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Tilting at Windmills

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February 12, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

AN INTERVIEW WITH BILL BURKETT....As promised earlier, here's the interview with former Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett regarding his charges that George Bush's National Guard files in Texas were "cleansed" back in 1997. This is not the entire enchilada, but it includes most of the interview directly relevant to the charges.

I'm posting this for two reasons. First, since Burkett's story has already been picked up by the mainstream media I think it's valuable to hear an extended interview with him that allows you to decide for yourself if his charges are credible especially since there are some less than flattering moments that may hurt as well as help his story. As with any verbatim transcript, it can be a little hard to follow in places, but it's worth plowing through the whole thing if you're really interested in all this.

Second, although I said I was skeptical about Burkett yesterday, several things have convinced me that his story is at least believable enough that it deserves wider exposure:

  • I talked to him on the phone for nearly two hours on Wednesday and his story hung together pretty well. In particular, his story of how he overheard the conversation in General James' office and then saw some of Bush's files in a trashcan makes more sense when you hear the details. It's fairly melodramatic, but it does make sense.

    In addition, although I haven't yet transcribed this part of the interview, he explained his "clarification" in 2000 that, as he puts it, seemed to "over-retract": basically, he got scared by the attention and backed down. He now admits it was a mistake.

    And finally, in the interview he provided the names of several fellow guardsmen who can corroborate his story. Although details are lacking this early, various of these people have already been contacted by reporters and have backed up Burkett's story so far.

  • The first (partial) corroboration is from George Conn. According to the New York Times, he declined specific comment on the charges but said via email, "I know LTC Bill Burkett and served with him several years ago in the Texas Army National Guard. I believe him to be honest and forthright. He 'calls things like he sees them.'"

  • Also from the Times is this: "A retired officer, Lt. Col. Dennis Adams, said Mr. Burkett told him of the incidents shortly after they happened. 'We talked about them several different times,' said Mr. Adams, who spent 15 years in the Texas Guard and 12 years on active duty in the Army."

  • A third person, Harvey Gough, was interviewed last year by Sander Hicks. Although the conversation was not specifically about Burkett's charges, Hough did confirm that he believed Bush's records had been scrubbed: "He says that Dan Bartlett and Danny James came to him at Camp Mabry in 1993, right after Bush was inaugurated as Governor, and deleted portions of Bush's TANG file. I asked Gough what he believed was scrubbed? 'I think quite a bit. I think all his time in Alabama.'"

  • Finally, USA Today has a corroborating quote from an anonymous source: "A second former Texas Guard official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, was told by a participant that commanders and Bush advisers were particularly worried about mentions in the records of arrests of Bush before he joined the National Guard in 1968, the second official said."

  • In addition, Jim Moore, a longtime Texas reporter (and, granted, hardly a fan of Bush), has talked with Burkett extensively for a soon to be published book titled Bush's War For Reelection: Iraq, the White House, and the People. Moore emailed me that he finds Burkett "immensely credible."

Put all this together and I think that Burkett's story is one worth hearing about from the horse's mouth. Here it is.

First, a bit of background about Burkett's service in the Guard.

I was a traditional guardsman, Vietnam era guardsman, lieutenant colonel, midlevel to senior level in rank and time. I was serving as the Mobilization Plans Officer for the Texas National Guard at the state headquarters, Camp Mabry, Austin, Texas, Building 8. Within that capacity as a traditional guardsman my primary objective was to assist units in planning and for mobilization and conducting mobilization of units either to training or to active duty mission situations.

How long were you with the Guard?

I was medically retired in 1999 after 28 years.


Burkett worked as a private management consultant, but after business dropped off in 1996 he accepted a full-time job with the Texas National Guard.

When did you go on active duty?

Spring of '96, I believe the actual order dates began in May of '96....That was all approved and I was granted unimpeded access to the Adjutant General's office. I only bring this up to you because this establishes accessibility.

You probably have not been at headquarters building at Camp Mabry?

No.

It's a large structure, two stories, runs north to south with a long hallway, primarily north to south. The Adjutant General's office is in roughly the center of the building, second floor, northwest corner. My office was again second floor.

Within his office, which is the command suite, there are a group of eight or ten offices. There's two entrances to it, which is a horseshoe type thing, and off of that goes into his secretary's office, which is his outer office, roughly eight by ten foot at most in size, with a receptionist type desk and his secretary, Henrietta Valderes. I customarily would go through her and with all due courtesies would see the general.

In some cases when the door was open or slightly ajar I would lightly knock and do the courtesies and I'd ask a quick question and be on my way. I tried not to bother him, but I still tried to maintain constant and continuous contact. We worked very well together for a long time.


Following is the account of how Burkett overheard the conversation about "cleansing" George Bush's National Guard files.

The occurrences here occurred in the early months, the spring months of 1997....I had meant to simply go in and, best I recall....I went in to ask a quick question, it was just a passing question, or maybe pass along some information, I don't remember specifically. I went into General [Daniel] James' outer office, Henrietta Valderes was not there, but the door was slightly ajar, I'd say roughly eight inches, and the reason I say eight inches is only because I wear a size seven and a half hat and I just basically stuck my head inside.

I heard voices, I figured somebody was on the blue couch or in the two wingback chairs that face his desk, and that's not seen unless you slightly stick your head inside the door. I stuck my head inside the door, saw that no one was there, and I was embarrassed. I stepped back and I waited for a second and I overheard this conversation.

And it was a short conversation that I overheard, I only heard a line or two of it, and I stepped out into the hallway because I was uncomfortable at this point.

And what was the conversation?

Well, that's where you really need to get Jim [Moore] because we have made sure that the words, I'm not going to get messed up on that deal. We've tried to make sure that the words were exact. I wish that you could get at least that part of the book faxed to you or something, I think that's very important that the words are exactly right.

I'd sure like to have as much I could here to make sure it's accurate....

I'm taking a look at one of his, and I'm going to have to, I've got a little draft of it, I'm trying to find the location as we speak, and maybe I can come back to that in a moment. Kevin, I'm going to try to help you all I can, and I'm going to trust that you'll at least treat me fairly.

At the end of our conversation Burkett said he would call me back with the correct quote later, but I was being injected with cortisone when he called. We played phone tag for the rest of the day but never got back in touch. However, today's USA Today story fills in the gap:

[Burkett] says he was just outside James' open office door when his boss discussed the records on a speakerphone with Joe Allbaugh, who was then Gov. Bush's chief of staff. In Burkett's account, Allbaugh told James that Bush's press secretary, Karen Hughes, was preparing a biography and needed information on Bush's military service.

In an interview, Burkett said he recalled Allbaugh's words: "We certainly don't want anything that is embarrassing in there."


So what happened next?

I was embarrassed, I know that was an emotion and a reaction, a driver. I was ashamed, my mother and dad didn't raise me that way to eavesdrop on people's conversations. I was troubled.

I don't guess I really realized the extent of being troubled except that that evening at dinner Chief Warrant Officer [George] Conn and I I lived in Abilene and he lived in Dallas or Cedar Hill we both went down during the workweek and stayed in officer's quarters there, so as he called it we were geographical bachelors. So at night, a couple or three days a week, I'd say an average of three days a week, we would have dinner together. And we didn't just casually comment on things, but I brought it up to him, I looked to him, he was also a preacher's kid, and we both had that haunting of sorts, of living right, of doing right, and preparing for the next life, so we talked about it that evening. I brought it up to him, so I must have been troubled.

I told him the next morning, I was again in the command suite, I was in the doorwell of the Quality Coordinator's office, and there was a gathering of people about to go into a meeting in the conference room of the command group. That gathering included General James, General [Wayne] Marty, Colonel Goodwin, and maybe one or two others. And I was standing there and we were talking slightly and an individual walked into that horseshoe hallway. The coffee machine is just in the hallway, is what it is, and anytime there's a group there at the coffeepot they block traffic. And general officers, as people will tell you, block traffic anyway.

Two individuals walked in. I didn't know either one of them personally, but I do know that General James addressed one and said, General [John] Scribner, the folks from downtown are going to come out, Karen Hughes and [Dan] Bartlett are going to come out and they're, and I'm paraphrasing here, are going to come out and they're going to write a book about the governor for use in the reelection campaign or whatever else is going to follow on, and they need you to open access to your files and retained records. And there was a quick addition to that by General Marty, "and make sure there's nothing in there that'll embarrass the governor."

Now these are just matter-of-fact statements, I won't qualify intent necessarily at this point. I'll come back and say some things about intent later if you'll remind me. General Scribner, who is what we call a political general of sorts, he is a Texas state Guard general, not a federal general, and he had the job of running the museum, and still has that job. Scribner just replied, basically in the affirmative, OK or something along that line, and he and the individual who was with him, who I did not know and have not identified, but believe he was the retained records person, left, immediately left. They just, like all of us were prone to do when two or three generals are standing around, the best thing you can do is leave the area. So they left.

I mentioned this again to George in passing at dinner and told him again, renewed that I was troubled about it. I don't know in what detail we talked about it, but I know we talked.


Following is the account of finding Bush's records in a trashcan, ready to be tossed away.

This went approximately ten days or a little bit later and Mr. Conn you'll read all of this, you really, really need this book Mr. Conn came to my desk, he and I, when I was moved to Plans Officer he became the Mobilization Plans Officer, his desk and mine were in cubicles across from each other.

Everybody knew me to be pretty much a workaholic, I'd say the minimum hours that I was at that desk was 12 and more likely 14 to 16 per day, and George sometimes would mother me a little bit, he'd come by and force me to take a break or something like that, so he came by at that occasion and he said, Colonel, get your hat, which implied to me that he wanted to take a break or we were going to go do something, and I probably laced back with him. I do have, even though I'm a preacher's kid, I do have a bad habit with my language, and I probably laced a little profanity back at him, just in banter, and he again repeated that term, get your hat, and I knew he was pretty serious. I knew George was a man of pretty few words, so I got my hat and we took a walk.

This is the second floor of the command building, building 8, long building, primarily laid out north to south. Typically what you do is go to the center of the building and there are a series of elevators and hallways there and you go to the first floor and then you go out and go where you want to go. In fact, very very seldom unless you had a need to go to the north side of that building, which was a low traffic area, would you go to the north side on the second floor. We went on the north side of the second floor to the north edge of the building, down a stairwell, out the north door, across a parking lot and I know you think I'm getting into extreme detail, but I want you to know that obviously this was a path and there was intention to it. I asked him when we got outside, I said, where are we going, George? And he said, Colonel, just walk with me.

This is the day after you overheard the conversation?

No this is about ten days.

OK, ten days after.

And I left out something. George Conn is a smoker. George Conn knew everything that was happening on Camp Mabry, he picked up every rumor, he knew where everybody was, what they were doing, George knew it all. When I asked him where we were going, I believe I asked him three times in our little walk, and once I remember he said, "Trust me." There may have been a little retort at some point, but basically it was a "trust me" response, whether it was one time or three or two or whatever.

We go behind the building, headed toward the academy building, which goes behind a dormitory structure, and then we go over to the museum and we walk into the doors of the museum. The museum is an old armory, World War II-Korean War era vintage armory, which is a large structure. You walk into these doors and there's a concrete floor there with a larger open space than a high school gymnasium.

To the left of that are several offices built in Korean War style with basically little or no top to them, they're basically walled units, and offices are 8 by 12 to 10 by 12, in that size. And at approximately 30 or so feet from that on this concrete floor, or as we call it, the drill hall floor area, was a folding table, just a commercial grade folding table, and what I recognized as a and you may know what I'm talking about. Do you know what a 15-gallon trashcan looks like?

Yeah, sure.

A metal gunbarrel style that we used for years and years in the military, that's what it was, and it was setting at the end of the table. George obviously knew General Scribner extremely well, and he says hello to him and there's little pleasantries and we walk up there, and as soon as we get there he introduces me to General Scribner, who I did not know. I said hello and very little if anything more. General Scribner was very polite, very punctual, very nice, and George carried on a conversation with him, basically asked him, OK, what are you doing, how's it coming? And obviously they had had previous conversations that he was working on files.

At that point I remember General Scribner saying that people downtown were coming out and they were going to do a book, and Bartlett and Hughes were coming out, and he'd been told to get all the files together and go through them and kind of clean them up a bit. And George said, well, what are you finding? And he says, well, he says he's been through it, and I'm paraphrasing all of this, he says, obviously lots of people have been through it, you know, there's just not as much here as I'd expected, mostly old press releases and that sort of stuff.

I'm standing there on one foot and another, very uncomfortable with this situation, I knew I'd been guided here and I knew why at that point. I was standing right next to the trash can. I mention that only for one reason, and that is my own alibi to my own conscience. I believe if I'd been one step away from the trash can I would not have done what I did, I would have been forced to make an obvious decision.

Instead I looked down into the trashcan. Underneath most of the trash the trash level was within two inches of the top I saw that the trash on the bottom was basically packing cartons, I do remember that there were a couple of elastic type straps and that sort of thing, and on top there was a little bit of paper. And on top of that pile of paper, approximately five-eighths of an inch thick, and Jim wanted me to estimate the number of pages and I said probably between 20 and 40 pages of documents that were clearly originals and photocopies. And it wasn't any big deal, I looked at it, it was a glance situation, and it made no sense to me at all except at the top of that top page was Bush, George W., 1LT.

And I look back at it now and I know I was troubled that those documents were in the trashcan. I did ruffle through the top six to eight pages.

And what were they?

Those documents were performance, what I term performance documents, which would include retirement points, [unintelligible] type documents, which would be a record of drill performance or nonperformance, and there was at least one pay document copy within the top six to eight pages of that stack that was in the trash.

Now, George Conn had brought you here deliberately....

I believe so. And that's the reason I traced the path, I don't think there's any doubt about it.

And was there any further conversation with General Scribner?

We were there talking just for a second, and as the conversation went on George and General Scribner moved back to the corner office, so I'm left alone. They talked, the maximum time that we were in the museum, from the time I shook the man's hand until we left, the time of the conversation and everything else could not have been less than five minutes or more than eight minutes.

What did George Conn tell General Scribner about why he'd brought you there?

He didn't.

He just showed up and....

We were just there, we just happened there. Just walking by and visiting. Now, General Scribner did not act, and I still do not believe to this day, that he felt like he was doing anything wrong. Now I'm going a little offline here about intent....

Even though he was throwing away documents from a file?

Well, I'll carry through with that. I do not believe General James at the time felt he was doing any more than taking care of the boss. I do not believe that General Marty or anyone else at the Texas National Guard saw it as anything other you have to understand the culture. If you understand that, in so many cases, especially when there is someone that is somewhat political in nature, and I think it proves itself throughout this whole case even down to a congressman's son in a unit, that when they want to promote somebody, they will oftentimes take full-time personnel and they'll go back and they'll make sure that that personnel file looks better than anyone else's when it goes forward for consideration before promotion boards.

[At this point there was a long digression about routine cleaning up of personnel files for officers up for promotion.]

So I'm telling you that from their intent I do not believe that Major General Daniel James, and I'm not trying to alibi him, I am trying to bend over backwards to be fair, I do not believe General Wayne Marty, Colonel Goodwin, General Scribner, or anybody else thought they were doing anything but taking care of the boss.

OK, what next?

All the way from the museum back I was terribly bothered and I obviously wanted to talk. I slowed down our walk and at one point I stopped our walk and I told George, I said, "God bless, George, what in the hell is going on and who in the hell is in charge?" I was upset, and he obviously, in looking back at it, I don't think he wanted to slow down or be seen, but at that point I wasn't really all that cautious of being seen.


In addition to George Conn, Burkett says he talked about this to four other people: Harvey Gough, Dennis Adams, and two unnamed friends.

So we talked about this again at a time approximately three weeks later. Mr. Harvey Gough, a Chief Warrant Officer, a traditional guardsman who had been the special projects officer under four or five governors and I don't know how many adjutant generals, he was the conduit for trying to gain missions for the Texas National Guard and improve the way we were doing business, and I had developed his role of being out there with the four stars like General Wes Clark and others. He was out there trying to do good things for the Guard and I was doing the strategic plan. We developed this working relationship along with everybody else that was on the same team, we were trying to improve the Guard.

Harvey Gough is very political, extremely political. He runs Goff's, [a restaurant] in Dallas, Texas, which is the old haunt of Governor Bill Clements. Many of the early actions to plan the Bush campaign in 1994 for governor were done right there at Goff's Restaurant. Jim Francis, who's the head of the Bush pioneer program, is Harvey's best friend, as background. I mean, Dan Bartlett got his job by seeing Harvey to get access to Jim Francis, that sort of thing. Highly political, all of this sort of thing. Harvey's a guardsman, I was registered as a Democrat but totally nonpolitical, had made sure that it stayed out of my consulting practice because the first thing you do when you get that into a consulting practice is you cut your own throat.

Anyway, I talked to Harvey about three weeks after the incident at the museum, only because I was very concerned that a very dangerous action had taken place that probably politically endangered Governor Bush, who I considered my ultimate boss. And I didn't know how to get that message through because I really didn't know who I could trust. And I thought the guys at the Guard out there were just, I mean, they were just good 'ol boys and didn't know better. They were just taking care of the boss.

If that was true this had to go direct, you know, get a handle on this darn thing, get it corrected. I did not know, for example, that in 1994 at the debates, didn't know this until November of last year, that in the '94 debates Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News, and I believe Jim Moore at that time was either ABC, CBS, or CNN, or something, they asked the question about Bush's military record in the fifth and sixth year in the '94 debates. I didn't know that. I was naive to all this stuff. I was just the wrong guy, wrong place, wrong time. So I mentioned to Harvey, and my objective was pure, you know, somebody get this worked out before it gets worse.

I had mentioned it to Conn, I kept it to myself, kept it under button, there were a couple of people that I did mention it to about the same time I did Harvey, who have told me plain and simple their job is in jeopardy and don't mention them to anyone, and I won't.

I did mention to a fellow that I had worked with, a fellow by the name of Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Adams, and told him also. I told him I was troubled about it. I trusted Dennis to serve maybe a little bit as an ethical advisor, maybe a little bit as a friend. He knew the system since he was a full timer for so many years, he knew the system far better than I. So I asked his counsel and advice on the situation too. So I had told about five or six people within the first three weeks of this occurring.

In all honesty I didn't know what to do. I did not know what to do. It was a moral dilemma for me, it was an ethical dilemma, it was a military uniform dilemma because I had breached the oath and creed of an officer in the United States Army. I was in that dilemma and I didn't know what to do. That's as straight as I can be. I swallowed it and I didn't do anything.


Nine months later, in January 1998, Burkett became ill during a trip to Panama for the Army and collapsed at the Abilene airport when he returned home. He spent the next five months trying to get medical care from the military and believes he was denied this care as a result of retaliation against him for earlier trying to raise the issue of "ghost soldiers" in the National Guard, a story that was eventually reported nationally in USA Today by Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard. He eventually filed a suit against the officers involved but lost the case.

In the process of trying to gain access to medical care, Mr. Conn, who is probably as good a personnel expert as there was at the time, even though he was not assigned in personnel. I relied on his expertise, he'd been in the field for so many years and he'd been on active duty for so many years, and I asked for his advice and counsel.

They downloaded his hard drive off his computer and....found an email that he had sent to me. They brought him in to the Chief of Staff's office where the senior JAG officer was, who read George Conn his rights. They offered him an attorney and began a court martial proceeding against him and showed him the email that he had sent to me. The only thing he was told as far as the reason for the court martial was that he had made derogatory remarks about the governor. What George had actually done in that email was tell me that this might require political leverage to include, and one of the issues was the governor's own military files.

So this email said exactly what?

This email indicated to me that, well, first it indicated that they had no legal or regulation right to keep me from medical care, that they were obviously blocking that and in order to just get access to medical care I might have to play the card at the governor's office. This is paraphrased, play the card at the governor's office, which might require some political leverage. And included within that information was including the governor's own military files.


Burkett says Conn was fired from the Guard the same day, presumably for advising him to threaten the governor's office with information about the missing files. Next up is Harvey Gough.

At the same time, Chief Harvey Gough, who had helped Colonel Goodwin get his job as Chief of Staff, and had helped Bartlett and all of these other people, was trying to run interference and trying to get me access to medical care. He confronted the Chief of Staff, Colonel Goodwin, and the way it's been told to me by Mr. Gough is that he and Colonel Goodwin had Mr. Gough is a real in-your-face kind of guy, he can sure get rank on you in a hurry that Colonel Goodwin had befriended him and asked for help, and Gough is the political guy, had asked for help to become Chief of Staff for the Texas National Guard, the state Chief of Staff, which he had done. There was a degree of familiarity, they cussed at each other quite normally and in fact Gough changed his clothes in the chief's office every time he came down to Austin. There was a familiarity there, but when Gough confronted Goodwin about my health situation Goodwin got angry, retorted back to him, and Gough called him a name, or referred to him in some manner with profanity, for which he was then submitted for court martial.

Now I want to bring up the background to that for this reason. About ten days or so later, this was not just an inner fight, it did seem it had gotten out of hand, so I called Dan Bartlett in Austin. And he did take my call that time, and I talked to Dan, and I was pleading for common sense on the case of Harvey especially, and on the case of all of this. I was just basically pleading that the whole thing had gotten out of hand, that it was all out of control, and that somebody needed to, well, I said somebody needed to pull their head out of their ass and get control of this deal. And Harvey Gough had served valuably, even though he was very political and we all knew him to be very political, Harvey Gough had done tremendous things for many governors, and for many adjutants general, and he was still being very well [unintelligible] and was bringing great profit to the organization, and he needed to stop this bull.

And Dan didn't respond a lot except he baited me on a couple of questions, and I told him, this is out of control. And he indicated, well, who would you put in charge out there? And he basically I think was asking me who should be the Adjutant General, I don't know, which I don't want to get into that, but there was some side loops in the conversation.

I know Dan was wary of the conversation at the time, but I did tell him, and I look back at this and I know he should have taken it different, I told him, I said Dan, Harvey's political, this whole situation has gotten political, and you know, there's a downside to this. There's some risks, including this personnel readiness issue, the readiness reports, even the governor's own files.

And he should have retorted back to me, "Are you threatening me?" But he did not. I was probably out of line in a way and yet I will tell you now that I was begging for what I at that point considered life saving help. I could not walk at that time. I was poured into a chair. We finished our call, nothing happened, they court martialed Gough, they kicked him out of the Guard....That was the first time that I personally know that the knowledge that the records issue was an issue was passed to Bartlett, Allbaugh, or somebody else.


The "ghost soldiers" story finally broke in late 2001 in USA Today at the time that General James had been nominated to be national head of the Air National Guard. At about this time, Burkett was able to tell his entire story to the DOD Inspector General's Office.

Within that time frame there were several people who submitted letters of concern to the Senate Armed Services Committee, both to the majority staff and minority staff and to individual senators. I was aware of those because I was sent many copies by a lot of people, but I sent one that included the assertions about what I had seen on the governor's record.

I got a telephone call here and they had to have an immediate response. They wanted to do an interview and I wanted my attorney present and they didn't want my attorney present, and we did a basic dance and finally put something together there and responded. And they had five, six, or seven attorneys in the room and my attorney was not allowed to be there, and we did it by teleconference, which, it was not a real fair setting but it didn't make any difference, it went off what I considered fairly. I don't know if anything else was done fairly, I would doubt it, but they took my testimony and I detailed this issue of the governor's military records and what I had seen....

And this is what date now?

January, I think it's going to be either the fifth, sixth, or seventh of 2002. That's the date that that interview took place.

Let me go back and make sure I understand this. This is a teleconference among who and for what purpose?

I submitted a letter of concern to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the appointment of Daniel James as director of the Air National Guard. That prompted the DOD Inspector General's Office to conduct this interview. All of my concerns were brought up in this teleconference.

And during this teleconference one of the things that you mentioned was the George Bush records?

Yes. The entire story. I detailed the entire story. And they asked for corroboration and I gave them names, Gough, I gave them Adams, I gave them Conn, and as requested by those other two individuals I left them out.

Kevin Drum 5:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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