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Authenticity of memo to 'sugar coat' Bush record is further questioned


12:11 AM CDT on Saturday, September 11, 2004

By PETE SLOVER / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – The man named in a disputed memo as exerting pressure to "sugar coat" President Bush's military record left the Texas Air National Guard a year and a half before the memo was supposedly written, his own service record shows.

An order obtained by The Dallas Morning News shows that Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt was honorably discharged on March 1, 1972. CBS News reported this week that a memo in which Col. Staudt was described as interfering with officers' negative evaluations of Mr. Bush's service was dated Aug. 18, 1973.

That added to mounting questions about the authenticity of documents that seem to suggest Mr. Bush sought special favors and did not fulfill his service.

Col. Staudt, who lives in New Braunfels, did not return calls seeking comment. His discharge paper was among a packet of documents obtained by The News from official sources during 1999 research into Mr. Bush's Guard record.

A CBS staffer stood by the story, suggesting that Col. Staudt could have continued to exert influence over Guard officials. But a former high-ranking Guard official disputed that, saying retirement would have left Col. Staudt powerless over remaining officials.

The authenticity of the memo and three others included in Wednesday's 60 Minutes report came in for heavy criticism Friday, prompting an unusual on-air defense of the original work. Experts on typography said they appeared to have been computer-drafted on equipment not available in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

And the family of the officer who supposedly wrote them, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who died in 1984, said it wasn't his nature to keep detailed personal notes.

In its network news broadcast Friday, CBS said the documents were supported by both unnamed witnesses and others, including document examiners.

Earlier, CBS anchor Dan Rather told The News that he had heard nothing to make him question the legitimacy of the memos. He attributed the backlash to partisan politics and competitive journalism.

"This story is true. The questions we raised about then-Lt. Bush's National Guard service are serious and legitimate," he said, expressing confidence the memos are authentic. "Until and unless someone shows me definitive proof that they are not, I don't see any reason to carry on a conversation with the professional rumor mill."

The interview concluded before The News determined the date of Col. Staudt's departure, so that issue was not included. But a CBS staffer with extensive knowledge of the story said later that the departure doesn't derail the story.

"From what we've learned, Staudt remained very active after he retired," the staffer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He was a very bullying type, and that could have continued."

In the 60 Minutes report, Mr. Rather said of the memo's contents: "Killian says Col. Buck Staudt, the man in charge of the Texas Air National Guard, is putting on pressure to 'sugar coat' an evaluation of Lt. Bush."

Col. Staudt was the person Mr. Bush initially contacted about Guard service, and he was the group commander at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston when Mr. Bush arrived there to fly an F-102 jet. He later transferred to Austin, where he served as the chief of staff for the Air National Guard.

In the disputed memo, Mr. Killian supposedly wrote "[another officer] gave me a message today from group regarding Bush's [evaluation] and Staudt is pushing to sugar coat it."

It continues: "Austin is not happy either."

The CBS staffer said that the memo appears to recognize that Col. Staudt has retired, since it differentiates between his displeasure and that of Austin, where he served his final Guard stint.

But another Texas Air National Guard official who served in that period said the memo appears to wrongly associate Col. Staudt with his group command in Houston, and – based on that mistake – the memo distinguishes his views from that of the Austin Guard headquarters.

Retired Col. Earl Lively, who was director of Air National Guard operations for the state headquarters during 1972 and 1973 said Col. Staudt "wasn't on the scene" after he left, and that CBS' remote-bullying thesis makes no sense.

"He couldn't bully them. He wasn't in the Guard," Col. Lively said. "He couldn't affect their promotions. Once you're gone from the Guard, you don't have any authority."

The report about the memos originally appeared to stir anew longstanding questions about Mr. Bush's Guard service, including whether he defied a direct order to take a physical exam, and whether his suspension from flying was partly for failure to meet military performance standards.

Col. Staudt had social dealings with Houston oilman Sidney Adger, a Bush family friend who former House Speaker Ben Barnes said approached him about getting Mr. Bush into the Guard. Mr. Adger's two sons served under Col. Staudt.

The campaign of Mr. Bush's Democratic rival, John Kerry, stood mostly mum, saying Mr. Bush should answer all questions about his service. Earlier this year, though, Kerry aides raised the exact points the memo seemed to address.

Mr. Bush has not commented publicly about the CBS report, and aides say his honorable discharge proves he fulfilled his obligations.

But the White House, which contends that all known records of Mr. Bush's service have been released, also took the unusual step of distributing the CBS memos to reporters the night of the broadcast.

"We don't know whether the [CBS] documents were fabricated or are authentic," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Friday.

E-mail pslover@dallasnews.com

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