Last night, President Bush pulled out an oft-cited statistic to laud his administration’s success in pursuing al Qaeda. As he did in the first Presidential debate, Bush asserted that “three-quarters of al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice.” During the Republican National Convention, Bush uttered a more exaggerated version of this statistic, saying that “more than three-quarters of al Qaeda’s key members and associates have been detained or killed.” (emphasis added)

By either wording, this statement, which has been widely reported by the New York Times (August 10) and Newsweek (September 8) over the course of the campaign, is not true, or at best a selective distortion of the facts.

As Campaign Desk noted in August, the “three-quarters” statistic is derived from the total number of known al Qaeda “leaders” before the 9/11 attacks. The CIA estimates that number at around 25 operatives. But, as a CNN.com fact-checking article points out today,

The estimate does not take into account post-September 11 activity, or new al Qaeda leaders who have taken the place of those killed or captured. The nonpartisan International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that al Qaeda has about 18,000 potential operatives, but there is no official data on the size of al Qaeda’s total membership, in part because it is difficult to track the number of new recruits since the Iraq war.

CNN.com was the only media outlet to truth-squad the talking point. The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Associated Press all missed it.

To be sure, there were other misleading statements to concentrate on — such as Bush’s assertion that he never said he wasn’t concerned about Osama bin Laden, or Kerry’s claim that Bush has never met with the Congressional Black Caucus.

But those are small matters, it seems to us, compared to a statement that distorts how well or poorly the global chase for al Qaeda is proceeding. After all, it was Bush himself who recently warned that “so long as there’s an al Qaeda enemy that is willing to kill, we are vulnerable.”

Thomas Lang

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.