A Slip-Up, Then a Spin

An offhand assertion by Sen. John McCain last week has become a litmus test for one of the presidential campaign's biggest questions: who's really ready to be commander in chief? While in the Mideast, McCain asserted that it's "common knowledge … that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran." After his friend and supporter, Sen. Joe Lieberman, whispered in his ear, McCain quickly corrected himself. "I'm sorry," he said, "the Iranians are training extremists, not Al Qaeda." Democrats pounced, saying McCain's comments show he doesn't even know the difference between Shiites in Iran and the Sunnis who run Al Qaeda. McCain's team shot back, calling the Dems naive about Iran. His supporters pointed to the 9/11 Commission finding that contacts likely occurred between Tehran and Al Qaeda. "This whole idea that Shiite Iran wouldn't aid Sunni extremists is laughable and would certainly be news to Hamas, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Taliban [all Sunni groups]," Randy Scheunemann, McCain's chief foreign-policy adviser, told NEWSWEEK.

Here's a reality check. While U.S. military and intelligence officials have occasionally suggested that Iran might be supporting Sunni militants, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, they have not publicly provided evidence of it. The two top U.S. commanders in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and his deputy, Gen. Ray Odierno, have not repeated such allegations. U.S. officials said last year they had indications that some Iranian munitions intended for Shiite militias might have ended up in Qaeda hands, but they said there was no hard evidence that this help was deliberate. Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission and a former senior adviser (whose portfolio included Iran) to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told NEWSWEEK that while there was evidence Iran had contacts with Al Qaeda before 9/11, "I don't recall anyone telling me of significant evidence linking Iran directly to Al Qaeda in Iraq." And McCain's comments? The facts, Zelikow said, "might have gotten embedded in his head in the wrong way."