011, strike that killed the terrorist mastermind.
By contrast, it portrays Romney as less committed to the effort to kill the al-Qaida leader. It says Romney once criticized Obama for "vowing to strike al-Qaida targets inside Pakistan if necessary."
Then it shows a clip of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer quoting Romney as saying in April 2007, "It's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."
By using that quote, the ad indicates that Romney would not have pursued the al-Qaida leader. Indeed, that's how headlines described the April 27, 2012, ad.
A conservative blogger pounced on the ad's implication, saying it took Romney’s "heaven and earth" quote out of context. (That charge was also levied back in 2007 about the Associated Press story that quoted Romney in the first place.) Fox News followed, saying "Obama campaign's bin Laden ad omits Romney clarification on key quote."
We wondered: Did the ad accurately characterize Romney’s "heaven and earth" quote? Was he really lukewarm — or even opposed — to the effort to get bin Laden?
The AP interview
There’s no dispute that Romney said about bin Laden, "It's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."
But was he saying he wouldn’t pursue the terrorist?
The quote comes from an Associated Press story on April 26, 2007, about a Romney interview with reporter Liz Sidoti that covered a range of topics. Here’s the related passage:
In the interview, Romney also:
Said the country would be safer by only "a small percentage" and would see "a very insignificant increase in safety" if al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught because another terrorist would rise to power. "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person," Romney said. Instead, he said he supports a broader strategy to defeat the Islamic jihad movement.
At the time, Democrats such as Obama were criticizing President George W. Bush for failing to find bin Laden. Republicans, in turn, were critical of Obama's focus on capturing or killing the terrorist leader.
A post from the conservative site Townhall.com in 2007 says it got a transcript from Romney’s campaign at the time that shows he followed the "heaven and earth" line with the sentence: "It is worth fashioning and executing an effective strategy to defeat global, violent Jihad and I have a plan for doing that."
Later, he explains, "Global jihad … involves millions of people and is going to require a far more comprehensive strategy than a targeted approach for bin Laden or a few of his associates."
Sidoti, now AP’s political editor, couldn’t confirm the accuracy of the transcript for us, and Romney’s campaign didn’t respond to our inquiry. Lucky for us, Romney himself had a chance to clarify his words just days after he spoke them, in a May 4, 2007, Republican presidential debate.
The moderator of the MSNBC debate, which featured nine Republicans, brought up Romney’s "heaven and earth" quote, which rival Arizona Sen. John McCain had called "naive."
MODERATOR: "Gov. Romney, respond to the mentioned reference to you ... by Sen. McCain."
ROMNEY: "Thank you. Of course we get Osama bin Laden and track him wherever he has to go, and make sure he pays for the outrage he exacted upon America."
MODERATOR: "Can we move heaven and earth to do it?"
ROMNEY: "We'll move everything to get him. But I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person — Osama bin Laden — because after we get him, there's going to be another and another. This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate.
"They ultimately want to bring down the United States of America.
"This is a global effort we're going to have to lead to overcome this jihadist effort. It's more than Osama bin Laden.
"But he is going to pay, and he will die."
That suggests Romney was criticizing Democrats for focusing too much on the al-Qaida leader rather than the full organization and would have aggressively pursued bin Laden in the context of a larger antiterror strategy.
Still, Romney suggested just a few months later that he wouldn’t do what Obama ultimately did — call for a secret, unilateral Navy SEALs strike inside Pakistan. In 2007, Obama had said that if he were elected president, he would be willing to launch strikes against al-Qaida targets in Pakistan with or without Pakistan’s approval.
An Aug. 4, 2007, headline from Reuters — an article cited by Obama’s ad — says, "Romney attacks Obama over Pakistan warning."
Romney called Obama's comments ‘ill-timed’ and ‘ill-considered,’" Reuters reported, along with other news services.
"There is a war being waged by terrorists of different types and nature across the world," Romney said, according to Reuters. "We want, as a civilized world, to participate with other nations in this civilized effort to help those nations reject the extreme with them."
Romney "said U.S. troops ‘shouldn't be sent all over the world.'"
Other Republicans (and Democrat Hillary Clinton) had the same complaint, with some going so far as to say Obama "wants to bomb Pakistan," a statement we rated Pants on Fire.
The Obama campaign, on the other hand, had issued a memo that the United States had deferred to the Pakistani president’s judgment long enough, and that, "Barack Obama wants to turn the page," Reuters reported.
An Obama campaign ad suggested Mitt Romney wouldn’t have agressively pursued Osama bin Laden by citing Romney's statement that, "It's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."
The Obama campaign is right that Romney used those words, but by cherry-picking them, it glosses over comments describing his broader approach. Romney said he wanted to pursue all of al-Qaida, not just its leaders.
The reporter quoting him in April 2007 said he instead "endorsed a broader strategy to defeat the Islamic jihad movement." And he said just over a week later that he would "get Osama bin Laden and track him wherever he has to go, and make sure he pays for the outrage he exacted upon America … he is going to pay, and he will die."
Still, Romney was clear later that summer that he would prefer to participate with allies rather than take unilateral action to kill terrorists as Obama supported — and later did. The ad takes Romney’s words out of context, but gets part of the story right. We rate it Half True.