CBS News Political Unit
As the back and forth over military service continues, the Bush and Kerry campaigns are engaged in an increasingly personal battle over who served and how. The continuing questions have prompted a new CBS News investigation into the first military records shakedown of this presidential campaign: the drawn-out battle for the records of President George W. Bush.
The missing military records include a bevy of forms, logs, pay stubs and evaluations from Mr. Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard. CBS News' evaluation of all the documents released by the White House confirms that the records have several holes.
One important question concerns a required physical that President Bush missed in 1972. Because of his absence, Mr. Bush lost his flying wings. Air National Guard regulations require that "the local commander who has authority to convene a Flying Evaluation Board will direct an investigation as to why the individual failed to accomplish the medical examination." But there are no records of an investigation or of any requests to complete one.
There are various possible explanations. Perhaps the investigation was never concluded or never forwarded up the chain of command. The regulation says the commander "will" direct an investigation but it does not require the completed report to be forwarded up the chain of command. The commander "may" do so, but it is not required. The report could have been lost at lower levels.
Or perhaps, as journalist James C. Moore suggests in the liberal online magazine Salon, Mr. Bush thought the grounding would end his obligation to the Guard and was happy to let the matter drop. Or maybe, also a Moore speculation, there was a drug or alcohol induced reason for Mr. Bush's absence that he and his superiors wanted to avoid publicizing.
In 2000, Mr. Bush said he missed the physical because his family doctor was in Texas. But, as Time magazine reports, Air Force surgeons must perform the physicals and there was no surgeon shortage in Alabama. In March 2004, the White House said Mr. Bush did not need the physical because he was not flying. Regardless of these speculations, there is no record of any investigation in Mr. Bush's file. As Moore concludes, "A pilot simply did not walk away from all of that training with two years remaining on his tour of duty without a formal explanation as to what happened and why."
As for the highest profile issue, the available files do not clear up the "missing" section of the president's National Guard service. From May 1972 through May 1973 there are highly irregular records for his attendance at required drills, reports Walter Robinson in the Boston Globe. During that time, Mr. Bush had been given permission to move from his home base in Houston to Montgomery, Ala., to work on a Congressional campaign.
Until February of this year, no documents existed to suggest that Mr. Bush performed any duty in either Texas or Alabama during those months. Pay stubs released in February show that he was paid for enough days in Alabama to be judged "satisfactory," but that he did not do any duty between April 16 and October 28, 1972, and that he failed to show up for training in December 1972, February 1973 and March 1973.
There is nothing in the records from that key period beyond those pay stubs – no evaluations from either Mr. Bush's Alabama supervisors or his Texas ones. In fact, Mr. Bush's Texas evaluators wrote on May 2, 1973 that, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of report. A civilian occupation made it necessary for him to move to Montgomery, Alabama. He cleared this base on 15 May 1972 and has been performing equivalent training in a non-flying status with the 187th Tac Recon Gp, Dannelly ANG Base, Alabama." But no Alabama records exist. And Mr. Bush's official discharge papers include no evidence of any duty between May 1972 and October 1973, when he left the Guard.
Beyond those two issues, there are several others unaddressed by Mr. Bush's files. At the same time, the president is not alone in having some holes in his military records. A CBS News investigation shows evaluations are missing for the periods of 11 March 1967 to 21 March 1967 and 15 April 1967 to 7 June 1967. The first gap is probably explained by traveling time as Kerry switched bases, but the second is unaccounted for at this point. The Kerry campaign said repeatedly that it has made public all of its records.
CBS News military analyst Mitch Mitchell says there is no way to know what is missing or if there is anything missing in the first place. According to Mitchell, there is no uniform or standard filing form and most observers agree that National Guard records from that period are a mess. The only expectation, says Mitchell, is that evaluations should be continuous and have no breaks.
The Kerry campaign thinks it has a winner with this issue. Kerry himself broke his silence last week and said, "I think a lot of veterans are going to be very angry at a president who can't account for his own service in the National Guard." And the Kerry camp sent out a press release entitled "KEY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: Bush's Record In The National Guard." As spokesman Chad Clanton said, "Voters are going to have to decide: someone who volunteered to service their country when their country needed them or someone else who, you know, it speaks for itself. It is a contrast, it is a difference. … There is no better test than whether someone is committed to defending their country than whether they've put their life on the line on the battlefield."
For its part, the Bush-Cheney campaign is unmoved, directing reporters to a statement made last Tuesday by communications director Nicolle Devenish that said, in part, "Instead of explaining his record, John Kerry has turned to political attacks on the President. John Kerry is doing exactly what he said he would never do, 'divide America over who served and how.'" Devenish is referring to a statement made by Kerry in 1992 when Bill Clinton was a candidate for the presidency.
One way to resolve all of these questions is for both candidates to sign a "release authorization form," which would allow the National Personnel Records in St. Louis to provide any interested party with their complete documents. Mr. Bush has not signed one so far and the White House says he has no plans to do so. Sen. Kerry has not signed the form either, although no one contacted for this article suggested that documents are missing from Kerry's record. The Kerry campaign would not say whether the senator had any plans to sign a release authorization in the future.
It seems unlikely that either campaign will end the military records debate anytime soon. Both campaigns see national security credentials as important in this election year and letting the other off the hook would be a monumental concession. Stay tuned for more controversy instead.
By Beth Lester