Texas Guard leader said Bush failed to meet standards

Squadron commander complained of pressure to `sugar-coat' evaluation

September 09, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The man who served as George W. Bush's squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard wrote that Bush was suspended from being a pilot in part because he failed to meet performance standards and that higher-ups were pressuring the commander to "sugar-coat" evaluations of Bush.

The squadron leader, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, wrote about Bush in memos dated 1972 and 1973 that were first reported by CBS News last night during the network's 60 Minutes program and released by the White House later in the evening.

Killian, who died in 1984, also wrote at the time that Bush actively tried to go over his commander's head in seeking permission to leave Texas and fulfill his Guard duties in Alabama.

Bush served in the Guard from 1968 to 1973, which made him far less likely than other young men to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. He was honorably discharged, and the White House has long insisted that the president fulfilled all his duties.

But the Killian memos, never before released, raise questions about whether Bush received preferential treatment that allowed him to skirt some requirements. There have long been unanswered questions about Bush's whereabouts during several periods, one lasting five months, when there is no evidence that Bush reported for Guard duty.

The White House immediately dismissed the new reports as political attacks. Bush's communications director, Dan Bartlett, said that regardless of what Killian wrote, Bush was suspended from flight duty because he missed a physical exam - which has long been reported - and not because he failed any performance standards.

As for other revelations in Killian's memos, such as that Bush tried to go around his commander to get permission to transfer out of Texas, Bartlett complained that it is "very difficult" to "know what somebody who is now dead was thinking in any of these memos."

Bartlett, who sat for a lengthy interview with CBS last night that was transcribed by the White House and released to reporters, suggested that the memos were given to the network by someone who wanted to interfere with Bush's re-election campaign. He said it raises "questions that some documents would be given to the media 55 days before the president's election, right when he takes over in the national polls."

Also appearing on the CBS news program last night was Ben Barnes, a Democrat and former Texas lieutenant governor, who said he helped Bush gain a coveted spot in the Texas Guard after being urged by a Bush family friend.

Barnes has discussed his involvement before in public testimony, but never in an interview with the news media.

"This is not about George Bush's political career," Barnes said last night. "This is about what the truth is."

Barnes said he now regrets giving Bush "preferential treatment" to get into the Guard because, since Guard duty made being drafted unlikely, it amounted to choosing who would have to fight in Vietnam and who would not. "That's not a power I want to have," Barnes said.

His comments contradicted a sworn statement he made in the 2000 campaign when he said he could not recall giving Bush special treatment, according to the Republican National Committee. Republicans discounted Barnes' recollections of Bush, accusing him of being politically motivated.

Last night, Bartlett said he was not surprised that "people like Ben Barnes, longtime activist, Democrat activist, who is a vice chairman of John Kerry, would be making these recycled charges of President Bush."

The new questions about Bush's record, raised on prime-time television, suggest that examinations of Vietnam War-era military records remain a central focus of the campaign, even as many voters are complaining that they want to hear more about issues.

The 60 Minutes segment coincides with efforts by a group called Texans for Truth to raise further questions about Bush's time in the Guard. The organization, funded by a Democratic operative, released a new ad this week in which a retired lieutenant colonel, Robert Mintz, says he never recalls seeing Bush in the Alabama unit the president was attached to in the fall of 1972.

Bush campaign officials, as they moved to downplay the new revelations, are mindful of the damage done to Kerry over the past two months as his Vietnam service was questioned by a Republican-funded group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Democratic strategists have acknowledged that Kerry's inability to put that issue out of the news and replace it with details of his plans for a Kerry White House has hurt him in the polls.

The White House has maintained that in spring of 1972, Bush sought permission to leave Ellington Air Force Base in Texas and complete his duties at a base in Alabama, where he wanted to work on a Senate campaign.

According to the White House, because the Alabama base did not fly the F-102 aircraft Bush was trained on, Bush decided he would no longer serve as a pilot. He then missed a flight physical exam, which resulted in his suspension as a pilot.

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