Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Bush National Guard Document Forgeries: A Lone Typist or a Massive Conspiracy?

Conspiracy theorists like to say something like this about JFK's murder: "How could a loony left-winger like Lee Harvey Oswald have pulled off the murder of the century by himself? He must have had outside help. It was really a right-wing plot, and Oswald was just the patsy."

Well, conspiracy theorists will be trotting out a similar line if it turns out that the perpetrator of the Bush National Guard document forgeries was one Bill Burkett. Today's Washington Post reports this:
Documents allegedly written by a deceased officer that raised questions about President Bush's service with the Texas Air National Guard bore markings showing they had been faxed to CBS News from a Kinko's copy shop in Abilene, Tex., according to another former Guard officer who was shown the records by the network.

The markings provide one piece of evidence suggesting a source for the documents, whose authenticity has been hotly disputed since CBS aired them in a "60 Minutes" broadcast Sept. 8. The network has declined to name the person who provided them, saying the source was confidential, or to explain how the documents came to light after more than three decades.

There is only one Kinko's in Abilene, and it is 21 miles from the Baird, Tex., home of retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett, who has been named by several news outlets as a possible source for the documents....
Who is Bill Burkett? Kevin Drum, writing way back on February 15 of this year, offers a sympathetic view:
Former Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett says that members of George Bush's staff, along with senior officers at Texas National Guard Headquarters, purged Bush's National Guard files of potentially embarrassing material back in 1997. Is his story true?...

To judge the truth of Burkett's story, then, all we can do is ask certain questions: Is Burkett's story internally consistent? Has it stayed consistent over time? Do other people corroborate it? Does Burkett have a track record of telling the truth? Does he have any axes to grind?.... far as I can tell it's internally consistent. No part of his story seems to be directly contradicted by any other part....

Has his story stayed consistent over time?

Mostly yes, although the story here is mixed....

Do other people corroborate Burkett's story? Other evidence?

Generally yes....

Does Burkett have a track record of telling the truth?

In 1997 Burkett discovered that there were "ghost soldiers" in the Texas Guard, soldiers who were still carried on the rolls even though they never showed up for drill and weren't being paid. He tried unsuccessfully to blow the whistle on this and stop the practice.

In late 2001, Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard of USA Today finished a lengthy investigation into the problem of ghost soldiers nationwide and published a 3-part story about it. Moniz told me that everything Burkett had told him had checked out and that several other people with no axe to grind find Burkett to be believable as well.

In addition to Moniz, Jim Moore, a longtime Texas reporter who has interviewed Burkett extensively for a forthcoming book, emailed me that he found Burkett "immensely credible."

Does Burkett have an axe to grind?

This is the weakest link in Burkett's story: he has a huge axe to grind, and so do the people who have corroborated his story.

Here's what seems to have happened. Burkett uncovered the "ghost soldiers" problem in 1997 and tried unsuccessfully to get anyone to take it seriously. Then, in January 1998, after a trip to Panama for the Army, he collapsed in the Abilene airport and became seriously ill. For several months he was denied medical attention by the military and he blames this on retaliation from Bush aides who thought he was a troublemaker for pushing the ghost soldiers investigation.

All three people who have corroborated Burkett's story are also people who got involved in trying to get him medical care, and all three were eventually either court martialed or otherwise removed from the Guard — possibly because of their parts in this. So they potentially have axes to grind as well.

And it gets worse. Burkett's illness seemed life threatening at the time and he was apparently panicked by it. In an effort to get the medical attention he wanted, he says he called Bush's office and talked to Dan Bartlett. During that conversation he came very close to threatening extortion over Bush's file cleansing unless he got the medical help he needed. Burkett says now, "I was probably out of line in a way and yet I will tell you now that I was begging for what I at that point considered life saving help."

According to Burkett, Conn was part of this as well. He was removed from the Guard in 1998 after officials discovered he had sent an email to Burkett advising him that in order to get medical help he might have to "play the card at the governor's office." In other words, threaten to go public with the file cleansing charges.

Needless to say, this provides plenty of evidence that Burkett might simply be a disgruntled guy who didn't get some medical attention he thought he deserved and blamed it on retaliation from Bush. And it doesn't help that he's virtually admitted to extorting Dan Bartlett over this.


In summary, Burkett's story is consistent; it has mostly stayed consistent over time; it's been corroborated by his witnesses; it's been corroborated by outside sources; his previous story about "ghost soldiers" has been found to be true; and he's apparently considered pretty reliable by several people not associated with him.

On the other hand, he also has a big axe to grind. But whistleblowers often do, and while it's important to keep motives in mind it's more important to consider the actual evidence at hand. In this case, it supports his story....


At the same time, it's not clear to me that this story is going anywhere. Even if it's true, Burkett is the only person making the charge. The others are merely corroborating that he told them about it back in 1997. They didn't see it themselves.

Unless other actual eyewitnesses come forward to confirm Burkett's account, it's just his word against everyone else....
Kevin Drum is bending over backward to put Burkett in a favorable light, but even Drum has to admit some crucial facts: Burkett has a huge axe to grind. Burkett's story isn't corroborated by anyone else -- merely his storytelling is corroborated. And those who corroborate his storytelling also have an axe to grind.

Now, what Drum doesn't say in the piece I've quoted from is that Burkett also happens to be a rather extreme lefty. The axe he's grinding isn't just personal, it's also political. Let's turn now to Michael Friedman, writing on February 17:
As Kevin Drum explains in an exhaustively researched post, Burkett has a major axe to grind - he blames Bush for the military denying him medical care during an illness in 1998.

However, there is another reason to be skeptical about Burkett. Burkett has strongly held loony left political views. He has written numerous articles espousing his positions and clearly wishes to sway the electorate. This gives him another obvious motive to lie about Bush's National Guard files....[Excerpts and links follow -- truly loony, Michael Moor-ish stuff, and worse: ED]

The issue here is not that Bill Burkett is a liberal. It isn't even that he is left wing. The issue is that he is loony left. We are in "precious bodily fluids" territory. I'm not calling Burkett a Democrat because I think he is too far left to be a Democrat. This is the left wing version of the John Birch Society.

Not only are Bill Burkett's politics loony left but he is trying to be a political player, writing editorials and trying to sway the American people against George Bush and the Republican Party....
If Burkett is involved in the forgeries, did he create them himself or did he have help? Who saw to it that the forgeries got into the hands of CBS News? Burkett or other parties? There may well more people behind this than Burkett or someone like him. On the other hand, Dan Rather seems desperate to defeat George Bush. In his desperation he might have latched onto Burkett, in spite of Burkett's notoriety as a loony Bush-hater -- or perhaps because of that.

Dan Rather, having done all he could to push the story, now seems ready to abandon it, according to a story in today's Washington Post:
CBS anchor Dan Rather acknowledged for the first time yesterday that there are serious questions about the authenticity of the documents he used to question President Bush's National Guard record last week on "60 Minutes."

"If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story," Rather said in an interview last night. "Any time I'm wrong, I want to be right out front and say, 'Folks, this is what went wrong and how it went wrong.' "...
Well, Dan, you're too late. Hundreds of people were ahead of you -- and it all started in the blogosphere. Hang 'em up, Dan.