Illinois Senate candidate admits claim about military award was inaccurate

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 29, 2010; 5:41 PM

The Republican candidate for President Obama's old Senate seat has admitted to inaccurately claiming he received the U.S. Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year award for his service during NATO's conflict with Serbia in the late 1990s.

Rep. Mark Kirk, a Navy reservist who was elected to Congress in 2001, acknowledged the error in his official biography after The Washington Post began looking into whether he had received the prestigious award, which is given by top Navy officials to a single individual annually.

The Post's inquiries were sparked by complaints from a representative of state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Kirk's Democratic opponent in the Illinois Senate race.

Cmdr. Danny Hernandez, the Navy's assistant chief of information, said for several days last week that he was having trouble finding records to clarify the matter. Then on Friday, he said Kirk, an Appropriations Committee member who co-chairs an electronic warfare working group, had changed his Web site to incorporate a different account of the award.

In a message on his blog, Kirk wrote that "upon a recent review of my records, I found that an award listed in my official biography was misidentified" and that the award he had intended to list was given to his unit, not to him individually.

Kirk was assigned to a unit based in Aviano, Italy, during the conflict. A professional group, the National Military Intelligence Association, gave the unit an award for outstanding service, according to a revised résumé posted on Kirk's Web site Saturday.

The association's Vice Admiral Rufus L. Taylor Award celebrates "the exceptional achievements of an outstanding Naval Intelligence career professional," but the citation in 2000 contains no mention of Kirk and instead designates the entire Intelligence Division Electronic Attack Wing at Aviano.

Kirk, whose campaign has emphasized his military service as a reservist, similarly misstated the award during a House committee hearing in March 2002. In a remark recorded by C-Span, he said, "I was the Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year," an achievement he depicted as providing special qualifications to discuss national security spending.

Eric Elk, a spokesman for Kirk's campaign, declined to comment except to say "we found the award was misidentified and corrected the name."

Kathleen Strand, communications director for the Giannoulias campaign, said Friday that Kirk "is lying or embellishing his military record," making him "the worst kind of Washington politician."

An official summary of Kirk's military service, released to The Post by the Navy last week, lists other awards and decorations, including two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medals, a Joint Meritorious Unit Award, a Navy Unit Commendation, a Meritorious Unit Commendation, and a National Defense Service medal.

A copy of one of these commendations posted on his Web site describes him as the intelligence officer for a single squadron at Aviano and says he used a "keen analysis, far-reaching intelligence-gathering network and concise and complete flight briefings" to supply aviators with updates on the threats to their planes.

According to recent polls, he and Giannoulias are in a tight race. Giannoulias has been handicapped by the federal regulators' seizure last month of his family's bank.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company