washingtonpost.com  > Live Discussions > Politics

Bush's Air National Guard Records

Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2004; 12:00 PM

Documents' raising doubts about President Bush's fulfillment of his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard, aired last week on CBS News' "60 Minutes," include several features suggesting that they were generated by a computer or word processor rather than a Vietnam War-era typewriter, according to experts consulted by a range of news organizations. The questions about the validity of the documents came as Democrats stepped up their criticism of Bush's service with the National Guard between 1968 and 1973.

Washington Post staff writer Michael Dobbs, who has been following the story about Bush's Vietnam-era service, was online Monday, Sept. 13, at Noon ET to discuss the investigations into Bush's service record and the disputed documents.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Michael Dobbs: Thanks for joining me for this on-line chat. There has been lots of my reaction to my reporting on the CBS memos on Bush's National Guard service-and I am happy to respond to your questions.


Lusby, Md.: Who cares?

Michael Dobbs: Judging from the amount of e-mail and telephone calls I have been getting--more than any other story I have written in a 20-year career in the Post--a lot of people care. Whether they should be focussed on other matters,more pertinent to the election, is another issue.


Washington, D.C.: The Post has put you on the John Kerry and George W. Bush military service stories. Before that you were covering education. What is your level of expertise in American military record keeping? Have you served in the military?

Michael Dobbs: I haven't served in the military, but I have been around the military quite a bit. More significantly perhaps, I have written three books on historical subjects, inquiring in-depth research in archives, so I do have some familiarity with archives.


Alexandria, Va.: Your article in Sunday's Post ("Gaps in Service Continue to Dog Bush", Post, Sept. 12) says that, according to President Bush's 1999 autobiography, he was "turned down in 1970 for a program known as 'Palace Alert' that might have taken him to Vietnam."

Several months ago, at least one media story said that President Bush did not volunteer for this program when he had the opportunity.

Could you offer any clarification on this point? Thanks.

Michael Dobbs: Bush has said he applied for the program. Others have disputed that. I am not in a position to resolve that dispute immediately.


Kansas City, Mo.: When will Dan Rather and CBS step up the plate and admit their error?

And why won't other publications talk more about the sourcing -- supposedly "unimpeachable" -- for the story? USA Today was able to get its own copies, apparently from the same source, but didn't describe the source, except very generally.

Michael Dobbs: So far CBS and Dan Rather are standing by their story. I agree with you that news organizations should be more honest and upfront about their sources. In reporting this story, I have tried to get everybody on-the-record, or give a proper explanation for why they are refusing to speak on the record. Like you, I mistrust anonymous sources except in very specific circumstances. Citing anonymous sources for a 32-year-old historical dispute raises a lot of questions, in my view.


29th & Q Street, Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Mike, It seems that when news organizations find themselves at the center of a controversy or crisis, they make all the classic mistakes that big business was known for. There's denial, cover-up, obfuscation, questioning the motives of critics, and hope-against-hope that the story will just go away.

Of course, when the media has a target on the run, they always insist that the easiest, best course for everyone is to get all the facts out and examine everything candidly.

Why do you think that news outlets are so lame at handling their own controversies when they are so adept at causing them for others?

Michael Dobbs: It is true that big organizations react in very similar ways when their credibility is under attack, whether it is a big business, a political organization, or a media outlet.


Woodland Hills, Calif.: Is any effort being made to discover the identity of the person who produced the forged Bush documents?

Michael Dobbs: Yes, but no definitive answers yet.


Orem, Utah: If the source documents used by CBS News in this story are, in fact, forgeries, what price should this venerable news organization pay? Should Dan Rather step down immediately as managing editor and chief anchor?

Michael Dobbs: It is up to CBS to decide how they are going to re-establish their credibility, which is their most important asset as a news organization. Other news organizations, viz New York Times and USA Today, have done this by a shakeup at the top. You could contrast this with the Post experience with Janet Cooke 20 or so years ago, when Ben Bradlee managed to ride out the storm by ordering a full, open investigation into how the Post came to publish a fraudulent story.


Bethlehem, Pa.: I understood that the White House released these documents on a Wednesday night at 10 p.m. How did they have them if they are fake?

Michael Dobbs: We were sent the documents by the White House around 9 a.m., I believe. They got the documents from CBS a day or so before. You will have to ask them why they distributed them....


Reno, Nev.: Very slick. You take a question labeling the documents as forged. That's bias very plain.

Michael Dobbs: I am getting questions from both sides and am endeavoring to answer them.


Isom, Ky.: The so-called experts have egg on their faces. The myth that the CBS memos are forged was begun by someone using a false name on the right-wing message board Free Republic.com. Other right-wing bloggers picked that up and spread it over the Internet. The Post then picked up the static from Matt Drudge and the rest of the Republican propaganda machine and legitimized it in the mainstream press.

I want to know what made The Post consider these people were experts and why The Post never said where the accusations of forgery originated. Could it be because The Post was embarrassed by its own report?

Several "experts" said New Times Roman type font wasn't available until the 1980s, when it has really been available since 1934. They also said typewriters, even the IBM Selectric, couldn't make a superscript "th" in 1972, when IBM says it was available beginning in the early 1960s. Some "experts" also said proportional spacing wasn't available in the early '70s, even though it has been available on IBM Executive models since 1944. Others acknowledged those features were available, but said the military didn't have them. Now it turns out the Air Force was using them in 1968. Most of these "expert" views are identical to the message posted on FreeRepublic.com and have all been discredited by CBS.

This all smacks of Bush campaign dirty tricks: Throw out so many lies that the real issue is obscured.

That's just what happened here. The real issue is that we have a president who was too cowardly to go to Vietnam, and then didn't bother to show up for duty in his cushy, state-side National Guard assignment.

Michael Dobbs: I think this gives an inaccurate picture of how we began reporting suspicions about the documents. It is true that the first suspicions were aired on the Internet. Whether the bloggers are right-wing or left-wing is less important, it seems to me, than the specificity of their charges. I began asking questions long before "the static from Matt Drudge." If you look at my story on Thursday morning , you will find a line in it saying that the documents could not be "independently verified" by the Post.


Pleasant Hill, Calif.: Lately, the news media seem to be orchestrated by the Bush Cabal. What happened to journalistic professionalism? What happened to the alleged Free Press? What has happened to our country?

Michael Dobbs: I contest your charge that we are saps for the Bush White House. If you look at my story in Sunday's paper regarding Bush's military records, you will find many things in it that are displeasing to the White House and right-wing bloggers. We try to make independent judgments, based on the evidence before us.


Montville, N.J.: What evidence is there that these documents were not typed using an IBM Selectric typewriter?

I was a Chief Clerk in the Air Force in 1972 and in use at the time were IBM Selectric typewriters that used typing balls that could be changed to use different fonts. Some of these balls had superscipt and other type fonts to choose from. In addition, you could switch them fonts up or down a half of a line to give the appearance of superscript or subscript.

Michael Dobbs: This is a complicated technical point. Experts who I have consulted say that proportional spacing horizontal-wise is an easier technical feat than proportional spacing down the page.


Austin, Tex.: Is anyone investigating whether the Bush camp produced these documents in an effort to discredit the truth that Bush failed to complete his service?

Michael Dobbs: If you accept that the documents are false--and we have not given a definitive answer to that question yet--then the question becomes who forged them. It is possible to conduct scenarios that forgeries would benefit the Dems or the Reps. I have no answer to that at present.


West Chester, Ohio: If President Bush attended meetings as he states then there should be financial records to show he was paid for the meetings'attended.

Michael Dobbs: There are financial records, the significance of which is being debated.


Washington, D.C.: Your very excellent story on Sunday, in Washington Postese, said Bush and his people have lied about his service and have never put forth a convincing version of events whereby he might have actually legitimately earned his honorable discharge. Two questions: Do I have that about right? And why is this not considered proof of his lack of credibility?

Michael Dobbs: Lying is a strong term. Winston Churchill preferred the phrase "terminological inexactitude."


Ammon, New Brunswick, Canada: The role National Guard commander Bobby Hughes has chosen to play in this is becoming increasingly odd. Hughes now insists that CBS "only" read him the memos over the phone and having seen copies now thinks they are forgeries. However, CBS never asked Hughes to authenticate the memos. CBS simply read the text of the documents to Hughes over the phone and asked him if these opinions were consistent with the opinions Killian had expressed to Hughes at the time. Hughes told CBS they were consistent. Is Hughes now saying the information he originally gave CBS was false?

Michael Dobbs: CBS, and Dan Rather, cited Hodges as a key source in its authentication process.


Finksburg, Md.: First, let me say that I'm pretty sick of this election's centering on a lousy war and events of 30 years ago, not the crummy war we are now engaged in. Bush's National Guard record is fair play because of the swifties attack on Kerry but the time has come to put this all aside and hear what the candidates have to say about contemporary issues.

Isn't it a bit telling that President Bush has not come forward and disclosed what really occured in his last year of service; that the White House has carefully not refuted what the memos say? Isn't it a bit strange that we are asked to accept that Bush was allowed to stop flying to participate in a political campaighn -- when did that become an acceptable deferral from duty?

Michael Dobbs: I think there should be room in a respectable newspaper for stories about all issues. Certainly the Post has had comprehensive coverage about the Iraq war. Half a dozen Post reporters are risking their lives to report on it, and another half dozen are reporting on it full-time back here. We have put much less effort as an institution into covering the "historical" story.


Oxford, U.K.: Would you say that it is now part of a reporter's job to monitor well-known blogs? Just to stay on top of things?

Michael Dobbs: I agree with you that the blogosphere played an interesting role in airing questions about the Bush documents. In my view, it has been a generally useful role. Of course, reporters need to maintain great skepticism about what appears on blogs, and the political motivations of people making the charges. But the questions they raise deserve a hearing.


Portland, Ore.: What investigation has The Post conduted into these memos?

Michael Dobbs: We are speaking to a wide variety of people to try to determine whether they are true or false.


Gambrills, Md.: You wrote yesterday, " When he entered Harvard Business School in September 1973, his records were transferred to a personnel office in Denver for a final year of service in a unit that existed only on paper."

Can you clear this up? Does that mean Bush was supposed to serve/report another year with a unit that never even existed? The most perplexing questions to me are not necessarily whether he reported for duty as required, but how Bush got in to an elite unit, and how he got out? (Just saying he was honorably discharged fails to answer the main question of HOW was he discharged and was it a political favor?)

Michael Dobbs: I wish I could give you definitive answers to all your questions, but some things are still shrouded in mystery and great controversy. How Bush got out of his final year of military service is one of them.


Montecito, Calif.: Why doesn't The Washington Post hire an expert to examine the memos?

Why doesn't The Washingotn Post demand that CBS release the copies they have so that all other reads are only one copy generation behind?

Michael Dobbs: We have talked to a number of experts, all of whom have supplied their advice for free. Not sure that hiring another expert would give us much further. In general, our position is that CBS should make everything public.


Ottumwa, Iowa: Michael, I am an independent who thinks that your reporting has been fair, probing and accurate when it comes to the various Vietnam accusations that each side seems to be throwing around. It seems to me neither side wants to address the substance of your reporting, whether it's Kerry ignoring your phone calls to comment on contradictions in his story about saving Rassmann (all the boats fled vs just Kerry's, Kerry was bleeding from his arm vs having just a "contusion", etc.) or the Bush people providing an accurate timeline of where he was for months at a time or even bothering to answer whether the charges in these alledgedly forged documents are true.

Don't let anyone from either side tell you that your reporting is not top-notch.

As far as the memos are concerned, I have a feeling that if you were in charge at CBS right now the consensus response would NOT be to stop investigating the veracity of the memos or hide the names of the experts they claim have authenticated them.

Michael Dobbs: Thanks for your vote of confidence. I was beginning to feel a little battered by both sides!


Columbia, Md.: How dare you insist on being objective?! We're trying to have a good old-fashioned mud pie fight here, and you're standing right in our way trying to find out facts and asking what really happened. Why would anyone care about facts -- all we need is to be able to see the other guys across the field, so we know where to sling it. Is is any wonder that you're getting covered with stray mud from all sides?

Michael Dobbs: True, a mudfight can be more entertaining. If that's what you want, you should probably tune into one of the talk shows.


Michael Dobbs: Ok, thanks for your questions. I have to get back to some reporting now, but no doubt we will have another opportunity to chat.


© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive
Viewpoint: Paid Programming

Sponsored Discussion Archive
This forum offers sponsors a platform to discuss issues, new products, company information and other topics.

Read the Transcripts
Viewpoint: Paid Programming