Earlier this afternoon, Sen. Hillary Clinton came to the Daily News and Inquirer building here in Philadelphia -- where she's seeking the Daily News editorial board endorsement -- and I had a chance to ask her about a controversy that's increasingly dogged her campaign the last few days: Whether she misrepresented the danger of her March 1996 trip to a U.S. military base in Bosnia in an effort to boost her foreign policy credentials.
Clinton acknowleged today for the first time that it was a "misstatement" when she said in a major prepared foreign policy speech last week that "I remember landing under sniper fire" but also tried to brush off the entire issue as "a minor blip." She also gave a revised account of her airplane landing and her tarmac greeting at the Tuzla Air Force base 12 years ago -- seeking to explain a picture re-published this weekend in the Washington Post showing her and daughter Chelsea calmly greeting an 8-year-old girl.
In her speech last week at George Washington University, Clinton maintained "[t]here 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. Today, she told our group at the Daily News that she was informed that we "had to meet this 8-year-old girl," so "I took her stuff and left."
The dispute is hardly a trivial one because the New York senator has tried to stress that foreign policy experience is why voters in Pennsylvania's April 22 primary should chose her over Sen. Barack Obama, the overall leader in delegates and primary votes. And she has placed the Bosnia trip front and center, to the extent that her account of her visit there led off last week's televised speech. Here's what she said then:
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 it was a moment of great pride for me to visit our troops, not only in our main base as Tuzla, but also at two outposts where they were serving in so many capacities to deactivate and remove landmines, to hunt and seek out those who had not complied with the Dayton Accords and put down their arms, and to build relationships with the people that might lead to a peace for them and their children.
In the week since that remark, which echoed other recent statements about her trip, several journalists - most notably Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post -- have found holes in what Sen. Clinton said. In particular, Dobbs said none of more than 100 contemporaneous accounts mentioned sniper fire and that the Associated Press reporter on the trip had no recollection of any weapons fire. Dobbs also reported that CBS news footage shows the then-First Lady walking calmly from the C-17 transport plane as well as a number of dignitaries -- in addition to the 8-year-old Emina Bicakcic, a Muslim girl who read a poem in English -- waiting there.
A follow-up by the Post's Dobbs quotes a Clinton speechwriter, Lisa Muscatine, as defending her former boss -- stating the C-17 was chosen for its ability to make quick landings and that members of the Clinton party were issued flak jackets before arriving at Tuzla.
This afternoon, in the session with Daily News editorial writers and reporters (and some Inquirer staffers as well) in a conference room at the Daily News and Inquirer Building, I asked the presidential candidate about these discrepancies and also showed her a copy of the photo -- at the top of this post -- of her on the tarmac that day.
She was quick to answer, jumping in before I was fully finished with the question. Here's her response in its entirety:
"Now let me tell you what I can remember, OK -- because what I was told was that we had to land a certain way and move quickly because of the threat of sniper fire. So I misspoke -- I didn't say that in my book or other times but if I said something that made it seem as though there was actual fire -- that's not what I was told. I was told we had to land a certain way, we had to have our bulletproof stuff on because of the threat of sniper fire. I was also told that the greeting ceremony had been moved away from the tarmac but that there was this 8-year-old girl and, I can't, I can't rush by her, I've got to at least greet her -- so I greeted her, I took her stuff and then I left, Now that's my memory of it.
I followed up, noting that the episode has raised questions about her credibility on foreign policy. She responded:
"No, I went to 80 countries, you know. I gave contemporaneous accounts, I wrote about a lot of this in my book. you know, I think that, a minor blip, you know, if I said something that, you know, I say a lot of things -- millions of words a day -- so if I misspoke, that was just a misstatement."
The Clinton campaign is clearly eager to put this controversy to rest before it drags down her Pennsylvania campaign. As the session broke up, campaign press secretary Jay Carson made a beeline to me to offer additional background, explaining that the senator didn't want to completely blow off the ceremony but that she was also in a hurry to get indoors. Within about 20 minutes, Carson emailed me press acconts from the time of the 1996 visit, including one from the Washington Post that said her trip was "the first time since [Eleanor] Roosevelt that a first lady has voyaged to a potential combat zone."