Fact Check: Was Biden Really Shot At?


In a 2010 profile of Joe Biden for The Atlantic, Mark Bowden noted the then-vice president “has the limber storyteller’s tendency to stretch” — a perfect summation, in an eloquent and polite way, to say his relationship with the truth is complicated at best.

So, when Biden brought back a controversial claim he’d been shot at during his time visiting the war zone in Iraq in the 2000s, there was the suspicion he was getting limber again.

The president made the remarks at the State Department on Thursday to buck up the diplomatic aides at Foggy Bottom. According to a transcript of his remarks, he told them that “what we never talk about is you not only have great intellectual capacity, you have a great personal courage.

“I’ve been with some of you when we’ve been shot at, I’ve been with some of you when we’ve been in places that you would not have any idea you’d want to be when you were going to school of foreign policy and foreign service, they never told you that was going to happen,” he said.

There were some red flags there, particularly since this wasn’t dissimilar from a 2007 remark during a presidential debate that he was forced to backpedal from just weeks later.

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According to Fox News, Biden said he’d been the target of gunfire inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone during a visit to Iraq.

“Let’s start telling the truth,” he said. “Number one, you take all the troops out — you better have helicopters ready to take those 3,000 civilians inside the Green Zone, where I have been seven times and shot at. You better make sure you have protection for them, or let them die, number one.”

As The Hill reported at the time, this unraveled quickly when Biden was asked for details about being shot at.

Biden said there were three times on two separate trips where he thought there might have been a shot fired at him. Only one was inside the Green Zone; it involved a “shot” that landed outside the building where he was staying with other senators — and, in fact, happened while he was shaving. Biden said he didn’t feel any need to seek cover, a sign this may not have been that serious of a threat.

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“No one got up and ran from the room — it wasn’t that kind of thing,” Biden said. “It’s not like I had someone holding a gun to my head.”

He later said a more accurate way of describing it would be to say that “I was near where a shot landed.”

The second instance involved a vehicle he was traveling in the day beforehand, which he said might have been hit.

Biden’s aides came to his rescue in this case, filling in the details he apparently couldn’t remember.

“In December 2005, Biden and his staff spent the night in the Green Zone. At about 6:30 a.m., they heard mortars fired a few hundred yards away, which shook the aides’ trailer and rattled the building where Biden was getting ready for the day,” Susan Crabtree reported in The Hill.

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“During the same December 2005 trip, a bullet narrowly missed the helicopter that Biden and his aides were flying in en route to the Baghdad airport from the Green Zone. But the most harrowing episode, according to an aide present, took place in December 2004, while Biden was leaving Iraq in a C-130 cargo airplane. The plane’s anti-missile system was triggered, indicating that they had been fired upon by a surface-to-air missile.”

Biden spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander made sure to hammer home the gravity of what Biden faced without actually saying he was shot at.

“When mortars are fired into the Green Zone or surface-to-air missiles are fired at a plane, they don’t have names or addresses on them,” she wrote. “The nuance of being shot at or shot near means nothing in a war zone. The point Sen. Biden was making is that Iraq is a dangerous place — for our troops, for Iraqis, for everyone.”

Biden’s limber storytelling was criticized by Patrick Campbell, legislative director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, saying that “shot at” implies a situation where “someone with an AK-47 pops up and is taking shots at you.”

“Veterans don’t like it when people mischaracterize their service, people who overstate what happens to them,” he said. “We have names for them.”

Stephen Hess, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, also noted this was very on-brand for Biden.

“There he goes again, as Ronald Reagan would say,” Hess said. “Unfortunately, it fits into his profile, and that’s exactly why he should be terribly careful about statements that may not quite parse out or deconstruct under scrutiny.”

There were two other incidents Biden might have been referring to on Thursday, both of which happened during his time as vice president. In 2009, during a meeting with Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, rockets landed inside the Green Zone, close to the American embassy. In 2010, during a Biden visit, mortars landed inside the zone. Neither time was Biden in danger.

Whether or not Biden’s limberness gets a pass this time around is anyone’s guess.

Beyond the media honeymoon with Biden’s administration, there’s a certain tolerance the media has built up to Biden’s stranger claims. His statements that he was “a hard coal miner” or that he was arrested in apartheid-era South Africa trying to visit Nelson Mandela in jail were more blatantly false than this. At best, it falls into the bin of Biden stories that sound dubious but, if they can’t be proved, can’t be disproved, either — like, for instance, his claim on the campaign trail last year that he was “raised in the black church,” according to the Washington Examiner.

What is obvious, however, is that this is an anecdote Biden ought to retire. The evidence for it is dubious at best, and it’s clear that he was never targeted specifically. Perhaps he faced more danger than your average politician, but the fact this has resurfaced is more evidence the limber storyteller lives on.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture