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Kerry's War Record

Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2004; 1:00 PM

For the past few weeks, long-standing presidential campaign themes such as the economy, health care and even the war in Iraq have been overwhelmed by angry charges and countercharges about what Sen. John F. Kerry did, or did not do, during his tour of duty in Vietnam. John E. O'Neill and the advocacy group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have accused Kerry of being less than truthful about his service and of "betraying" his comrades and "dishonoring" his country by making false accusations that many of them had committed war crimes.

Washington Post staff writer Michael Dobbs has been reporting on the Swift Boat Veterans' charges and the Kerry campaign's response. In Saturday's Post, Dobbs reconstructs the post-war careers of both Kerry and O'Neill, based on more than 20 interviews, research in the National Archives in College Park, reviews of dozens of books and newspaper articles and an interview with O'Neill.


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After Decades, Renewed War On Old Conflict, (Post, Aug. 28)

Dobbs was online Monday, Aug. 30, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the conflicting accounts and The Post's investigation into the controversy surrounding Kerry's Vietnam service.

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. I appreciate your interest in my reporting, and will be answering your questions about the Swift Boats and Kerry's post-war record over the next hour.

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Fulda, Minn.: Your investigation is being cited by the Kerry campaign and its supporters as an umambiguous refutation of the claims made by the Swift Boat Veterans. Do you agree with that position?

Michael Dobbs: I assume you are talking about the earlier articles I wrote, not the one I wrote this weekend about Kerry's post-war record. In my previous reporting, I focused on one particular incident, on March 13, 1969, as a result of which Kerry won a Bronze Star. I feel that my reporting refutes some claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but not all. I have not examined all their claims in detail. I also respect the memories of everyone who was on the river that day. Sometimes, people remember things differently. That is part of what is known as the fog of war.

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Denver, Colo.: You mentioned in a previous forum that Bush/Cheney's wartime record should be further examined before the election, and that you intend to look at it. Given the story that broke yesterday about how Bob Barnes helped Bush into the National Guard broke... will you be exploring this in more detail?

Since the President seems pretty driven to talk about the idea of an "ownership society," there may be legs to a backgrounder on the "entitlement society" and how Bush and Cheney steered clear of the Vietnam War.

Michael Dobbs: We carried a brief wire report on Bob Barnes's comments. I think that Bush and Cheney's wartime records are fair game--with the proviso that fresh information is needed to make them a story, rather than simply regurgitating old controversies.

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Greenbelt, Md.: In 100 words or less, justify the smothering press coverage of this bush-league smear job.

I've now joined the great apathetic majority now thanks to the focus on this self-absorbed baby-boomer garbage. Kerry shares the blame for basing his campaign on stuff from five or six wars ago, but the press is even worse. Other than endlessly stroking the most selfish generation's ego, what does any of this have to do with electing a president?

Michael Dobbs: You seem to be interested enough in this story to engage in an on-line conversation about it. I think that the public interest in this story illustrates the hold that Vietnam continues to exercise on the public imagination, three decades after the war ended. In addition, I feel that a serious newspaper like the WP has an obligation to independently examine claims and allegations that are being debated on every talk show in the nation. There are some things that newspapers can do better than TV talk shows, and this is one of them.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Dobbs,

Why is it that these allegations against Kerry are only coming to light at this time? Surely the Nixon administration would have sought to discredit Kerry during his anti-Vietnam War activities and if the information were true and available, they would most certainly have used it. Why has it taken 35 years for all this to come to light?

Michael Dobbs: The Nixon administration did attempt to discredit Kerry, as my story last Saturday demonstrated. It's true that a lot of attention has been paid to Kerry's war record this election. One reason for this is that he himself has chosen to make it such a central part of his campaign. If you go back to his previous Senate campaigns, however, in Mass., you will find that there were similar controversies, albeit with different accusers and defenders. Some of his earlier defenders have now become his accusers...

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San Antonio, Tex.: Doug Brinkley of New Orleans and Kerry biographer has said in a very recent interview that he does not have exclusivity rights to Kerry's materials: Vietnam diary and old personal letters to parents, Judy Thirne Kerry, and friends, sent home from Vietnam. To the best of your knowledge, how hard is mainstream media working for access to Kerry's materials? Is the Kerry campaign cooperating?

Michael Dobbs: I can only speak for myself. I have repeatedly asked the Kerry campaign to provide me with access to his journals and writings, particularly those relating to the Bronze Star incident which I have written about in detail. They have declined my requests so far. You are right to point out that Brinkley now says these papers are under Kerry's control. He appears to be renouncing the exclusivity agreement cited earlier by both him and Kerry as a reason for not granting independent access to the papers.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Do you think the links between Bush and the Swift Boaters are as strong as the links between Saddam and al Queda detailed by Vice President Cheney prior to our invasion?

Michael Dobbs: That's a provocative, and amusing, question that I think I will pass on. I looked at the substance of the charges, rather than the links between Bush and the Swift Boaters. That is the subject for a different inquiry. I was unconvinced by the evidence Cheney provided of links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda.

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Alexnadria, Va.: How many of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have you interviewed?

Michael Dobbs: Around 20, I think, but I cannot give you a precise number, including the entire chain of command, including Adm.Hoffmann, John O'Neill, and as many members of SBVT I could find who were present on the river for the Bronze Star incident. In general, they have been very cooperative in letting me speak to their members.

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Kansas City: Wayne Langhofer and Jim Russell, crewmen on the boat behind Kerry's, and Robert Lambert who was on Larry Thurlow's boat all came out last week and supported Kerry's Bronze Star story yet Langhofer's comments were buried, Russell's were limited and I couldn't find Lambert's story being reported by The Post. What gives? Last week Brit Hume used your story to buttress his argument that Kerry's version of events is being legitimately questioned.

Michael Dobbs: As you see, both sides are using my reporting to buttress their claims and arguments, so at least nobody can accuse me of excessive partisanship. I did not know of Jim Russell's existence when I wrote my story about the Bronze star incident, and was unable to talk to Robert Lambert. I hope to return to this subject at some point to update readers on what I have learned since the original piece appeared.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you wonder why Senator Kerry will not allow himself to be questioned by the press about his service and awards in Vietnam? Why is that?

Where are Senator Kerry's records and did he ever serve his obligation in the Ready Reserve upon his return to the U.S.? How could a U.S. officer, who had sworn an oath, meet with NVA and Vietcong leaders in Paris while still a member of the Ready Reserve?

Michael Dobbs: Kerry has given interviews to the press on this subject in the past, but you're right, he doesn't seem to have given any since the current controversy flared up again in early August. I would very much like to talk to him,but have had no luck so far in my requests for an interview. His personal records are with the Naval Personnel Command in Tennessee.

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New York, N.Y.: Some on the right, including apparently the Chicago Sun-Times, appear to be suggesting John Kerry's medal citations are forged. Do you know anything about this? Because it sounds to me like it's crazier than those people who thought Clinton killed Vince Foster.

Michael Dobbs: Some have said that he claimed a V with his Silver Star, when the Silver Star does not come with V for valor attached. It could be this an honest mistake, on his part or someone else's.

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Fair Oaks, Calif.: It appears that the Washington Post and Mr. Dobbs in particular continue to revel in the Swift boat story. Why is that Mr. Dobbs -- have you nothing else to report? Actually, this election is between a draft dodger and a Vietnam veteran. Is this not so?

Michael Dobbs: I plead guilty to being interested in this story, but then I am a bit of a history nut, and I am fascinated by the way that Vietnam continues to be such a source of continuing division and acrimony in this country.

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Miami, Fla.: What would you suggest the best course of action would be to clear up any remaining questions and issues surrounding John Kerry's service during his time in Vietnam and his activities during his six-year reserve period.

In other words what should Kerry do?
What should Bush do?
What should you the press do?
And what should we, the voters, do?

Michael Dobbs: I think that both Kerry and Bush should grant full independent access to their military records. As far as I have been able to ascertain, neither man has yet done so. I think the press should continue to do its job, namely conduct a fair and dispassionate inquiry into the holes in the records. I think that voters should make up their own minds on which candidate to vote for on the basis of their entire record--past, present, and future.

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Urbana, Ill.: Mr. Dobbs,

Has the Swift Boats incident at all changed the way you understand political reporting? Are there lessons you have drawn from the controversy and the surrounding reportage? Are current norms and practices of newspaper reporting working? Do you have any suggestions for improving the coverage?

Michael Dobbs: I think a lot of the reporting--particularly on the TV talk shows--has degenerated into partisan slanging matches that does not illuminate very much. This is a story that cannot be resolved by 20-second soundbites. I am in favor of more reporting, and less bloviating.

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Washington, D.C.: I keep hearing the talking point over and over that Kerry made his war experience a campaign issue. But given that this book by O'Neill was in the works for a while, wouldn't it have been an issue whether he wanted it to be or not?

Michael Dobbs: You are no doubt right that the O'Neill book would have come out anyway, whatever Kerry's approach at the Democratic party convention, since it was in the works for some months. My understanding, however, is that the Swifties only began to get organized after the Iowa caucus (and the emotional reunion between Kerry and Rassmann, which gave Kerry huge political momentum), and the Douglas Brinkley biography which went into great detail about Kerry's Vietnam experience, largely from Kerry's point of view. The Swifties organized in response to those two events.

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Dublin, Calif.: Seems to me that the Swift Boat Vets are mostly pushing for Senator Kerry to sign a Standard Form 180 so the navy can release all his military record.

Do you feel this is a resonable request?

Michael Dobbs: I think that Sen. Kerry should allow independent access to his military records. If this involves signing a SF 180, as it appears to do, I think that he should do this.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Dobbs, let me begin by thanking you for doing such a fair and detailed job on this story. Much of your reporting has been hailed by both sides. Much has been criticized by both sides. That tells me you are doing a great job.

Here is my question. John Kerry's campaign manager (I think his name is Mehan) keeps going on TV and saying that Kerry has released all of his military and medical records. However, he has clearly not signed form 180 and there are some important records not publicly available.

Why is Kerry being allowed to get away with stonewalling on this and how come his campaign manager is getting away with simply not being honest?

Michael Dobbs: See my answer to the previous question. As you point out, Kerry spokesmen have repeatedly said that he has put his entire military record on the web (johnkerry.com). If this is so, I cannot see why they should have an objection to an independent researcher (myself or someone else) taking a look at the original file. Same argument applies to the Bush campaign.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Your article pitches the Kery-O'Neill history in purely political terms -- angry young vet, Nixon pawn, etc. But what about the FACTS -- were the Winter Soldiers accounts of atrocities that Kerry brandished before an international press factual or not? Were they fair to Kerry's comrades (at the time) or not? You hardly reference the FACTS!

Michael Dobbs: Did the U.S. commit atrocities in Vietnam, and if so, how widespread were they? This can, and has, been the subject of endless newspaper investigations, beginning with My Lai and going through the Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Toledo Blade last year.

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Westerville, Ohio: Have you done further investigation as to who wrote the After Action Report for March 13, 1969? If so, do you feel Sen. Kerry is responsible for writing the report? To me, it seems to be written from the perspective of PCF-94(his boat).

Michael Dobbs: This is still unresolved. There are arguments to be made on either side, and I may come back to it. You are right that portions of the report do seem to be written from the perspective of PCF-90.

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Lewes, Del.: The Washington Post sued President Bush for his military records. Will you do the same for John Kerry?

Michael Dobbs: I am not sure we sued Bush for his military records. The Associated Press were the ones who sued Bush.

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Paso Robles, Calif.: I am interested less in the articles you've written recently about Messrs Kerry and O'Neill than in a journalistic question about style. What struck me in reading your essays is the extent to which you attempted to link Mr. O'Neill to the discredited President Nixon, suggesting without ever saying that anything he has done since is somehow tainted by his connection to the Nixon White House. This is pretty much the tactic of of Senator McCarthy and I wonder how, as a journalist and critic at one of the nation's newspapers of record, you justify that kind of (I hope and trust) discredited guilt by association approach. I've gone through the two most recent things you've written on Kerry/O'Neill and the references to Nixon are almost superfluous to the overall thrust of the story. So, how do you, a critic and journalist, justify a technique your own newspaper so rightly denounced some 50 years ago? And, what has happened to the editorial quality of The Post?

Michael Dobbs: I was laying out the historical record, which seems quite clear. O'Neill did have dealings with the Nixon WH at the same time he was appearing in anti-Kerry debates in 1972. What you make of this is up to you.

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Stuart, Fla.: Are you satisified that you have all the records to complete your investigation of John Kerry's service? Has The Post applied for release of Kerry's military records under the freedom of information act?

Michael Dobbs: Yes, we did apply for release of Kerry's military records under FOIA. We got six pages of information.

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Seattle, Wash.: Why is the media not collectively demanding Kerry sign Standard Form 180 to release all his records, as they demanded of Bush? And the medical records he promised but failed to release? The White House's Scott McClellan endured weeks of hostile questioning, why hasn't the same pressure been applied to Kerry's people?

Michael Dobbs: I can only speak for myself. I am asking for independent access to his records.

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Evanston, Ill.: How do the Nixons, and the Colsons, and the Atwaters, and the Roves, and the Bushes, manage to get the press to do their dirty work election after election? Why didn't George Bush get this kind of extended, negative scrutiny when he first ran for president in 2000? Why does pack journalism get sicked on Democratic nominees but not Republican ones? Is the press that much in awe of the East Coast Establishment?

Michael Dobbs: To be fair to the press, there was extensive discussion of Bush AWOL claims earlier this year. If more information comes out, we should report it.

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Munich, Germany: With such large discrepancies in the 35 year old memories of men who were within a couple of hundred yards of each other, how do you see your chances of resolving this issue?

Is there no reliable, journalistic instrument of torture to get to the unbiased, unpartisan and politically unmotivated truth?

Michael Dobbs: I think I am working toward a fairly complete understanding of what took place on the river on March 13, 1969. There will no doubt be some disputes we can never resolve. If you have ever talked to eyewitnesses to a battle 15 minutes after the battle, you will usually get contradictory accounts. You can imagine how difficult it is to get a consistent account 35 years later.

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Clinton, Md.: How is it a group with an agenda can set the framework in which a story is reported? How does the media allow itself to be highjacked? For example, 21 years ago, a group of nutters, including the New York Times reporter, were spreading the tale that the KGB was behind the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. You, Edward Herman and an ABC 20/20 reporter were the only ones to investigate and report the truth. The same situation happened here with Swift Boat lies.

Michael Dobbs: Thanks for reminding me about my investigation of the alleged "Bulgarian connection" to the attempted assassination of John Paul II. You have a long memory! I was proud of that reporting, and I believe it has largely stood the test of time.

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San Francisco, Calif.: One of the chief architects of the attacks on John Kerry is John O'Neill, a man with close ties to the old Nixon administration's dirty tricks machine. Shortly after his attacks on Kerry, O'Neill became a law clerk for then Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist.

Did O'Neill receive any help in getting this prestigious position from the White House or friends of Nixon? If so, is there any evidence of help based on his attacks on Kerry?

Michael Dobbs: Don't know.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: In June, Ben Barnes, the former Texas Speaker of the House, said on tape that he knows George W. Bush got preferential treatment to get into the Texas Air National Guard because he, Barnes, gave him that special treatment. Given all the news scrutiny of John Kerry's service record, I would love for some news agency to explain how Barnes' admission is not news.

Michael Dobbs: We had a story about Ben Barnes's comments on Sunday. I would certainly be interested in learning more about this. As far as I know, he is not giving interviews at present.

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Mountain City, Tenn.: When the Republican Party and President Bush leads the media around do you waddle and go quack quack? When I was a child I had a toy that did that and the media is nothing but a toy for Geroge Bush and his henchmen.

The old saying "control the message and control the debate." You let the Republicans change the message from the economy, Iraq and other relevant topics to something which happened 35 years ago. The media makes me sick -- get wise and lets talk about the sick economy, health care, jobs, etc.

Michael Dobbs: I have written many articles that were not appreciated in the WH, so I contest your premise that we simply waddle around after George Bush, agreeing with everything he says. That said, I had better get back to some reporting. Thanks for joining this discussion.

Quack, quack, quack!

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Michael Dobbs: We got nearly 400 questions. I am sorry I could answer only a fraction of them. Hopefully,we will have another opportunity. Thanks!

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