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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Justice Dept. Rebuffs Press Request for More Bush Guard Records

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 27, 2004; 11:53 AM

The Justice Department has told the Associated Press that the government does not possess any records that would shed further light on the mysteries of President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service, beyond those that have already been made public, a lawyer for the news agency said yesterday.

The Associated Press filed a lawsuit two months ago, demanding access to a microfilm copy of President Bush's entire Texas Air National Guard personnel record from an archive in Austin.

Lawyers and reporters for the AP are currently engaged in an exhaustive examination of the material that has been made public, making a list of key documents that are missing but that should be on the microfilm.

"We believe that we have identified some missing pieces," said AP general counsel Dave Tomlin. "Whether they're missing because they've disappeared from the file or because nobody ever generated them, we don't know. We're doing a sort of audit of them."

Tomlin said the AP is dealing with an assistant U.S. attorney in New York who is now representing the Pentagon in the case.

"They said that they have looked through all of their records, including microfilmed records, and they have provided everything that would be in response to this suit," Tomlin said.

Time, of course, is ticking away.

Tomlin said the AP hopes to present its findings to the Justice Department within the next week. Once they get a response, they'll make a decision about how to proceed. "We still would like to resolve this, short of taking this thing further in the courtroom," Tomlin said.

The AP lawsuit focuses on the period between May 1972 and May 1973. In May 1972, Bush stopped showing up for drills at his Texas Air National Guard unit, four years into his six-year commitment to fly fighter jets. He later skipped his physical and was grounded.

The White House has maintained that Bush met his service obligations, or he would not have been honorably discharged.

The public records show that Bush tried to get transferred to an Alabama unit. There are no records -- other than one dental exam -- to show that Bush ever showed up at an Alabama Air National Guard base.

The attacks on Sen. John F. Kerry's decorated record of military service in Vietnam have cast new attention on Bush's actions during the war.

Critics charge that it was family connections that first got Bush a highly desirable stateside posting in 1968 with the Texas guard, and that then secured him an honorable discharge in 1973 in spite of not having performed his required service.

In the meantime, amateur researchers are combing the public records as well, and their findings are burning up certain corners of the blogosphere. Philadelphia caterer Paul Lukasiak, for instance, believes he has unraveled the story of Bush's attempt to transfer himself to Alabama, and can prove that Bush never made up his missed training days.

Two Interviews

The president who doesn't admit making mistakes yesterday acknowledged a "miscalculation."

Bush sat down for two half-hour interviews with reporters from USA Today and the New York Times yesterday.

David E. Sanger and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times that Bush "acknowledged for the first time that he made a 'miscalculation of what the conditions would be' in postwar Iraq. But he insisted that the 17-month-long insurgency that has upended the administration's plans for the country was the unintended by-product of a 'swift victory' against Saddam Hussein's military, which fled and then disappeared into the cities, enabling them to mount a rebellion against the American forces far faster than Mr. Bush and his aides had anticipated."

In his last prime-time news conference, in April, Bush was famously unable to come up with an answer to what his biggest mistake had been since 9/11.

Regarding the Swift Boat controversy, Sanger and Bumiller report: "President Bush said on Thursday that he did not believe Senator John Kerry lied about his war record, but he declined to condemn the television commercial paid for by a veterans group alleging that Mr. Kerry came by his war medals dishonestly."

And they also write: "Showing none of the alarm about [North Korea's] growing arsenal that he once voiced regularly about Iraq, he opened his palms and shrugged when an interviewer noted that new intelligence reports indicate that the North may now have the fuel to produce six or eight nuclear weapons."

Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today that Bush "was expansive and upbeat."

"The real question is who's got a vision of peace and of freedom and liberty -- liberty abroad and liberty at home, liberty at home being having the tools necessary to cope with a changing world. And that's really the question of the campaign," Bush said.

"They've seen me make decisions, they've seen me under trying times, they've seen me weep, they've seen me laugh, they've seen me hug," he said. "And they know who I am, and I believe they're comfortable with the fact that they know I'm not going to shift principles or shift positions based upon polls and focus groups."

Here are a few short excerpts from their interview.

About Winning and Losing

The USA Today story makes a big deal about how Bush "says losing the election has never crossed his mind."

But as I wrote in Monday's column, while Bush doesn't discuss the possibility in public, he certainly has discussed it at least once in private.

Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times tracked down several of the steelworkers who met privately with Bush on his bus tour of Ohio several weeks ago, and they told him that although he expressed confidence, "Bush said he would be at peace with himself 'if people elect to send me home.' . . .

Chen quotes John Grogg, a furnace operator, who remembered the president saying: "You know, if I should lose this reelection for president of the United States, I know that I've done as good a job as I can do. And God would say, 'Good servant, take a break.' "

Sure sounds to me like it's at least crossed his mind.

Intel Watch

Douglas Jehl and Philip Shenon write in the New York Times: "President Bush is preparing to issue an executive order that would immediately grant more power to the director of central intelligence, designating him to fill much of the role envisioned for a future national intelligence director, according to senior government officials who have been briefed on the plan. . . .

"But the question of how much authority should be given to a new intelligence chief remains the subject of sharp debate between members of the Sept. 11 commission, legislators and the White House, and it is unclear whether it will be resolved before the presidential election."

And, in fact, the Associated Press is reporting this morning that Bush will sign more than one executive order today.

"The moves will 'improve our ability to find, track and stop terrorists,' White House press secretary Scott McClellan said."

More Poverty, More Uninsured

Ceci Connolly and Griff Witte write in The Washington Post: "The number of Americans living in poverty or lacking health insurance rose for the third straight year in 2003, the Census Bureau announced yesterday, reflecting a job market that failed to match otherwise strong economic growth. . . .

"Hit hardest were women, who for the first time since 1999 saw their earnings decline, and children. By the end of 2003, 12.9 million children lived in poverty."

The number of people without health insurance also grew last year, to 45 million -- an increase to 15.6 percent from 15.2 percent.

Ronald Brownstein writes in a Los Angeles Times news analysis: "A disappointing record last year in poverty, middle-class income and the availability of health insurance threaten President Bush's effort to build faith in his economic performance at next week's Republican National Convention. . . .

"With the release Thursday of the Census Bureau's annual economic report card, Bush achieved an unwelcome trifecta: For each year of his presidency, the number of Americans in poverty and the number without health insurance increased while the median household income declined at least a little."

On the CBS Evening News, John Roberts, traveling with Bush in New Mexico, pointed out the particularly dire statistics for Hispanics. "Mr. Bush carefully avoided any mention of the census report," Roberts said.

Here's more information from the Census Bureau.

And today brings more grim news: Jeannine Aversa writes for the Associated Press: "The U.S. economy, struggling under the weight of a bloated trade deficit, grew at a relatively modest 2.8 percent annual rate in the second quarter, a slower pace of expansion than previously thought."

The 527s, Shadows and Smoke

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joined forces yesterday to seek legal action to reduce the influence of '527' political organizations, but the two remained in disagreement over whether Bush should condemn a television ad by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacking John F. Kerry's Vietnam service."

Balz also reports on McCain's interview yesterday with Washington Post editors and reporters.

Jim Rutenberg and Kate Zernike write in the New York Times: "Mr. Kerry's campaign dismissed Mr. Bush's moves yesterday, saying he was trying to divert attention from its charges that the Swift boat group is 'a front' for the president."

Here's the text of press secretary Scott McClellan's gaggle, notable for McClellan's use of the word "shadowy" eight times in as many minutes.

Blogger Wonkette proposes another drinking game.

What's a Relationship?

White House Briefing reader Lance Barron of Marietta, Ga., writes: "If the evidence the administration cites is strong enough to establish links between Saddam and Osama, then the evidence of a link between the so-called Swift Boaters for Truth and the Bush-Cheney campaign is overwhelming."

Tracking the Buck

Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post does a close reading of the two recent reports on the prisoner abuse scandal, one by a panel led by James R. Schlesinger, the other by Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay.

Diehl concludes in his op-ed column that "buried in their hundreds of pages of detail, for anyone who cares to read them, is a clear and meticulous account of how decisions made by President Bush, his top political aides and senior military commanders led directly to those searing images of naked prisoners being menaced with guard dogs."

Speaking of Abu Ghraib, here, for the president and everyone else, is NPR's explanation of how to pronounce it. (Thanks to Jeff Jarvis for the tip.)

Debate Watch

Michael Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times that Kerry yesterday challenged President Bush to weekly debates.

"The Commission on Presidential Debates has scheduled three Bush-Kerry debates: Sept. 30 in Miami, Oct. 8 in St. Louis and Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz.

"The panel has slated another for Vice President Dick Cheney and Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, on Oct. 5 in Cleveland.

"Kerry's campaign has accepted that schedule, Bush's has not."

An Invisible First Four Decades

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times that "there are almost no films or still photographs recording the formative moments in George W. Bush's early life.

"Two biographies of the president on Sunday, one on CNN and the other on MSNBC, explore his character on the eve of the Republican National Convention. But what is most striking is the paucity of visual images. George W. Bush describes himself as a born-again Christian; judging by pictures alone, however, it is hard to be absolutely sure he was alive before his 40th birthday in 1986."

On the Stump

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that Bush was talking a lot about 9/11 yesterday in New Mexico: "With the Republican National Convention beginning Monday in midtown Manhattan, the Bush campaign is eager to refresh Americans' memories of the president's finest hours: his actions after the terrorist attacks, when a divided country unified behind the president."

Here are the texts of the eerily similar speeches Bush gave yesterday in Farmington, Las Cruces and Albuquerque.

Today's Calendar

Bush flies to Miami this afternoon, where he gets a briefing on Tropical Storm Bonnie and Hurricane Charley at a Miami fire station, then speaks at a campaign rally.

Frank Davies writes in the Miami Herald: "President Bush plans to announce in Miami today that he will seek about $2 billion in disaster relief to help Florida cope with Hurricane Charley, a senior administration official said Thursday night."

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "In a six-day tour of battleground states, Bush's travels, starting Friday in Miami, demonstrate his ambition to reach beyond his conservative base and appeal to undecided voters."

Poll Watch

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "As President Bush heads toward next week's Republican convention in New York, he faces a conundrum: The same policies that have secured his conservative base and given him a slight lead in the presidential race are now complicating his bid to win over crucial undecided voters."

Here are the complete results of the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. They show that 47 percent of voters approve of the job Bush is doing, down from 48 percent last month; 48 percent disapprove, up from 46 last month.

On the NBC Nightly News, Tim Russert also described warning signs for Bush.

Jill Lawrence writes in USA Today: "President Bush enters his convention week holding a slight lead over Democrat John Kerry and regaining ground he lost after Kerry's convention on the key issues of handling terrorism and Iraq, a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows."

Here are those poll results. They show Bush's approval rating at 49, down two ticks from two weeks ago, and his disapproval rating at 47, up a tick from last month.

Cabinet Watch

Laura Meckler writes for the Associated Press: "Bush Cabinet secretaries have been traveling regularly to politically important states, often at government expense."

Olympic Games

Craig Whitlock writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's re-election campaign said Thursday it would continue to run television ads crediting his policies for the presence of 'two more free nations'" at the Olympics, despite objections from the U.S. Olympic Committee and Iraqi athletes."

Platform Watch

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "Staunch conservatives fumed about stem cell research, and some moderates fussed about abortion, but Republican Party platform writers easily squelched all serious dissent here Thursday and approved a 100-page document that supports President Bush's reelection campaign in virtually every respect."

Other Platform Watch

Michael Slackman writes in the New York Times that Bush "will give his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention next week from a small circular stage in a sea of thousands of delegates and other guests.

" 'We wanted the president to be closer to people and surrounded by people,' Mark McKinnon, Mr. Bush's chief media adviser, said. 'It sort of reflected his strength and character as the man in the arena.' "

Second Term Watch

Business Week's cover story asks if the new Bush economic team has the political muscle to turn the president's goals into reality. The "new econoids have scored points inside the Oval Office by working smoothly together. Yet some critics wonder whether that harmony conceals a lack of creativity and political muscle needed to push through the next chapter of Bush's economic reform."

Online, there's a Q&A with Joshua B. Bolten, the director of the White House Office of Management & Budget.

Jackie Calmes of the Wall Street Journal has this tidbit in the Washington Wire column: "Bush Mulls a plan to free up to 50 million taxpayers from having to file annual income-tax returns. The move would hinge on altering rules for withholding; employers and possibly financial-services firms would do more of the collection work. Taxpayers with the simplest finances would benefit. A 2003 Treasury study found more than 80% of those eligible would be current users of 1040A or 1040EZ forms."

Twins Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Barbara and Jenna Bush, 22, are not expected to make formal speeches at the GOP gathering in New York City, but they'll be very visible at the convention, hosting a youth concert and attending parties and luncheons.

" 'We're trying to build in as many public events as we can around the convention since they will not be having a formal speech,' said Susan Whitson, a spokeswoman for the twins, who declined an interview with The Associated Press."

Whitson used to be a spokeswoman for the FBI. Is this a move up?

The Latest From the Press Plane

Anne Schroeder writes in The Washington Post: "After a short flight trailing Air Force One from Waco, Tex., to Las Cruces, N.M., the press plane landing was as bumpy as the campaign trail. The pilot of the one-plane shuttle service was promptly dubbed 'Capt. Bang,' as at least one member of the entourage yelled out in alarm."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote in his pool report yesterday from Waco: "Visible behind Marine One was a plane missing parts of its tail and wing; original suspicions that it was the new press charter proved untrue."

Froomkin Watch

The column will be on hiatus through the Republican National Convention. See you next Friday.


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