FACT CHECK: Misfires on Iran, China in GOP debate

November 13, 2011 - 4:00 PM
Republicans Debate

Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, left, speaks as Mitt Romney, listens during the CBS News/National Journal foreign policy debate at the Benjamin Johnson Arena, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 in Spartanburg, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Herman Cain contradicted himself on torture, Mitt Romney offered a prescription for challenging China that didn't add up and Newt Gingrich seemed to forget about crucial help by Pakistani intelligence in running down terrorists.

Factual missteps in the latest Republican presidential debate suggested that on some the knottiest foreign policy and national security issues of the time, contenders were out of their comfort zone. Several raised the prospect of an eventual war with Iran that the U.S., by any current measure, is ill-prepared to start.

A look at some of those claims Saturday night and how they compare with the facts:

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ROMNEY on President Barack Obama and Iran: "What he should have done is speak out when dissidents took the streets and say, 'America is with you.' And work on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents."

GINGRICH: "First of all, as maximum covert operations — to block and disrupt the Iranian (nuclear) program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems. All of it covertly, all of it deniable. "

THE FACTS: It is widely believed that the Obama administration has been covertly attacking the Iranian nuclear program. By definition, covert action is not publicly acknowledged, so criticizing Obama for not doing something that he might very well be doing adds little to the debate. On just one front, there are strong suspicions the Obama administration either unleashed the sophisticated Stuxnet computer worm on Iran's nuclear program or supported Israel in that effort. The attack infected systems at the Bushehr power plant and set back Iran's nuclear development.

It is also believed the administration has provided secret help to Iranian dissidents, even if to little effect so far. Romney, Gingrich and most other contenders do not know what the U.S. is doing, and not doing, covertly. Michele Bachmann, as a member of the House intelligence Committee, might. If so, she's legally barred from talking about it.

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ROMNEY on China: "On Day One, it's acknowledging something which everyone knows, they're a currency manipulator. And on that basis, we also go before the WTO and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator. And that allows us to apply, selectively, tariffs where we believe they are stealing our intellectual property, hacking into our computers, or artificially lowering their prices and killing American jobs. We can't just sit back and let China run all over us."

JON HUNTSMAN: "I don't think, Mitt, you can take China to the WTO on currency-related issues."

THE FACTS: As Huntsman, former ambassador to China, said, the World Trade Organization has no specified mandate to adjudicate allegations that a country is manipulating its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage. But using currency in a trade dispute hasn't been tried, so it's unclear how that might play out in practice.

Even if the international trade panel does take the case, any remedy would come long after Day One. As a highly political case, it would drag out. For example, the U.S. and European Union have been litigating a dispute over alleged subsidies to Boeing and Airbus since 2004, with no resolution in sight.

Nor is it clear how a currency case could address the theft of U.S. intellectual property, an issue unrelated to the price of Chinese exports.

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CAIN: "I will trust the judgment of our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture. That is the critical consideration."

CAIN: "I would return to that policy (waterboarding). I don't see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique."

THE FACTS: Cain's conclusion that waterboarding is a legitimate means of interrogation contradicts the judgment of military leaders — and his own statement that he would be guided by them. The Army Field Manual prohibits waterboarding. It was the CIA, with the approval of the White House and Justice Department that conducted waterboarding, not the armed forces. As president, Cain could certainly decide that interrogators need not be constrained by the Army Field Manual rules. But if he did so, he would not be letting military leaders determine the tactics.

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GINGRICH: "We don't have a reliable intelligence service. We don't have independent intelligence in places like Pakistan. We rely on our supposed friends for intelligence. They may or may not be our friends. And the amount of information we might or might not have, might or might not be reliable."

THE FACTS: U.S. killing of a succession of al-Qaida figures in Pakistan, none more prized by America than Osama bin Laden, demonstrates that the United States indeed gets vital and reliable intelligence out of Pakistan. While it may have been true when Gingrich left government in 1999 that the CIA's spy network was limited, since 2001 the agency has dramatically expanded its on-the-ground operations worldwide. The CIA station in Islamabad is now one of the most important in the world and officers there are responsible for building sources and helping select targets for the long and successful campaign of drone attacks.

Gingrich is right that Pakistan's intelligence agency is an often-unreliable U.S. partner and elements of the country's power structure have supported U.S. terrorist enemies. But as the bin Laden raid shows, the CIA is hardly impotent in its ability to operate alone in Pakistan.

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ROMNEY: "The president should have built (a) credible threat of military action, and made it very clear that the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon."

GINGRICH: "Every possible aspect short of war of breaking the regime and bringing it down. And I agree entirely with Governor Romney. If, in the end, despite all of those things, the dictatorship persists, you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon."

CAIN: "I would not entertain military opposition.... We could deploy our ballistic missile defense ... warships strategically in that part of the world. We have the biggest fleet of those warships in the world. And we could use them strategically in the event that they were able to fire a ballistic missile."

THE FACTS: It is an open question whether the U.S., stretched thin by two long wars and a massive debt, is in a position to make a credible threat of war against Iran right now.

As it stands, U.S. plans to put additional forces in the Middle East, including in Kuwait, are part of a military hedge against Iran. So is a program to put missile defense radars and interceptors at sites around Europe and the region. The threat of U.S. attack might become more credible in time, whether from Obama or the next president.

Meantime, Obama, like George W. Bush before him, has not ruled out military action against Iran as a final resort.

The U.S. certainly has military force readily at hand to destroy Iran's known nuclear development sites in short order. This is highly unlikely, however, because of the strategic calculation that an attack would be counterproductive and ultimately ineffective, spawning retaliation against U.S. allies and forces in the region, and merely delaying eventual nuclear weapons development.

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GINGRICH: "You're giving some country $7 billion a year. So you start off — or, or, in the case of Egypt, $3 billion a year. So you start off every year and say, 'Here's your $3 billion, now I'll start thinking'? You ought to start off at zero and say, 'Explain to me why I should give you a penny.'"

THE FACTS: In supporting Rick Perry's proposal to make every recipient of U.S. foreign aid justify the money before it is approved, Gingrich exaggerated the amount of aid the U.S. gives to Egypt. The Congressional Research Service says total aid to Egypt is about $1.5 billion annually.

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BACHMANN: "Now President Obama has made a very fatal decision in Afghanistan. He's made the decision that by next September, our troops will be withdrawn. "

THE FACTS: By September 2012, Obama is only planning to withdraw the additional forces he sent in. Once the 33,000 "surge" troops are gone, 68,000 will be left. They are to be pulled out gradually and won't be gone until the end of 2014, barring some change in the drawdown of troops.

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Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo, Robert Burns, Jim Drinkard, Bradley Klapper, Lolita C. Baldor and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.