Shirking Duty in a Time of War: Documents Reveal Bush Received Special Treatment in National Guard

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New information about President Bush’s military record reveal he fell short of his military obligations and received favorable treatment at the National Guard. We speak with journalist Ian Williams of The Nation and author of Deserter: George Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans, and His Past. [includes rush transcript]

The United States reached the grim milestone this week of 1,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. While Iraq remains a central issue in the race for the White House, another war has become a major focus of the media and presidential campaigns–Vietnam.

Republicans launched a relentless campaign against Kerry, accusing the decorated Vietnam combat veteran of fabricating the events which led to his five medals. Meanwhile, Democrats are pointing the to gaps in Bush’s stateside Air National Guard service in 1972 and 1973 to say Bush shirked his duty.

In the latest news, new documents from Bush’s squadron commander say Bush discussed with him how to avoid drills during 1972. The report on “60 Minutes” said the files were from the personal records of Col. Jerry Killian, who died in 1984. The files show that Killian grounded Bush from flying when he missed a medical examination and failed to meet performance standards. In one memo, dated Aug. 18, 1972, Killian wrote that he was being pressured from higher-ups in the Guard to gloss over Bush’s poor performance and to “sugarcoat” his evaluation.

At the same time, a former Texas Speaker of the House Ben Barnes has come forward to say that he abused his position power by helping Bush and others get a coveted slot in the National Guard in 1968.

  • Ben Barnes, former Texas Speaker of the House on 60 Minutes II with Dan Rather.

Yesterday, the Boston Globe reported that a reexamination of President Bush’s military records show the president fell well short of meeting his military obligations in the National Guard. According to the Globe, twice during his Guard service, Bush signed documents pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty. But records show he didn’t meet the commitments, or face the punishment.

And a group called Texans for Truth recently announced an advertising campaign questioning whether Bush ever trained with the Alabama Air National Guard. The ad quotes a retired lieutenant colonel in the Alabama unit who says he searched for Bush but never met him in 1972 or 1973.

  • Ian Williams, UN correspondent for The Nation and author of Deserter: George Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans, and His Past.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, Ben Barnes was featured on “60 Minutes,” while a number of CBS affiliates around the country did not play the piece. This is an excerpt. Dan Rather, interviewing Ben Barnes on “60 Minutes.”

DAN RATHER: A few months before George W. Bush would be eligible for the draft, Barnes says he had a meeting with the late oil man, Sid Ager, a friend to both Barnes and then congressman, George Bush, father of George W. Do you remember what he said?

BEN BARNES: It’s been a long time ago, but he said basically, would I help young George Bush get into the Air National Guard.

DAN RATHER: Barnes says he contacted his long-time friend, General James Rose, the head of Texas Air National Guard.

BEN BARNES: I was a young ambitious politician, doing what I thought was acceptable, that was important to make friends, and I recommended a lot of people for the National Guard during the Vietnam era, as Speaker of the House and as Lieutenant Governor.

DAN RATHER: You recommended George W. Bush?

BEN BARNES: Yes, I did.

DAN RATHER: You said you did this for others, what can only be called preferential treatment for President Bush. Would you describe it as that?

BEN BARNES: 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. I think that would have been a preference to anybody that didn’t want to go to Vietnam, that didn’t want to leave. We had a lot of young men that left and went to Canada in the 1960’s and fled this country. Those that could get in the reserves or the National Guard, chances are, they would not have to go to Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Texas Speaker of the House, Ben Barnes, also former Lieutenant Governor, speaking with Dan Rather on “60 Minutes II” last night. Barnes also said, quote, “I don’t think I had any right to have the power I had to choose who was going to Vietnam and who was not going to Vietnam. I was maybe determining life or death.” Yesterday, The Boston Globe reported a re-examination of President Bush’s military record show that the president fell well short of meeting his military obligations in the National Guard. According to the globe, twice during his guard service, Bush signed documents pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty, but records show he didn’t meet the commitment or face the punishment. And a group called Texans for truth recently announced an advertising campaign questioning whether George Bush ever trained with the Alabama Air National Guard. The ad quotes a retired lieutenant colonel in the Alabama unit who says he searched for Bush but never met him in 1972 or 1973.

RETIRED LIEUTENNANT COLONEL: I heard George Bush get up and say I served in the 187th Air National Guard in Montgomery, Alabama. Really? You know, that was my unit. I don’t remember seeing you there. So, I called friends. You know, did you know that George Bush served in our unit? No, I never saw him there. It would be impossible to be unseen in a unit of that size.

NARRATOR: Texans for Truth is responsible for the content of this advertisement.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was the ad from a group called Texans for Truth. That ad was released this week. We’re joined in the studio by Ian Williams. He’s the UN Correspondent for The Nation, magazine and he has just published a new book, called Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past. Welcome to Democracy Now!

IAN WILLIAMS: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Great to have you with us. Could you talk about the latest news, from what The Boston Globe revealed to what Ben Barnes, the former Texas Lieutenant Governor and House Speaker had to say.

IAN WILLIAMS: What he has said, we have known this for some time. He had to depose in a lawsuit a few years ago, and he said basically the same thing. He is being very careful this time, because Karl Rove is not merciful, and he will be done for perjury if he deviates from what he said in the lawsuit. He is still not saying there was a direct connection, but it is quite clear, the Bush family used their influence consistently throughout this period. The documents don’t really add that much new. In some sense they fill in the existing picture that George Bush got in offer preferential treatment, and he got away with a lot while he was in the National Guard, because somebody up there was looking after him. It’s indisputable, as the Texans for Truth ad shows, nobody saw him in Alabama. There were pilots waiting to see him. They wanted to get political connections and they were eager to network with this guy. He never turned up. His own memories of this period are always hazy. He develops convenient amnesia, when you ask him, 'You must remember, what did you see?' But all of this is coming — I think it’s interesting that it is coming now, because a lot of this material has been around for a long time. It was around when I did the book. But this is blow-back. This is because of the Swiftboat ads, I think the fact that Kerry has made this an issue and it emboldened the mainstream media to come out and deal with this stuff, which before they were regarding as smear and slime tactics. A lot of this has been out there in the local press down South for a long time. I think the best interview was the one, I think it was The Houston Chronicle in 1994 where a more candid Bush said, “I had a choice between going to Canada or letting off a shotgun next to my ear, and I wanted to learn to fly, so I joined the Texas Air National Guard.” That’s instead of going to Vietnam. The ironic thing is that this unit was known locally as Air Canada, because it got you all of the benefits of the flight to Canada, but none of the political disadvantages. His failure to turn up for the medical, that was the same as letting off a shotgun next to his ear. The documents from CBS last night, from Killian were good new stuff , because they testify that he was directly told to turn up for the flight medical. He grounded himself. He wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer training money by refusing to turn up for his medical. It would be interesting to find out just who was pulling the interference to cover for him while he was in Alabama doing it, and why he didn’t want to turn up for his medical.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

IAN WILLIAMS: The year before, in 1971, the Pentagon had introduced mandatory drug testing, for example, and we can only speculate, but that could be one reason why you wouldn’t want to turn up for a flight medical, if it revealed that you were using drugs or abusing alcohol. It would then be put on your record why it was that you were regarded as unfit for flying. That’s why a lot of people want to see his disciplinary records and medical records made public. But as the White House keeps saying, they’ve released all documents, and then more documents keep turning up when people dig deeper. It’s a continuous process of disclosure. Just how much will be disclosed between now and November the 2nd is going to be interesting. We can see that a lot of people in the media, all those CBS affiliates who don’t want this stuff exposed.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, The New York Times reporting that the White House recently called the president of NBC News to discourage the network from broadcasting interviews with the best selling biographer, Kitty Kelly. She has authored a new book on the Bush family, and charged that President Bush was a cocaine user, and once used cocaine at Camp David while his father was president

IAN WILLIAMS: His campaign said some time ago that he had not used drugs since 1974. They didn’t say what he had done before then, but they said — they said categorically not since 1974. His father was in Camp David well after 1974, so if he was using them then… The issue is not what a young and brash kid did, but fact this has been persistent about Bush’s career from the beginning. He’s been spoiled. He has broken the rules. He has been covered for it. Now he’s president, he’s spoiled and he breaks the rules and people are still trying to cover for him like at NBC.

AMY GOODMAN: What about going to Harvard Business School. What had do be done since he was in the National Guard?

IAN WILLIAMS: Well, to the credit of Texas, the University of Texas had turned him down for law school because his qualifications weren’t there. It took a Harvard affirmative action program for rich WASP kids to get him there. Well done, University of Texas. But for Harvard, he had to get his documents signed saying that he had fulfilled his full National Guard duty. If you look at the pay records, what happened on his return from Alabama at the beginning of May, his commanding officer said 'We are not able to assess this officer's performance because he hasn’t been seen for 12 months.’ Then you see a huge sort of concentration of duties marked up for whether he turned up for them in Texas in the first 30 or 40 days of May, June, and July. That cleared him to go to Harvard then. They gave him the transfer to go to the Massachusetts unit, but he never turned up for it. Basically, he disappeared off the records.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about Ian Williams. His book is called Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past. You have talked about how Kerry made this an issue. But it seems it was clearly George Bush and Karl Rove who started making this an issue, following on the Karl Rove path: attack from your weakness to the other guy’s strength. Here you have Kerry, the decorated Vietnam veteran, and they are immediately attacking him from Bush’s weakness, which is his whole record. But they started it with their own ads.

IAN WILLIAMS: This is blowback. They haven’t been good at blowback. They bankrolled a bunch of Islamic Jihadists in Afghanistan in the times past, and wondered why it all happened to them. They started the Swiftboats this time and they’re suddenly surprised that the Democrats finally are coming back playing dirty.

AMY GOODMAN: We can go way back to the campaign when Michael Moore talked about President AWOL, talked about Bush and the fierce attacks from the White House, how dare you say AWOL? Can you talk now about the records and whether they indicate AWOL?

IAN WILLIAMS: Well, it was reinforced yesterday. His commander, Jerry Killian, ordered him to turn up for his flight medical. He refused to turn up. This is the same as a man refusing to go to Iraq. He refused a direct order. No one has explained, and there’s no documentation to say what happened. Was there a disciplinary inquiry? There should have been. He was grounded. There was no inquiry board. There are documents there. Or there has been a really good cover up, that people are not confessing up to for obvious reasons. During wartime, he did not turn up for his duty. How else are you going to define it. Minimum AWOL, which I think is 30 days, but this is more than 30 days, he gets into desertion in wartime.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you respond to those who are saying, 'Here is Kerry trying to fight a war again 35 years ago, while here is Bush looking at the war today in Iraq and looking a ahead?'

IAN WILLIAMS: Well, as I said, there’s a direct line here. Bush has continually evaded the truth. He has lied, dissimulated, and he is still lying and dissimulating about this period. The real issue about Vietnam is we don’t seem to have learned any lessons. We are having an action replay of Vietnam in Iraq now. There are young people, economic conscripts being sent off to die in a war that was lied about. The Vietnam War was in effect started by a lie about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a faked Vietnamese attack. This war was started by lies about fake — about weapons and the United Nations that George W. Bush was repeating at the RNC last week. So, this is all on a direct line. It really speaks to the issue that currently half of the garrison, the American garrison in Iraq are National Guardsmen who didn’t get the option to tick off a box and say no to overseas service like George W. Bush. You find that he and McCain, even, tried to conflate this and say to attack my service in the National Guard is to attack the national guardsmen now, this is completely different. The National Guard in the Bush era was there to avoid going into war. The National Guard now are being sent to war. They’re being kept in the war when their time and service is finished with stop loss orders. This is not dwelling in the past. This is bringing the issue to the present for Bush’s present behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this documentation, and I mean now, the Bush White House attacking the Pentagon saying they didn’t release the documents, all of the documents. What does that mean? What documents are there? Where do you look?

IAN WILLIAMS: The AP is now suing under the Freedom of Information for very specific documents. The key ones, I think, have to do with the medical examinations that he should have had in July, July-August of 1972 in Alabama that he didn’t turn up for. He was grounded. This is very important for a pilot. If you cannot fly, this is exactly the equivalent of letting off a shotgun next to your ear. You are making yourself unfit for duty. He has never explained why. Well, he has tried to explain. He said his plane was going to be phased out, so he didn’t think it was worthwhile turning up. Can you imagine a junior lieutenant in Iraq, saying 'Well, I think the war is almost over. I needn't turn up this time.’ I don’t think that the Pentagon would look kindly on this. In fact, the plane was in service for two years after he left Texas. It was still flying. He should have been flying it. They got alerted for a air defense operation while he was still in Alabama. The guy was shirking. He was away. He’s still not explained it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ian Williams, you’re a correspondent for The Nation magazine at the UN, how is this playing internationally?

IAN WILLIAMS: People internationally are always bemused with the American obsession with Vietnam. A lot of people are looking at John Kerry, saying 'Excuse me, was he for or against the war in Vietnam, and is he for or against the war in Iraq?' I think we’re wondering why it is that the war is still an issue, and 58,000 Americans died 3 million Vietnamese died, a million-and-a-half Cambodians died and everybody is making an issue about whether john Kerry got medals or not. Somebody somewhere should get up and say, sorry to all of the dead people. It should be the people who supported that war, not the ones who opposed it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ian, finally, in the research for your book, Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and his Past, what you were most surprised by finding?

IAN WILLIAMS: I think my biggest surprise was to discover the way that George W. Bush is still wrapping himself in the flag and the uniform. At the time when I wrote that, one-third of his major policy statements had been on military bases. He loves wearing uniforms. You have seen the famous picture of him with his swelling cod piece on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the flight suit. He looks like a young kid with his first cowboy suit when he’s in uniform. He loves it. It’s obviously something deeply psychological. It’s making up for the fact that he didn’t do military service. He’s wrapped himself in the glory of a veteran and military. He is possibly the least qualified person, apart from Dick Cheney who didn’t turn up at all, to do this. But it’s very dangerous because he’s playing to a streak in American life of not so much the military, but the people who see the military as a repository of republican values, of the one incorruptible part of American society. These people have very low regard for politicians, journalists, lawyers, but the military, they’re the people who make sacrifices. He has wrapped himself in that. What he’s saying now is 'You cannot criticize my war in Iraq, because you're criticizing our military serving abroad, and I represent our military.’ I’m surprised by the number of times that he has called himself the commander-in-chief. He’s always calling himself the commander-in-chief. A commander-in-chief that ignores the advice of his own military, leads us into a war that he declared was over 15 months ago when he landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln. It was to announce it was an end to significant hostilities, it was mission accomplished. A lousy commander-in-chief on his current record, and he has no rights for the pretensions for the military on his past record.

AMY GOODMAN: Ian Williams, I want to thank you for being with us, Ian Williams. The author of the book, Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and his Past. This is Democracy Now!.

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