Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
[UPDATE: The Washington Post reports that several document experts it consulted have raised questions about the authenticity of the Killian memos obtained by 60 Minutes. These documents, written about below, appear to provide further evidence that Bush skipped out on the Texas Air National Guard. CBS News so far is standing by its assertion that the documents are real. A senior CBS official says that retired Maj. General Bobby Hodges--Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian's superior--told CBS News that the contents of the memos were consistent with what Killian said to him at the time. No doubt, the debate over the memos will continue. But as it continues, the point should not be lost that even without the new information, Bush's account of his Guard service does not withstand scrutiny--that he still has not fully explained his missing year in the Air National Guard, that he has not presented any evidence that he engaged in training activity in Alabama (while commanders at the Guard unit there say they do not recall he ever reported for duty), that he has offered various misleading and false explanations for his failure to take a flight exam, that he has not addressed why he left his unit in Houston before his transfer to another unit in Alabama was approved, that he has misrepresented his Guard service in his autobiography, and that he has not explained why his annual performance review from May 1973 said he had not been seen at his unit for a year (when he claimed he was only in Alabama for a few months). All of these questions about his Guard service are backed up by official records that are unquestionably authentic.]
That is how Dan Bartlett, communications director for the Bush White House, responded to the latest revelations about George W. Bush's questionable military service. He was speaking to 60 Minutes for a report that featured Ben Barnes, a Democrat and former Texas Speaker of the House, who says he pulled strings to win George W. Bush a spot in the Air National Guard. But Bartlett did not explain why it is "dirty politics" to publicize new documents that show Bush cut out on his Guard duty but it is not "dirty politics" for Republican-financed veterans to claim (without producing any documentation) that John Kerry lied about wartime deeds that are indeed substantiated by official records.
Barnes's appearance on the CBS News show did have the stench of politics to it. Thanks to the oppo-researchers at the Republican Party--who dispatched a mass email hours before 60 Minutes came on--every reporter on the GOP spam list (myself included) ended up possessing a pile of clips that showed that Barnes, now a corporate lobbyist, is a close friend of and a major fundraiser for John Kerry. And Barnes's story was not new. Back in 1999, Barnes told The New York Times that in 1968, when Bush was facing the prospect of being drafted for Vietnam, a Houston oilman named Sidney Adger, a friend of George H.W. Bush, had asked Barnes to get Bush into the Texas Air National Guard. Barnes maintained that he then dutifully contacted the head of the Air National Guard, who was a pal of his, on behalf of the young Bush. During the 60 Minutes spot, anchor Dan Rather said, "This is the first time Ben Barnes has told his story publicly." But Barnes revealed nothing that he has not claimed previously.
One big question is whether Adger was acting in response to a request from George H.W. Bush. Both Bushes have claimed that the elder Bush did not ask Adger to obtain special treatment for the younger Bush and that they know nothing about any special treatment afforded W. And Barnes--in 1999 and now--has not said anything that contradicts the Bushes on this point. It seems logical to assume that Adger's efforts to win Bush a much-coveted Guard spot were known to at least the elder Bush. But Adger is dead, and only common sense (rather than evidence) undermines the Bush story that Adger was a lone favor-seeker who kept his efforts secret from his friend and the fellow who benefited from his intervention.
But the story does not stop here. Bartlett can grouse about Barnes's late reemergence in the presidential campaign and dismiss it as "politics." But what can he say about the new documents CBS News also featured in the spot? This was the important stuff, and it might have served CBS News well to have dumped Barnes and focused on these records--which are only the latest of new material that has come out recently regarding Bush's Guard service.
The records show that in May 1972, Bush disobeyed a direct order. On May 4, 1972, Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, the commander of Bush's squadron, sent First Lt. Bush a memo stating, "You are ordered to report" to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston--where Bush's Air National Guard unit was stationed--"to conduct an annual physical examination."
Bush did not appear for this physical. And on May 19, Killian wrote a memo detailing a conversation he had with Bush. He noted the two had "discussed options of how Bush can get out of coming to drill from now through November....Says he wants to transfer to Alabama to any unit he can get in to. Says that he is working on another campaign for his dad." Regarding the physical exam, Killian wrote, "We talked about him getting his flight physical situation fixed before his date. Says he will do that in Alabama if he stays in flight status. He has this campaign to do and other things that will follow and may not have the time. I advised him of our investment in him and his commitment. He's been working with staff to come up with options and identified a unit that may accept him. I told him I had to have written acceptance before he would be transferred, but think he's also talking to someone upstairs."
Bush never reported for his physical. Moreover, another Killian memo shows that Bush was suspended from flight status not just because he did not take his physical (as has previously been reported) but also because he had not performed adequately. Furthermore, this memo indicates that Bush headed off to Alabama--that is, he skipped out on the Air National Guard--before a transfer was arranged and approved. On August 1, 1972, Killian kicked Bush off flight status and wrote a memo noting that the suspension was "due to failure to perform to" Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force "standards and failure to meet annual physical examination (flight) as ordered."
Previously, Bush's aides have given two reasons for his failure to take that flight exam. First they said he was unable to be examined because he was in Alabama at the time and his personal physician was back in Houston. But that explanation did not wash. Flight physicals are given not by personal physicians but by flight surgeons, and there were flight surgeons available in Alabama. But the Bush camp has also claimed that Bush did not take the physical because the F-102A fighter jet he flew was about to be mothballed and that there were no planes for him to fly in Alabama. Yet an additional set of records from Bush's military file released by the White House days ago shows that Bush's unit flew F-102As until 1974. And the Killian memos make clear that the physical exam was not optional. Bush was ordered to submit to an exam, and he refused that order. Under Texas law, a member of the Guard who "willfully" disobeys a superior officer "shall be punished as a court-martial directs."
Killian's August 1 memo went on: "I recommended transfer of this officer to the 9921st Air Reserve Squadron [based in Alabama] in May....The transfer was not allowed. Officer [Bush] has made no attempt to meet his training certification or flight physical. Officer expresses desire to transfer out of state including assignment to non-flying billets."
When you're done reading this article,visit David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on Alan Keyes claiming Jesus might vote for him, Dick Cheney's over-the-top attack, and GOP spinning on stem cells.
By this point, Bush had already left Texas for Alabama to work on the campaign of a Republican senatorial candidate and family friend. Bush has claimed he fulfilled his Guard commitment in Alabama. But the commanders at Dannelly Air National Guard Base, where he was eventually assigned, say he never reported for duty. And there are no service records that show he engaged in any training with the unit there. This week, an anti-Bush group called Texans for Truth began airing ads featuring Bob Mintz, an Air National Guard pilot at Dannelly at that time, who says he never saw Bush at Dannelly.
The Killian memos are rather damning proof that Bush abandoned the Guard. Which of course contradicts Bush's assertion that he fulfilled his commitment to the Guard. But apparently for over 30 years, there has been an effort to burnish his Guard credentials. In another memo--written on August 18, 1973--Killian noted that when it came time for him to draft an evaluation of Bush, there was pressure from above for a good write-up. Killian noted that Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt, his superior,
"has obviously pressured [Lt. Colonel Bobby] Hodges more about Bush. I'm having trouble running interference and doing my job--[Lt. Colonel William] Harris gave me a message today from [Group] regarding Bush's [officer efficiency training report] and Staudt is pushing to sugar coat it. Bush wasn't here during rating period and I don't have any comments from 187th in Alabama [a unit to which Bush was assigned when he was in Alabama]. I will not rate.''
Several months earlier--on May 2, 1973--Killian had signed an annual performance report on Bush that said, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit" for the past year. One reading of Killian's August 18, 1973, memo is that several officers at the base were trying to cover for Bush and his missing year.
The Killian memos obtained by CBS News and the documents released by the White House are not the only truly new information on Bush's Guard service to come out this week. On September 8, The Boston Globe reported:
In February, when the White House made public hundreds of pages of President Bush's military records, White House officials repeatedly insisted that the records prove that Bush fulfilled his military commitment in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
But Bush fell well short of meeting his military obligation, a Globe reexamination of the records shows: Twice during his Guard service--first when he joined in May 1968, and again before he transferred out of his unit in mid-1973 to attend Harvard Business School--Bush signed documents pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty.
He didn't meet the commitments, or face the punishment, the records show. The 1973 document has been overlooked in news media accounts. The 1968 document has received scant notice.
The Globe noted that in July 1973, shortly before moving from Houston to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard Business School (when he had about nine months left on his six-year commitment to the Texas Air National Guard), Bush signed a document that stated, "It is my responsibility to locate and be assigned to another Reserve forces unit or mobilization augmentation position. If I fail to do so, I am subject to involuntary order to active duty for up to 24 months." Bush had 60 days to locate a new unit. But, the paper reported, Bush never signed up with a Guard unit in the Boston. In 1999, Bartlett, then a spokesman for the Bush campaign, told The Washington Post that Bush finished his six-year commitment at a Boston-area Air Force Reserve unit. "I must have misspoke," Bartlett told the Globe.
The Globe also reported,
And early in his Guard service, on May 27, 1968, Bush signed a "statement of understanding" pledging to achieve "satisfactory participation" that included attendance at 24 days of annual weekend duty--usually involving two weekend days each month--and 15 days of annual active duty." I understand that I may be ordered to active duty for a period not to exceed 24 months for unsatisfactory participation," the statement reads.
Yet Bush, a fighter-interceptor pilot, performed no service for one six-month period in 1972 and for another period of almost three months in 1973, the records show.
The oh-too slowly emerging account of Bush's Guard service just gets uglier and uglier. To recap: he repeatedly did not meet his obligations, he failed to obey an order to take a physical, he fell short of the Guard's performance standards, he improperly left his unit before arranging a transfer, he ended his Guard service before he finished his commitment, and senior officers pressured his commander to cover for him. And that's all in the written record. (An analysis of Bush's Guard records written by Gerald Lechliter, a retired Army colonel, argues that Bush received fraudulent payments from the Air National Guard. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has posted Lechliter's analysis here.)
Now compare all this to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth episode. In challenging Kerry's wartime record, these vets have produced no documents that substantiate their charge that Kerry lied about his wartime exploits and earned medals he did not deserve. In fact, the official records back up Kerry's account. Yet Kerry found himself pinned down by the unproved charges from a group financed by Republican donors.
It is true that Bush has not made his Vietnam-era military service an issue as Kerry has. But Bush has repeatedly claimed he received no preferential treatment in the Guard and that he served honorably and fulfilled his obligations. But the various explanations he and his aides have offered for the mysteries of his Guard service--the missing time in Alabama and Houston, the failure to take the flight physical--have not held up. The available evidence indicates he has not been honest about that period in his life. Is it "dirty politics" to point to documents that contradict Bush's account and ask, why?
The past week has produced almost too much material on Bush's curious tenure in the Air National Guard. In a way, that is a blessing for the White House. By dismissing all of it as merely recycled partisan charges, the Bushies are attempting to sweep aside the new with the old. For over three decades, Bush has been able to keep the full tale of his Guard service--particularly that missing year--a secret. But the truth has been dripping out--like water seeping through bullet holes in the hull of a Swift boat. His story is sinking. But he need only keep it afloat--or out of the full media spotlight--for seven more weeks. And his aides are paddling mighty fast.
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