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Stringent military screening program may explain gaps on president's record
by Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele
March 14, 2004

Military rules used in 1974 to ground two Washington Air National Guard airmen with access to nuclear weapons also applied to a Texas Air National Guard unit where Lt. George W. Bush was a fighter pilot.

Some military researchers and a former Texas Guard lieutenant colonel believe the stringent regulations -- known as the Human Reliability Program -- may have been invoked to stop Bush from flying Texas Air National Guard jets in 1972.

Bush's military service more than 30 years ago during the Vietnam War has been an issue since his first campaign for president. More recently, some researchers and national media outlets have been investigating the period from May 1, 1972, to April 1, 1973, when Bush left his unit in Texas and moved to Alabama.

Bush's military records from that period are spotty, and have led some to suggest he was avoiding his Guard obligations.

The Boston Globe, on the forefront of the issue, reported Feb. 12 that Bush's acknowledged 1972 suspension from flight status for failing to take a required physical should have generated an investigation and subsequent trail of documents, which have not been found.

To address critics, the White House released Bush's military records in mid-February, asserting he left his Texas Air National Guard squadron two years before the end of his enlistment because he was no longer needed to fly jets.

But if the human reliability rules were invoked, as they were in thousands of other cases, Bush may not have voluntarily stopped flying.

There is no mention of the Human Reliability Program in the documents released by the White House.

The White House documents do show that Bush's military job description, called an Air Force Specialty Code, or AFSC, was listed as "1125D, pilot, fighter interceptor."

Bush's pilot code was among those covered by Air Force Regulation 35-99, a previously undisclosed document recently obtained by The Spokesman-Review. Regulation 35-99 contains an extensive explanation of the Human Reliability Program.

Human reliability regulations were used to screen military personnel for their mental, physical and emotional fitness before granting them access to nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Under the rules, pilots could be removed immediately from the cockpit for HRP issues, which happened in the 1974 Washington Air National Guard case. The two Washington airmen were suspended on suspicion of drug use, but eventually received honorable discharges.

A second previously unreleased document obtained by the newspaper, a declassified Air Force Inspector General's report on the Washington case, states that human reliability rules applied to all Air National Guard units in the 1970s. From 1968 to 1973, Bush was assigned to the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston.

"The Human Reliability Program, in a nutshell, applied to every U.S. Air Force and Air Guard pilot in any aircraft they would fly," said Marty Isham, a former Air Force briefing officer.

Now a military historian and researcher, Isham is writing a book about the Air Defense Command, which controlled Air Guard units nationwide, including the Washington and Texas squadrons.

Isham said there is a "good likelihood" HRP regulations were either applied or about to be applied against Bush and that is why he stopped flying on April 16, 1972.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said last week he couldn't answer any questions about HRP.

"That's a question I'd refer to the Department of Defense," Lisaius said when asked if the regulations led to Bush's giving up flying in the Texas Air Guard.

"We've released the president's complete military records, with the exception of his medical records, and they speak for themselves."

"The president was honorably discharged," Lisaius said.

At the National Guard Bureau, now headed by a Bush appointee from Texas, officials last week said they were under orders not to answer questions.

The bureau's chief historian said he couldn't discuss questions about Bush's military service on orders from the Pentagon.

"If it has to do with George W. Bush, the Texas Air National Guard or the Vietnam War, I can't talk with you," said Charles Gross, chief historian for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Rose Bird, Freedom of Information Act officer for the bureau, said her office stopped taking records requests on Bush's military service in mid-February and is directing all inquiries to the Pentagon. She would not provide a reason.

Air Force and Texas Air National Guard officials did not respond to written questions about the issue.

James Hogan, a records coordinator at the Pentagon, said senior Defense Department officials had directed the National Guard Bureau not to respond to questions about Bush's military records.

Air Defense Command

Bush received a direct commission to the Air National Guard in 1969, pledging to be a fighter pilot for five years during the height of the Vietnam War.

He was trained to fly F-102 Delta Dagger jets for the Texas Air National Guard.

Like the Washington Air Guard in Spokane, the Texas fighter squadron was part of Air Defense Command, assigned to defend U.S. borders.

Both units had F-102s and F-101s, which routinely carried conventional warheads, but were also capable of carrying nuclear-tipped missiles, according to military experts.

The Air National Guard "had airto-air nukes -- the Genie and Falcon missiles -- and a huge air defense program. The F-102 had nuclear capability," said nuclear analyst Robert S. Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Norris is co-editor of the Nuclear Weapons Databook and the author of a new book, "Racing for the Bomb," about Gen. Leslie Groves and the Manhattan Project, the secret World War II plan to build the world's first atomic bombs.

In the 1970s, during the Vietnam War and the Cold War, Air Guard units were a crucial part of the Air Defense Command and the North American Air Defense Command, or NORAD, involving the United States and Canada, Norris said.

As part of that mission, the Air Guard's F-102 and F-101 fighterinterceptor pilots pulled round-theclock runway alert duty in Houston, Spokane and other bases throughout the United States.

The air-to-air missiles in the jets were intended to destroy Soviet bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles in midair before they could strike the continental United States.

According to White House documents, Bush flew his F-102 in a deployment to Canada in 1971 -- part of the NORAD mission.

Records show Bush had a "secret" security clearance for Cold War fighter-interceptor missions and was certified "combat-ready" to engage Soviet bombers.

In April 1972, at the same time the military began drug and alcohol testing for the first time, Bush stopped flying the F-102, and according to White House documents, did not take a required physical in May. He was formally suspended in September 1972 for failing to take the test. What followed was a period in which Bush sporadically attended Guard drills, according to White House documents, and spent the summer in Alabama.

In May of 1972, the Texas Air National Guard was given an enhanced mission of protecting U.S. borders by then-Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.

Laird's directive came after a Cuban airliner arrived undetected at the New Orleans airport, nine years after the Cuban missile crisis. Congressional hearings at the time criticized the Pentagon for the Oct. 26, 1971, incident.

Bush was not given a required annual Officer Efficiency Report "for administrative reasons" for the one-year period after he stopped flying in April 1972, according to the White House records. That period of time is what some critics refer to as Bush's "missing year," when records of his service are sketchy.

White House officials have said Bush didn't take his required physical because he went to Alabama to work on a political campaign.

The documents also include the Sept. 29, 1972, order suspending Bush from flight status for "failure to accomplish" the mandatory physical.

In a book released last week, "Bush's War for Re-election," Texas journalist James Moore calls the phrase ambiguous.

"Failure to accomplish" the medical exam "can imply that Bush did not show up, or he was examined, and a foreign substance was discovered in his blood," Moore argues in his book.

When pressed by the national media during the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush said he quit drinking in 1986 and hadn't used any illegal drugs since 1974.

The White House records revealed for the first time that as a teenager, Bush had four citations on his driving record for speeding and collisions, which would have required a special enlistment waiver for him to get into the Air Guard. No waiver, however, was found in the records released by the White House, USA Today reported.

Records draw interest

Marty Heldt, a private researcher who has spent several years examining Bush's military records, said the human reliability rules may answer the mystery of why Bush abruptly stopped flying.

"It seems entirely plausible to me, particularly given what we know about that period of his life," Heldt said. "We know that he was a drinker, going out a lot," Heldt said. "That is something that could get him suspended under the human reliability program."

Heldt, an Iowa farmer, is part of a network of amateur researchers who have used the federal Freedom of Information Act to examine Bush's military records. Researchers use the Internet to share information.

Heldt said he tends to vote Democratic, but is not a party activist. Some of his interest in Bush goes back to the 2000 presidential campaign when the issue of Bush's military service first received national attention, he said.

Retired Lt. Col. Bill L. Burkett, a strategic planner at Texas Guard headquarters in Austin when Bush was the governor of Texas, also confirmed that the HRP regulations applied to the Texas Air National Guard at the time Bush served.

In a New York Times interview and in Moore's new book, Burkett claims he saw some of Bush's military records being destroyed in the mid-1990s.

Bush's file was scrubbed for embarrassing information, Burkett alleges, at the direction of Daniel James III. James headed the Texas National Guard, and Burkett was his chief military adviser when Bush was governor of Texas.

After becoming president in 2000, Bush appointed James to head the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., which oversees all state Air Guard operations.

In a prepared statement released Thursday, James denied Burkett's allegation.

"I have never been involved in, nor would I condone, any discussion or any action to falsify any record in any circumstance for anyone," James said.

The issue of Bush's military records, Burkett told The Spokesman-Review, "has gone into a can so tight you wouldn't believe it."

He acknowledged, however, that he couldn't say conclusively whether Bush was suspended under HRP rules. "That is a perfect question -- one that needs to be pursued," he said.

Recollections differ

Former members of Bush's squadron differ in their recollections of the human reliability rules.

Dean Roome, Bush's former roommate and fellow Texas Air Guard pilot, said he doesn't think Bush was suspended under the nuclear safety rules.

"I don't think anybody was suspended under them, that I can recall. I think you're making a whole lot out of nothing," said Roome, who criticized the media for pursuing issues involving Bush's military record.

Tom Hail, a civilian historian for the Texas Air National Guard, said the unit's F-102s were nuclearcapable. But he wasn't familiar with the human reliability regulations.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Joe H. Briggs, a crew chief in Bush's squadron and later a recruiter for the Texas Air Guard, recalled references to the Human Reliability Program.

Young recruits with possible drug histories frequently were given medical screenings under the regulations, he said.

"I remember hearing, `This is going to be an HRP issue,"' Briggs said.

He worked as a crew chief on the Texas Guard's F-102 and F-101s, and two other jets, the F-4 and F-16, between 1957 and 1972.

Retired Brig. Gen. Walter Staudt, who gave Bush his direct commission as a second lieutenant out of Yale University in May 1968, said the Texas Air Guard had nuclear-capable jets, including F-101s and F-102s.

"But I never heard of an F-102 carrying a nuclear weapon, so I don't see why you think these regulations would have applied," the 81-year-old retired general said.

"I love the guy," Staudt said of Bush. "I'm so tired of this negative crap about him that I'd like to volunteer to build a barn and take you press guys out behind it and kick your asses."

Rules were strict

Thousands of pilots and other military personnel have lost their job assignments under the human reliability regulations, which were established in the 1960s, according to academic researchers.

The regulations were made stricter in the 1970s when the military started screening for drug abuse, said Dr. Herbert Abrams in a 1991 research paper.

Abrams, a former professor of medicine at Harvard and Stanford universities and a research fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, has written extensively about the military's Human Reliability Program.

Citing statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Abrams said military personnel are twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to drink heavily.

From 1975 through 1984, Abrams' research shows 51,000 personnel, or about 4.5percent a year on average, were decertified from the Human Reliability Program.

Most of those investigated and decertified were in the Air Force.

"The military takes this very, very seriously," said Lloyd Dumas, professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of "Lethal Arrogance," a 1999 study of human foibles and dangerous technology.

"People of a lesser rank can even remove their superiors (under HRP). It's one of the few areas where rank doesn't matter," Dumas said.

Bush's suspension, his spotty final year of military service and his failure to take his flight physical are puzzling, Dumas said.

"If Bush was under the Human Reliability Program, there should be a paper trail. And if there's not, that's very, very unusual," the University of Texas professor said.


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