The case of the missing Bush documents

Records covering the president's crucial missing months in the Texas Air National Guard were "accidentally" destroyed. But he could still clear his name if he chose to.

Published July 15, 2004 9:18PM (EDT)

If the narrative weren't so difficult to trace, the story of President Bush's missing records from his service in the Texas Air National Guard might be gaining more attention. Last week's revelation from the Pentagon that microfilmed records related to the most controversial months of 1st Lt. Bush's service in Alabama (where he had been transferred at his request) were "accidentally" destroyed should cause alarm and energize new endeavors by the media to determine what Bush did in Alabama. But there's no sign of that yet.

There are several reasons for the media's reluctance to investigate this issue more aggressively. Documents can be hard to find. Freedom of Information Act requests take a long time to produce results. No one who might have information is authorized to answer questions without White House clearance. So reporters get frustrated and discouraged. I understand. I've been trying to sift fact from conspiracy on the Bush Guard story for a decade, first as a Texas television reporter and then as the author of two books on Bush's political ascension.

The initial challenge is to learn who keeps what records and the various processes of retention. Then you have to figure out the perfect phrasing of questions and FOIA requests, or your requests will be dismissed over a technicality. Finally, you have to wait. And wait. Until a journalist discovers a critical missing document that answers the remaining questions about Bush's service, learning the truth will be a game of sleuthing, trying to figure out which papers, if any, are missing and what they might mean.

Although searching for missing Bush records is an arcane exercise, it has great value, as was demonstrated last week when reporters finally got a response from the Defense Finance and Accounting Services in Denver. DFAS, the federal agency responsible for maintaining the records of those compensated for military service, paid Lt. Bush during his time in the Texas Guard. The existence of a master check register or pay stubs at DFAS could have solved many of the mysteries attached to the president's military service. Simple math taking into account his rate of pay, the amount of compensation for specific periods, and his total earnings would confirm whether Bush did the minimal duty necessary under his six-year obligation to the Guard.

Unfortunately, key payroll records once held by DFAS are no longer available, and curiously, they happen to be from Bush's period in Alabama. Journalists' FOIA requests for the records held by DFAS are relatively recent. Perhaps they didn't bother previously because they thought they knew what the results would be -- that is, further stonewalling. (I was previously unaware that DFAS was the repository of payroll records; I had originally been informed that they were kept in state Guard offices and that the Texas Guard no longer had Bush's on file.) When DFAS responded, reporters for major newspapers received CD-ROMs and a letter from a Pentagon information officer detailing some missing information: Data for three months, July to September 1972, was not on the discs.

Although that was not a big surprise to those of us who have followed the issue for years, it is significant that the missing data covers the 90-day period when Bush was in Alabama reporting, according to White House spokesman Dan Bartlett, "many times" for Guard duty while also working on a U.S. Senate campaign. The White House has never been able to produce either a document or a credible witness that 1st Lt. Bush reported for duty in Alabama, and the DFAS pay records would have confirmed its assertions that Bush was not AWOL at the time.

When the New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press opened their mail from the Pentagon, they learned that the microfilmed records had been destroyed during an attempt to restore the spools of film. The latter two publications either did not know what they were being told or simply thought the matter was not significant enough to warrant a story. When Ralph Blumenthal of the Times called me to ask about the relevance of the missing records, I told him I never expected definitive information to turn up in an official record. But I continue to be amazed at this "coincidence" that effectively hides the truth about Bush's military service.

Blumenthal wrote that DFAS said Bush's microfilmed payroll records were lost as the agency was beginning a project to restore old files. But reporters so far have not received answers on what precipitated the restoration efforts. DFAS is a minor government agency, and it is unlikely someone working there woke up one day and proposed that the aging film be unrolled and examined for salvaging. The logical conclusion is that the decision was prompted by an external consideration. It is not totally out of the question that an energetic government employee decided to show some initiative, but if so, that worker needs to be asked why the particular years 1969 through 1972 were included in the project. Moreover, did the same three months in 1972 disappear for all of the service members whose records were on film? Or just for Lt. Bush? According to the letter accompanying the CD-ROMs, the first three months from 1969 were also lost. Bush was in flight training at that time and there is no doubt about his fulfillment of that responsibility, but an explanation would be helpful in clarifying how the records were destroyed for the first quarter of 1969 and the third quarter of 1972.

Other information provided to reporters by DFAS also leads to skepticism about the "accidental" nature of the loss of deteriorating microfilm. DFAS said that after the salvage project failed, it made an attempt to find the hard-copy records of the president's payroll history. According to the Pentagon's chief public information officer, C.Y. Talbott, "searches for backup paper copies of the missing records were unsuccessful." But why anyone bothered to look for those paper files is baffling because DFAS has a stated policy of destroying all hard-copy pay records after 30 months.

The missing month of July is important because that is when Bush skipped his flight physical and lost his clearance to fly fighter jets. He was scheduled to show up in Texas for a checkup no later than his birthday, July 6. Spokesman Bartlett has said that Bush did not report for his physical because he had made a decision he was "no longer flying" and because he was doing his duty in Alabama in a "non-flying capacity." Even a cursory examination of pay records for July 1972 would show whether that is true.

Bush's commanders at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston had not heard from him since May 24, 1972, when he asked to be transferred to a non-flying postal unit. After that request was turned down by the Air Reserve Center in Denver, Bush effectively went off the grid until Sept. 5, 1972, when he wrote to Houston and requested to be transferred to the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group. Available Guard records show that his wish was granted on Sept. 19, 1972, the same day Maj. Gen. Francis Greenlief issued an order that permanently grounded the young pilot for failing to show up for his physical. It would be nice to know if Bush picked up a check during any of this time when he was missing his physical, getting grounded, and asking to train in Alabama. He says he did. His staff says he did. But the incomplete records released by the White House in February 2004 don't prove a thing. They only report service points earned and the dates they were awarded. They give no indication of remuneration, information essential to learning how many days Bush actually served.

DFAS said its microfilm salvage project went bad in 1996 and 1997. This, too, suggests certain possibilities as to what prompted the examination of the records from that specific time. The year 1997 was when Texas National Guard state plans officer Bill Burkett said he heard a speakerphone conversation between Gov. Bush's chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, and Gen. Danny James, commander of the Texas Guard, telling James to "clean up Bush's file and make sure there's nothing embarrassing in there." Burkett said that about 10 days later he witnessed Gen. John Scribner purging the Bush "military personnel records jacket" in the museum at Camp Mabry, the Austin base that serves as the Guard's state headquarters.

Scribner and James have denied Burkett's claims, and George Conn, who Burkett said was present at the time of the purge, no longer supports Burkett's version of events. But Burkett remains unwavering, convinced there was a covert effort to leave enough of a trail to show Bush served during the months in question but not enough evidence to answer questions about fulfilled obligations. If he is correct, it is possible that the 1997 purge of hard-copy records in Austin was part of a plan that included making inquiries to DFAS in Denver to see what was in its files. Is it possible that a call from the office of the governor of Texas caused DFAS to examine Bush's payroll records and "accidentally" destroy them? Isn't it just too convenient that the three mysterious Alabama months are the ones ruined?

In 2000, Bartlett, who was then a spokesman for the Bush campaign, told the Associated Press that he had been to Denver to look at Bush's Guard records and that "there was nothing in there." Bartlett did not say when he went to Colorado, but it seems entirely possible that his trip was part of the planning for Gov. Bush's reelection efforts in 1998 and his possible run for the presidency. That would put Bartlett's trip to Denver in the 1996-97 period when DFAS began its salvage project for the microfilmed payroll records. The issue of Bush's Guard service had been raised by my question to Bush during a televised debate in his run against Gov. Ann Richards in 1994. There was thus ample time for his advisors to make sure the records were sufficiently vague, if they had access and a willingness to tamper. Even though DFAS has said the records of "numerous" other service members were also lost, it strains credibility that a critical part of Bush's record was destroyed.

Nevertheless, the payroll documents would not answer a number of other lingering questions about Bush and the Guard. Was there something more to his grounding than failing to show up for a physical? Were Bush and his drinking buddy, James Bath, involved in any kind of incident involving alcohol or drugs? They were both suspended from flight duties in the same set of orders. That might explain how the hard-partying Bush suddenly ended up working with disadvantaged children in Houston's inner city through Project PULL -- a swift, radical change from his jet pilot persona. Was Project PULL part of a deal to keep any illegal behavior off his record and get Bush on the right track?

The White House has said that it is withholding all of Bush's medical records from reporters because they are personal. A drug or alcohol problem can be considered "medical," which might explain why no one has ever seen a report on Bush's grounding. In spite of White House protestations that journalists are making too much of his loss of flight status, it is not a minor matter in the military when a pilot, whose training costs taxpayers close to a million dollars, has to be yanked from the cockpit.

All the questions can still be answered. President Bush could have his staff ask the IRS for his tax and earnings statements from 1972 and 1973. Given his last name, chances are good the files are extant. His W-2 statement and rate of pay would resolve whether he fulfilled his duty. In addition, on a master microfiche at the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, there is a master points document. This would show if Bush earned the minimum number of active-duty points for days served. If he did, the White House could long ago have printed this document from the microfiche and brandished it in front of reporters to make this matter disappear. But it hasn't.

The master microfiche was shipped to Gen. Danny James in Arlington, Va., who now commands the Air National Guard Bureau, and certain portions were printed and released to White House reporters -- but not all of it. That microfiche should also include a board of inquiry report on Bush's grounding, explaining what happened and why such action was taken. That report has never been released to the public. What's more, the president has said he returned to Houston and served at Ellington through the first half of 1973. That, too, could be proved with the microfiche, which ought to contain an Officer Effectiveness Rating Report for those months. No one has ever produced that document, either. It would be particularly compelling because Bush's commanders wrote Denver's Air Reserve Personnel Center in May 1973 that the young pilot had "not been observed" at his assigned base and had been transferred to Alabama a year earlier. The glaring contradiction between Bush's proclamations and the official record has never been clarified; nor has any witness ever stepped forward to say they saw Bush at the Houston base in the first half of 1973.

With the exception of IRS records, all of the information needed to determine the truth about the National Guard duty of 1st Lt. Bush is contained on the microfiche in St. Louis and at the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver. If the president simply authorized its release to reporters with his signature, as John McCain did with his records in 2000, we could all stop arguing about what's missing and what it all means. But Bush had better hurry with his authorization. There's no telling when someone might begin a project to "salvage" the only remaining microfiche.

By James C. Moore

MORE FROM James C. Moore

Related Topics ------------------------------------------