August 21, 2004
Querying Kerry in CambodiaBy Thomas Lipscomb
John Kerry is beginning to look as clumsy as George Bush in answering questions about his military records. In February Bush was accused by Terry McAuliffe on Tim Russert's Meet the Press show of having been AWOL on his National Guard service in Alabama. In spite of Bush's appearance on Russert's show in March promising to release his records, it took another six weeks of White House fumbling before they were made available.
The records released were incomplete. According to the White House, some of the records were misplaced. Frustration mounted until the Associated Press actually sued Bush for release of all records in June and the missing records finally were found in July. They proved Bush's contention that he had served to the satisfaction of his commanders and his honorable discharge was deserved. This might have ended the matter, but the confusion with which the White House bungled the issue for five months has still left many with the misperception that the White House is still hiding something.
Now it is John Kerry's turn. And in some ways Kerry's condition is more perilous. The accusation against Bush was launched by gonzo film maker Michael Moore and Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe gleefully made the most of a wonderful opportunity to contrast Bush's stateside service with his bemedalled opponent's record in Vietnam.
But now accusations about Kerry's record have been raised by an organization of 274 'Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.' These are officers and men many of whom had actually served with Kerry. Many of them were in the same unit with him, some on the same boat. Those questioning Kerry's record are registered as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And it includes all the 17 officers serving with Kerry who were still alive, all his colleagues and commanders, except one.
By choosing to stand on the record of his four months' service in Vietnam in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, rather than the intervening 35 years and his Senate record, Kerry created a valid target for inquiry. But how vulnerable is it, really?
The first line of defense of the Kerry campaign was that if you weren't on the boat with Kerry as one of his crewmen, you couldn't possibly know what was or was not true about his service as its commander. But Swift Boats never operated alone. Like most World War II aircraft, they closely supported one another on their missions and two, four, six or more Swift Boats routinely operated together. And like those aircraft pilots and their crewmembers, Swift Boat commanders and the crews on other craft were well aware of what they thought were acts of bravery or screwups by other boats.
Fortunately for Kerry, the Swift Boat Vets arrayed against him have wasted a lot of time arguing about the validity of Kerry's various medals. Any veteran knows all too well that where there are awards there are injustices. The Marquis in Stendahl's Red and the Black put it this way to the ambitious young social climber, Julien Sorel, the antihero of the novel: 'Medals are not earned, they are bestowed.' Any veteran hearing that line will nod ruefully in agreement.
However, the Swiftvets may have scored a hit below the waterline on Kerry's candidacy with the collapse of the florid 'Christmas in Cambodia' fairytale Kerry has been flogging for 30 years to the press, in speeches, and in his own campaign publications and webpage. In a speech on the floor of the Senate Kerry called it one of the defining moments of his life.
But the Swiftvets forced Kerry to admit what his own journal and historian Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty showed—Kerry spent Christmas 50 miles from Cambodia in Sa Dec. So now Kerry says he misremembered —— his trips into Cambodia actually took place in January or February of the following year. His campaign has to back this up to save what is left of Kerry's credibility, before the embarrassed silence of the major media gives way to a real desire to find out what else Kerry may have lied about. And it's not going to be easy.
Kerry's memory failed earlier in March explaining that he couldn't remember his participation in a vote by a national meeting of hundreds of members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War considering the assassination of six US Senators supporting the war effort in Vietnam back in November of 1971. He had been placed at the meeting by eyewitnesses, some who currently worked for his campaign, and contemporaneous FBI reports. Kerry was on the VVAW Executive Committee at the time, and when he was asked about it, he was a US Senator himself. He had denied being present. Now he admitted it must have slipped his mind.
This time Kerry has done exactly what he did the last time. He never personally answers the accusations. At least Bush replied directly to NBC's Tim Russert about the AWOL charge. Kerry leaves that task to his ever—changing spokesmen. And now the thankless job of trying to prove Kerry went on secret operations in Cambodia has been left to Kerry's official biographer Douglas Brinkley while Kerry goes on yet another vacation.
Look at the challenge Brinkley has set for himself in his statement to the London Telegraph last week:
"Kerry went into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions. He had a run dropping off US Navy Seals, Green Berets and CIA guys."
This really raises the ante. All Kerry had said until now was that he had been in Cambodia on "more than one occasion." It won't be easy to find "three or four" occasions in that time period. Remember Kerry crewmember Steve Gardner was with Kerry for almost all of January, and Gardner has already said he never went into "Cambodian waters."
In any case, these were not 'clandestine' missions. They were almost routine, well—documented and took place under the direction of Kerry's superior officers who had to detach Swift Boats from other duties to handle these insertions. And there were indeed missions dropping off or picking up specialty troops like Seals and Underwater Demolition Teams along the Coastal 11 sector of South Viet Nam from Ha Tien on the Cambodian border around the Ca Mau peninsula to the Mekong delta. Swiftvet commander in chief Admiral Roy Hoffmann is perfectly well aware of these missions His Operation Market Time command was responsible for assigning Swift Boats to service these missions from its five bases from Da Nang to An Thoi. How likely are any of Kerry's commanders or colleagues, or even crewmen to support his latest variation on the clandestine insertion assertion?
Kerry was stuck down on an isolated base at An Thoi on Dao Phu Quoc Island off Cambodia's coast in February 1969. He certainly wasn't going on these missions on his own without his superior officers' knowledge. And Swift Boats on these missions traveled in groups of two or more. Kerry was just one of 25 Swift Boat commanders under Adrian Lonsdale and George Elliott stationed at An Thoi. Who else would have chosen Kerry out of the other Swift Boat commanders for the assignment? And "three or four times" is pretty conspicuous in a month with only 28 days.
Kerry has stated, "I took my patrol boat into Cambodia." He recalled it was his Swift Boat, which most likely would have been PCF94, with full naval markings. And that means he had his crew on board. He couldn't operate the Swift Boat on his own. Which of his crew will back Kerry up with memories of "three or four" trips into Cambodia the way they did on stage at the Democratic Convention? Will any of the commanders or crews on the other boats that would have accompanied him confirm this? Or is there a retired CIA man out there eager to try on his hat in a photo op with Senator Kerry?
Perhaps Brinkley will find a pumpkin in a patch somewhere hiding microfilms of secret Kerry papers explaining all this written on his old Underwood typewriter, but there are no Naval records that do so. After so many "memory failures" based on selections from Kerry's journals, unsupported statements by Kerry are unlikely to be taken at face value at this point. Whatever Brinkley comes up with, the payoff on this story is likely to be at least as fascinating as Nixon's secretary Rose Mary Woods' explanation of how she accidentally erased the 18 1/2 minutes of a crucial Watergate tape. It is well worth waiting for.
Thomas Lipscomb broke the news story on Kerry's involvement with the senatorial assassination plot. He served as chairman of the New York Vietnam Veterans' Leadership Program, which worked to assist the employment of minority area veterans.