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Tilting at Windmills

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February 15, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

ADVENTURES IN FORENSIC JOURNALISM....Former Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett says that members of George Bush's staff, along with senior officers at Texas National Guard Headquarters, purged Bush's National Guard files of potentially embarrassing material back in 1997. Is his story true?

First, let's review his claims:

  • He accidentally overheard a telephone conversation in 1997 between Joe Allbaugh, Bush's chief of staff, and General Daniel James, Adjutant General of the Texas National Guard. Allbaugh told James that Karen Hughes was preparing a biography and needed information on Bush's military service, and then added, "We certainly don't want anything that is embarrassing in there."

  • The next day he heard a similar hallway conversation. General James told General John Scribner that Bush's people were coming out, and General Wayne Marty added, "and make sure there's nothing in there that'll embarrass the governor."

  • Ten days later, Burkett's friend and fellow guardsman, George Conn, led him to the base museum, which was run by General Scribner. Once there, Burkett saw a trashcan sitting on a table, and when he looked in he saw 20 to 40 pages of documents with George Bush's name on them.

  • At the time all this happened he mentioned his concerns to three fellow guardsmen: George Conn, Harvey Gough, and Dennis Adams.

Unlike the basic National Guard story, which has been fuelled largely by odd discrepencies in the documentary evidence, there is no documentary evidence regarding Burkett's story. We just have his word for it, and needless to say, all the people he has accused of cleaning up Bush's records vigorously deny it.

To judge the truth of Burkett's story, then, all we can do is ask certain questions: Is Burkett's story internally consistent? Has it stayed consistent over time? Do other people corroborate it? Does Burkett have a track record of telling the truth? Does he have any axes to grind?

The short answer is that I think Burkett is probably telling the truth. The long answer is well, long.

So apologies in advance for the extreme length of this post it's going to be a long slog, but if you're really interested in this story you should read through the whole thing. At the end I've appended the full text of several interviews I've done so that you can see for yourself exactly what people said in their own words.

Is Bill Burkett's story internally consistent?

Burkett's full story is here, and as far as I can tell it's internally consistent. No part of his story seems to be directly contradicted by any other part.

Has his story stayed consistent over time?

Mostly yes, although the story here is mixed. Here's the timeline:

  • In 1997 Burkett told three people about the overheard conversation and about finding the documents in the trashcan. All three of them have corroborated this. (Although this part of the story is a bit complicated and will get more detail below.)

  • In 1998 he wrote a letter to Texas State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos outlining the same story. Dave Moniz of USA Today confirmed to me that he has seen a copy of the letter.

  • In November 2000 Burkett repeated the story to Linda Starr of Online Journal.

  • In 2002 he repeated his story again in a teleconference with the DOD's Inspector General's Office (although no transcript of this interview is available).

  • In 2003 he told the same story to Greg Palast.

  • And this year, of course, he has repeated it again on multiple occasions.

However, there's also this:

I'll talk more about the "retaliation" stuff below, but the bottom line is that it's pretty clear that Burkett has been under considerable stress from time to time and has both backed down or become overheated occasionally depending on his mood. This is obviously unhelpful to his credibility, but only at the fringes since the core outline of his story has stayed the same. Overall, I think the evidence shows that he has been telling pretty much the same story for seven years now.

Do other people corroborate Burkett's story? Other evidence?

Generally yes:

  • Harvey Gough told me on Friday that Burkett told him in 1997 "that folks from downtown had been over to Mabry, they came over and the word I used is "cleansed" the files, the word he uses is, you know, they cleaned 'em up he said they threw some of them in the trash, the ones they didn't like. Says they were trying to cover up something for later...."

  • Dennis Adams confirmed to both the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle that Burkett told him about the files in 1997. In addition, he told the Chronicle, "I have no doubt he is telling the truth."

  • George Conn is a more complicated case. He confirms that Burkett expressed general concerns about Bush's files to him, and also confirms that he visited the base museum with Burkett, but told the Boston Globe last week that he doesn't remember ever seeing anyone discard files. I talked to Conn on Friday and he said the same thing: Burkett didn't specifically tell him about overheard phone conversations or the documents in trashcans.

    But Conn's story doesn't hold up. In 2002 he told Dave Moniz of USA Today that Burkett had told him about overhearing the conversation in General James' office. Moniz confirmed this to me on Saturday morning.

    What's more, Conn has a distinct memory of visiting the base museum with Burkett, but when I asked him the purpose of the visit he said, "it wasn't an anything visit." It's hardly plausible, however, that he would have such a specific memory of a "nothing" meeting seven years later. He'd only remember it if something noteworthy happened there.

    So why is Conn declining to back up Burkett even though he thinks Burkett is "honest and forthright"? Harvey Gough told me that he spoke to Conn in Germany last week and that Conn was afraid of causing trouble: "He's running scared, because he doesn't want to lose his job over there."

    In other words, despite Scott McClellan's assertion on Friday that the Boston Globe story demolished Burkett's credibility, it didn't. In fact, the evidence very strongly suggests that Burkett did indeed discuss his story with Conn in 1997 but that Conn simply doesn't want to be involved any longer.

Bottom line: all three of Burkett's sources have confirmed his story.

In addition, there's a bit of outside corroboration too: Moniz's story quotes an anonymous source as saying that he "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." In other words, Burkett is not the only person who has expressed concern about how Bush's files were handled.

Finally, there's the fact that Bush's file really does seem to be pretty thin. There just isn't a lot there, especially after May 1972. Even Albert Lloyd, who was hired by the Bush campaign to validate his National Guard records four years ago, now thinks they're probably incomplete:


Albert C. Lloyd, a retired personnel officer in the Texas Air National Guard -- who helped the White House review Bush's file both in 2000 and recently -- said "original documentation" would have been filed when Bush performed his duties stating exactly where they were performed and what he did. "The document goes to the payroll office and shows he performed at X place for X hours on X dates," Lloyd said from his home in Austin.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Burkett thinks was purged from Bush's files.

Does Burkett have a track record of telling the truth?

In 1997 Burkett discovered that there were "ghost soldiers" in the Texas Guard, soldiers who were still carried on the rolls even though they never showed up for drill and weren't being paid. He tried unsuccessfully to blow the whistle on this and stop the practice.

In late 2001, Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard of USA Today finished a lengthy investigation into the problem of ghost soldiers nationwide and published a 3-part story about it. Moniz told me that everything Burkett had told him had checked out and that several other people with no axe to grind find Burkett to be believable as well.

In addition to Moniz, Jim Moore, a longtime Texas reporter who has interviewed Burkett extensively for a forthcoming book, emailed me that he found Burkett "immensely credible."

Does Burkett have an axe to grind?

This is the weakest link in Burkett's story: he has a huge axe to grind, and so do the people who have corroborated his story.

Here's what seems to have happened. Burkett uncovered the "ghost soldiers" problem in 1997 and tried unsuccessfully to get anyone to take it seriously. Then, in January 1998, after a trip to Panama for the Army, he collapsed in the Abilene airport and became seriously ill. For several months he was denied medical attention by the military and he blames this on retaliation from Bush aides who thought he was a troublemaker for pushing the ghost soldiers investigation.

All three people who have corroborated Burkett's story are also people who got involved in trying to get him medical care, and all three were eventually either court martialed or otherwise removed from the Guard possibly because of their parts in this. So they potentially have axes to grind as well.

And it gets worse. Burkett's illness seemed life threatening at the time and he was apparently panicked by it. In an effort to get the medical attention he wanted, he says he called Bush's office and talked to Dan Bartlett. During that conversation he came very close to threatening extortion over Bush's file cleansing unless he got the medical help he needed. Burkett says now, "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."

According to Burkett, Conn was part of this as well. He was removed from the Guard in 1998 after officials discovered he had sent an email to Burkett advising him that in order to get medical help he might have to "play the card at the governor's office." In other words, threaten to go public with the file cleansing charges.

Needless to say, this provides plenty of evidence that Burkett might simply be a disgruntled guy who didn't get some medical attention he thought he deserved and blamed it on retaliation from Bush. And it doesn't help that he's virtually admitted to extorting Dan Bartlett over this.

Conclusion

In summary, Burkett's story is consistent; it has mostly stayed consistent over time; it's been corroborated by his witnesses; it's been corroborated by outside sources; his previous story about "ghost soldiers" has been found to be true; and he's apparently considered pretty reliable by several people not associated with him.

On the other hand, he also has a big axe to grind. But whistleblowers often do, and while it's important to keep motives in mind it's more important to consider the actual evidence at hand. In this case, it supports his story.

Bottom line: I provisionally think the evidence supports Burkett. He's telling the truth.

Postscript

At the same time, it's not clear to me that this story is going anywhere. Even if it's true, Burkett is the only person making the charge. The others are merely corroborating that he told them about it back in 1997. They didn't see it themselves.

Unless other actual eyewitnesses come forward to confirm Burkett's account, it's just his word against everyone else.

Note on sources

This has been incredibly longwinded. Sorry about that. But I thought it was worthwhile to spell out in detail precisely what the evidence for and against Burkett is so that readers who are interested can judge for themselves what to believe.

As an aside, I'd also like to point out that it's an example of the kind of forensic journalism practiced routinely by mainstream reporters. I see a little more mockery of journalists than I'd like in the blogosphere, and I think a lot of it is because too many people don't realize how much reporting and how much judgment are behind the small snippets of writing that end up on newsprint or on the air. All I did was make a few phone calls for this post, and far from "breaking new ground," this is life as usual for reporters except that they have to boil down everything I've written here to a few sentences and there's no way for readers to know what those sentences are based on.

But that's one of the nice things about blogs: if I feel like spending a lot of time on a single topic I can do it, and if I feel like posting all the detailed background information I can do that too. I hope you found it an interesting exercise.

Transcripts of the relevant sections of my interviews with Burkett, Gough, and Conn are below.

Interview with Bill Burkett, 11 February 2004

I got a phone call from Harvey Gough this morning, it's the first time I've talked to Harvey Gough in a series of eight to ten months.

The purpose of Harvey's call was to tell me that he had just gotten a phone call from George Conn and I want you to understand this, and I will not point an accusing finger, but I will tell you lots of strange things have happened here in the past ten to eleven days.

[Digression about computer problems, death threats....]

Harvey Gough called me this morning and told me that George Conn had called him this morning and told him he was scared to death, he had everybody falling off the walls trying to reach him, and that he wasn't going to talk to anybody. Now, he is in Germany, he has a contract military position with the DOD, and he feels that it's in jeopardy. The only way that I have to reach him is an email address and I really don't feel comfortable in sharing it, but if you do talk to Harvey Gough I would suggest that you ask him if he knows how to reach George Conn.


Interview with Harvey Gough, 13 February 2004

Bill told me sometime in '97, I can't tell you exactly when, I couldn't tell anybody exactly when, that folks from downtown had been over to Mabry, they came over and the word I used is "cleansed" the files, the word he uses is, you know, they cleaned 'em up he said they threw some of them in the trash, the ones they didn't like. Says they were trying to cover up something for later, and that's about what he had to say.

So he told you specifically that he had seen them throw files in the trash?

Yes, I mean, at that time he said that he saw them destroying the files, not throw 'em in the trash.

[Digression about rumors from other sources that Allbaugh, James, and Scribner had cleaned up Bush's files.]

What did George Conn tell you?

George says, "I ain't sayin nothing. I ain't talking. It's Bill's problem, let Bill solve his own problem, but I'm not talkin to anybody, and since then Conn's gotten on my case for giving out his cell phone number.

Why did Conn say he wouldn't talk?

Well, because he doesn't want to get involved. He's running scared, because he doesn't want to lose his job over there.


Interview with George Conn, 13 February 2004

What parts of [Jim Moore's] book are right and what parts are wrong?

That was the comment about the Boston Globe, I believe, it was relating to the book, not any conversation particularly with Burkett.

[Some digressions, followed by a question about whether he took Burkett to the base museum back in 1997.]

Took him is a bad word. He and I left the building, Building 8, and walked over to Building 6, which is not too far, maybe less than a hundred yards, and it's directly across the road. The Texas Military History Museum...we went over for him to initially meet General Scribner. I'd known him for a number of years. Colonel Burkett did not know him.

Now why did you go there? Was it your idea? Bill's idea?

No, no, we had talked about it sometime before that to get some Colonel Burkett was working on some visions, he did a Visions book, he was working for the Adjutant General, General James, and I was just assisting him and meeting Scribner because he had been around the National Guard for a number of years and Burkett was a relatively new insider to the Guard because his military service had been in New Mexico. So he did not know a lot of the older people that I knew, so it was just an introduction visit, or if Burkett needed anything he could know and say, hey, he would know who General Scribner was and he would be able to get the information if he needed any for his research, organizational type research.

So it was a, it wasn't an anything visit.

OK, now Bill says he had talked to you previous to this about his concerns that things were going on with the files. Is that true? Did he talk to you about that?

He, um, mentioned a concern over dinner. We had dinner frequently, we were both geographical bachelors down at Camp Mabry, down in Austin. I'm from the Dallas area and he was from Abilene, so we stayed there, he stayed in one building and I was in another building. We had dinner quite frequently, several nights a week. And it just in passing it kind of came up, and we talked about a lot of the hypothetical stuff relating maybe, uh, the conversation was very varied as to things that we talked about, and it came up that he just sort of in passing, you know, a "what if" type thing. Nothing, other than that.

You mean, what if, what if what....?

Was it possible for Governor Bush's records to be purged, would they be tampering with them, how could they be accessed, did I, you know, that type stuff.

Asking what? If you'd ever heard about this, or if you knew it could be done, or what?

No, not that I and I had not heard about it and I may have shared that with him, I don't know. I don't recall the this was a very minor conversation at the time.

And did he mention anything about why he was asking?

No he did not. I did not, I was not aware until I heard in the, that something in this book that he had stood outside the Adjutant General's door, had overheard a conversation that was on the speakerphone between the Adjutant General and supposedly someone downtown in the governor's office. He never shared that with me.

So even after this visit to the museum and so forth he never mentioned that?

No, not before or after, I never recall him telling me that.

The conversations you talked about where he mentioned it in passing after that did he ever talk about it again?

I don't recall.

I talked to Bill for a couple of hours on Wednesday and to me he's just a voice on the phone. You've known him, what do you think about him? He's making these charges, they're obviously very, very serious, what do you think of his character? Do you think he's telling the truth? Should I believe him?

I'm going to let you be the judge of that, and I'm not even going there. I'm sure in the course of the discussion with Colonel Burkett he talked about his health problem

Oh yeah, sure, sure....

OK. That may, it by no means makes him unbalanced or anything else, and I would never say anything derogatory about him. We had a very good relationship, we talked, our cubicles were very near one another, in fact across an aisle, and we went through, you know, some stuff together, the military end of it. And I would, you'll have to make up your mind if he's telling you the truth or what his, what he wants to gain by this. I don't know. I am not, I have never in my entire life seen an Air National Guard record, piece of paper, file, or anything else with the name of Bush on it. Any of the Bushes, I don't even care which one it is, any of them. I never saw that.

You said you never talked to Jim Moore about his book, but have you talked to Harvey, to Bill, to anybody recently about this?

I have not talked to Burkett, uh, maybe I, uh, email, I sent him a Christmas card, my wife and I did. I haven't talked to him in a couple of years I'd imagine.

So after that initial conversation all the way back in '97 in passing....

I don't think I've had a conversation, well, I transferred from the Texas Army National Guard to the United States Army Reserve in '98, I believe it was, I've slipped since then. I doubt if I've talked to Burkett since then. I don't recall it.

OK.

It's been several years.

Kevin Drum 10:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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