Wednesday, February 04, 2004

AWOL: The next question, please

Well, you can't imagine how relieved I am to see the matter of George W. Bush's military record finally receiving the attention it deserved back in 2000.

Suffice to say that it is immensely satisfying to watch White House spokesman Scott McLellan squirming during yesterday's press conference about the subject. Noticeably, the best McLellan could do was this:
Q The Democrats have been attacking the President for months on a lot of issues. Why this issue -- why is it that you're choosing to respond to this particular issue, where in the past you've --

MR. McCLELLAN: The reasons I said. It is really shameful that this was brought up four years ago, and it's shameful that some are trying to bring it up again. I think it is sad to see some stoop to this level, especially so early in an election year. The President, like many Americans, was proud to serve in the National Guard. The National Guard plays an important role in the security of America. And the President was proud of his service.

He refused to answer any questions about it today, of course.

It was also satisfying to see the issue being addressed reasonably well by Lois Romano in the Washington Post (and hey, Orcinus was mentioned in the WaPo's White House Briefing column yesterday, too).

It's also tempting to chastize the press for its behavior. Why, we're all wondering, wasn't this story properly explored in 2000? Because every reporter in the country (even Walter Robinson, it must be noted) was too busy flogging the "Gore is a liar, Bush is a straight shooter" script we were all handed.

I have to mention that I tried my damnedest to bring this story to the attention of my editors and colleagues at while I was there the summer of 2000, and later (after I'd left the newsroom) that fall, as well. The interest, sadly, just wasn't there.

Bob Somerby pointed out yesterday (and explores even further today, by way of pointing out the flaws in Josh Marshall's otherwise superb summary of the matter) that even the latest examinations of the matter are falling rather short.

As Somerby observes, the problem with Romano's story is that it omits any discussion of the supposed "exculpatory" evidence offered by Team Bush in 2000 that supposedly demonstrated that Bush had put in duty in November 1972 -- namely, the torn document that doesn't even have Bush's name on it.

Somerby put it this way:
But note the problem with Romano's account. Clearly, the Post has decided to ignore the torn document. But Romano doesn't even mention the document's existence -- and she doesn't say why the Post has decided to disregard it. Has the Post decided the doc is a fake? If so, that means that the Bush campaign has been peddling a fraud for the past four years. Or has the Post decided that the document is too ambiguous to be trusted? In that case, shouldn't the Post at least tell readers that the famous torn document exists?

In today's post, he carries the point to the next logical step:
Meanwhile, let's pause to note an obvious point: If the "torn document" turns out to be fake, this story becomes much more serious. Indeed, if the "torn document" turns out to be bogus, this story becomes quite an A-bomb. This may be why papers are tiptoe-ing hard ...

... Can we offer one final thought about the way this tale has been covered? Let's go back to that puzzling "torn document." Clearly, the Post has refused to credit the doc; today, the Times seems to back away in its vagueness. But if the famous torn document is judged invalid, an awkward fact is thereby created -- it means that the Bush campaign, for the past four years, has been peddling a military document that is phony. Our guess would be that none of these papers wants to step into that ugly mire. Our guess? Both these papers are hiding behind desks, hoping this story expires.

It's especially worth observing that this torn document was not provided to the Post in 1999 in response to its FOIA requests for Bush's military records -- but it was given to the Boston Globe in 2000, as well as to Iowa citizen farmer/public hero Marty Heldt, whose dogged legwork in the case has been largely responsible for keeping the story alive all these years. (Here is the complete set of documents compiled by Marty: The Military Records of George W. Bush.)

Indeed, Marty -- who posted much of the material at Salon's Table Talk forum beginning in 1999, which is where I first encountered the information -- had this to say today in TT:
The papers don't want to face the fact that the documents Bush uses to defend his Guard record are the documents his campaign had placed into the record.

How can that be ignored by journalists?

I keep going back to what we have here with Lloyd because I find it truly remarkable that this old acquaintance of Bush is first the currator and then the discoverer of the very documents that Bush uses to defend his record.

It's time that somebody calls it what it is, a coverup.

Eventually, they may get around to that. It depends on how long the Bush folks insist on trying to ignore the press' questions -- particularly the most germane one raised so far, namely: "Why doesn't Bush release his military records like every other presidential candidate?"

In the meantime, there is some more material to ponder regarding the potential coverup of Bush's records that likely occurred back when he was preparing to run.

Recall, if you will, the story that was just breaking on the eve of the election regarding Bush's military records -- a former National Guardsman named Bill Burkett stepped forward and told the Times of London he had watched Bush aides -- notably Dan Bartlett, who is now the White House Communications Director -- "scrubbing" Bush's military files.

The Times story appears no longer available, but Bob Fertik at the partisan has this summary:
Bill Burkett, a Lt. Colonel who was the State Plans Officer of the Texas National Guard at the time, said Bush operative Dan Bartlett headed a high-level operation to "scrub" Bush's Air National Guard record, to make sure it was in synch with the biography that the campaign was preparing.

Fertik also points to the dubious quality of the "torn document" as suggestive of a coverup:
Thus, the assertion by Bill Burkett that Dan Bartlett and his operatives may have modified Bush's Air National Guard records takes on exceptional significance. Bartlett's "scrubbing" operation in 1997 could have inserted these mysterious documents, or removed significant information from the torn document. In addition, Bartlett's operation could have removed or altered other revealing documents.

Indeed, there is corroborating evidence that Bush campaign operatives have devoted considerable effort to "scrubbing" public records to conceal other evidence of Bush's wrongdoing. For example, Bush got a new driver's license after he was elected Governor, which appears to be completely unprecedented. This prevented reporters from discovering Bush's DUI arrest in Maine in 1976.

Burkett shortly backed away from claiming he had observed anything untoward or serious tampering. But he did say this:
"I stated that the way this had been handled by the Bush staff including knowledgeable military officials at the Texas national guard, that it left the implication that the Bush staff had first incompetently provided an incomplete military file for the Governor which was consistent with his autobiography. I further observed that they probably did not anticipate that the file would be scrutinized to the level that it was. Whenever someone determined holes is service "big enough to drive a Mack truck through," additional information [all of which was unofficial and some in pencil notations] were then submitted to the press to answer questions. I further observed the this 'trust me, I'm the Governor' approach had worked throughout Texas for George W. Bush within his tenure and the media had given the Governor a free pass without the same scrutiny as the Vice President until the eleventh hour revelation of the DUI. But this still left the basic question: Why didn't Governor Bush simply release his military pay files and retirement points accounting records, which are the only OFFICIAL records that will show that he satisfactorily and honorably completed his service commitment?"

Awhile later, Burkett conducted an interview with journalist Greg Palast, the contents of which are recounted here:
Palast interviews retired Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett of the Texas Air National Guard (TANG), who states on camera that shortly after George W. became Texas' governor in the 1990s, he witnessed a speakerphone call from the Texas governor's office to TANG, and overheard the caller tell Guard officers to "clean [Bush's] records from his files." Palast says that after the call, Burkett "asked the officers if they'd carried out the questionable orders, and they said 'absolutely.' They pointed, and Burkett saw in the [shredding designated] trashcan George W. Bush's ... pay [and retirement points] records."

The reason Bush is not releasing his records may very well be that they no longer exist. Which in itself raises a whole cauldron of nasty new questions.

The first of which is: Will any reporters be brave or smart enough to ask them?

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