Bachmann Bungles Benghazi, Food Stamps

FactCheck.org

Rep. Michele Bachmann used misleading and at times wildly inaccurate portrayals of two key domestic and foreign policy issues — food stamps and the response to an attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya — to paint President Obama as someone who doesn’t “care.”

  • Her account of the White House response to the Benghazi attack included unsubstantiated claims, distortions of omission and outright factual errors, including the bogus claim that Glen Doherty “defied orders” to help colleagues under attack. Doherty was part of a seven-person security team specifically sent from a CIA facility in Tripoli to respond to the Benghazi attack.
  • Bachmann’s claim that 70 percent of federal dollars allocated to food stamps goes to “salaries and pensions for the bureaucrats who are supposed to be taking care of the poor” is wildly inaccurate. It’s less than 5 percent.

The Minnesota congresswoman’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference first came under scrutiny for her claims about lavish spending by the Obama White House (including the wild claim of a presidential dog walker) — expenses that the Washington Post Fact Checker found were no different than prior presidents. Those comments also drew rebuke from Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly as “trivial.” CNN’s Dana Bash literally ran down Bachmann in the halls of Congress trying to get her to explain her comments about the White House’s spending. But Bachmann scolded that Bash ought to focus on more important issues (never mind that, as Bash noted in the attempted interview, these were issues Bachmann herself raised in her CPAC speech).

“The big point of my speech was about Benghazi,” Bachmann said. “The important point is the president of the United States didn’t care about four Americans, and they were killed.”

Benghazi Bungling

So, let’s take a look at Bachmann’s account of the White House response to the Benghazi attack, presented here in its entirety:

Bachmann, March 16: Now, this is a story that I want to tell you, and it’s painful for me to have to tell you because it’s a story about not caring, and it happened last September 11, when one of the most shameful incidents in the history of the American presidency took place. Our diplomatic corps in Benghazi, Libya, was fatally attacked by terrorists. The shooting started at 3:42 in the afternoon D.C. time. And for the next seven-and-a-half hours, Americans trapped in Benghazi were begging our government for help. But help never came. Two former Navy SEALs ran, like the American heroes that they were, not from the sound of gunfire, but toward the sound of gunfire. Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty…

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty were not at the compound when the shooting began, but because they cared, they defied orders and they chose to go to the aid of their brothers. For seven hours, these men fought with incredible skill and courage. They saved many American lives that night. They fought for their friends. They fought for their colleagues. They fought for our country.

And throughout that awful night, they continue to radio their government, begging for help, but their government never sent them that help and that help never came.

And the president, you see, was informed of the attack within the very first hour of the attack. And after that call, the president then conversed with his advisers for approximately 30 minutes, we learned in testimony in the Senate hearing. And then, inexplicably, the president apparently disappeared.

A war was raging in Benghazi for hours, and all we know is that our president went AWOL while cries from American…

(BOOS)

– while cries from American diplomats and soldiers went unanswered. No one knows yet today where the president was!

It gives me no pleasure to tell you that the next morning, after our ambassador was dead, after three other Americans were killed, our president flew to Vegas, a great city, but he flew there for the purpose of meeting with Beyoncé and Jay-Z to campaign for his reelection.

(BOOS)

And with all due respect to our president, how could anyone do something like that and claim they care?

Let’s start with the claim that two former Navy SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty “defied orders and they chose to go to the aid of their brothers.” Although Bachmann’s office did not respond to our requests for back-up of her CPAC statements, this claim has its roots in a Fox News report on Oct. 26. The story cited unnamed “sources who were on the ground in Benghazi”  who claimed that “an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command — who also told the CIA operators twice to ‘stand down’ rather than help the ambassador’s team when shots were heard at approximately 9:40 p.m. in Benghazi on Sept. 11.”

According to the story:

Fox News, Oct. 26, 2012: Former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods was part of a small team who was at the CIA annex about a mile from the U.S. consulate where Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team came under attack. When he and others heard the shots fired, they informed their higher-ups at the annex to tell them what they were hearing and requested permission to go to the consulate and help out. They were told to “stand down,” according to sources familiar with the exchange. Soon after, they were again told to “stand down.”

Woods and at least two others ignored those orders and made their way to the consulate which at that point was on fire. Shots were exchanged. The rescue team from the CIA annex evacuated those who remained at the consulate and Sean Smith, who had been killed in the initial attack.

That Woods, a former Navy SEAL working for the CIA, rushed to the scene to help is not disputed by White House officials. However, the CIA flatly denied that it had ordered Woods or anyone else to stand down.

Here’s what CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood said at the time:

Youngblood, Oct. 26: We can say with confidence that the Agency reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi. Moreover, no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate. In fact, it is important to remember how many lives were saved by courageous Americans who put their own safety at risk that night—and that some of those selfless Americans gave their lives in the effort to rescue their comrades.

In her testimony before a Senate committee, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified that after being informed of the attack, “The President told the Secretary [of Defense] and the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] to do everything they possibly could to spare no effort or resource, and we had a very good interagency response, as the ARB found.”

She’s referring at the end of her remarks to the independent Accountability Review Board (ARB) investigation of the U.S. response to the Benghazi attack. Four of the five board members were selected by Clinton, but it was bipartisan. The chairman of the board was Thomas J. Pickering, George H.W. Bush’s United Nations ambassador, and another member was Catherine Bertini, who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations. The other board members were Admiral Michael Mullin, who served as vice chairman, Richard Shinnick and Hugh Turner, who represented the intelligence community.

The board’s report ultimately concluded that there were “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department” that resulted in a “security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.” The board noted that in the months leading up to the attacks, requests from the Benghazi post for additional staffing were not met. Notably, the board also found that there “was no protest prior to the attacks,” contrary to the account given by White House officials in the days after the attack (which we detailed in our story, “Benghazi Timeline: The long road from “spontaneous protest” to premeditated terrorist attack.”)

However, the board did not find that the U.S. response that day was inappropriate, or that there were no efforts to help.

Accountability Review Board: The Board determined that U.S. personnel on the ground in Benghazi performed with courage and readiness to risk their lives to protect their colleagues, in a near impossible situation. The Board members believe every possible effort was made to rescue and recover Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith.

The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said that then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta “ordered all appropriate forces to respond to the unfolding events in Benghazi, but the attack was over before those forces could be employed.”

According to the ARB’s detailed timeline of the attacks (which begins on page 18), security at a secret CIA annex about 1 mile away from the attack heard explosions and reacted immediately. That included the former Navy SEAL, Woods.

Accountability Review Board: The Annex security head immediately began to organize his team’s departure and notified his superiors, who began to contact local security elements to request support … The departure of the Annex team was not delayed by orders from superiors; the team leader decided on his own to depart the Annex compound once it was apparent, despite a brief delay to permit their continuing efforts, that rapid support from local security elements was not forthcoming.

The group later returned to the CIA annex, which later found itself under attack as well. For a condensed timeline, see the Associated Press’ “Timeline of the Libya rescue effort.”

Moreover, state department officials confirmed to us that Doherty — the other ex-SEAL mentioned by Bachmann — was not part of that group from the nearby CIA facility. Contrary to Bachmann’s claim that Doherty defied orders not to assist, he was actually part of a seven-person security team specifically sent from a CIA facility in Tripoli to respond to the Benghazi attack.

As the Los Angeles Times reported — and supported in the ARB report — a “senior intelligence official disclosed that the CIA also sent a second six-member team from Tripoli on a chartered plane to help repel the attack. The team included Glen Doherty, another former SEAL, who was later killed (along with Woods) when attackers fired mortar rounds at the CIA Annex.”

So, Bachmann’s claim that while “Americans trapped in Benghazi were begging our government for help … that help never came,” is not accurate. The ARB report detailed the efforts of those in the nearby CIA annex to help evacuate the Benghazi facility, as well as the ongoing efforts by the embassy in Tripoli (including efforts to reach out for Libyan military assistance), and finally the mobilization of a security team from Tripoli — which included two U.S. military personnel.

In a press briefing on the ARB review, Adm. Michael Mullen, vice chair of the board, said,  “On the night of the attacks, Benghazi, Tripoli, and Washington communicated and coordinated effectively with each other. They looped in the military right away, and the interagency response was timely and appropriate. But there simply was not enough time for U.S. military forces to have made a difference … We looked at the force posture very specifically, and while we had a lot of forces in Europe both at sea and on land, it was not – it is not reasonable that they could have responded; they were – in any kind of timely way.”

Bachmann’s claim that President Obama “went AWOL” after a half-hour briefing immediately after the attacks is also disputed by the White House.

Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the National Security Council, told us Obama was “updated several times throughout the evening and then again the next morning,” contrary to Bachmann’s claim that he “disappeared.”

Although there was an issue raised about who, exactly, was giving the president briefings about the unfolding incident, Hayden said it was his “national security team.” Jack Lew, then Obama’s chief of staff, testified that “the intelligence community was in close touch with the White House, with the national security team on a near-constant basis.” We cannot independently verify that, but Bachmann provides no evidence that he was not involved.

It’s true, as Bachmann said, that Obama attended a campaign event in Las Vegas on the day after the attack — which some criticized at the time — but she ignored some of Obama’s Benghazi-related activities between then. On the morning of Sept. 12, before he left for Las Vegas, Obama spoke in the Rose Garden about the events in Libya. He also went to the State Department to show solidarity with them, and to grieve with its employees.

On his plane ride to Las Vegas, Obama spoke with the wife of slain diplomat Sean Smith and the parents of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and offered his condolences and assurance that he would seek justice, according to a press briefing that day by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Obama also received a briefing on developments in Libya from Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough.

As for the event in Las Vegas, the New York Times reported that Obama began the rally with “a somber remembrance of the four Americans who were killed at the United States Consulate in Benghazi” and he vowed to be “relentless in our pursuit of those who attacked us yesterday.”

As for Bachmann’s claim that Obama “flew there for the purpose of meeting with Beyoncé and Jay-Z to campaign for his reelection,” there is no record that Obama met with, or had planned to meet, the popular entertainers that day. Jay-Z and Beyoncé hosted a $40,000-a-plate fundraiser for Obama at the rapper’s 40/40 Club in New York City on Sept. 18. But that was a week after the Benghazi attack.

Fudging on Food Stamps

Bachmann also made a grossly inaccurate claim that 70 percent of federal dollars allocated for food stamps goes to “salaries and pensions for the bureaucrats who are supposed to be taking care of the poor” as proof that Obama doesn’t care about the poor.

Administrative costs of the food stamp program — now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — are less than 5 percent. More than 90 percent goes directly to food benefits and the rest goes to nutrition education and employment and training, according to SNAP officials.

Bachmann initially claimed more broadly that 70 percent of all federal funding for the poor ends up in the hands of “bureaucrats in Washington D.C.” She then used the food stamp program as an example.

Bachmann, March 16: Here’s the truth that the president won’t tell you. Of every dollar that you hold in your hands, 70 cents of that dollar that’s supposed to go to the poor doesn’t. It actually goes to benefit the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. — 70 cents on the dollar. That’s how the president’s caring works in practice. So $3 in food stamps for the needy, $7 in salaries and pensions for the bureaucrats who are supposed to be taking care of the poor. So with all due respect, I ask you, how does this show that our president cares about the poor?

The first part of Bachmann’s comment tracks a similar one made by Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign. In a Republican primary debate, Romney said that due to “massive overhead” and “government bureaucrats in Washington administering all these programs … very little of the money that’s actually needed by those that really need help, those that can’t care for themselves, actually reaches them.”

We assumed from Bachmann’s use of the phrase “Washington D.C. bureaucrats” that she was referring to high administrative costs of programs for the poor. We reached out several times to Bachmann’s press office for clarification and back-up for her claim, but we did not hear back. However, our fact-checking colleague at the Washington Post, Glenn Kessler (also known as “The Fact Checker”), may have found the sourcea 1990 speech by Robert L. Woodson Sr., founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, before the Heritage Foundation. In his speech, Woodson claimed that 70 percent of the spending on the poor goes to the “poverty industry” — which includes doctors who get money from Medicaid to treat poor patients and landlords who are paid low-income housing rent on behalf of poor people. Those aren’t Washington D.C. bureaucrats, as Bachmann claims.

Bachmann went even farther off the rails when she chose the example of the food stamp program to hammer home her point. The SNAP program helps low-income people buy food with a direct benefit, a card similar to a credit card that can be used to purchase food. So, there is little room for ambiguity; any money used to purchase food is going directly to the poor. And by any measure, Bachmann’s math is way off.

It is estimated that the federal government will spend just over $82 billion on the SNAP program this year, according to the Food and Nutrition Service’s “FY 2013 President’s Budget Congressional Justification.” The report shows that the SNAP program has 166 federal employees and the federal administrative costs associated with SNAP are 0.14 percent of its appropriations, according to SNAP officials.

Most of the program is administered at the state level and the federal government picks up half of the state’s administrative costs (for such things as determining eligibility and management of the program). According to SNAP officials, the national average for the shared administrative costs is 8.7 percent. If you consider the combined share of the federal and state administrative costs, the cost is approximately 4.5 percent. So, nearly 96 percent goes to benefits, nutrition education, and employment and training, with the vast majority going to benefits, according to SNAP officials.

In other words, Bachmann’s claim that $7 out of $10 in the food stamp programs went to “salaries and pensions for the bureaucrats” is way off.

– Robert Farley

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