An official Navy document on Senator Kerry's campaign Web site listed as Mr. Kerry's "Honorable Discharge from the Reserves" opens a door on a well kept secret about his military service.
The document is a form cover letter in the name of the Carter administration's secretary of the Navy, W. Graham Claytor. It describes Mr. Kerry's discharge as being subsequent to the review of "a board of officers." This in it self is unusual. There is nothing about an ordinary honorable discharge action in the Navy that requires a review by a board of officers.
According to the secretary of the Navy's document, the "authority of reference" this board was using in considering Mr. Kerry's record was "Title 10, U.S. Code Section 1162 and 1163. "This section refers to the grounds for involuntary separation from the service. What was being reviewed, then, was Mr. Kerry's involuntary separation from the service. And it couldn't have been an honorable discharge, or there would have been no point in any review at all. The review was likely held to improve Mr. Kerry's status of discharge from a less than honorable discharge to an honorable discharge.
A Kerry campaign spokesman, David Wade, was asked whether Mr. Kerry had ever been a victim of an attempt to deny him an honorable discharge. There has been no response to that inquiry.
The document is dated February 16, 1978. But Mr. Kerry's military commitment began with his six-year enlistment contract with the Navy on February 18, 1966. His commitment should have terminated in 1972. It is highly unlikely that either the man who at that time was a Vietnam Veterans Against the War leader, John Kerry, requested or the Navy accepted an additional six year reserve commitment. And the Claytor document indicates proceedings to reverse a less than honorable discharge that took place sometime prior to February 1978.
The most routine time for Mr. Kerry's discharge would have been at the end of his six-year obligation, in 1972. But how was it most likely to have come about?
NBC's release this March of some of the Nixon White House tapes about Mr. Kerry show a great deal of interest in Mr. Kerry by Nixon and his executive staff, including, perhaps most importantly, Nixon's special counsel, Charles Colson. In a meeting the day after Mr. Kerry's Senate testimony, April 23, 1971, Mr. Colson attacks Mr. Kerry as a "complete opportunist...We'll keep hitting him, Mr. President."
Mr. Colson was still on the case two months later, according to a memo he wrote on June 15,1971, that was brought to the surface by the Houston Chronicle. "Let's destroy this young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader." Nixon had been a naval officer in World War II. Mr. Colson was a former Marine captain. Mr. Colson had been prodded to find "dirt" on Mr. Kerry, but reported that he couldn't find any.
The Nixon administration ran FBI surveillance on Mr. Kerry from September 1970 until August 1972. Finding grounds for an other than honorable discharge, however, for a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, given his numerous activities while still a reserve officer of the Navy, was easier than finding "dirt."
For example, while America was still at war, Mr. Kerry had met with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong delegation to the Paris Peace talks in May 1970 and then held a demonstration in July 1971 in Washington to try to get Congress to accept the enemy's seven point peace proposal without a single change. Woodrow Wilson threw Eugene Debs, a former presidential candidate, in prison just for demonstrating for peace negotiations with Germany during World War I. No court overturned his imprisonment. He had to receive a pardon from President Harding.
Mr. Colson refused to answer any questions about his activities regarding Mr. Kerry during his time in the Nixon White House. The secretary of the Navy at the time during the Nixon presidency is the current chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Warner. A spokesman for the senator, John Ullyot, said, "Senator Warner has no recollection that would either confirm or challenge any representation that Senator Kerry received a less than honorable discharge."
The "board of officers" review reported in the Claytor document is even more extraordinary because it came about "by direction of the President." No normal honorable discharge requires the direction of the president. The president at that time was James Carter. This adds another twist to the story of Mr. Kerry's hidden military records.
Mr. Carter's first act as president was a general amnesty for draft dodgers and other war protesters. Less than an hour after his inauguration on January 21, 1977, while still in the Capitol building, Mr. Carter signed Executive Order 4483 empowering it. By the time it became a directive from the Defense Department in March 1977 it had been expanded to include other offenders who may have had general, bad conduct, dishonorable discharges, and any other discharge or sentence with negative effect on military records. In those cases the directive outlined a procedure for appeal on a case by case basis before a board of officers. A satisfactory appeal would result in an improvement of discharge status or an honorable discharge.
Mr. Kerry has repeatedly refused to sign Standard Form 180, which would allow the release of all his military records. And some of his various spokesmen have claimed that all his records are already posted on his Web site. But the Washington Post already noted that the Naval Personnel Office admitted that they were still withholding about 100 pages of files.
If Mr. Kerry was the victim of a Nixon "enemies list" hit, one might have expected him to wear it like a badge of honor, like many others such as his friend Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, CBS's Daniel Schorr, or the actor Paul Newman, who had made Mr. Colson's original list of 20 "enemies."
There are a number of categories of discharges besides honorable. There are general discharges, medical discharges, bad conduct discharges, as well as other than honorable and dishonorable discharges. There is one odd coincidence that gives some weight to the possibility that Mr. Kerry was dishonorably discharged. Mr. Kerry has claimed that he lost his medal certificates and that is why he asked that they be reissued. But when a dishonorable discharge is issued, all pay benefits, and allowances, and all medals and honors are revoked as well. And five months after Mr. Kerry joined the U.S. Senate in 1985, on one single day, June 4, all of Mr. Kerry's medals were reissued.