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As the high-voltage battle over the "Ground Zero Mosque" was raging on Aug. 10, 2010, two Republican lawmakers -- Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and New York Rep. Peter King, the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee -- took aim at the State Department for allegedly footing the bill for foreign travel by the imam behind the proposed center in lower Manhattan.
"It is unacceptable that U.S. taxpayers are being forced to fund Feisal Abdul Rauf’s trip to the Middle East," the lawmakers wrote. "Abdul Rauf has cast blame for 9/11 on the U.S., and even refuses to call Hamas what it is –- a Foreign Terrorist Organization. This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces of our country overseas. The U.S. should be using public diplomacy programs to combat extremism, not endorse it. The State Department’s selection of Feisal Abdul Rauf to represent the American people through this program further calls into question the Administration’s policy and funding priorities."
We're separately looking at other aspects of the controversy here, including some elements of what Ros Lehtinen and King said in their statement. But in this item, we wanted to look at the narrow question of whether the lawmakers were correct that "U.S. taxpayers are being forced to fund Feisal Abdul Rauf’s trip to the Middle East."
At an Aug. 10, 2010, State Department briefing, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley confirmed that a program under the State Department's auspices -- the Bureau of International Information Programs -- is paying for Rauf's trip.
"Imam Faisal will be traveling to Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE on a U.S. government-sponsored trip to the Middle East," Crowley said. "He will discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance. ... We have about 1,200 of these kinds of programs every year, of sending experts in all fields overseas. Last year we had 52 trips that were specifically focused on religious -- promoting religious tolerance. We will expect to have roughly the same number of programs this year."
On Aug. 18, 2010, Fox News and the Associated Press, citing the State Department, reported that Rauf will be paid $3,000 directly by the U.S. government and that the government will pay for his airfare, lodging and expenses. The total amount for sending Rauf overseas will be roughly $16,000.
Crowley noted that this will be Rauf's fourth trip overseas on the government's dime, including two of them under the administration of former President George W. Bush and one earlier this year.
"In 2007, he visited Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE and Qatar," Crowley said. "And earlier this year, in January, he also visited Egypt. So we have a long-term relationship with him. You know, his work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States. And our discussions with him about taking this trip preceded the current debate in New York over the center."
So Ros-Lehtinen is correct that the federal government (and, therefore, U.S. taxpayers) will be funding Rauf's trip to the Middle East.
Some commentators have gone a step further by saying the trip is tantamount to a fundraising jaunt for Rauf's center. The Washington Times' editorial page wrote that "by funding the trip so soon after New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission gave the go-ahead to demolish the building on the proposed mosque site, the State Department is creating the appearance that the U.S. government is facilitating the construction of this shameful structure. It gives Mr. Rauf not only access but imprimatur to gather up foreign cash. And because Mr. Rauf has refused to reveal how he plans to finance his costly venture, the American public is left with the impression it will be a wholly foreign enterprise."
Crowley, in his Aug. 10 briefing, was asked about the fundraising issue. He knocked down the notion.
"It is something that we have talked to him about, and we have informed him about our prohibition against fundraising while on a speaking tour," Crowley said. "We do not expect him to fundraise."
We aren't rating this claim, because we don't believe it's provable either way that the trip will offer fundraising opportunities. On the one hand, the government has made clear that fundraising cannot take place during the trip. On the other hand, it's possible that the trip, indirectly, will raise Rauf's profile with people who hear him speak in Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE and, in the process, ease future fundraising for his planned center.
But while we're not taking sides on the fundraising question, we believe that the less-far-reaching statement by Ros-Lehtinen is accurate. U.S. taxpayers are indeed funding Rauf’s trip, as they have his prior two trips to the region. It's worth noting that the decision to sponsor his trip was made before the current controversy became the focus of media attention, and also that Rauf took his first State Department-funded trip during the Bush administration rather than Barack Obama. But none of those facts undercut the statement we checked by Ros-Lehtinen. We rate her statement True.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter King, "Ros-Lehtinen, King Oppose Taxpayer-Funded Trip to Middle East for ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ Imam who Blames U.S. for 9/11" (press release), Aug. 10, 2010
State Department, transcript of briefing by Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley, Aug. 10, 2010 (accessed via Nexis)
State Department, backgrounder on the the Bureau of International Information Programs' U.S. speaker series, accessed Aug. 19, 2010
Associated Press, "Fact check: Islam already lives near ground zero," Aug. 19, 2010
Fox News, transcript of Fox Special Report with Bret Baier, Aug. 18, 2010 (accessed via Nexis)
Washington Times, "Tax dollars to build mosques" (editorial), Aug. 10, 2010
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