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The Truth, John Kerry, and The New York Times

By Thomas Lipscomb

Kate Zernike's story on the front page of the Memorial Day Sunday New York Times, "Kerry Pressing Swift Boat Case Long After Loss," is an unfortunate reminder of the Times's embarrassingly poor coverage of Kerry in the face of the Swift Boat Veterans' for Truth charges in the 2004 election. Now as then, the Times acts as if the issues involved were between Kerry's latest representations of his record and the "unsubstantiated" charges of the Swift Boat group. The Times used the term "unsubstantiated" more than twenty times during its election coverage and continues to make no discernable effort to examine any of the charges in detail.

But there was plenty of evidence in the work of other news organizations that some of the charges, and the Kerry military records themselves, were worth examining seriously. I found numerous problems with Kerry's records on his website in my own reporting for the Chicago Sun-Times: a Silver Star with a V for valor listed that the Navy stated it had never awarded in the history of the US Navy, three separate medal citations with some heavy revisions in Kerry's favor signed by former Navy Secretary John Lehman who denied ever signing them, to name two.

Additionally I found by examining the message traffic with experts that when the Swift Boat Vets charged that Kerry had written the Bay Hap after action report, by which he received his bronze star and the third purple heart that was his ticket out of Vietnam, the evidence showed that it was indeed probably written by Kerry himself. Zernike seems to have totally missed this in her reporting. Zernike is content to refer to Kerry's claim that "original reports pulled from the naval archives contradict the charge that he drafted his own accounts of various incidents," none of which she cites, provides, or analyzes.

Zernike appears to have made no effort to look at any record besides listing Kerry's latest assertions with obligatory quotes from the usual Swiftie suspects to provide "balance." She doesn't appear to be aware of the hilarious inconsistency of the Kerry hat story she recites dutifully as if this was the very first time the hat had appeared in print. As the clips should have shown her, Kerry first pulled the famous hat out of a "secret compartment" for Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld's feature story in 2003. "My good luck hat," Kerry told Blumenfeld, "given to me by a CIA guy." Now he tells Zernike a "special operations team" member gave it to him on a secret "mission that records say was to insert Navy Seals" in February.

Once again Zernike cites a Kerry claim as fact, this time directly conflicting with the Washington Post account on the record. But the facts on this are already on the record and no matter what Kerry "researchers" may come up with they should be addressed by any reporter attempting a review of the dispute. Admiral Roy Hoffman may have been head of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but he was also in command of all the Swift Boat operations in Vietnam, directly under the commander of all sea operations in Vietnam, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt.

Any tasking for insertions of special operations troops across borders by sea, whether Seals, CIA, Army Special Forces or Vietnamese troops like CIDG had to come through his command. Hoffman stated he was never asked to handle missions for the CIA. "They had their own teams for that. And none of my Coastal Commands ever inserted any troops of this kind into Cambodia. We had some operations we ran north that I am not at liberty to discuss."

Orders for sensitive incursion operations like this don't appear by magic. And an individual boat commander, whether it is Kerry or anyone else, doesn't simply head across a border with a boatful of Seals on his own. Kerry's direct commander at An Thoi, George Elliott, has denied ever being asked to run such a mission out of his base and three of Kerry's PCF 44 crewmen have denied ever being in Cambodia with Kerry.

Tedd Peck, accompanied Kerry's PCF 44 on his PCF 57 from Cam Ranh down to their new assignment at An Thoi where they arrived on December 8, 1968. Peck served there with Kerry until he was wounded and med-evaced out on January 29, 1969. Douglas Brinkley states that "Kerry liked Peck." So what does Peck have to say about secret missions out of An Thoi to Cambodia? "There never was one. And I never saw a Navy Seal at An Thoi the whole time I served there with Kerry"

What does it take to wake up a good reporter that there are some issues here besides one junior lieutenant's latest assertions on the basis, once again, of totally undisclosed records? It isn't simply a matter of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth "lies." The facts recited by Kerry make no military sense, fly in direct opposition to authoritative testimony, and are yet to be backed by any records anyone has seen. And Kerry keeps changing his story.

The mission Kerry described to Laura Blumenfeld was the famous "Christmas in Cambodia" trip since disproved by Kerry's own log. Zernike ledes with "showing the entry in a log he kept from 1969: 'Feb 12: 0800 run to Cambodia'" and swallows it unquestioningly. The only authority that "Kerry log" has ever had is that it has been in the sole possession of John Kerry and carefully kept away from objective research that may or not have disclosed changes or heavy editing over time.

Zernike should remember what happened to historian Douglas Brinkley who accepted Kerry's word in his best-selling TOUR OF DUTY. Kerry told Brinkley personally that he was a "no-show" at a national meeting of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Kansas City which voted on a resolution to assassinate six US Senators supporting the Vietnam War in 1971.

One can understand why Brinkley would naturally have assumed that as a sitting US Senator himself, Kerry would have vividly recalled the occasion if he had been there. My reporting and Josh Gerstein's in The New York Sun and Scott Canon's at The Kansas City Star found quite a few witnesses, most of whom were working for Kerry's presidential campaign, who saw Kerry at the meeting and some saw him vote and his presence was confirmed by FBI taps as well. The FBI taps were surfaced by a left wing writer, Gerald Nicosia, for whom Kerry had hosted a book party at his Senate office.

Kerry flatly lied to Brinkley and continued to lie to the press until the story got so strong he finally had a sudden attack of minimal memory recovery. Brinkley had to print a correction, but not before Kerry showed another unattractive side to his approach to historical revisionism. He pressured several of the witnesses who confirmed his presence at Kansas City to change their stories. I reported it, and The New York Times confirmed my story in a front page story by Adam Nagourney and David Halbfinger.

One of those witnesses was a Marine who had been totally disabled in the fighting in Viet Nam and had been a Kerry supporter. When Kerry suddenly discovers a witness who has changed his mind in his favor, the circumstances might merit more than one grain of salt. And all this happened well before the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ever appeared on the scene.

Zernike makes much of the support of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth "backed by Republican donors and consultants," which indeed it was. But she shows no interest in who is backing "the Patriot Project" challenging the Swift Vets claims "formed by Kerry supporters" since February 2005 that is the occasion for her story. She even passes on the following at face value: "Kerry portrays himself as a wary participant in his own defense, insisting in the two-hour interview that he does not want to dwell on the accusations or the mistakes of his 2004 campaign. 'I'm moving on,' he says several times."

That will certainly come as a surprise to anyone reading this story which lays down a lot of unproven statements as fact, unproven and unconfirmed by Kate Zernike, such as: "Naval records and accounts from other sailors contradicted almost every claim they made, and some members of the group who had earlier praised Mr. Kerry's heroism contradicted themselves." Please note this is not a statement of position from a Kerry advocate being quoted. This is a flat statement of fact by Zernike on behalf of "the newspaper of record."

Zernike wastes most of her story simply repeating rather than weighing Kerry talking points: She defines John O'Neill as "a former Swift boat commander who was recruited by the Nixon administration to debate Mr. Kerry on "The Dick Cavett Show." That is a pretty dramatic charge by The New York Times. But the extensive record Zernike apparently missed, including the Times's own archives, shows it is totally untrue. If O'Neill was recruited by anyone for the Cavett Show, it was Bruce Kesler, a Marine veteran whose op-ed O'Neill had come across in the Times and whose "Vietnam Veterans for A Just Peace" O'Neill quickly joined.

Kesler nominated O'Neill for the show. In the CSPAN rebroadcast of the original 1971 Cavett debate during the 2004 campaign, Dick Cavett, who had been on the famous Nixon "enemies list," denied the Nixon Administration had anything to do with setting up the debate or who participated. During the election Kesler gave the entire story to Todd Purdum, but nothing appeared in the Times. Kesler also outlined how the debate had come about in a commentary piece in the Augusta Free Press in August of 2004. And the Kesler challenge for Kerry to debate was carried in the June 2, 1971 New York Times.

If The New York Times fails to correct that error, O'Neill could have a pretty good libel action. How can there be "absence of malice" when a great newspaper repeatedly lists claims by eyewitnesses backed by military records as "unsubstantiated," while its reporter ignores published records including its own archive?

In any case, it is time for some tough reporting to evaluate the Kerry's claims as listed in Zernike's article. I will be following up with several other key incidents which appear to be widely at variance with these claims. These will include what appears to be the current state of the evidence about the "skimmer" operation Kerry has decided to put in play again and the greatest newspaper coverup in modern history.

It is time we all got to see a picture of the famous Kerry "lucky hat," rather than another account by the latest star-struck journalist. It is time for Kerry to stop alluding to "records" and start producing them. And it is time media assigned reporters with military experience or the resources to analyze this record and see just who is lying about what.

Thomas Lipscomb is an independent investigative reporter whose work was entered for the Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2005. He is a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future (USC) tom@digitalfuture.org

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