Questions about George W. Bush's Air National Guard service during the Vietnam War have been raised by Democrats and the press in all his campaigns since 1994.
Aides to Democratic Gov. Ann Richards once tried to advance a story in 1994 that the president's father helped him win a coveted spot in the Texas Guard, according to press accounts at the time. Other Democrats say he missed drills while he focused on business and politics.
Today, as President Bush seeks a second term, the Democratic National Committee again has embraced the issue, as polls show that its presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry, is losing voter support.
Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who in February accused Mr. Bush of being "AWOL" in the Guard, this week vowed that Mr. Bush's tenure as a fighter pilot will be a main Democratic crusade -- day in, day out -- until the Nov. 2 election.
"It's going to be on the table from now until November 2," Mr. McAuliffe told reporters this week as new press reports surfaced questioning the devotion of Guard Lt. George W. Bush.
"These new documents show the president did not serve honorably, and they did not have all the documents out."
For years, the Democratic attacks have centered on two charges, including one that Mr. Bush failed to meet drilling requirements from mid-1972 to early 1973. A less-persistent accusation was that he used his father's status as a prominent Texas politician to win entry into the Guard after he graduated from Yale and faced the military draft in 1968.
That charge has never been proved. And the White House thought it had snuffed out the question on non-drill compliance last winter, when it released records showing he was paid for the drills during the period in question and that he received sufficient points to achieve an honorable discharge in October 1973 as he entered Harvard Business School.
"If the president had not fulfilled his commitment, he would not have been honorably discharged," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters this week. "He was honorably discharged in October '73. The president is proud of his service in the National Guard."
But news outlets continued to press the Defense Department for more records. The Associated Press filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act. On Tuesday, the Pentagon turned over more documents that were favorable toward the president. They showed that he was a better-than-average pilot and had logged 336 flying hours in the demanding F-102 jet interceptor.
Now, there is a new charge that Mr. Bush not only missed drills, but that he refused to take a physical, as ordered, to retain his flight status.
CBS' "60 Minutes" on Wednesday night reported that it had memos from the late commander of Mr. Bush's unit, the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, that showed that Mr. Bush lost his flight status for refusing to take a physical. The White House has contended that Mr. Bush arranged with superiors to go off flight status and drill with a reconnaissance unit in Alabama.
"On this date I ordered that 1st Lt. Bush be suspended from flight status due to failure to perform to USAF/Tex ANG standards and failure to meet annual physical examination flight as ordered. ... Officer has made no attempt to meet his training certification or flight physical," according to one of the memos that CBS attributed to Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who died in 1984.
A spokesman said the White House obtained the documents from CBS before they were released on Wednesday night.
"The White House can't speak to authenticity," the spokesman said. The White House is comparing the CBS-acquired documents with known memos written by Col. Killian to see whether there are any inconsistencies.
Matt Drudge's online news site raised questions yesterday about whether the documents released by CBS were authentic, saying the typeface on the memos appeared to be current-day fonts that were not used in 1972.
CBS issued a statement yesterday:
"As is standard practice at CBS News, each of the documents broadcast on '60 Minutes' was thoroughly investigated by independent experts, and we are convinced of their authenticity. In addition to analysis of the documents themselves, CBS verified the authenticity of the documents by talking to individuals who had seen the documents at the time they were written. These individuals were close associates of Col. Jerry Killian and confirm that the documents reflect his opinions at the time the documents were written."
The CBS broadcast the previous night did not say that it had a source who had seen the documents when written 32 years ago, and the network's statement did not identify how CBS obtained the documents or the name of the person who provided them.
Dan Rather, who anchored the program, said during the broadcast, "'60 Minutes' has now obtained a number of documents we are told were taken from Colonel Killian's personal file. ... We consulted a handwriting analyst and document expert who believes the material is authentic."
It had been known that Mr. Bush let his flight status drop when he transferred to an Alabama unit to work on the campaign of a Republican senatorial candidate. Documents have shown that he won permission from his superiors to shift to the Alabama unit.
"You are ordered to report to commander, 111 F.I.S, Ellington AFB, not later than 14 May 1972 to conduct annual physical examination," said the CBS memo with the signature of Col. Killian.
At that time, Mr. Bush was seeking to move to Alabama to try his hand at politics. An unsigned memo dated four days later showed that Mr. Bush was seeking to get off flight status.
"Phone call from Bush," said the unsigned memo dated May 19, 1972, for the record. "Discussed options of how Bush can get out of coming to drill from now through November [the date of elections in Alabama]. I told him he could do [active duty] for three months or transfer. Says he wants to transfer to Alabama to any unit he can get in to. Says that he is working on another campaign for his dad.
"Physical. We talked about him getting his flight physical situation fixed before this date. Says he will do that in Alabama if he stays in a flight status. He has this campaign to do and other things that will follow and may not have the time. I advised him of our investment in him and his commitment. He's been working with staff to come up with options and identified a unit that may accept him. I told him I had to have written acceptance before he would be transferred, but think he's also talking to someone upstairs."
By August, Col. Killian apparently lost patience. He wrote a terse memo taking Mr. Bush off flight status.
"On this date I ordered that 1st Lt. Bush be suspended from flight status due to failure to perform to USAF/Tex ANG standards and failure to meet annual physical examination flight as ordered. ... Officer has made no attempt to meet his training certification or flight physical. Officer expresses desire to transfer out of state including assignment to non-flying billets. ... I also suggested that we fill this critical billet with a more seasoned pilot from the list of qualified Vietnam pilots that have rotated."
Two weeks later, in another memo for the record, Col. Killian says he will not rate Mr. Bush's performance because there was no feedback from Mr. Bush's new unit in Alabama.
On Tuesday, the AP reported that, as a result of its lawsuit, the Pentagon did more digging and found more than two dozen pages of Mr. Bush's flight records.
The admission of newly found documents was embarrassing to the White House. But the documents showed that the young guardsman was a skilled pilot, who flew 336 hours in a fighter jet and received higher-than-average pilot scores, including a perfect 100 for flying without navigational instruments.
The AP-acquired documents showed that Mr. Bush ranked No. 22 in class of 53 graduating pilots at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., in 1969. The records contain various scores that Mr. Bush received for pilot skills: 100 for flying without instruments; 88 for total airmanship; and 98 in aviation physiology.
The Pentagon explained the oversight in a letter to the AP detailing the Guard's record-keeping.
"Previous requests from other requesters for President Bush's individual flight records did not lead to the discovery of these records because at the time President Bush left the service [October 1973], flight records were subject to retention for only 24 months and we understood that neither the Air Force nor the Texas Air National Guard retained such records thereafter," the Pentagon said.
"Out of an abundance of caution," the government "searched a file that had been preserved in spite of this policy" and found the two dozen pages, the Pentagon told AP. "The Department of Defense regrets this oversight during the previous search efforts."
In February, Mr. McAuliffe accused Mr. Bush of being AWOL, absent without leave. His charge set off a series of investigative stories by the Washington press corps. Mr. Bush ordered the Pentagon to locate all of his Guard records, and on Feb. 13, the White House released more than 200 pages of records.
The gap in Mr. Bush's verified drills was between May 1972 and early 1973, a time when he spent months in Alabama on the Senate campaign.
The documents showed that, in fact, Mr. Bush reported for duty at Dannelly Air National Guard Base at least eight times between October 1972 and May 1973. Some of those visits were to make up drills that he missed in 1972.
"This whole thing has become so ridiculous," Mr. McClellan said at the time.
White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said Mr. Bush did not undergo a flight physical in 1972 because he was about to be transferred to the Montgomery, Ala., base.
Lt. Col. John "Bill" Calhoun recalls Mr. Bush attending drills at the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group.
"I saw him each drill period," Col. Calhoun said of drills in 1972 and 1973. "He was very aggressive about doing his duty there. He never complained about it. ... He was very dedicated to what he was doing in the Guard. He showed up on time, and he left at the end of the day."
A former girlfriend in Alabama, Emily Marks Curtis, told The Washington Times that, after the Senate campaign, Mr. Bush returned to Alabama to make up drills.
"He called to tell me he was coming back to finish up his National Guard duty," she said. "I can say categorically he was there, and that's why he came back."
Records show that Mr. Bush crammed 36 days of non-flight drills into a three-month period in May, June and July 1973 -- an apparent effort to make up missed weekends.
The White House-released documents show that Col. Killian wrote in a recommendation that Mr. Bush be promoted to first lieutenant that he is "a dynamic, outstanding young officer."
In 1973, he received written permission for an early discharge to go to Harvard. Such early outs were not uncommon in 1973, as the military downsized after the Vietnam War.
In all, Mr. Bush spent the equivalent of 21 months on active duty, counting 18 months in flight school. He logged 326 flight hours and nearly 10 hours as a co-pilot in the F-102 interceptor. His last flight was April 1972, the fourth year of a six-year commitment.
Guardsmen typically drill one weekend a month and spend two weeks on active duty annually.
The same CBS show that reported the purported Killian documents also interviewed Ben Barnes, a lifelong Texas Democratic politician who says he helped Mr. Bush win appointment to the National Guard in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.
Mr. Barnes, then the speaker of the Texas House, previously had denied that the Bush family asked him to help George W., and he did not make that charge on CBS.
Instead, he said an oil man, now deceased, who was a friend of the Bushes, asked him to help the young Yale graduate. Mr. Barnes said he contacted the commander of the Texas Guard on Mr. Bush's behalf.
"I would describe it as preferential treatment," Mr. Barnes told CBS interviewer Mr. Rather.
"60 Minutes" this year has given airtime to a number of Bush critics. Conservative media analysts say the interviews involve pitching "softball" questions to draw out attacks on the president.
Mr. Rather did note Wednesday night that Mr. Barnes is not only a Democrat, but also a big fund-raiser for Mr. Kerry. CBS did not mention that Mr. Barnes has been accused by federal prosecutors of questionable fund-raising practices in the past.
Mr. Bartlett told CBS, "I think the fact that 55 days before an election that partisan Democrats are recycling the very same charges we hear every time President Bush runs for re-election is dirty politics."