Although both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have repeatedly said they have made public their complete military service records, neither presidential candidate has yet permitted independent access to original files held in a high-security vault.
The lack of outside verification of the military personnel records of the candidates has made it more difficult for journalists and historians to evaluate their Vietnam War-era service, which has been the subject of lively election-year debate. In Bush's case, Texas Air National Guard officials have also delayed or prevented public access to 30-year-old unit records that could shed light on whether he received favorable treatment from the Guard because of his father's political connections, as his Democratic opponents have alleged.
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More than seven months after the White House announced that Bush's records had been "fully released," files continue to trickle out almost weekly from the Pentagon and elsewhere. Some of the newly released records contradict earlier claims by the Bush camp, such as his assertion in a 1999 campaign autobiography that he gave up flying "because the F-102 jet I had trained in was being replaced by a different fighter."
In the past few weeks, both candidates have been forced to deal with questions about what they were doing in the Vietnam War even as they honed their debating points about Iraq and the war on terrorism.
Assembling a full Vietnam War-era record for the two men is complicated by the fact that the files are scattered around more than a dozen repositories. In addition to master personnel files on each candidate, which are at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, researchers have been looking for the records of the units in which they served. Typically, unclassified unit records are available to the public under much less restrictive conditions than individual files.
Both Bush and Kerry have made public hundreds of documents about their military service and posted them on the Internet. At the same time, they have retained control over their personnel records, making it impossible for outsiders to tell whether anything is being held back.
Chad Clanton, a Kerry campaign spokesman, replied to a request for independent verification of Kerry's master personnel file by saying it was unnecessary "since we've already placed John Kerry's entire military file on our Web site." White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said yesterday that the White House was "working with the Defense Department to accommodate [The Washington Post's] request to independently verify the completeness of the president's personnel records."
An analysis of records released by the White House and the Kerry campaign shows internal discrepancies that raise doubts about whether the full files have been released. Bush aides have made public two versions of the president's master personnel file, one in 2000 and one this February. Each version contains at least half a dozen pages missing from the other, suggesting that neither is complete.
In Kerry's case, it is difficult to tell which documents on his Web site come from his master personnel file. At least one document first posted on the Web site in August -- a recommendation for a Bronze Star -- appears to have come from his personnel file, contradicting earlier assertions by his campaign that everything in the file had already been made public.
Although the St. Louis repository is under the control of the National Archives, officials at the Archives say that the records belong to the military unit that generated them. In practice, they can be released to outsiders only with the permission of the veteran concerned. Such access is usually granted through the signing of a release known as Standard Form 180, a step that neither candidate has so far taken.
Scott Levins, assistant director for military records at the St. Louis repository, said the National Archives made copies of the candidates' master personnel files before temporarily releasing the originals to other government agencies for inspection and copying. He said these authenticated copies are now locked in a vault and can be inspected only with the permission of the originating agency.
Questions about Bush's military records have centered on how he gained a coveted pilot's slot in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 and why he gave up flying in 1972, more than two years before his six-year term ended. Kerry critics, meanwhile, have focused on how he won the three Purple Hearts that permitted him to return home early from Vietnam.
In part because Kerry served with the Navy rather than the National Guard, his unit records are much more accessible than those of Bush. The Navy maintains a historical center at the Washington Navy Yard where researchers can freely inspect the records of Kerry's Swift boat outfit, Coastal Division 11. The records include after-action reports and unit histories, which have made possible a detailed reconstruction of Kerry's day-to-day activities.
By contrast, National Guard officials say their Vietnam War-era records are sparse and poorly maintained. Because Bush's unit, the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, was not an active-duty unit, record-keeping was even more informal than in Guard units that served in Vietnam. Until recently, "nobody was interested" in its history, said Travis Evans, a Texas National Guard freedom-of-information officer who has been deluged by requests to access Bush records.