September 20, 2004
James C. Moore, Co-Author of "Bush's Brain" and an Expert on Karl Rove and Bush's National Guard Lies, Speculates on the CBS Memos. Are They True Fabrications?
A BuzzFlash Exclusive
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Liars are not supposed to last. Eventually, their fabrications can be expected to collapse and all of the sickness they have spread is cured by truth and righteousness. Most of the time that’s what happens. But there is a new perception in the American political process and it is a threat to candidates and our democracy. Lying has become an acceptable tactic. And the immorality of lying is no longer a reason to dismiss it as an effective tool. When voters are not paying attention, lying works. But it still creates casualties and they are beginning to accumulate in the controversy surrounding CBS and the George W. Bush National Guard memos.
In the cascade of events that has led CBS News into trouble, the first lie actually belongs to the President of the United States. No one any longer has doubt that there are records missing from the president’s Military Personnel Records Jacket. Huge gaps of service time are simply unaccounted for. Also, there is no commander’s report or counseling statement, which is required by guard regulations, to explain the grounding of Lt. Bush. Oddly, not one journalist has ever asked the president why he did not show up for his flight physical. His spokesman, Dan Bartlett, has been able to explain away the controversy by saying the physical was "a formality because he was no longer flying." That’s not true, of course, because pilots are not allowed to decide on their own they no longer want to fly. Instead of addressing that matter, though, the White House consistently claims, "The president got an honorable discharge and is proud of his service in the National Guard."
The available evidence is still pointing in the direction of deceit and the smoke machine fueled by the CBS memos cannot hide that fact. The president continues to refuse to allow uncontrolled access to his microfilmed documents at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis or the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver and the hard copy file is incomplete. People who know the truth about the president’s time in the Texas Air National Guard are angry that the cover up of his failings has been so effective. And now there are suspicions that the individuals who have long sought after the truth may have succumbed to the power of fighting a well-told lie with another; not so well-told. If this has happened, much more than just CBS’ future is at risk.
Reports that one of the controversial documents was faxed from a Kinko’s in Abilene are interpreted as evidence of the involvement of Lt. Col. (Ret.) Bill Burkett. Burkett, who has never concealed his anger at Mr. Bush, lives less than a half hour from the Kinko’s location. After appearing with me for an interview on Real Time with Bill Maher, Burkett, his wife, and a colleague of mine discussed politics over dinner. I had been talking to Burkett for over a year, gathering information and trying to corroborate a story he had told me and one other reporter about a purging of George W. Bush’s hard copy file at the Texas National Guard headquarters on Camp Mabry in Austin. Neither then, nor now, did Burkett attempt to hide his disdain for President Bush.
"I don’t know how he’s doing this," Burkett said. "He says whatever he wants. It has nothing to do with the truth. And people are letting him get away with it. He’s just lying. Over and over again. About his past. About Iraq. You name it."
I had included Burkett’s story in my new book, which was just being released at the time of our interview with Maher. What he had detailed, with unfailing repetition, was consistent with what I knew to be the facts based upon the released Bush file and dozens of other interviews I had conducted over the years. Burkett’s reputation was also considered impeccable by a number of people I had interviewed both on and off the record. Even the Chief Warrant Officer, George Conn, who later discounted Burkett’s version of events, described him as an honorable man who never opened his mouth without speaking the truth. Besides, Burkett was in the midst of a retirement on the edge of the Chihuahua Desert, enjoying time with his wife and their grandchildren. But his health was failing. He suffered neural and muscular problems as a result of a virus he said he had contracted on a military mission in Panama. Bill Burkett did not seem a likely candidate to make up stories and take on the White House.
Burkett told me that he had witnessed hard copy documents being dumped out of Bush’s file and into a wastebasket. According to his memory, there were "retirement points" and pay sheets in the trash and he had a moment to "lightly rummage" through them as two other officers stepped away to talk. The officer Burkett claimed was doing the cleansing of the Bush file, Gen. John Scribner, has denied the story as has Conn, who had asked Burkett to go for a walk that evening and took him on a circuitous route to the building where Scribner was allegedly going through the file. In 1997, when this was supposed to have occurred, Bush was preparing to run for re-election as governor and was prepping a presidential campaign. Cleaning up a hard copy file and then controlling access to the microfilmed record was a simple method for hiding the facts. Bill Burkett either had a fanciful imagination or his unfettered access to senior officers in the Texas Guard had serendipitously put him a few right places at all the wrong times.
Burkett, who is subject to seizures as a result of his virus and has begun to need a cane to walk, is not the only officer within the Texas Guard who is angered at President Bush. At least a dozen commanders, some of them still within the guard, are mad over the lack of adequate funding and essential training. They blame former Texas Governor Bush and his successor, Rick Perry. Burkett had been hired to fix those failings. But he never got the chance. He was brought into the Texas Guard by recommendations from former Republican Governor Bill Clements and Jim Francis, one of the president’s closest friends and most prolific fund-raisers. Burkett’s job was to develop a plan to make the guard’s training and equipment more relevant to modern missions against enemies like terrorists. His years of work and recommendations, however, were never implemented and the governor is said to have turned down millions of dollars in federal money to pay for improvements when it was offered by the Clinton administration.
No one understood the decision to not upgrade the guard until Bush ran for president. In his first policy speech, given at the Citadel, candidate Bush told the assembled cadets, "If the commander-in-chief were today call upon all of our armed forces to defend America, at least one full division would be unable to answer that call." The only "full division" that was incapacitated at the time of that speech was the Texas National Guard. The governor of Texas is the only governor in the country who has command of a full division. It struck Texas Guard commanders then, even some who supported Bush, that they had been used as a political ploy and their lousy training and equipment was part of a plan. Burkett’s complaints, and those of others, had already resulted in a Texas legislative investigation. Nothing changed, though, and a few years later stories of "ghost soldiers," men kept on rosters after they had quit in order maintain federal funding, began to leak into the media. Burkett also related the purging incident to USA Today but the paper’s editors failed to publish it until my book was released in early 2004.
The disgust over all of this may have reached its flashpoint this summer when the Texas 56th Brigade Combat Team was called to active duty and sent to Iraq. The grumblings were the same. Not enough armored equipment. Outdated weaponry. No tactical training relevant to the conflict. An insufficient amount of body armor. One former officer threatened to hold a news conference and confront Mr. Bush and the governor of Texas. A president, who had avoided combat in Vietnam by getting into the guard and then had walked away four years into a six year hitch, was sending them into a deadly war without training or appropriate weaponry. Their anger was understandable.
The emotion was further exacerbated by political context. The same president that had avoided combat was allowing his re-election campaign to attack a candidate who had volunteered to go to the war, a man who had shed blood and had been awarded medals. Even Texas Guard soldiers that follow orders, regardless of the politics of their commanders, had now reached the end of their tolerance. And at least one of these individuals was probably angry enough to manufacture documents. The men accusing Kerry were using lies to destroy his military reputation and ruin his candidacy so why not use lies to fight back? It was faulty and dangerous rationale, if it were deployed. And it has frightening implications for American democracy.
Burkett gets named as the primary suspect because of his profile. When his friend George Conn failed to confirm the file purging story for the Boston Globe, a number of journalists tended to discredit everything Burkett said. Conn, who works as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army in Germany, has college age children and a wife who reportedly works for a large Republican law firm in Dallas, could have reasonably been expected to choose his family over Burkett. Burkett told me he understood Conn’s actions and probably would have done the same thing. The White House, meanwhile, is working very diligently on connecting the CBS Killian memos, if they are fabrications, to Burkett. Strategically, the political intent is transparent: he’s discredited so if the memos are his they are also discredited. Burkett’s personal medical files were leaked to reporters and it is now public knowledge that he had a nervous breakdown while fighting the virus he contracted in Panama. One skeptic has suggested that the use of the term "billet" in one of the documents is telling because it is an Army and not an Air Force term and Burkett’s background is not Air National Guard. And, of course, there is the Kinko’s fax.
If Burkett is suspect, though, so is Karl Rove. Admittedly, this is a five-cushion bank shot if it does involve Rove. But such things are no longer considered impossible when looking at his political machinations. Every campaign he runs seems to have well-timed distractions. In 2000, just before his inarticulate client was to debate Al Gore, a tape of Mr. Bush’s training ended up in the Gore campaign’s mailbox. Reporters wrote about this discovery and overwhelmed issues and debate coverage with the unraveling mystery. An employee of Mark McKinnon, Bush’s media expert, was later implicated in the scandal but nobody ever proved Rove wasn’t pulling strings. Of course, it was strictly coincidental when Rove’s office was found bugged in 1986, the day of a critical debate between another one of his inarticulate candidates and an incumbent governor. That mystery overwhelmed debate coverage and implicated the democratic opponent. I remember standing with other reporters outside of Rove’s building after his news conference to announce the revelation he was bugged. We all laughed about how amateurish it all appeared. And then we realized he had us because we had to report it straight; not the way we perceived the facts. When the FBI file was finally made public, it showed the bug on Rove’s wall had a battery with a life span of only six hours and just 15 minutes of it had been expended. Rove did it. But there are probably too many people who would have had to have been in on the fraud for him to make phony documents surface in CBS’s hands.
So, Rove, it turns out, might just be both lucky and good. His deceptive behavior through the years, involving everything from Swift Boat veterans to faux environmental groups made up of Bush donors, is not a sufficient rationale for others to enter lying into the political process. Nothing is. But that appears to be what has resulted from the persistent string of lies about the president’s time in the National Guard, should the CBS memos be proven false. Some of the good guys may not be the good guys any more. They may have become like their enemies. And in the process, they gave Rove what he needs to win. There is truth, however, in the fake memos. Witnesses, including commander Killian’s secretary, have said Lt. Bush defied an order to take his flight physical. The White House has not refuted what is in the memos. It has only attacked the legitimacy of the documents themselves. Republican congressional leaders, who asked no questions about faulty intelligence leading to the war with Iraq, are suddenly demanding investigations and hearings on the failings of CBS. Burkett told the Washington Post to not be so confident the Killian memos were forgeries. What does he know that he isn’t saying? Yet. Is it possible they are flawed transcriptions of real memos and the originals are being protected? And how would he know? Or does he know?
This has all worked very well for the Bush campaign. Reporters worried about the veracity of the Killian memos have not yet asked the president if he failed to obey a direct order to take his physical. And that’s a fair question, regardless of who wrote the Killian documents. Lt. Bush missed a physical and there has never been an explanation beyond Dan Bartlett’s lame argument of "formality." This most glaring lie in the president’s resume, his time in the Texas Air National Guard, avoids intelligent scrutiny because memos raising the issue appear dubious.
The bonus for Rove is that Dan Rather is enduring greater evaluation than the President of the United States. The CBS anchor, who rode to the top of his profession on the crest of great national events like Hurricane Carla, the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, and Watergate, has long been vilified by the right. If Rather and his talented producer Mary Mapes did not bring proper skepticism to their analysis of the documents, they will likely pay a dear professional price. And John Kerry, who ran a positive convention and ignored the Swift Boat attacks while the GOP spat vitriol, can also be expected to pay a price for bad advice and a lack of political diligence. No toll, however, has ever been exacted on the life and political career of George W. Bush. The magnitude of his lies and mistakes far outweighs any possible transgression by CBS or those who might have fabricated the Killian memos. If they get caught, they suffer. Mr. Bush has been proved both wrong and deceptive and has danced into a lead in the polls through our collective American delusion. We punish the anchorman and praise the president.
CBS and Rather may have to admit mistakes. And then make corrections. Why don’t we demand the same thing of our president? Maybe there are no big lies and small lies. There are just lies. And they all must be atoned for. We know the ones that belong to George W. Bush. And if we don’t hold him accountable, eventually, we the people will end up paying for his debts and his sins.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
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