AWOL Story Won't Die

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, February 5, 2004; 10:29 AM

It's a busy little blog today. Here's a summary of what you'll get when you scroll:

• AWOL Watch: The Boston Globe, which in 2000 was the first paper to report on President Bush's spotty record as a National Guardsman, returns to the issue this morning and finds once again that Bush did not report for required Guard duty for a full year at the height of the Vietnam War. Reporter Walter V. Robinson tells Salon he thinks some documents have been removed and inserted from Bush's military file. Howard Dean says the questions are "fair game." And the blogosphere wants to see Bush come clean with his records.

• Scalia Watch: The Los Angeles Times has another twist in the story of how Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia won't recuse himself after going duck-hunting with Vice President Dick Cheney, who is a named party in a case pending before the court. Today, the paper reports Scalia actually flew in on Air Force Two as Cheney's guest.

• Gay Marriage: In the wake of the same-sex marriage ruling by the Massachusetts court, the New York Times reports that White House political guru Karl Rove told at least one conservative Christian group recently that the president will soon endorse an amendment to the United States Constitution that defines marriage to be between a man and a woman.

• Halliburton Watch: Newsweek reports that the Justice Department is looking into whether Halliburton Co. was getting kickbacks in Nigeria in the late 1990s when Cheney was chairman of the company.

• Commission Watch: The Washington Post reports that the White House reversed itself and agreed to a two-month extension of the deadline for completion of an independent investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack -- but only after receiving assurances that the final report won't be too hard on Bush.

• Plame Watch: The Talking Points Memo blog posted a letter from the CIA that suggests it took the Justice Department two months to agree to investigate the White House's leak of a CIA operative's identity.

And there's more. Bush compared to Winston Churchill. Bush traveling to South Carolina in the wake of the Democratic primary. Bush not being told immediately about the ricin sent to the White House. Your suggestions on where Bush should go shopping today. And this final headline: "White House to Press Corps: Clean Up Your Act."

AWOL Watch

Walter V. Robinson in The Boston Globe concludes that "a lackadaisical Bush did not report for required Guard duty for a full year during his six-year National Guard enlistment." The Globe also republishes its previous coverage from 2000 and a timeline.

At the same time, Robinson tells's Eric Boehlert about some suspicions that weren't in his own story. "I think some documents were taken out" of his military file, Robinson told Salon. "And there's at least one document that appears to have been inserted into his record in early 2000."

Boehlert also indulges in some media criticism and reports on how the Bush campaign is raising questions about William Turnipseed, an officer in the Alabama Guard who said he doesn't remember Bush ever showing up.

"On Wednesday, Bush-Cheney '04 spokesman Terry Holt told Salon that Turnipseed recently donated $500 to Sen. John Edwards' campaign. Holt questioned whether the motives behind Turnipseed's comments regarding Bush's service were 'pure,' or whether he's part of a 'political attack.' Turnipseed could not be reached for comment."

Reuters reports that Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said Bush's military records were "fair game" in the election campaign.

So how's it all playing?

Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder writes that "President Bush's performance as commander-in-chief was supposed to be his strong suit in the November election, but questions about his leadership suddenly have forced him on the defensive."

NBC Nightly News devoted a two and a half minute "In-Depth" segment to the issue, in which David Gregory said that while Bush was "never formally accused" of anything, "there is no record that proves Bush showed up to fulfill his obligations" from May 1972 to May 1973. The report includes video from 2000 of Bush saying "I fulfilled my obligation."

And on CBS, Mark Strassman also got two and a half minutes, reporting that "Lt. Bush's records are sketchy, but suggest spotty attendance, and calling the furor "a clear warning shot on the debate to come on national security." He showed video of veterans campaigning for war hero John Kerry.

Out there in the blogosphere, there are some who are quite convinced there must be records that Bush could make public to clear this whole thing up. This post by blogger Phil Carter is making the rounds -- as is a sample Freedom of Information Act request at the

The Republican National Committee is saying the Democrats are belittling the National Guard.

There's much more on this, including many Web links, in the White House Briefing columns from Tuesday and Wednesday.

Scalia Watch

David G. Savage and Richard A. Serrano report: "Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia traveled as an official guest of Vice President Dick Cheney on a small government jet that served as Air Force Two when the pair came here last month to hunt ducks.

"The revelation cast further doubts about whether Scalia can be an impartial judge in Cheney's upcoming case before the Supreme Court, legal ethics experts said."

Savage and Serrano quote New York University law professor Stephen Gillers: "It is not just a trip with a litigant. It's a trip at the expense of the litigant. This is an easy case for stepping aside."

There's more on this in previous White House Briefing columns from Monday, Jan. 27 and Jan. 23.

Gay Marriage

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that "conservative groups said the White House had informed them that the president would soon endorse efforts to pass an amendment to the United States Constitution defining marriage to be between a man and a woman.

"Mr. Bush, in a statement issued by the White House on Wednesday night, stopped just short of explicitly backing a change to the Constitution, but left little doubt that he is heading in that direction.

Stevenson was told that conservative Christian group Focus on the Family founder Dr. James C. Dobson "heard in a conversation on Tuesday night with the president's senior adviser, Karl Rove, that Mr. Bush had decided to back an amendment."

David Von Drehle writes in The Washington Post that it is "virtually guaranteed that the issue will be a wedge in this year's political campaigns.

"Washington political veterans generally believe this could be a plus for President Bush, whose homespun philosophy that 'marriage is between a man and a woman' manages to please his conservative base voters even as it reflects the opinion of a majority of Americans."

Here's the text of Bush's statement on the issue, and one version of the proposed Constitutional amendment.

Halliburton Watch

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenbal of Newsweek's "Terror Watch," broke this story on the Web yesterday afternoon: "The Justice Department has opened up an inquiry into whether Halliburton Co. was involved in the payment of $180 million in possible kickbacks to obtain contracts to build a natural gas plant in Nigeria during a period in the late 1990's when Vice President Dick Cheney was chairman of the company."

Jackie Spinner in The Washington Post notes that Justice Department sources say "the matter amounted to only a review at this point and had not reached the threshold of a preliminary inquiry, which is a specific step in the pursuit of a criminal case."

Curt Anderson of the Associated Press wrote that Halliburton "is under scrutiny."

Commission Watch

Mike Allen and Dan Eggen of The Washington Post report on President Bush's reversal yesterday, in which he agreed to support a two-month extension of the deadline for completion of an independent investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The White House previously insisted that the bipartisan commission stick to its original plan and issue its report by May 27, saying the work should be completed as soon as possible. Privately, Republican officials said they wanted time for any politically damaging findings to blow over before the heat of the presidential campaign.

"A senior Republican official said the White House acceded to the postponement after learning from commission sources that the report is likely to 'have some criticism of the White House, but will not conclude that there was a failure by Bush himself.

"'A lot of it will be pre-Bush and about the Clinton era, and there is very little direct ammunition aimed at the president himself,' the official said."

But that doesn't mean the panel's fights with the White House are over. Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "Panel members say they could vote as early as next week to serve a subpoena on the White House for access to the intelligence reports, which are known as the President's Daily Brief and are presented to Mr. Bush each morning by the Central Intelligence Agency."

Brian Harmon notes in the New York Daily News that the report is now slated to be finished on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Boston. "Victims' relatives fear the release of the potentially scathing report at the height of the presidential campaign could make it a political football."

Plame Watch

Joshua Micah Marshall reports in his Talking Points Memo blog on a letter from the CIA to Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) which indicates that the CIA first contacted the Justice Department on July 24th regarding the White House's leak of operative Valerie Plame's identity. But it wasn't until September 29th, that Justice notified the CIA that they had in fact begun an investigation.

"Why did it take so long? Why did the CIA have to press so hard?" asks Marshall, who posted the letter online.

That Secretive Service

Dan Eggen of The Washington Post reports: "The U.S. Secret Service acknowledged yesterday that it waited six days to notify the FBI and other agencies about the discovery of a ricin-contaminated letter addressed to the White House and said it had implemented new procedures to eliminate such delays in the future."

It was quite a news blackout. "White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that President Bush was not notified about the ricin mailing because it was intercepted and did not pose a threat to anyone."

Bush and Churchill

Randall Mikkelsen of Reuters writes: "Casting himself and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the spiritual heirs of Winston Churchill, President Bush defended their decision to go to war against Iraq, despite the unraveling of U.S. and British claims relating to Iraq's banned weapons."

Here's the full text of Bush's speech.

So, is Bush the Churchill of the 21st Century? Back in August, when Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld drew the parallel. The BBC did a side-by-side comparison.

Off to South Carolina

Chasing those Democrats again, Bush heads down to Charleston today, just two days after the Democratic primary.

Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press previews the visit to the Port of Charleston, "where the president was to promote his administration's efforts to keep dangerous cargo out of the country."

Schuyler Kropf of Charleston's Post and Courrier writes: "President Bush's speech on homeland security today at the downtown Union Pier Terminal is open to the public, but only a select few can attend.

"Entry to the speech is by ticket only. All the tickets have been distributed to police, military, homeland security and other state and local officials, and to some Republican Party faithful from along the coast."

Lee Bandy writes in The State that "he will find a growing number of anxious Republicans who are worried about his re-election prospects."

Lauren Markoe writes in The State that "U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings is calling President Bush's trip to the Port of Charleston today a 'photo opportunity' that obscures Bush's poor record on protecting the nation's ports from terrorists."

What to Buy in Charleston

I asked you readers on Monday where the president should stop in for some impromptu shopping, good visuals and some needling of the press corps on Thursday, when he's in Charleston, S.C.

(Last Thursday, it was a chocolate factory in New Hampshire, the Thursday before that, it was a rib joint in New Mexico.

Your responses were less than overwhelming, and in what is looking to be the norm for White House Briefing, more than half of them were too vitriolic for the Web site of a family newspaper.

But there were a few that were at least printable.

• Tim Wedig of Greenbelt, Md.: "How about a Confederate flag factory? Good signal for his base."

• Stein X Leikanger of Oslo, Norway: "He should go to Pawley's Island and buy an original rope hammock. He'll soon be needing one."

• James T. Waples of Milwaukee, Wis.: "In support of his proposed $18 million increase in funds for the National Endowment for the Arts. . . the Thomas Kinkade Gallery, conveniently located in the Charleston Galleries."

• J. Malet, Philadelphia, Pa.: "Lee's Sausage Co." to symbolize "the baloney he's dished out regarding the Iraq threat and the overbloated budget stuffed with presidential pork."

Tough crowd.

White House to Press Corps: Clean Up Your Act

Richard Leiby, The Washington Post's "Reliable Source," writes that the word has gone out to the TV news types who use "Stonehenge," the flagstone area on the north lawn where correspondents do their standup shots: No smoking, no littering, no loitering, no lounge chairs.

© 2004