As a fighter pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, then-Lt. George W. Bush was assigned to fly F-102's out of Houston's Ellington Air Force Base. Early on, he received excellent evaluations, say reports released years ago by the White House.
What has never surfaced before, reports CBS News Anchor Dan Rather, are four documents from the personal files of Col. Jerry Killian, Mr. Bush's squadron commander. They could help answer lingering questions on whether Lt. Bush received special consideration during his military service.
The first memo is a direct order to take "an annual physical examination" – a requirement for all pilots.
Another memo refers to a phone call from the lieutenant in which he and his commander "discussed options of how Bush can get out of coming to drill from now through November." And that due to other commitments "he may not have time."
On August 1, 1972, Col. Killian grounded Lt. Bush for failure to perform to U.S. Air Force/Texas Air National Guard standards and for failure to take his annual physical as ordered.
A year after Lt. Bush's suspension from flying, Killian was asked to write another assessment.
Killian's memo, titled 'CYA' reads he is being pressured by higher-ups to give the young pilot a favorable yearly evaluation; to, in effect, sugarcoat his review. He refuses, saying, "I'm having trouble running interference and doing my job."
Thirty-one years later, supporters of now-President Bush have been critical of opponent John Kerry's Vietnam record. Now it's the president's turn to answer tough questions about his own service.
It was just what the White House had hoped to avoid – a new examination of the president's military record just as he seeks to reinforce his credentials as a wartime leader. And Republican officials wasted no time taking dead aim at Ben Barnes' claim that he pulled strings to get George W. Bush into the National Guard, reports CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts.
"I chalk it up to politics," said White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett. "They play dirty down in Texas. I've been there. I see how it works. But the bottom line is that there is no truth to this."
Asked if this is dirty politics, Bartlett replied, "Oh, I think it is."
In an exclusive 60 Minutes interview with Dan Rather, Barnes said his claim is not an attempt to injure the president's campaign.
"I'm not here to bring any harm to George Bush's reputation or his career," he said. "I've had hundreds of phone calls from people wanting to know the story. And I've been quoted and misquoted. And the reason I am here today … is that I really want to tell the story. And I want to tell it one time. And get it behind us. And again, it is not about George Bush's political career. This is about what the truth is."
Barnes described himself to Rather as an ambitious, young politician trying to make friends at the time he recommended Mr. Bush for the National Guard.
"I would describe it as preferential treatment. There were hundreds of names on the list of people wanting to get into the Air National Guard or the Army National Guard," he said. "I think that would have been a preference to anybody that didn't want to go to Vietnam or didn't want to leave. We had a lot of young men that left and went to Canada in the '60s and fled this country. But those that could get in the Reserves, or those that could get in the National Guard - chances are they would not have to go to Vietnam."
White House officials also undercut the personal notes Mr. Bush's former commander, Col. Jerry Killian, wrote for his own files, saying "it's impossible to read the mind of a dead man."
More difficult to brush off are two official memos that seem to contradict previous White House statements.
One "orders" the president to report for a physical. The White House has said the physical was "not necessary" because the president stopped flying.
And where the White House says the president's flying status was revoked simply for missing that physical, the memo points to both the missed physical and "failure to perform to (USAF/TexANG) standards."
"The official files tell the facts," says Bartlett. "And the facts are President Bush served. He served honorably. And that's why he was honorably discharged."
It's not just the newly discovered memos causing trouble. There are new questions as to why, when he moved to Massachusetts to attend Harvard Business School, Mr. Bush did not sign up with a reserve unit there, as he promised in a letter when he left the Texas National Guard
And why, with his erratic attendance record, he was subject to neither discipline nor active duty call-up as provided for in his contract with the Guard.
Larry Korb, an assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan has reviewed the Mr. Bush's record and believes he did not fulfill his contract.
"Essentially, Bush gamed the system to avoid serving his country the way that most of his contemporaries had to," Korb said.
And on top of all this, the Democrats' answer to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unleashed an ad Wednesday charging President Bush was AWOL from the Alabama National Guard in the summer of 1972.
But like their Republican counterparts, Texans for Truth has a credibility problem. While the chief accuser, former Alabama Guard pilot Bob Mintz, says in the ad it would have been impossible for Mr. Bush to have gone unnoticed, in an interview earlier this year with CBS News, Mintz admitted he's not a smoking gun.
"I cannot say he was not there," Mintz said. "Absolutely positively was not there. I cannot say that. I cannot say he didn't do his duty."