KWAME HOLMAN: John Kerry has given his military record a principal role in his campaign for president. And at the Democratic Convention last month, Kerry featured prominently several veterans who attested to his bravery and leadership while commanding a swift boat in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
But earlier this month, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched a TV ad charging Kerry with lying about his tour in Vietnam that led to three Purple Heart combat medals.
The group is funded in part by a wealthy Republican donor; the ad ran this month in three battleground states: Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
MAN IN AD: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.
MAN IN AD: He's lying about his record.
MAN IN AD: I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury.
MAN IN AD: John Kerry lied about his bronze star. I know. I was there. I saw what happened.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today, in Boston, Kerry lashed out at President Bush for not condemning the ad.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: The fact that the president won't denounce what they're up to tells you everything that you need to know. He wants them to do his dirty work.
KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush has not condemned this specific ad and in an interview last week said John Kerry is justifiably proud of his war record.
Today, in Crawford Texas, where the president is spending time at his ranch, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the president does condemn all unregulated political ads.
BUSH SPOKESMAN: Sen. Kerry knows that his latest attack is false and baseless, the president has condemned all of the ads by the shadowy groups, we have called on Sen. Kerry to join us in calling for an end to all of the unregulated soft money activity that is going on in this campaign.
KWAME HOLMAN: One Republican who has publicly denounced the ad is Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. He did so while campaigning with Mr. Bush last week.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I believe that the ad should be condemned, but I'm not... I believe that the president's choice on how he handles this matter is his choice.
KWAME HOLMAN: And today, John Kerry added this:
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Of course, this group isn't interested in the truth -- they're not telling the truth. They didn't even exist until I won the nomination for president.
But here's what you really need to know about them. They're funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Republican contributor out of Texas. They're a front for the Bush campaign.
Thirty years ago, official Navy reports and every person there documented my service in Vietnam and awarded me the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Thirty years ago, this was the plain truth. It still is. And I still carry the shrapnel in my leg from a wound in Vietnam.
As firefighters you risk your lives every day. You know what it's like to see truth in the moment. You're proud of what you've done and so am I.
Of course, the president keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country. Instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that. Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: Bring it on.
KWAME HOLMAN: Tomorrow, the Kerry campaign plans to begin airing an ad in Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin touting Kerry's war record.
JIM LEHRER: More now on the charges and counter-charges over John Kerry's war record. John O'Neill is co-founder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that sponsored the ad against Kerry. He also wrote "Unfit for Command," a book critical of John Kerry's service in Vietnam.
And we're also joined by Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant, who has covered and written extensively about John Kerry.
Mr. O'Neill, are you doing President Bush's dirty work for him?
JOHN O'NEILL: I don't think so. What we have in our group is 60... we have 254 people who are swift veterans. Their names are all on our Web site, swiftvets.com; 60 of them have Purple Hearts from Vietnam.
They include 17 of the 23 officers who served in Coastal Division 11 with John Kerry. They include most of the sailors from that division. They include most of the people in swift boats that can be located and the entire chain of command.
The reason we've come forward is that the integrity of our unit is involved, the charges involving our unit and John Kerry's conduct in our unit. And that's why we're here.
JIM LEHRER: But you're here because he's running for president, right? That's what this is about, is it not?
JOHN O'NEILL: I think it's fair to say that we're here because we think he would be unfit to be commander-in-chief.
I know I thought what would I do, would I come forward, would I do something on this when Adm. Hoffman began organizing this; I reached the conclusion...
JIM LEHRER: Who's that, I'm sorry?
JOHN O'NEILL: Admiral Hoffman. Admiral Hoffman was the one who organized our group, he was the commander of swift boats in Vietnam.
He began calling us in January and February. We met and finally organized in April, not as Kerry says much later.
The question I had to answer was: Do I -- can I look my kids in the eye or can I at least come forward with the information that I know about and the 60 other guys that served with Kerry.
JIM LEHRER: Why do you believe it's relevant to whether or not John Kerry should be president?
JOHN O'NEILL: Well, if it were simply a matter of him lying 35 years ago, I guess you could argue one way or the other.
But the problem he's was lying as recently as the Democratic Convention. Jim, there was... the Democratic Convention closed with an episode... a depiction of an episode entitled "No Man Left Behind."
This was an episode in which Kerry claimed that five swift boats on March the 13th had a mine go off; they fled and John Kerry came back and rescued a man named Rassmann.
What actually happened on that day is that a mine went off, a boat, PCF-3, was disabled. All boats went to the aid of PCF-3 with one exception, John Kerry. He left the area and returned later and did, in fact, pick up Rassmann.
There was no fire outside the original mine: You can imagine what the people feel like on those swift boats who have come forward with affidavits when they were depicted as fleeing and then having John Kerry come back and, in fact, they stayed and he left.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let's stop there. Tom Oliphant, you have done reporting on this.
What can you... what light can you shed on what Mr. O'Neill just said about that specific incident?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, that's illustrative because I think this is an allegation that has a credibility problem that I believe I can address on journalistic as opposed to political grounds.
One of the things we look for, I mean, there is nothing new about a dispute over a war record with many of us in journalism that have been through many, many times. We look to see if somebody said something at the time.
That's a problem for Mr. O'Neill's group because no one appears to have made an issue of this when it was actually happening. We look... we do look at political support.
And when Mr. O'Neill first surfaced in politics in 1971 after Kerry's anti-war demonstration, it was very hard for many of us covering him to figure out where the Nixon White House ended and he began.
Now, as to what happened on that particular day which earned Kerry the Bronze Star, you look at what's your best evidence: Eyewitness accounts, people in the boat.
You look at the eyewitness account of the fellow who was picked up out of the water who says there was fire coming from both sides of the river.
And then one of the things you also do when evaluating credibility is you want the accusers to keep their story straight.
And there is a problem with one of the accusers, a man named Thurlow whose account in this book and in this television commercial is contradicted by the official record of his own Bronze Star citation, which refers specifically to enemy fire.
I don't mean to say that I know exactly what happened that day. I believe that Mr. O'Neill, like anybody making a personal attack in politics, has to shoulder the burden of proof.
It never leaves his shoulders until he satisfies it. And on this story, they haven't even gotten to first base.
JOHN O'NEILL: Let me respond. The first piece in the "No Man Left Behind" story, Kerry's first claim is he was wounded that day by shrapnel in his bottom... the cause of him leaving Vietnam.
His problem is on page 313 and page 317 of his own book, he attributes exactly the same wound to his own grenade.
With respect to the question of whether the five boats fled and came back, the first problem for Mr. Oliphant is the Kerry campaign, I understand, has now admitted that only Kerry left and the remaining four boats stopped. When considering evidence, I guess the first thing...
JIM LEHRER: He did come back and help in the rescue.
JOHN O'NEILL: He did come back after four or five minutes.
JIM LEHRER: Whatever the facts. The rescue itself is not in dispute, is it?
JOHN O'NEILL: No. Not at all in dispute that Mr. Rassmann climbed on John Kerry's boat after he arrived back.
What happened in between is the problem. The number three boat was blown out of the water; it couldn't move. I guess we'd call that physical evidence. And a boat that couldn't move isn't compatible with the story that went on.
The next problem is that there are at least eight different eyewitnesses, all other officers on the scene, on the other four boats, four enlisted men who all said Kerry left, Kerry came back; there was no fire. The next big important problem...
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. Rassmann says there was fire.
JOHN O'NEILL: He does.
JIM LEHRER: He says there was fire from both... is that not right?
TOM OLIPHANT: He says, as does the citation and the Bronze Stars awarded both to Kerry and to this fellow who has a memory now of the facts that is contradicted by the facts as cited in his own medal --
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead --
JOHN O'NEILL: His own medal citation was produced 100 miles north based on Kerry's own report. He got it after he left Vietnam.
The next major problem I have is you need to understand this is a 75-yard-wide canal. These boats were sitting there, the four boats, stable, totally there for an hour-and-a-half trying to save the three boat.
Nobody was wounded. There is no bullet hole in any boat. There is no damage of any kind. So the problems they have are massive and multiple.
JIM LEHRER: We cannot resolve that here. But are you saying in general terms, and because this was just one... actually, two, he got a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for that particular incident, correct?
JOHN O'NEILL: Right.
JIM LEHRER: But he also won a Silver Star and got two other Purple Hearts.
JOHN O'NEILL: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Is it your position that he's lying about every one of his medals?
JOHN O'NEILL: No. What we've said is his first and third Purple Hearts, which he used to leave Vietnam very early after about four months, we've said that there is almost conclusive evidence that those were fraudulent, that is that they resulted from self-inflicted wounds.
JIM LEHRER: Self-inflicted? He intentionally wounded himself?
JOHN O'NEILL: Oh, no, he didn't intentionally wound himself. He threw grenades, in one case fired and in another case threw a grenade.
They were very close to him and he wounded himself with his own grenade. He didn't mean to.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's stop here --
TOM OLIPHANT: Again, the credibility problem, which is what keeps this thing in the tabloids primarily and on cable television where there are different standards.
Almost conclusive doesn't cut it in the world's parts of journalism where I live, John. You have a burden here. And almost conclusive is nowhere near what I'm looking for.
There are eyewitness accounts actually on all sides of this story. The closer you get to Kerry, the more one-sided in favor of Kerry these accounts tend to be.
There is a problem that one of your people, this Mr. Thurlow, has made an allegation about there being no combat fire coming that day that is contradicted by the citation of his own Bronze Star.
Now, you can then say, well, that was all made up and that Kerry lied and produced that, for which you provide no evidence.
And we keep going in this endless cycle of, see, I put this out there, I made this accusation, I made this charge, but held to a higher standard, I'm not saying your... that this didn't happen or that something did happen, I'm saying that you haven't come within a country mile of meeting first-grade journalistic standards for accuracy.
JOHN O'NEILL: I'll tell you this, there isn't a jury in the United States, Mr. Lehrer, that will read this book and look at the evidence that wouldn't conclude this man lied over and over again in Vietnam, not one.
And no fair-minded person, in my opinion, would go through the evidence.
With respect to we didn't come forward for 30 years, in Kerry's first Purple Heart incident, he came in, went to his commanding officer and tried to get it and the commanding officer turned it out, said, forget it. His name is Grant Hibbart.
Kerry later after everyone left Vietnam showed up again and applied and somehow got a Purple Heart and the documents have never been produced. It isn't just that.
Go through the account. It's one incident after another incident after another incident. And it is an eyewitness account, an awful lot of it. In addition to eyewitness accounts are just documents. Just read and look.
JIM LEHRER: Is it your position that what John Kerry did was special and abhorrent beyond the norm in terms of medals, in other words, that he personally and in some kind of craven way lied to get these decorations, unlike other people who followed different kinds of behavior?
JOHN O'NEILL: Absolutely. In our unit, we never had anyone leave Vietnam short of having a major... being wounded in a serious way or dying. He is the only one that we can find.
He left in about four months, much short of the twelve-month normal tour of duty that people serve. He did that on the basis of having three Purple Hearts. I debated him in the Cavot show attended by Mr. Oliphant.
JIM LEHRER: That was in what...
JOHN O'NEILL: 1971.
JIM LEHRER: We're not getting you all fresh on this issue, right?
TOM OLIPHANT: Looking into the facts here, had actually commenced then --
JIM LEHRER: Why weren't they raised 1971?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, because the Nixon White House was berserk at what had had happened on the mall in April of 1971.
JIM LEHRER: And John Kerry was involved. Excuse me one minute. Let's make sure the viewers understand.
There was an antiwar movement, and you were opposed to that and John Kerry's involvement --
JOHN O'NEILL: I debated John Kerry. John Kerry took the position that American troops in Vietnam are like the army of Genghis Kahn, analogous to it. I didn't believe that was true. I was from the same unit.
I debated John Kerry on television on the Dick Cavot show and other places. I'm very proud of those debates and wish people would also look at those debates.
TOM OLIPHANT: The point that I was trying to make, Jim, was at the time that Kerry first became a public figure, the very first thing that happened in the Nixon White House, aside from the support given to Mr. O'Neill and his cause, was to look back to see if there was anything in Vietnam they could use against John Kerry.
And Chuck Coalson's office and other people involved politically with President Nixon did that back then.
JIM LEHRER: Chuck Coalson was a special assistant to the president -
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: The navy secretary, the second navy secretary for the Nixon administration was an elegant gentleman from Virginia by the name of John Warner. Today he is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he has a view of this that is quite similar to Sen. McCain's. And it was his department that reviewed the documentary and other evidence at the time. Nixon was desperate to get this guy.
This has happened before in Sen. Kerry's political campaigns: in '84, in '90, in '96. It comes and it goes with regularity.
But the standard of clear and convincing evidence-- and it's easy when you leave out the exculpatory stuff-- is what keeps this story in the tabloids because it does not meet basic standards.
JIM LEHRER: But of course it's no longer in the tabloids because Sen. Kerry brought it up himself. That's why we're talking about it tonight.
TOM OLIPHANT: He brought it up. Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, before we go, you think the story is in your book? If somebody wants to know about this, they can get your book.
If somebody wants to know the complete story from your perspective, in other words fill in the gaps you claim that are in this book, where do they go?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, you would want to read that one and you want to read Doug Brinkley's account of Sen. Kerry's youth, including a full account also of his service in Vietnam. And that will get you started.
JIM LEHRER: So the information is available.
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. It has been for a long time.
JOHN O'NEILL: Jim, one other thing, they can look at swiftvets.com, which is the Web site that has a great deal of information on it.
JIM LEHRER: Is there a Web site that's comparable to that? I'm sure the Kerry --
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, it's called the daily press, which is the most difficult thing for these guys to deal with.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.
JOHN O'NEILL: Thank you very much.