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Bogus 'Bowling Green Massacre' Claim Snarls Trump Adviser Conway

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, is under fire after making the false claim that Bowling Green, Ky., was the scene of a massacre carried out by Iraqis. Conway made the claim in an MSNBC interview that aired Thursday night, in which she argued in favor of President Trump's immigration and refugee ban.

In trying to make her case, Conway also accused the media of not covering a massacre on U.S. soil that was perpetrated by terrorists posing as refugees. Friday morning, Conway suggested in a tweet that the claim had been an honest mistake.

The city of Bowling Green says it appreciates the clarification, with Mayor Bruce Wilkeson stating, "I understand during a live interview how one can misspeak."

In the interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews, Conway defended Trump's order to freeze the flow of travelers and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries. The travel ban, Conway said, is "narrowly proscribed, and also temporary," and is aimed at making America safer.

The senior member of Trump's staff, who is credited with introducing the concept of " alternative facts" to America's discourse, then said:

"I bet, there was very little coverage — I bet it's brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized — and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. I mean, most people don't know that because it didn't get covered."

In this case, as a growing number of people are pointing out, most people don't know that purported "new information" because it describes something that did not transpire.

Conway's claim is being ridiculed on Twitter and elsewhere, with fake tributes emerging to honor the nonexistent tragic event. Some of them invoke the hashtag #JeSuisBowlingGreen, playing off of expressions of empathy over actual terrorist attacks that transpired in recent history.

The remarks also briefly set off confusion over whether Conway was referring to Bowling Green, Ky. (home of Western Kentucky University) or Bowling Green, Ohio (home of Bowling Green State University), some 400 miles away.

Friday morning, the White House adviser tweeted that she was referring to the town in Kentucky, along with a link to an article about Iraqis arrested on terrorism charges in 2011.

We'll note that no Iraqi has carried out a deadly attack in the U.S. since the U.S.-led invasion of their country in 2003, though many Iraqis were involved in the insurgency that killed American troops. And as NPR's Greg Myre has reported, Trump's list of nations whose citizens are barred from entering the U.S. "doesn't include any countries from which radicalized Muslims have actually killed Americans in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001."

As criticism poured forth Friday morning, Conway said in a tweet, "Honest mistakes abound."

That statement highlights a dilemma in today's America: When public officials become known for promoting inaccuracies — and fake news is blamed for misinforming people — the task of distinguishing honest mistakes from calculated misstatements becomes more complex.

This morning, Conway also complained that an NBC reporter had contacted her about a separate story — but hadn't asked her to clarify her remarks about Bowling Green.

"Not cool, not journalism," she wrote. In another tweet that soon followed, she wrote, "Honest mistakes abound."

Setting aside Conway's claim of a massacre, the more widely accepted version of a known refugee-related national security event in Kentucky goes something like this: Two Iraqi men who entered the U.S. as refugees and lived in Bowling Green were arrested in 2011 and charged with supporting a terrorist group.

Despite acquiring Stinger missiles, guns and explosives that they believed to be real, neither Waad Alwan nor Mohanad Hammadi planned an attack in Kentucky; instead, they tried to send the weapons and money to al-Qaida in Iraq. And rather than being radicalized in the U.S., both men admitted to being involved in IED attacks on U.S. vehicles in Iraq.

At the time, national security experts said the case revealed "an alarming gap in the screening process" for refugees, as NPR's Carrie Johnson reported.

"U.S. Homeland Security officials say the Alwan case exposed gaps in the screening process at the start of the Obama administration," Johnson reported in 2011 (when they were arrested, both men had been in the U.S. for around two years). "Nowadays, they say, applicants undergo a lot more scrutiny, and their names are run through more terrorist watch lists and other intelligence databases."

In 2013, Alwan and Hammadi were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences — a life term for Hammadi and a 40-year term for Alwan.

"Both defendants were closely monitored by federal law enforcement authorities in the months leading up to their arrests," the Justice Department said. "Neither was charged with plotting attacks within the United States."

As for Conway's claim that President Obama declared "a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program," a look at the events of 2011 shows that after the terrorism arrests, the administration slowed down but did not halt the process.

The White House was criticized that summer for what The New Yorker called an "excruciatingly slow" process of approving Iraqis' visas. At the end of the year, the State Department said it had admitted more than 9,300 Iraqis — half the number of the previous year. Part of that slowdown was blamed on tighter security screenings that began at the start of 2011.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.