New Bush Guard records raise new questions

The president got credit for time served during his missing year -- but on different dates from those his campaign cited in 2000. And he still won't release medical records to explain the mystery of the missing physical.

Published February 12, 2004 12:41AM (EST)

Releasing what it claims is the best evidence yet that George W. Bush fulfilled his duty in the Texas Air National Guard during 1972 and 1973, the White House made public on Tuesday newly uncovered payroll and retirement documents from his military file. But the records underline contradictions with previous Bush accounts and raise new questions yet to be answered.

The White House is frantically attempting to quell public interest in the story of whether Bush essentially took a year off from his Guard duties during the Vietnam War. So press secretary Scott McClellan presented the new documents as backing the claim that the story is a product of election-year politics and as evidence of nothing more than careless record keeping on the part of the military. "These documents clearly show that the president fulfilled his duties," McClellan told reporters during Tuesday's contentious daily White House press briefing.

The skepticism that McClellan encountered demonstrated that the released records, rather than providing definitive answers, only highlight clear, unexplained gaps in Bush's service. The documents also fail to answer why, from May 1972 to May 1973, none of Bush's commanding officers could verify his whereabouts and why none of his fellow guardsmen have come forward with any memories of having served with Bush. The question why Bush's own Chronological Service Listing, found in his discharge papers, makes no mention of any service after May 1972 remains unanswered.

Furthermore, it's also unclear how Bush, who in the summer of 1972 refused to take his annual physical and was grounded as a pilot, was able to report for almost three dozen days' worth of Guard duty over the next year without ever submitting to a required physical exam. Is it possible that Bush later took a physical? His military medical records cannot be released without his authorization and to date he has not consented, despite Bush's claim that he made public all his records in 2000.

The White House document release came in the wake of Bush's Sunday appearance on "Meet the Press," when he said he would release all relevant documents that might help answer questions surrounding his Guard service. In order to release documents deemed personal by provisions of the Privacy Act, such as pay records, Bush would have to authorize their release.

On Monday, McClellan told reporters that in 2000, when the story first arose, the Bush campaign checked with the Texas Air National Guard to see if it had any of Bush's old pay records. The campaign, he said, was told it did not. But after the controversy erupted the White House contacted the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver and requested a similar search. When the documents were suddenly found on Monday, Bush authorized their release, according to Lt. Col. August Schalkham, chief of public affairs at the center. But the White House has offered no explanation of why Bush never asked Denver for a search for those documents before.

The story of Bush's service first emerged four years ago, when a reporter for the Boston Globe, Walter Robinson, after combing through 160 pages of military documents and interviewing Bush's former commanders, reported that Bush's flying career came to an abrupt and unexplained end in the spring of 1972. According to the Globe story, Bush soon asked to be transferred to a postal unit in Alabama so he could work on the senate campaign of Republican Winton Blount, a friend of Bush's father. But Bush's own military records indicated he never served in Alabama. In 2000, a group of veterans offered a $3,500 reward for anyone who could confirm Bush's Alabama Guard service -- and no witnesses stepped forward.

The questions have resurfaced in the heat of the Democratic primary campaign. On Feb. 1, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe appeared on ABC's "This Week" and said he looked forward to comparing Sen. John Kerry's heroic Vietnam War record with that of Bush, "a man who was AWOL."

On Monday, the White House made public Statement of Points Earned documents listing the days for which Bush was credited for service during 1972 and 1973. When guardsmen serve, they earn points that go toward their retirement. In addition, payroll records, many of which were blurred and unreadable, were released. The White House promised to make more-legible copies available. McClellan insisted several times the documents showed the days Bush was credited for serving. Reporters demanded to know if they proved definitively whether Bush actually served those days, or whether he was simply credited. "When you serve, you are paid for that service. These documents outline the days on which he was paid. That means he served," said McClellan.

But McClellan's assertion has not put the question to rest of whether Bush, the son of a congressman who was able to leap over a waiting list in 1968 and secure a slot in the Texas Air National Guard during the height of the Vietnam War, received special treatment on his way out of the Guard. "I think he was issued gratuitous points to make it look like he served," says James Moore, whose upcoming book "Bush's War for Re-election" details the president's military record. "He was getting paid in 1973, yet his commanders say he was not observed? I think it's a total fantasy to think Bush was doing duty at the Ellington Air Force Base [in Texas] and nobody saw him."

During the 2000 campaign, Bush aides could only show a torn copy of a points-earned summary in their effort to try to prove that Bush had served at least one day in Alabama, on what looked like Nov. 29, 1972. Now, like Bush's newfound payroll records, an undamaged version of the points summary has been found. While the White House insists it proves Bush was not AWOL, it raises questions about the inconsistent stories that the Bush campaign told reporters in 2000.

For instance, on June 24, 2000, Bush's then-spokesman Dan Bartlett, currently the White House chief of communications, told the Associated Press he had traveled to the Personnel Center in Denver and reviewed Bush's file, but didn't find anything "earth shattering." He concluded then that there were no documents to prove Bush ever showed up in Alabama. Now it's unclear how Bartlett missed the newly discovered pay records and the points summary.

Moreover, during the closing days of the 2000 campaign, Bartlett, using the torn summary document and assuming the date at the top referred to a Nov. 29 date that Bush served in 1972, told the New York Times that Bush was busy with the Blount campaign in the fall of 1972 and did not serve until after the election. But the newly released, undamaged summary makes clear the dates Bush got credit for serving there were Oct. 28 and Oct. 29, 1972, not in November. It's odd that Bartlett told the Times then that Bush didn't serve in the months leading up to the election, when the National Guard insisted he did. It's also strange that if Bush was so busy with the campaign and missed Guard duty for months at a stretch that he chose the week immediately before Election Day to serve two days.

Other questions abound. According to his discharge papers, Bush was instructed to report to his Alabama unit in Montgomery on Oct. 7 and 8, 1972. But according to the newly released earned-points statement, Bush apparently showed up instead on Oct. 28 and 29. In 2000, both the Alabama unit's commander and his former administrative officer told the Boston Globe that Bush never showed up.

And, according to the new statement, upon returning to his Texas unit, Bush served eight days between January and April 1973. Yet in May of 1973 Bush's Texas commanders could not complete his annual officer evaluation, noting that "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report.'' In November 1973, when the Air National Guard in Denver requested Bush's evaluation for that year, the Ellington administrative officer wrote back, ''Report for this period not available for administrative reasons.''

The White House claims it is still searching for relevant documents. However, Bush has refused so far to sign an authorization to release his medical records.

By 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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