Clinton backpedals on drama of Bosnia landing
Clinton backpedals on drama of Bosnia landing
By Patrick Healy and Katharine Q. Seelye
Published: March 25, 2008
BLUE BELL, Pennsylvania: As part of her argument that
she has the best experience and instincts to deal with
a sudden crisis as president, Senator Hillary Rodham
Clinton recently offered a vivid description of having
to run across a tarmac to avoid sniper fire after
landing in Bosnia as first lady in 1996.
Yet on Monday, Clinton said that she "misspoke" about
the episode - a concession that came after CBS News
showed footage of her walking calmly across the tarmac
with her daughter, Chelsea, and being greeted by
dignitaries and a child.
The backpedaling was a rare instance of Clinton
acknowledging an error, and she did so on a sensitive
issue: She has cited her "strength and experience"
since the start of the presidential race, framing her
80 trips abroad as first lady as preparation for
dealing with foreign affairs as president. That
argument was behind her campaign's "red phone"
commercial, which cast her as best able to handle a
Clinton corrected herself at a meeting with the
editorial board of The Philadelphia Daily News; she
did not explain why she had misspoken, but only
acknowledged it and then offered a less dramatic
Clinton said she had been told "that we had to land a
certain way and move quickly because of the threat of
sniper fire," not that actual shots were being fired.
"So I misspoke," she said.
Earlier Monday, Clinton advisers corrected the Bosnia
anecdote, saying they did not want it to harm her
credibility. One Clinton foreign adviser, speaking on
condition of anonymity in exchange for being candid
about her mistake, said that Clinton had been "too
loose" with her words and that she risked looking like
"she was trying to pump up a somewhat risky situation
into a very dangerous one."
In her most recent account, offered last week, Clinton
described an action-packed arrival in war-torn Bosnia.
"I certainly do remember that trip to Bosnia," she
said, in remarks that aides described Monday as not
being part of her prepared speech. "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."
In interviews Monday, aides to Clinton at the time of
the trip, as well as an Associated Press photographer
who was on the trip, said that she and others were
briefed before landing about the possibility of sniper
fire around the airport in Tuzla, Bosnia.
None of the aides remember actual sniper fire, nor did
the photographer, Doug Mills, who now works for The
New York Times.
"I remember being told we were going into a war zone,
but I don't remember any commotion at the airport,"
Mills said. "I don't recall her running to cars. If
that had happened, we would have made a picture of
Major General William Nash, who has since retired but
was then the commander of U.S. troops in Bosnia and
was at the Tuzla airport that day, said in an
interview that there was no threat of sniper fire at
the airport during Clinton's visit. He said she was
gracious during her visit and took pictures with the
"She never had her head down," Nash said. "There was
no sniper threat that I know of."
Before Clinton's admission that she had misspoken, a
spokesman for the campaign, Howard Wolfson, was asked
Monday on a conference call with reporters to square
her recent accounts with other evidence. In response,
Wolfson referred to news accounts at the time that
described the region as hostile.
He then added: "There is no question if you look at
contemporaneous accounts that she was going to a
potential combat zone, that she was on the front
Minutes later, when pressed to clarify his comment,
Wolfson said news accounts made clear that the area in
which she was landing was "a potential combat zone and
He said that in her memoir, "Living History," Clinton
wrote about sniper fire in the hills and "clearly
meant to say that" when she brought it up last week.
He said she had described the event many times the
same way and that "in one instance, she said it
In her comments Monday, Clinton made a similar point,
saying, "I didn't say that in my book or other times."
Clinton had described the sniper fire in similar terms
at least twice in recent weeks. She mentioned it on
Feb. 29 in Waco, Texas, when she was rolling out her
"red phone" commercial, recalling the trip to Bosnia
and saying that the welcoming ceremony "had to be
moved inside because of sniper fire."
According to Clinton's public schedule for March 25,
1996, she arrived in Tuzla at 8:55 a.m. local time,
and was greeted by the acting president of Bosnia,
Ejup Ganic; the U.S. ambassador, John Menzies; two
senior U.S. military officials; an 8-year-old girl;
and a seventh-grade class that had been "adopted by
The first lady's public schedule, which was among more
than 11,000 pages released by the National Archives
last week, lists the greeting ceremony on the tarmac
at the Tuzla airport this way: "Ambassador Menzies
intros HRC to greeters; 8-year-old Bosnian Girl Reads
Poem to HRC; HRC greets 7th grade class."
Later that day, Clinton spoke at a show for
approximately 500 troops. She was joined by the
comedian Sinbad and the singer Sheryl Crow, both of
whom performed for the troops, according to the
schedule. Late that afternoon, Clinton and her
entourage left Tuzla for Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Sinbad challenged her account of sniper fire soon
after he heard it more than a week ago, saying the
scariest part of the trip for him was wondering where
the next meal would come from. Sinbad is supporting
Senator Barack Obama for president.
Don Van Natta contributed from New York, and Helene
Cooper from Washington.