Can conservative bloggers tell the truth?
by Eric Boehlert
Here's a simple challenge for John Hinderaker, a writer for the popular conservative blog Power Line who recently revisited the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign controversy. Upset by recent media references that suggested the Swift Boat attacks on Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) had been "discredited," Hinderaker claimed, "Most of what the Vets said in their ads has never been disputed, let alone discredited."
The challenge for Hinderaker is straightforward: Read the assembled facts below and explain how I'm wrong about the countless ways in which the Swift Boat ads were disputed and the accusers were discredited, or apologize for your fact-free claim and post a correction at Power Line.
I realize that highlighting the factual deficiencies of Power Line bloggers is hardly a novel pursuit. After all, Power Line played a starring role in advancing the Terri Schiavo talking points memo hoax during the spring of 2005. Power Line played a starring role in the rush to declare guilty an Associated Press photographer who was accused of working with insurgents in Iraq. Power Line played a starring role in advancing the phony accusation that the AP had invented an Iraqi police captain and used him as a source. And just this month, Power Line played a starring role in advancing the phony story that CNN reporter Michael Ware had heckled Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during a recent Baghdad press conference.
Meaning, Power Line rarely lets the facts get in the way of its pro-GOP spin. But there was something so audacious and egregious about Hinderaker's claim that little about the Swift Boat attacks had been "disputed, let alone discredited" that I think an old-fashioned challenge is on order. Let's see if Hinderaker has the nerve to act on it.
I admit I have an unfair advantage over Hinderaker when it comes to the Swift Boat topic. Namely, I'm familiar with the details. He apparently is not. In fact, I wrote an entire chapter about the Swift Boat attacks for my book, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, and I'll draw on that research here.
Let's recap the Swift Boat episode by examining the key facts and the flip-flopping players involved, as well as their credibility. Since the Swift Boat vets had no official documentation to support their claims about Kerry's misconduct, which they hatched 35 years after the fact, all they had was their word and their reputation. Let's see if any of their claims were "disputed" or if they were "discredited."
The first person seen in the first Swift Boat ad broadcast on cable television, French made the initial televised allegation against Kerry: "I served with John Kerry. He's lying about his record."
- Alfred French
In preparation for the ad, French, a senior deputy district attorney in Oregon and registered Republican, signed a sworn affidavit for the Swift Boat Vets asserting that Kerry received his Purple Heart "from negligently self-inflicted wounds in the absence of hostile fire." A fundamental requirement of any affidavit is that the person signing it must have personal knowledge of the matters involved. In fact, the affidavit French signed declared, "I do hereby swear, that all facts and statements contained in this affidavit are true and correct and within my personal knowledge and belief." (Emphasis added) But in an interview with The Oregonian newspaper of Portland, French freely admitted he had no firsthand knowledge of the events surrounding Kerry's medals and that his information came from secondhand accounts from "friends."
Nearly three dozen local attorneys quickly filed complaints with the Oregon State Bar, complaining that French, a practicing prosecutor, never should have signed an affidavit about events that he knew nothing about. The county prosecutor's office launched an investigation, and French was quickly reprimanded for improperly using office resources to criticize Kerry. The office also discovered that French had previously lied to his superior about having an affair with a co-worker, an affair that would have cost French his job. Yet French spent the summer of 2004 publicly labeling Kerry a liar based on nothing more than secondhand gossip.
French's claim disputed? Yes.
French discredited? Yes.
Kerry's former commanding officer, Elliott was the third person seen in the first Swift Boat ad. Elliott looked into the camera and said, "John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam."
- George Elliott
The problem was Elliott simply could not make up his mind about what actually "happened in Vietnam." Back in a December 1969 fitness report on Kerry, Elliott wrote, "In a combat environment often requiring independent, decisive action, LTJG Kerry was unsurpassed," noting Kerry was an "acknowledged leader in his peer group. His bearing and appearance are above reproach."
Years later when he campaigned for Kerry during the senator's re-election bid, Elliott told Massachusetts voters that Kerry's Silver Star was awarded for "an act of courage." In an April 13, 2004, article, Elliott told USA Today that he had no qualms about Kerry's actions that earned him the Silver Star. "This was an exemplary action," he said. "There's no question about." For 35 years, Elliott testified to the senator's bravery -- and then, in an instant, changed his story when he signed off on the Swift Boat Veterans' May 4, 2004, letter delivered to the Kerry campaign documenting their allegations.
In August 2004, just as the first Swift Boat ad was being aired, Elliott experienced another change of heart, confessing to The Boston Globe, "It was a terrible mistake probably for me to sign the affidavit with those words. I'm the one in trouble here. ... I knew it was wrong. ... In a hurry I signed it and faxed it back. That was a mistake."
And then, amazingly, Elliott flip-flopped again. After conferring with the Swift Boat leaders, Elliott quickly signed a new affidavit that stood by the first account. Much to the Swift Boat Vets' relief, Elliott then promptly cut off all press interviews.
Elliott's claim disputed? Yes.
Elliott discredited? Yes.
The fourth person to appear in the first Swift Boat ad, Letson announced, "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart, because I treated him for that injury." In another affidavit, Letson claimed Kerry's wound was too small to justify a medal.
- Dr. Louis Letson
First, Navy guidelines during the Vietnam War for Purple Hearts did not take into account the size of the wound when awarding the honor, which meant Letson's claim was irrelevant. Second, Kerry's medical records indicate Letson did not sign off as the "person administering treatment" on December 3, 1968, which raised doubts about whether Letson ever even treated Kerry. (Why, if Kerry's wounds were so minor, was Letson able to recall the incident so vividly 35 years later?)
Additionally, Letson claimed the reason he knew Kerry was lying about his wound was because that's what Letson overheard, secondhand, from Kerry's crewmembers: that there was no enemy fire during their mission when Kerry was injured. But Letson could not name the person who allegedly told him that tale, which was bizarre since, on the night in question, Kerry was in the company of just two other crewmembers.
Letson's claim disputed? Yes.
Letson discredited? Yes.
Schachte claims he was one of those two men with Kerry that night; specifically, that he was the commander of the December 2, 1968, mission for which Kerry won his first Purple Heart. According to Schachte, the boat they were on did not receive enemy fire, and Kerry's wound, which Letson allegedly treated, was the result of Kerry's improper use of a grenade launcher.
- William Schachte
But the servicemen who were on the boat that night don't remember seeing Schachte. Since the boat was a small skimmer, it would have been hard for him to escape notice. Besides Kerry, the other crewmembers that night were Bill Zaladonis and Patrick Runyon. They had told the same story for years, and they both insisted neither Schachte nor anyone else was with the three of them that night. (''Me and Bill aren't the smartest, but we can count to three,'' Runyon told The New York Times.)
An attorney by training, Schachte never signed an affidavit detailing his dubious accusations against Kerry.
Schachte's claimed disputed? Yes.
Schachte discredited? Yes.
During the 2004 campaign, Lonsdale claimed that Kerry "lacks the capacity to lead." That was odd, because during Kerry's 1996 Senate race, Lonsdale explained the success of river operations during the Vietnam War by telling Massachusetts reporters, "It was because of the bravery and the courage of the young officers that ran boats ... the swift boats and the Coast Guard cutters, and Senator Kerry was no exception."
- Adrian Lonsdale
Also in 1996, Lonsdale walked reporters through the citation process for medals. Lonsdale, along with Elliott, handled the reports, he said. Lonsdale noted that awards were approved only if there was corroboration from others. His explanation completely contradicted later Swift Boat Vet claims that Kerry won his bogus awards only because he was able to write up false reports and fool his commanders.
Lonsdale's claim disputed? Yes.
Lonsdale discredited? Yes.
Another registered Republican, Thurlow commanded a Navy Swift boat alongside Kerry's in Vietnam. And up until the election season of 2004, he had nothing bad to say about Kerry's service. Even as late as April 2004, Thurlow told USA Today that Kerry "was extremely brave, and I wouldn't argue that point."
- Larry Thurlow
During the summer of 2004, everything changed as Thurlow's key role was to serve as Swift Boat Vets' point person on what they claimed was Kerry's disputed Bronze Star and third Purple Heart, won during a mission in Viet Cong-controlled territory on March 13, 1969. Thurlow claimed Kerry's award was a fraud. Thurlow signed a sworn affidavit for the Swift Boat Vets that stated Kerry was "not under fire" when he pulled Lt. James Rassmann out of the water. He described Kerry's Bronze Star citation, which stated that all units involved came under "small arms and automatic weapons fire," as "totally fabricated." The Swift Boat Vets also accused Kerry of "fleeing the scene."
But then The Washington Post got ahold of the citation for a Bronze Star that Thurlow won that very same day for actions on a boat that was right alongside Kerry's. The citation detailed how both his boat and Kerry's boat faced "enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire." Asked for a response, Thurlow still insisted there had been no enemy fire that day.
But how could Thurlow have been foolish enough to sign a Swift Boat Vet affidavit about there being no enemy fire that day when his own citation made reference to there being enemy fire? Thurlow had a good explanation. In fact, he had at least three of them: He alternately told patient reporters he paid little or no attention to the citation when he won the Bronze Star ("Well, I just took it home, put it away, and kind of ignored the whole thing"); that he lost the citation 20 years ago; or that the citation was with his ex-wife, take your pick. And no, Thurlow told reporters, he would not authorize the release of a copy. (The Post obtained its copy through a Freedom of Information request.) Nonetheless, Thurlow, who accepted a Bronze Star for bravery under fire even though he insisted there was none that day, spent the summer of 2004 accusing a man who everyone else said had displayed bravery under fire of lying.
Thurlow's claim disputed? Yes.
Thurlow discredited? Yes.
According to Swift Boat legend, it was Hoffmann, the crusty retired Navy officer and Kerry's former commander, who formed the genesis of the attack campaign. Upset after reading Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty, the Kerry-friendly telling of the senator's Vietnam experience in which veterans portrayed the commander as " 'hotheaded,' 'blood-thirsty,' and 'egomaniacal,' " Hoffman took aim at Kerry. (Kerry himself had little negative to say about Hoffman in the book.) "I couldn't bear that someone was betraying us and being a dastardly liar," Hoffman told The Washington Post.
- Roy Hoffmann
The fact that Hoffmann "couldn't bear" to remain silent about Kerry was odd because in 1969, Rear Adm. Roy Hoffmann congratulated Kerry on the daring Swift boat attack he led, calling it a "shining example of completely overwhelming the enemy." More recently, in 1995, Hoffmann attended a wedding party for Kerry and Teresa Heinz. In a June 2003 Boston Globe profile of Kerry, Hoffman was still praising the senator as he recalled the events surrounding Kerry's Silver Star: ''It took guts, and I admire that.'' In an interview with Brinkley in March 2003, when asked about Kerry, Hoffmann said, "I am not going to say anything negative about him. He's a good man."
But after seeing his name trashed in Tour of Duty by his own men, Hoffman changed his mind, and then had trouble keeping his stories straight. According to a May 6, 2004, article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the former commander "acknowledged he had no first-hand knowledge to discredit Kerry's claims to valor and said that although Kerry was under his command, he really didn't know Kerry much personally." The next month, Hoffmann reiterated, "I did not know Kerry personally. I didn't ride the boat with him."
Fast-forward to August 2004, when the first Swift Boat ads hit the airwaves, and Hoffmann suddenly updated his Vietnam memories, telling Fox News, "I knew [Kerry] well, because I operated very closely with him."
Hoffmann's claim disputed? Yes.
Hoffman discredited? Yes.
If Hoffman was the heart behind the Swift Boat Vets, O'Neill was the brains. He served as the smooth-talking attorney out front dealing with reporters, while at the same time tapping his deep-pocketed Texas Republican connections to make sure the ad-hoc attack machine was well-oiled. At times it was harder to keep track of the myriad of O'Neill contradictions than it was the accusations he was leveling against Kerry and his combat service.
- John O'Neill
For instance, like Thurlow, O'Neill was emphatic that Kerry didn't deserve his March 13, 1969, Bronze Star medal for saving Jim Rassmann on the Bay Hap River because Kerry wasn't under enemy fire. As proof, O'Neill told Fox News, "There's not a bullet hole in any of those three boats, not one." In fact, a report on the battle damage to a boat that motored upriver alongside Kerry's on March 13 made reference to "three 30 cal bullet holes about super structure."
During an August 11, 2004, appearance on CNN, O'Neill insisted, "[T]he people in our organization have no partisan ties." Nine days later, the Swift Boat Vets unveiled a new ad that featured Vietnam veteran Ken Cordier, who served at the time as a member of the Bush-Cheney '04 National Veterans Steering Committee. Cordier had also been selected to serve on the Bush administration's POW Advisory Committee. So much for no partisan ties.
During another appearance on CNN on August 12, 2004, O'Neill said there "are more than 60 people that served with John Kerry that contributed to" the Swift Boat book. Perhaps, but only one man who served with Kerry, Stephen Gardner (a Rush Limbaugh devotee), contributed to the book.
O'Neill's claims disputed? Yes.
O'Neill discredited? Yes.
Your move, Hinderaker.