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Kerry's War Record

Swift Boat Accounts Disputed

Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2004; 12:00 PM

Members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have challenged several aspects of John F. Kerry's military record in addition to his account of the March 13, 1969, mission on which he was awarded the Bronze Star; Kerry's campaign has vigorously defended his record. An investigation by The Washington Post into Kerry's Vietnam service and what happened on March 13, 1969 suggests that neither side has been entirely forthcoming, and that each has withheld information from the public record.

Swift Boat Accounts Incomplete and Flawed, (Post, Aug. 21)


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Washington Post staff writer Michael Dobbs was online Monday, Aug. 23, at Noon ET to discuss the conflicting accounts and The Post's investigation, based on more than two dozen interviews with former crewmates and officers who served with Kerry, as well as research in the Naval Historical Center.

Programming Note:John E. O'Neill, co-author of "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry," will take questions and comments on Thursday, Aug. 26 at Noon ET.

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.

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Michael Dobbs: Thank you for joining me. Since my first article on the subject of Kerry's wartime record last Thursday, I have received hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls. I have replied to some of them, but have not been able to reply to all of them, so I welcome this opportunity of allowing you to air your thoughts and concerns. Fire away!

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washingtonpost.com: Records Counter a Critic of Kerry, (Post, Aug. 19)

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Augusta, Ga.: Why do you think Senator Kerry has refused to execute SF 180 to make ALL his military records public? He promised to do so in April but reneged. Is The Post going to press him to do so?

Michael Dobbs: I can't speak for the Kerry campaign. His spokesmen have said that they have publised the full record on their website, but we have not been allowed independent access to the original record. We are pressing them to allow us independent access to the record. We also want independent access to Bush's military records. That has not been provided yet, either.

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Washington, D.C.: Fair article. I liked the way you gave the pros and cons. My question is why is the media not giving as much play to Kerry's evasions than they are to trying to prove the swiftboat vets with an agenda? While they do have an agenda, that doesn't mean that Kerry record should not be explored because he has made such a big deal about it. What about his repeated incursion into cambodia that have no records. Has anybody besides himself said they were in Cambodia? Any of his shipmates that support him?

Michael Dobbs: Thanks. I was focussing on the Bronze star incident, so I have not paid so much attention to the Cambodia claim. There are witnesses who both support his version, and say it is untrue.

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Sacramento, Calif.: Sir, how can you judge the swift boat liars' smear campaign as having the credentials so as to give them balanced coverage?

If you had reported in the 50's under McCarthy, you would have concluded that he had no proofs, but he has raised legitimate questions about the patriotism of these people?

Then we would have been living in a dictatorship of the Right.

The veteran liars are a band of rogue unemployed traitors, given millions by Republicans defending Bush. They try to destroy the reputation of a true hero and the media lets them do what they can. How can you and the media sleep at night knowing that this miscreants are abroad?

Michael Dobbs: In my article Sunday, I was attempting to reconstruct as best I could the events surrounding the day Kerry was awarded the Bronze star, and rescued Jim Rassman from the river. I believe that I laid out the facts as completely as i could. I wrote that both sides were holding back information but I did not think that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had proven their case that Kerry is lying about this incident.

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New York, N.Y.: Isn't it true that these people's real issue is what Kerry said after the war, not what happened during it?

Michael Dobbs: It is true that a lot of veterans who believe that Kerry is lying are also unhappy (a mild word!) with him for his anti-war activities when he returned to the United States. They acknowledge this freely.

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Washington, D.C.: In your opinion as a journalist, how much does this story have "legs?" Will this still be on voters' minds come October, let alone November?

Michael Dobbs: Who knows? I suspect that we will have moved on by then, particularly if there are big developments in iraq or the war on terrorism, but personality issues will remain an important factor in how voters make up their minds.

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Vienna, Va.: The media seems to be focusing on the largely discredited or contradictory claims of the SBVs, merely because the have the GOP money to make it an issue. What about the larger issue of Kerry's record vs. Bush/Cheney's? Both went out of their way to avoid service. Why can't the media cover this angle without some heavily funded "For Truth" group making it an issue? Has the media lost perspective?

Michael Dobbs: I agree with you that Bush/Cheney's wartime record should be further examined before the election, and we intend to look at it. Whether it, too, will acquire "legs" will depend on what new information comes to light.

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Ft. Washington, Md.: Frankly, it's baffling as to why The Post is seriously looking at this group's claims. After all, most of this group's leaders have been repeatedly caught making false, misleading and/or contradictory assertions as to Kerry's service.

Does this mean The Post will devote time and resources to investigations into the rambling conspiracy theories of Lyndon LaRouche?

Michael Dobbs: Would you prefer that we did not report the controversy surrounding Kerry's war record--and try to address it on a factual basis, sorting out what is true from what isn't true? My article appeared a couple of days after Kerry himself came out swinging at his critics, after doing his best to ignore them.

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Washington, D.C.: In what ways exactly has the Kerry version of events been less than forthcoming?

I read and enjoyed the story, but I'm still at a bit of a loss to know. First, as far as I can remember, there was the possiblity that a shrapnel wound in Kerry's arm is from his tossing a grenade into a pile of rice (but he says he got the wound while on the Swift boat). Second, the fact that his version of the ambush story doesn't come from exactly contemporaneous diary entries -- maybe they came from a couple years later.

Seems like rather slight material on which to base a claim of less than forthcoming.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Michael Dobbs: Kerry declined a request to talk with me about these events. His people refused to share his writings about the incident that I was attempting to reconstruct in as much detail as possible. I have been unable to get independent access to Kerry's full military record. I would describe that as "less than forthcoming."
You might argue that the Bush campaign has been "less than forthcoming" about his military record, too. I would agree with you.

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Gambrills, Md.: I find it incredibly hard to believe that Thurlow did not know that his citation for the Bronze Star, arising out of the very same incident, indicated that the flotilla was under enemy fire. If you are awarded a great honor while serving your country, you are not going to "forget" why you received that recognition. Given that Thurlow is making a lot of money from his claims against Senator Kerry, and given that Thurlow refused to release his military records, it sure looks like Thurlow is being purposefully deceptive.

Michael Dobbs: You seem to be referring to an article I wrote last Friday saying that the Bronze star citation for Larry Thurlow talks about him being under "military fire." Thurlow is certainly having some difficulty explaining why he accepted a medal for "bravery under fire" when he now claims he wasn't under fire. All this was established as a result of the Post's investigation into the facts.

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Arlington, Va.: What is you analysis of the Kerry campaign's response? Did they wait too long to mount a strong response to these ads? Polls seem to indicate that the ads have had a negative affect.

Michael Dobbs: I am not a campaign tactician. But if Kerry has nothing to hide, it would seem to me obvious that his campaign should put everything out there. It is mystifying to me why they should fail to cooperate fully with my requests for information. (I should say that they did help me get in touch with a number of Kerry's former crew members, just as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth helped me contact some of his accusers.)

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Milwaukee, Wis.: You write:
...both sides were holding back information but I did not think that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had proven their case that Kerry is lying about this incident.

If that is true -- that the SBVT has NOT proven anything -- then why all the attention? All this attention to a rumor at best, a coordinated smear tactic at worst?

Michael Dobbs: By the time we got into the act, Mr O'Neill and the other Swift Boat veterans were all over the airwaves. Would you have preferred that we ignored their charges altogether? It seems to me that the more responsible thing to do is to examine the charges independently and see if they are true or false. I chose to do this by focusing on one particular incident, the day Kerry won the Bronze star, because I believed it was pretty much a microcosm of the larger debate, as well as being a focus of Kerry's own campaign efforts.

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Falls Church, Va.: The Swift Boat issue has been around since May. Why did the major TV networks and newspapers finally decide to notice and cover it now? They were swarming all over the topic of Bush's National Guard record back in February, but seem to have attempted to bury any negative news related to Kerry's war record until now.

Michael Dobbs: Your question goes to the question of when something becomes news, or when information acquires "legs", in newspaper jargon, and everyone is talking about it. In this case, it is true that relatively little attention was paid to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accusations until this month. That changed (1) because they went on the air with an advertisement, and that generated controversy, and (2) a book came out by one of the main accusers that shot to the top of best-seller lists.

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Broad Run, Va.: Your article notes that Kerry is honoring an agreement with Professor Brinkley that Kerry's journals and other contemporary writings are at the exclusive disposition of Professor Brinkley. Are such agreements common? Since the appearance of your article, have there been any signals from Professor Brinkley that access or additional quotations will be forthcoming?

Michael Dobbs: Such agreements are fairly common. what is strange about this particular exclusivity agreement is that it is still in effect, some eight months after Brinkley published his book. That seems rather unusual to me. I have not heard back from Prof. Brinkley since I began raising questions about the inconsistencies/factual errors in his book. Earlier (about 10 days ago) we had a telephone conversation in which he said that he was still drawing on the Kerry "diaries" for articles in the Washington Monthly, the New Yorker, and a paperback edition of his book.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: The smear-mongers who demean Kerry's war record act as though Kerry were running against someone like Sgt. York, or Audie Murphy. If nothing else, Kerry spent 3-plus months risking his life, and getting shot at regularly. Durig that time, George Bush was drinking beer, and playing flyboy, in Alabama, and Dick Cheney was enjoying five deferments. Why can't the media add some perspective to this?

Michael Dobbs: We have already reported extensively on what George W. Bush was doing during the Vietnam war, and may well return to this subject, particularly if there is new information.

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Ocean View, Hawaii:
Michael Dobbs!

Question:

Why didn't you accept -- on two occasions, I understand, the invitation from the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth to interview members of Swift Boat Veterans For Truth there, in your offices in Washington, D.C.. In particular, prior to your false story that you published about Swiftee Larry Thurlow?

washingtonpost.com: Records Counter a Critic of Kerry, (Post, Aug. 19)

Michael Dobbs: I am glad to have the opportunity to rebut this falsehood. Mr O'Neill went on television (Fox News and CNN, I believe) to say that I refused to talk with his members. This is untrue. I have always been willing to talk with people from both sides, particularly if they were actually participants in the events in question.

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Grantham, Pa.: Good article, but I was a bit perplexed by how you buried a couple of very important points. In paragraphs 49 & 50,you reveal that Wayne D. Langhofer, a previously unknown witness, supports Kerry's version of the story. Then, in paragraph 54, you reveal that Robert Lambert's story contradicts Larry Thurlow's story. Both of these are revelations that blow huge holes in the SBVFT's stories, yet they are so buried deep within your story that most people probably will not notice them at all.
Talk about burying the lede!!

Michael Dobbs: I had previously written an article about the contradictions in Larry Thurlow's story. I thought about putting Mr Langhofer's remarks higher up in the story. I decided to put them in the chronologically appropriate place because he was only one eyewitness among many. As I said, the eyewitness accounts diverge sharply.

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Bethesda, Md.: While it is semantically true, as you say, that both sides aren't coming completely clean. Certainly, Kerry should release his records. However, I wonder if you aren't bending over backwards to be "balanced". Nothing Kerry said regarding the bronze star incident has been proven untrue. On the contrary, you've got Kerry's commanding officer who recomended him for the medal now retracting all of his signed testimony and such because... because why? You've got O'Neil saying that initials, which clearly aren't Kerry's, demonstrate he wrote the after action. You've a medic saying he treated Kerry despite the fact someone else wrote up the report and didn't mention him. Unless I'm mistaken the Swift Boat Vets don't have one bit of actual evidence or documentation in their favor. All of that kind of stuff is on Kerry's side.

Michael Dobbs: Take a look at the headline in the Post story, as published on Sunday. It says that Kerry's critics have failed to prove their charges, picking up on language that I used in the fifth or sixth graf. That seems to me a clear conclusion, clearly stated.

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New York, N.Y.: Four marines were killed in Iraq over the weekend. Young men with families, freinds, and full lives ahead of them. THAT is what we should be talking about! I am truly disgusted with it all.

Michael Dobbs: You have a point. But there is probably room in a newspaper for stories about both things. Indeed, we have devoted vast attention and resources to covering the Iraq war.

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Diamond Bar, Calif.: Kerry should have ignored the whole thing and taken the high road. But now the story has a life of its own and will not go away. Do you think he was given some bad advice? Once he decided to respond, he chose to attack the accusers instead of the accusation. I find this to be poor tactics. Your opinion?

Michael Dobbs: As I already said, I am not a campaign strategist. If I were, I would have advised him to talk to a journalist who was attempting to write an exhaustive reconstruction of an episode that has become pivotal to his entire Vietnam career. I spoke to the three other surviving skippers who were on the river that day. I regret that Kerry declined to talk to me.

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Boulder, Colo.: In addition to the guy you contacted, yet another witness from the 43 boat has surfaced in Telluride, Colo., and attested that they were indeed under fire after the mine went off.

Also, if Lambert also won a bronze star, as well as Thurlow, will Thurlow now give back his bronze star, and insist that Lambert as well as Kerry give back theirs?

This story is so obviously fabricated, why does The Post headline not read "Swift Vets Story Unraveling?"

Michael Dobbs: You will have to ask Thurlow about whether or not he will give back his bronze star. He told me last week that he would consider it to be illegitimate --or words to that effect--if it was earned for being "under fire." The man in Telluride is an important additional witness. I regret that I was unaware of him before i wrote my article.

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Washington, D.C.: Why was your Internet headline more critical of both sides, than the print version?

The print version to me seemed to represent the story better. Was this the initial plan or did editors kill the Internet version of the headline because it was inaccurate. There are only two paragraphs that I found in the story related to Kerry inaccuracies, but the Internet headline would lead one to believe both side were equally culpable of misleading.

Thanks.

Michael Dobbs: It is true that there were some differences between the original Internet version (an earlier version that I finished writing on Friday evening) and the versiont that appeared in the paper. One difference is that on Saturday, I managed to contact a crew member from another boat, who essentially supported Kerry's version of events. I reflected his account in the article that was published in the Post on Sunday, and our website then carried the updated version of the story. This is a developing story that we may come back to as we get more information.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: You "regret" that Kerry refused to talk to you? Pretty self-serving answer don't you think? Maybe he had no faith that you or any other Washington scribe would accurately depict his comments, since you've all been asleep at the wheel for the last four years, allowing the GOP to get away with lying with impunity. Could that be it?

Michael Dobbs: I can only speak for myself. Up until two weeks ago, I was covering education stories, so I came to this story with a fresh mind, open to both sides. I wrote a story that was published on Thursday that challenged the credibility of one of Mr Kerry's main accusers. I would hardly describe that as being "asleep at the wheel." I repeatedly asked the Kerry campaign for an opportunity to speak with the Senator about these events, but they declined to make him available.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: You speak of your fine article in past tense, and regrets about new information and interviews not granted. Are you "off" this now, or will you be doing follow-up?

Michael Dobbs: I hope to be doing some follow-ups. There still seems to be a lot of interest in the various ramifications to this story. That seems to be a good note on which to close. We have received more than 500 messages for this on-line session. I am sorry I have only been able to reply to a fraction of them, but perhaps there will be another opportunity. Keep tuned. Thanks!

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Michael Dobbs: Actually, we got 880 questions, which may be some kind of record. I am glad some of you got the opportunity to air your concerns. I have been receiving a similar deluge of e-mails.

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