WASHINGTON—It's an easy claim to make, calling yourself a "political truth squad." But when a shadowy group pouring untraceable millions into this fall's campaign makes that claim, that bears a little truth-checking itself.
Television ads from the group, Progress for America, manage to grab the heart, but also stretch or twist the truth as they work to boost support for the Iraq war.
They feature David Beamer, whose son led a counterattack against the terrorists who hijacked United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. Todd Beamer was the one who said, "Let's roll," as he and others courageously stormed the cockpit. The plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, well short of either the Capitol or White House, its presumed target.
"Todd was one of the passengers and crew who fought back on 9/11 and saved our capital from being destroyed," the elder Beamer says in one ad, looking squarely into the camera as a picture of his smiling son flashes beside him.
"Al-Qaida killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11 and will do anything to destroy us and our way of life. Todd and United 93 fought back. We continue this fight in Iraq today. This enemy must be destroyed in Iraq and wherever we find them."
That makes it sound as though the war in Iraq is retaliation against al-Qaida.
It's not. Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaida's attack on us. In fact, a recent Senate Intelligence Committee report showed that not only did Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein not have anything to do with Sept. 11, he also wanted nothing to do with al-Qaida and shunned pleas for help from Osama bin Laden.
"Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al-Qaida and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al-Qaida to provide material or operational support," the report said.
Asked to back up its ad, the group pointed to news articles about al-Qaida in Iraq now. But we didn't "find" al-Qaida in Iraq. They came in to fight us after we invaded.
Misleading assertions like those made by Progress for America feed a lingering misunderstanding of the Iraq war. As recently as March, 39 percent of Americans believed that Saddam was personally involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, according to the Gallup poll. That's down from 53 percent in 2002, but still surprisingly high.
Progress for America presumably hopes the ads will rebuild that false connection between Sept. 11 and Iraq—and thus make the Iraq war more justifiable to an increasingly skeptical public. The ads are being aired in Missouri and Ohio, two states where Republican senators are in danger of losing their seats, and on national cable TV.
Progress for America is a mysterious conservative group. It has aired ads supporting President Bush and his Supreme Court nominees, as well as the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.
It was founded in 2001 as a "527" group, named for a section of the tax code, and raised an estimated $45 million for ads in the 2004 campaign.
It's now incorporated under section 501c(4) of the tax code, which prohibits it from directly supporting or opposing candidates, but also exempts it from having to disclose who finances it.
Nicole Philbin, a spokeswoman for the group, declined to say how much it's raised or spent, or who has financed its ads.
The group has another ad featuring Beamer, this one supporting the war on terrorism and ripping unnamed people who question U.S. tactics. It was aired in Missouri and on national cable channels.
In it, Beamer says: "Now, we have narrowly escaped another 9/11 . . . using prove surveillance that some would stop."
That's a reference to the breakup of a plot to blow up U.S.-bound planes from London—and an apparent suggestion that it was stopped using the kind of warrantless eavesdropping that the Bush administration uses here.
But there's no evidence that the London plot was stopped by warrantless eavesdropping. And there's no backup to the assertion that "some" want to stop U.S. surveillance.
To the contrary, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who would chair the Judiciary Committee in a Democrat-controlled Senate, told a recent congressional hearing that he supports eavesdropping, but wants it done with court oversight.
To back up the ad, the group noted news articles that refer to U.S. surveillance done at the time of the London investigation. But that surveillance was done with court approval—exactly the approach that has universal support here. There was no documentation of the charge that "some" want to stop that surveillance.
To see the Beamer ads, go to www.progressforamerica.org and click on "videos."
For more on the Senate Intelligence Committee report, http://intelligence.senate.gov/phaseiiaccuracy.pdf
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)