In this era of what Stephen Colbert has coined “truthiness ,” when “truth that comes from the gut, not books” passes for fact among politicians and all too many others, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column provides an important service.
While I never believe journalists’—or anyone’s—claims to objectivity and “the truth,” the column provides an all too absent audit on statements and claims made by presidential candidates and other political figures.* With the help of a one-to-four scale of smiling “Pinocchios,” the column judges the veracity of political rhetoric: One Pinocchio for “some shading of the facts…omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.” Four Pinocchios for “Whoppers.” Two and three for everything in between.
Recently, however, I’m afraid it’s the column’s author, Glen Kessler, who deserves the Pinocchios or at least an F for fact checking. In a February 12tharticle, Kessler awarded three Pinocchios (“significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions”) for Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul’s criticisms about the size and scope of the U.S. military presence overseas. Kessler disputed Paul’s claim, frequently made in debates and stump speeches, that the United States maintains “900 bases around the world,” with troops in “130 countries.” (One super-PAC ad, based on a Paul speech, turns the issue upside down by asking viewers to “imagine for a moment that somewhere in the middle of Texas there was a large foreign military base, say Chinese or Russian.”)
A simple glance at academic literature and mainstream journalism about U.S. military bases would show that statistics similar to those Paul cites are widely used. In fact, Paul’s count of 900 overseas base locations is probably an undercount. To begin with, it seems hard to fault Paul too much if he’s citing the Pentagon’s own statistics for what it refers to as “base sites.” Kessler is correct to point out that many are relatively small sites and that some large bases are composed of multiple smaller sites. On the other hand, Kessler neglects to mention that the Pentagon report is riddled with inaccuracies (listing one tiny site in Kuwait is laughable) and completely omits many well-known and secret base sites (including those in Qatar, Israel, and Saudi Arabia [still]).
Kessler also says there are only 106 military facilities in Afghanistan; last year investigative journalist/historian Nick Turse quoted a Pentagon representative as saying, “The number of bases in Afghanistan is roughly 411.” This easily takes the total over 1,000. And that doesn’t include other bases the Pentagon considers “overseas”—some 87 located in U.S. territories like Guam. With domestic base sites, the global total exceeds 5,000.
Counting the number of countries in which U.S. troops are deployed is also challenging given a lack of Pentagon transparency, but again Paul uses a widely-cited Pentagon statistic. While Kessler is again correct that the Pentagon’s accounting indicates small numbers of troops in most of the 153 countries listed, that report ignores growing numbers of special operations forces in countries across the globe. In 2010 Kessler’s own paper cited special ops forces in 75 countries. Late last year, a Pentagon spokesperson told Turse that on any given day special ops personnel are in 70 countries, and for all of 2011, the total would be around 120 countries. CIA paramilitary forces and other black ops and uncounted conventional forces only increase the size and scope of the U.S. military presence abroad.
While I’m no supporter of Paul’s candidacy, he has been raising legitimate and oft-ignored questions about the presence, impact, and costs of U.S. military bases and troops overseas. With all due respect to Mr. Kessler, next time I would be more careful when calling someone “off-base.”
*Unfortunately the column started in 2008 and was not around in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.
David Vine is the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press, 2009) and is currently working on a book about U.S. military bases overseas.