Hillary's Balkan Adventures, Part II
Greeting ceremony, Tuzla military airport, Bosnia, March 25, 1996.
"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."
--Hillary Clinton, speech at George Washington University, March 17, 2008.
Hillary Clinton has been regaling supporters on the campaign trail with hair-raising tales of a trip she made to Bosnia in March 1996. In her retelling, she was sent to places that her husband, President Clinton, could not go because they were "too dangerous." When her account was challenged by one of her traveling companions, the comedian Sinbad, she upped the ante and injected even more drama into the story. In a speech earlier this week, she talked about "landing under sniper fire" and running for safety with "our heads down."
There are numerous problems with Clinton's version of events.
As a reporter who visited Bosnia soon after the December 1995 Dayton Peace agreement, I can attest that the physical risks were minimal during this period, particularly at a heavily fortified U.S. Air Force base, such as Tuzla. Contrary to the claims of Hillary Clinton and former Army secretary Togo West, Bosnia was not "too dangerous" a place for President Clinton to visit in early 1996. In fact, the first Clinton to visit the Tuzla Air Force base was not Hillary, but Bill, on January 13, 1996.
Had Hillary Clinton's plane come "under sniper fire" in March 1996, we would certainly have heard about it long before now. Numerous reporters, including the Washington Post's John Pomfret, covered her trip. A review of nearly 100 news accounts of her visit shows that not a single newspaper or television station reported any security threat to the First Lady. "As a former AP wire service hack, I can safely say that it would have been in my lead had anything like that happened," said Pomfret.
According to Pomfret, the Tuzla airport was "one of the safest places in Bosnia" in March 1996, and "firmly under the control" of the 1st Armored Division.
Far from running to an airport building with their heads down, Clinton and her party were greeted on the tarmac by smiling U.S. and Bosnian officials. An eight-year-old Moslem girl, Emina Bicakcic, read a poem in English. An Associated Press photograph of the greeting ceremony, above, shows a smiling Clinton bending down to receive a kiss.
"There is peace now," Emina told Clinton, according to Pomfret's report in the Washington Post the following day, "because Mr. Clinton signed it. All this peace. I love it."
The First Lady's schedule, released on Wednesday and available here, confirms that she arrived in Tuzla at 8.45 a.m. and was greeted by various dignitaries, including Emina Bicakcic, (whose name has mysteriously been redacted from the document.)
You can see CBS News footage of the arrival ceremony here. The footage shows Clinton walking calmly out of the back of the C-17 military transport plane that brought her from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
Among the U.S. officials on hand to greet Clinton at the airport was Maj. Gen. William Nash, the commander of U.S. troops in Bosnia. Nash told me that he was unaware of any security threat to Clinton during her eight-hour stay in Tuzla. He said, however, that Clinton had a "busy schedule" and may have got the impression that she was being hurried on her way. See clarification below.
According to Sinbad, who provided entertainment on the trip along with the singer Sheryl Crow, the "scariest" part was deciding where to eat. As he told Mary Ann Akers of The Post, "I think the only 'red-phone' moment was: 'Do we eat here or at the next place.'" Sinbad questioned the premise behind the Clinton version of events. "What kind of president would say 'Hey man, I can't go 'cause I might get shot so I'm going to send my wife. Oh, and take a guitar player and a comedian with you."
Replying to Sinbad earlier this week, Clinton dismissed him as "a comedian." Her campaign referred me to Togo West, who was also on the trip and is a staunch Hillary supporter. West could not remember "sniper fire" himself, but said there was no reason to doubt the First Lady's version of events. "Everybody's perceptions are different," he told me.
Clinton made no mention of "sniper fire" in her autobiography "Living History," published in 2003, although she did say there were "reports of snipers" in the hills around the airport.
UPDATE Friday 6:45 p.m.
Lissa Muscatine, who served as Hilary Clinton's chief speechwriter in 1996 and accompanied her on the Bosnia trip, feels that I have failed to provide a full picture of what took place. She gave me her "vivid recollections" of the arrival in Tuzla, which I quote below:
I was on the plane with then First Lady Hillary Clinton for the trip from Germany into Bosnia in 1996. We were put on a C17-- a plane capable of steep ascents and descents -- precisely because we were flying into what was considered a combat zone. We were issued flak jackets for the final leg because of possible sniper fire near Tuzla. As an additional precaution, the First Lady and Chelsea were moved to the armored cockpit for the descent into Tuzla. We were told that a welcoming ceremony on the tarmac might be canceled because of sniper fire in the hills surrounding the air strip. From Tuzla, Hillary flew to two outposts in Bosnia with gunships escorting her helicopter.
UPDATE Saturday 8:45 a.m.
Gen. Nash says that I misquoted him in saying he was unaware of any "security threat" to the First Lady. While he was unaware of any "sniper threat," he now tells me there were a couple of "security concerns" that day, which he found out about after returning to his headquarters after greeting Clinton at the airport. There was a "non-specific report" of a possible truck bomb in the area. The military also had information that "some of the communications associated with the First Lady's visit were being monitored."
"In both cases, we took appropriate security action," said Nash, adding that Clinton's visit was not disrupted.
Anybody else with first-hand memories of Clinton's Tuzla trip, please send them along.
The Pinocchio Test
Clinton's tale of landing at Tuzla airport "under sniper fire" and then running for cover is simply not credible. Photographs and video of the arrival ceremony, combined with contemporaneous news reports, tell a very different story. Four Pinocchios.
Hillary's Balkan Adventures, Part II - Fact Checker