"Bad news doesn't get better with age"

The retired officer who saw Bush National Guard files in a trash can talks back as the White House tries to discredit him, and urges the president to finally come clean.

Published February 14, 2004 11:24PM (EST)

Fending off allegations that President Bush failed to honor his Texas Air National Guard service by taking unexplained months off at a time from serving, the White House also has to deal with the accusation from a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard who claims aides to Bush went through his military file in 1997 and removed any embarrassing information, and tossed documents in the trash. They were allegedly the types of documents that might help answer many of the unanswered questions surrounding Bush's Guard service today.

The retired officer, Bill Burkett, went public with his charges in 1998. But with renewed interest in Bush's Guard service, and specifically the contents of his personal military file, Burkett's story about tampering has taken on greater urgency and attracted national notice. "I don't like the attention," he said from his home near Abilene, Texas, during an interview with Salon. "If you think 15 minutes of fame is worth it, that's damn sure no motivation for this kind of crap," referring to the constant press inquiries. (Burkett's story is also detailed in the upcoming book by James Moore, "Bush's War for Re-election.")

Burkett says that in the spring of 1997, on the eve of Bush's reelection campaign for governor, and with his spokeswoman Karen Hughes planning to write Bush's biography, a call was placed to Maj. Gen. Daniel James, head of the Texas National Guard. According to the conversation Burkett says he overheard, Bush's chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, asked James to assemble Bush's military files, so his aides, including Dan Bartlett, could go over them, and to make sure there was nothing there that would embarrass the governor. Burkett says days later he also saw pages from Bush's military file in a garbage can.

"Activities occurred in order to, in my opinion, inappropriately build a false image of the governor's military service," he said.

All the key players, who remain close allies of Bush, deny Burkett's account, labeling it an outrageous claim. They include Gen. James, whom Bush promoted to director of the Air National Guard for the entire country. They have also described Burkett as a disgruntled former guardsman. "I am an extremely strong supporter and a 28-plus-year member of the Texas National Guard," Burkett insisted.

Burkett says when the incident occurred in 1997 he discussed it several times with his friend and fellow officer George Conn. In 2002, Conn confirmed to USA Today that Burkett talked to him about the conversation he overheard regarding Bush's file, and did so within days of its happening. This week Conn told the New York Times via e-mail, "I know LTC Bill Burkett and served with him several years ago in the Texas Army National Guard. I believe him to be honest and forthright. He calls things like he sees them.'" But in Friday's Boston Globe, Conn, now a civilian government employee working with the U.S. Army in Germany, denied Burkett ever told him about the conversation Burkett overheard concerning Bush's military file.

Burkett dismisses Conn's new version of the story. "The truth hasn't changed," said Burkett. "The only thing that has changed is George Conn's statement."

Burkett has battled the Guard for years since his retirement in 1998. He complained he did not receive adequate medical care when he became seriously ill after returning from a mission to Panama, and that Guard officials retaliated against him because he had conducted a management study critical of the Guard. Burkett told the New York Times he was hospitalized for depression in 1998 after suffering a nervous breakdown.

Although the White House dumped roughly 400 pages of Bush's military files with reporters late Friday -- on the eve of the long Presidents' Day weekend -- they contain no documentation of his time in Alabama and are unlikely to make the issue go away.

Tell me about the incident that occurred in the spring of 1997.

Here is basically what happened within the second floor of the Texas Air National Guard headquarters at Camp Mabry [in Austin]. It's a long building, north to south in structure. Because I was appointed State Plans Officer, I had access to General James. And at times I would drop by the general's office and would be ushered in or out by the receptionist/secretary. Just outside of his office she had a very small space of roughly 8-by-10 feet just outside of his immediate door. On occasions she was not there and the door was closed, I went on and went somewhere else assuming he was either not there or in sensitive discussion. If the door was open I had been told that if it didn't seem all that important of a discussion that I'd just tap on the door or stick my head in to see if it was anything sensitive.

On this occasion his secretary was not at her desk and the door was cracked approximately 8 to 10 inches. And I stuck my head through the door. And this is the one point where there may be some doubt; I'm not sure General James actually acknowledged me. The rest of it I am sure of. I was under the assumption that he had people in his office because I could hear voices. When I stuck my head through the door slightly I could not see anyone sitting in the wing-backed chairs or the couch that sat in front of his desk where you always sat if you went into the general's office for a conversation. Immediately I recognized he was on a telephone call and I was extremely embarrassed. I felt uncomfortable about that. And I stood there [in the receptionist's area] for a moment. The basic part of what I heard, and the words I'll give you are a paraphrase, they are not direct quotes, the words basically were, "Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett were going to come out to the [Texas National] Guard and they wanted General James to make sure the [Bush] records were assembled and basically, not in some crisis statement or anything, but to make sure there wasn't anything there that would embarrass the governor."

And who said that?

I recognized those words as those of Joe Allbaugh. And I recognized that Dan Bartlett was also on the phone as well, and Dan had been referred to in the conversation.

On the surface I guess you could read those words, "Make sure there wasn't anything there that would embarrass the governor," and the extremist on one side would say, "Oh my God, a conspiracy." And those on the other side would say, "What's the problem?" But it did bother me sufficiently that I did talk to Mr. Conn that night at dinner. I trusted him ethically and I basically asked him for ethical guidance because it did bother me sufficiently.

The following day I was standing in the break area awaiting a meeting. These things happen in quick passing, moving from one office to the other and with general officers moving rapidly. A couple of individuals not known to me by name, not known to me socially, walked into the corridor, into the coffee area. Those individuals were rapidly referred to by General James, and General James passed along the directive that Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett were going to come out to look through the retained records and other files and that Karen was going to write a book in preparation of the reelection campaign and a possible presidential run. And the comment was added on by [another general], "And make sure there is nothing there to embarrass the governor."

So again, I can tell you this now, I'm sure looking back and analyzing this, I'm sure the thing that flagged was the "Make sure there's nothing there" comment. I again mentioned this to George Conn at dinner that evening. I was very troubled by it. I thought about this for some period of time, but I did not bring it up. I didn't want to overdo it. I was really trying. And it wasn't out of fear for me; I was really trying to help to turn this organization around. That was my job as state plans officer doing a strategic plan for the Texas National Guard. The credibility of my boss and the product and everything we did was on the line and I had some degree of concern.

What happened next?

So, anyway, time goes on. Mr. Conn was a very trusted individual by me and I think by most people at Camp Mabry. I really trusted the guy. I relied on him. He mothered me once in a while. I'm a workaholic kind of person; 12 hours minimum day. Sixteen hours are more realistic days. And George came to my desk this one day, approximately 10 days after the second occurrence [of hearing the "Make sure there is nothing embarrassing" comment], and he came to my desk and said, "C'mon and get your hat."

We took a walk and ended up at the state museum, which is an old Korean War-era structure. A one-story armory. [Inside a large room] about 35 feet onto the concrete area was a folding table, Formica top type. Standard folding table with a stack of papers you could tell were not neatly stacked or anything; they were obviously some work in progress and there were a couple of chairs there. And at the north end of the table is a trash can that came up to the top of the table. And I always called it a 15-gallon old-style metal wastebasket. George and I entered the building and George and this individual who had previously received a directive from General James to assemble that paperwork. This individual was there, a General Scribner, and they [he and Conn] obviously knew each other. And they acknowledged each other and it was very friendly, very social.

I happened to be standing right next to that trash can. If I had been standing one step away from that trash can what happened would not have happened. Because I would have had to take a step [toward the trash can] and I wouldn't have done it.

On the table there was some work being done. I didn't see any of those files. We talked quickly. George said to General Scribner, and I'm paraphrasing, "General, how's it going. What are you finding?" The general said, "Well, over time a lot of people have gone through this thing and it's not as much as I would have thought. Most of what we have is P.R.-type stuff, like P.R. photos they use in recruiting drives. And it's just not as much as I thought."

Then they gravitated back toward the corner office. And I was standing right next to the garbage can. I looked down in the trash can. The trash can at the bottom I could see was filled with some cardboard packing material, including the kind of nylon-type straps and maybe some bubble packing. On top of that was a page or two of standard white, low-grade packing-type paper. And on top of that is this little, loosely thrown or tossed group of pages, standard 8-1/2-by-11-size pages and I guess what struck, what got my interest, was on the top page at the top of it was a handwritten entry in a standard form with the name "Bush," comma, "George W," comma, "On Lt." That was in pen ink entry. That intrigued me. It concerned me, looking back at it, I knew initially that it bothered me that was in the trash can. It struck me pretty hard initially. The total number of pages I've estimated were between 20 and 40 pages.

Twenty to 40 pages that were in the trash, or that were in the folder?

That were in the trash. I did thumb through the top six or eight pages of that. And they were all standard forms that were filled out that included performance documents and payroll-type documents. I did not go beyond the top six or eight pages. I was very troubled with my actions and my conscience grabbed hold of me. A jolt hit me very hard.

Then we left there. The total of our time of stay, very informal, very friendly, was minimum five minutes, maximum eight minutes. I know looking at it I was extremely concerned and was really bothered by what I'd seen and I needed to talk. My personal reflection was that activities were ongoing to in some way put a positive image on the governor's files, whether it existed or not.

General James, Karen Hughes, Joe Allbaugh, Dan Bartlett, General Scribner, they've all adamantly denied your account. If someone's coming to this fresh and doesn't have strong feeling either way, why should they believe your account if those four or five people all say it's an outrageous claim?

One way I think you should look at this is, look at motive on my part. Why would I do this? Why would I manufacture such a story? Why would I then endanger or otherwise destroy a very strong career? Why would I then subject myself to the retaliation that was at hand? Once the retaliation was at hand and the story was false, why would I continue to insist it was true?

George Conn told the Boston Globe this week you never mentioned the overheard conversation to him, and that he did not know Bush's file was being reviewed.

It's interesting that just two days ago Mr. Conn forwarded an e-mail response to a reporter, which was read to me, and it said, quote, "Lt. Col. Burkett is an honorable man and does not lie," end quote.

So, you did speak to Mr. Conn that night or within a couple days in 1997 expressing your concern and also told him about the conversation you overheard.

The truth has not changed in this one day.

Was he aware that that was George Bush's file being examined when you two visited the museum?

I just said that the truth has not changed in this one day.

I know but...

You're not going to take me into the details and pound this thing, no. The truth has not changed in one day. And I stand on those statements and the truth.

Are you surprised by Conn's comments?


Even though he's corroborated you for all those years?

You don't understand the level of pressure he's under. He has a contract position with the Department of Defense.

Have you talked to him recently?

I had an e-mail sent to him. I told him, George, I know you're underground, I know you're being beat up. You do what you have to do. I'll still respect you. And I respect him. This guy's an honorable man. I love the man. But you can't ask a man to give up his life.

What's your take on what's happening now with the story of Bush's military service?

I'm very troubled by it all. I think most [presidential] candidates have simply opened the entire package of military files. From Day One this was poorly handled. And Day One to me was the early spring of '97. And I'm still disappointed in how they've handled it. There are really good people in the Bush administration and some supertalented people that I believe initially started out with great intentions to do the right thing. But I think this has been bungled from Day One and they continue to make it worse every day.

Give me some examples.

Why wouldn't you just release the whole file? Bad news doesn't get better with age.

And when you say release the files, you're referring to documents such as personal medical records, administrative reviews, records that would need Bush's authorization to be released?

Senator McCain, in my opinion, did it right [when he ran for president in 2000]. He just said, "Hey, whatever is in the archives, we're going to close the loop on this. Whatever is in retirement records, I want it all out there. Whatever is at the Defense Finance Accounting Services, I want it all out there. My W-2 from my military time, I want it all out there."

But from the White House's perspective, if there is bad news there's a chance they'll never have to release it because Bush would have to authorize it. If there was a disciplinary review, for instance, no one can see that unless he authorizes it and if he won't do it, nobody will ever find out about the bad news.

My disappointment is, instead of releasing the whole file, and instead of sticking to strict standards and letting facts speak for themselves, the most the White House has done this week is give him a D.

And here's the reason for the D. First of all, an incomplete, piece-by-piece, one-at-a-time release of files, so you've got people chasing one piece of paper here, they can't corroborate with a performance certificate. The military is the worst in the world for a paper trail. It's so redundant. And yet somehow, if we know the issue originally surfaced in 1994 [during Bush's first campaign for governor] and there was a hole [in his service record] then and you know you have a hole then, I don't care if you're running for third-grade class president, you go back and correct the files. There is a process for that that every serviceman knows. When you leave the military, if your file is less than complete, and by the way you do a files review before you leave, if your files are less than complete or inaccurate, a process called, in the case of the Air Force, it's called the Air Force Board Correction of military records and it's a one- to two-page form and it may take as much as a year. But certainly no more than a year. Now, if you knew in '94, why did you go through it again in the '98 campaign? Why did you go through it again in 2000? The fact that we don't go to a complete records review today means they're just trying to put out fires rather than trying to solve a problem.

Are you surprised they were able to uncover records that they hadn't been previously able to find?

I think it's strange when Mr. Dan Bartlett in 2000, right before the election says, "No, Denver [the Air Reserve Personnel Center] didn't have any of those files, and those files didn't exist." And now he comes back and says, "Hey, we've got them and they were right where they were supposed to be in Denver." Now, that's strange to me. That doesn't pass the smell test. And that's the only reason this story has legs.

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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