Bush's records: Still AWOL

President Bush told Tim Russert all his military records were made public in 2000, but there's no evidence to support his statement.


Eric Boehlert
February 11, 2004 4:57AM (UTC)

President Bush's insistence on Sunday that he released all his military documents during the 2000 campaign has only added to the controversy that surrounds his service in the Texas Air National Guard. In fact, there is no indication Bush has ever authorized that all his military records, including those considered personal under provisions of the Privacy Act, be made public.

In his appearance this Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Bush claimed "the records are kept in Colorado, as I understand, and they scoured the records." Asked if he would release "everything," such as his military pay stubs, tax returns, and perhaps even medical records, to prove he served as required between 1972 and 1973, Bush replied "absolutely." He added, "We did so in 2000, by the way."

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But the facts suggest otherwise. "I was pretty shocked when I heard him say he released all his records in 2000," says Martin Heldt, whose article for TomPaine.com in 2000 was among the first on the issue and who maintains a Web site featuring Bush's key National Guard documents.

In Bush's own discharge papers, there is no evidence he reported for required weekend Guard duty training during the 12-month span between the spring of 1972 and 1973. During part of that time Bush was transferred from a Texas unit to one in Alabama so he could work on a political campaign for one of his father's friends. In the summer of 1972, Bush, a fully trained pilot, failed to take his required physical examination and was grounded. As the Boston Globe reported in May 2000, few if any of Bush's commanders remembered the son of a congressman reporting for duty between 1972 and 1973. Bush's papers also do not answer the question whether, after April 1972, he ever served the Guard again before being discharged in 1974.

While some of Bush's military records have been released, large gaps remain. Researchers who submit Freedom of Information Act requests today about Bush's military service receive in return a packet of papers approximately 180 pages thick. But FOIA requests by law are limited. According to National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) guidelines, the information that can be released regarding military personnel comprises "name, service number, rank, dates of service, awards and decorations and place of entrance and separation."

In 2000, Heldt wrote to the National Guard Bureau, as well as the Air Force, seeking a detailed accounting of Bush's military records. The chief of the National Guard Bureau's support services division informed Heldt that some of his requests were off limits: "Social security numbers, medical records and personnel and administrative information of Mr. Bush and others have been withheld, as release of this information would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the personnel affected."

Bush's medical military records, for instance, have never been released to the general public. Nor have any disciplinary reviews, pay stubs, tax records, or personal letters, which would help determine his exact whereabouts in 1972-73. According to the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act, those documents remain under seal unless the military personnel in question (or the next of kin) authorize their release. But NARA offers veterans a sample form to approve that release:

"I authorize the National Personnel Records Center, or other custodian of my military service record, to release to (your name or that of your company and/or organization) the following information and/or copies of documents from my military service record."

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Other presidential candidates have been far more open in releasing their military records. On Jan. 16, for example, Democratic contender Wesley Clark released 34 years' worth of military records. Voters were invited to examine the papers at a room at the Manchester Hotel in New Hampshire -- dubbed the "Clark reading room" -- where the documents were laid out for public view.

If Bush had given his permission in 2000 for private information from his military files to be released, his signed authorization would be on file. But there is no evidence yet produced that he did. And a call to the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver to determine if that authorization has ever been made was not returned by deadline.

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More important, Bush's 2000 authorization, if he made one, would specify whom he allowed to see his personal military records. Having agreed to the release of sensitive documents to one person would not mean those documents would go into packets to meet future FOIA requests. The documents would be limited to the person mentioned in Bush's authorization. It's possible Bush authorized the documents to be released in 2000 but only authorized a campaign aide to see them.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush's spokesman Dan Bartlett, now the White House communications director, told the Associated Press in June of that year that he traveled to the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver to review Bush's military file. "I have read it, and there is nothing earth-shattering," Bartlett said at the time. But he never told reporters the campaign was releasing all the documents or that Bush had authorized the press to review whatever it wanted. Instead, reporters researching the story of Bush's military service and searching for documents relied on FOIA requests and whatever other papers the Bush campaign chose to share with them.

The White House has yet to announce whether Bush will sign an authorization notice or when the documents will be made available to the press. When asked about the president's offer to release "everything," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters during Monday's daily press briefing, "We made everything we had available during the 2000 campaign."

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A call to the White House press office seeking comment was not returned.


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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