Last week, John Kerry recanted the detailed and emotional story of his Christmas Eve, 1968, illegal mission into Cambodia that he has been telling for 30 years, most notably in a movie review of “Apocalypse Now” that he wrote for the Boston Herald on Oct. 14, 1979, in a statement on the floor of the Senate on March 27,1986, and in an AP story from 1992.
Faced with mounting evidence that this brazen fabrication was crumbling, Kerry spokesmen acknowledged that Kerry wasn’t in Cambodia on Christmas Eve, 1968, but hung tough on Kerry’s having been across the border on several occasions in early 1969. Here is the statement released by the Kerry campaign midweek:
During John Kerry’s service in Vietnam, many times he was on or near the Cambodian border and on one occasion crossed into Cambodia at the request of members of a special operations group operating out of Ha Tien.
On Dec. 24, 1968, Lieutenant John Kerry and his crew were on patrol in the watery borders between Vietnam and Cambodia deep in enemy territory. In the early afternoon, Kerry’s boat, PCF-44, was at Sa Dec and then headed north to the Cambodian border. There, Kerry and his crew along with two other boats were ambushed, taking fire from both sides of the river, and after the firefight were fired upon again. Later that evening during their night patrol they came under friendly fire.
It is an acknowledged fact that Swift Boat crews regularly operated along the Cambodian border from Ha Tien on the Gulf of Thailand to the rivers of the Mekong south and west of Saigon. Boats often received fire from enemy taking sanctuary across the border. Kerry’s was not the only United States riverboat to respond and inadvertently or responsibly cross the border. In fact, it was this reality that lead President Nixon to later invade Cambodia itself in 1970.
The odd part of this statement is the “inadvertently” adverb. Kerry’s never stressed any accidental crossings of the Vietnam-Cambodia border. He’s always been on secret though illegal missions, including one that he spoke of in June 2003 to Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld in which he produced his magic hat:
A close associate hints: There’s a secret compartment in Kerry’s briefcase. He carries the black attache everywhere. Asked about it on several occasions, Kerry brushed it aside. Finally, trapped in an interview, he exhaled and clicked open his case.
“Who told you?” he demanded as he reached inside. “My friends don’t know about this.”
The hat was a little mildewy. The green camouflage was fading, the seams fraying.
“My good luck hat,” Kerry said, happy to see it. “Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia.”
Kerry put on the hat, pulling the brim over his forehead. His blue button-down shirt and tie clashed with the camouflage. He pointed his finger and raised his thumb, creating an imaginary gun. He looked silly, yet suddenly his campaign message was clear: Citizen-soldier. Linking patriotism to public service. It wasn’t complex after all; it was Kerry.
He smiled and aimed his finger: “Pow.”
Hard to square this telling with “inadvertent,” and Kerry’s favorite historian isn’t using the “inadvertent” defense either, and unlike the campaign statement, he’s not pegging Kerry’s crossings at one. Douglas Brinkley, whose reputation may end up taking a beating over what he included and chose to omit in his bio of Kerry, backs up the Kerry line that he ran secret missions into Cambodia. This is what Brinkley told Britain’s Telegraph:
He said: “Kerry went into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions. He had a run dropping off U.S. Navy Seals, Green Berets and CIA guys.” The missions were not armed attacks on Cambodia, said Mr. Brinkley, who did not include the clandestine missions in his wartime biography of Mr. Kerry, “Tour of Duty.”
“He was a ferry master, a drop-off guy, but it was dangerous as hell. Kerry carries a hat he was given by one CIA operative. In a part of his journals which I didn’t use he writes about discussions with CIA guys he was dropping off.”
Now here’s the problem: There is absolutely no evidence yet produced for the idea that John Kerry made three or four missions into Cambodian waters ferrying SEALs, Green Berets or CIA guys – or even one mission. None. In any ordinary campaign cycle in which Candidate A had been discovered to have been lying about a central episode in his life’s narrative – the Christmas-Eve-in-Cambodia adventure which Kerry said had been “seared, seared” into his consciousness – the burden of proof would immediately move onto Candidate A’s shoulders to document his other claims.
While the media is beginning to notice Kerry’s problems with his cross-border tales of daring-do, no reporter has yet asked – or been allowed to get close enough to ask – for details on the magic-hat mission or the three others Brinkley alludes to.
So I began a search of the vast archive of Vietnam War related materials for any sign of swiftboat missions to Cambodia in January and February of 1969. I was inspired to do this by, of all people, lefty blogger Atrios, who made the lamest post in history when the story of Kerry’s Kurtz Chronicles began to fall apart. Atrios snipped a few references to cross-border incursions by various U.S. forces in the years prior to Kerry’s deployment, as though the evidence of some cross-border incursions by some U.S. forces was proof of John Kerry’s exploits. (This passes for logic on the left, I guess.)
Brinkley’s assertions are being touted as proof by Peter Principle blogger Kevin Drum, who quickly forgave Kerry his wild exaggerations of 30 years and latched on to the hope that Kerry did make his magic-hat mission, but Brinkley’s credibility in this matter is already compromised and his sources are not publicly available for cross-checking.
I did not want to end up missing obvious corroborating sources for Kerry’s assertions and Brinkley’s account, and I figured Atrios was just incompetent – there had to be some independent cover for Kerry’s story, right? He wouldn’t just make up cross-border exploits full of SEALs, Green Berets and hatless CIA-men without some pretty good smoke to cover his exaggerations – like easily available evidence of many such missions being undertaken by other swiftboats in early 1969, would he? That would be way too weird to have been missed even by a supine press crowd.
Still, the “Stolen Valor” syndrome is pretty widespread, and a lot of people have exaggerated their war time exploits, so there is certainly a motive for Kerry to have done so, and now we know he already did so with regard to his Christmas Eve narrative. So, what does a few hours of research tell me about swiftboats and the “ferrying” of SEALs, Green Berets and CIA-men (hatless) into Cambodia? Only that there is nothing there to be found.
Now, we know that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, and so we also know that the absence of any easily found account of swiftboats ferrying SEALs, Green Berets and CIA-men into Cambodia in January and February, 1969, doesn’t mean that such missions didn’t happen. But not one swiftboat veteran has yet stepped forward to say that he was on such a mission – except John Kerry. Here’s what John Kerry told the AP in 1992:
“We were told, ‘Just go up there and do your patrol.’ Everybody was over there (in Cambodia). Nobody thought twice about it,” Kerry said. One of the missions, which Kerry, at the time, was ordered not to discuss, involved taking CIA operatives into Cambodia to search for enemy enclaves. “I can remember wondering, ‘If you’re going to go, what happens to you,’” Kerry said.
“Everybody was over there” seems to imply that all the swiftboats were crossing the border, right? Well, do your own search and send me your results, but here’s what I found.
Cross-border missions were under way in early 1969, led by the “Studies and Observations Group.” Here is the best short history of SOG’s operations in Cambodia, which were code-named “Salem House”:
Salem House Operations
Concurrent with the Prairie Fire operations were the SOG’s missions in northeastern Cambodia. These operations, originally named “Daniel Boone,” were later redesignated “Salem House.” These missions provided intelligence on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases located in Cambodia. Another objective of the Salem House operations was to determine the level of Cambodian Government support for the NVA and Viet Cong.
The Salem House operations had a number of restrictions that affected their activities in Cambodia. Many of the restrictions were modified or withdrawn and new restrictions imposed; the pattern of change in the restrictions presents an interesting picture of the war’s development in Cambodia. In May 1967, the Salem House missions were subject to the following restrictions:
- Only reconnaissance teams were to be committed into Cambodia and the teams could not exceed an overall strength of 12 men, to include not more than three U.S. advisers.
- Teams were not to engage in combat except to avoid capture.
- They did have permission to have contact with civilians.
- No more than three reconnaissance teams could be committed on operations in Cambodia at any one time.
- The teams could conduct no more than 10 missions in any 30-day period.
By October 1967, SOG’s teams had permission to infiltrate the entire Cambodian border area to a depth of 20 kilometers. However, their helicopters were only permitted 10 kilometers inside Cambodia. In December, the DOD, with the Department of State’s concurrence, approved the use of Forward Air Controllers (FACs) to support SOG operations. The FACs had authorization to make two flights in support of each Salem House mission.
In October 1968, SOG teams received permission to emplace self-destructing land mines in Cambodia. The following December, the depth of penetration into northern Cambodia was extended to 30 kilometers; however, the 20-kilometer limit remained in effect for central and southern Cambodia.
The final adjustment in Salem House operations made in 1970 during the incursion into Cambodia permitted reconnaissance teams to operate 200 meters west of the Mekong River (an average distance of 185 kilometers west of the South Vietnamese border). However, the SOG reconnaissance teams never ventured that far west, due to the lift and range limitations of their UH-1F helicopters.
Thus, from the initiation of SOG’s Cambodian operations in 1967 until 1970, there was a progressive expansion of the zones of operation and OPS-35 patrols within Cambodia. The enlargement of the areas of operation and the increasing number of Salem House missions, gives an indication of how seriously the Johnson and Nixon administrations viewed the NVA’s use of Cambodian base areas. It was also indicative of the U.S. military’s growing awareness of the role of the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) and its deleterious effect on the war in South Vietnam.
From 1967 through April 1972, OPS-35 conducted 1,398 reconnaissance missions, 38 platoon-sized patrols, and 12 multi-platoon operations in Cambodia. During the same period, it captured 24 prisoners of war. 16
This account, a pretty comprehensive one, does not seem to provide for the possibility swiftboat transportation, indicating instead that helicopters were used for insertions of special forces, and that these flights were tightly controlled. (A couple of pictures of helicopter bases connected with these operations can be seen here.) First-person accounts of participation in these cross-border operations are full of details about helicopter insertions and rescues, but are silent on swiftboat details.
My inability to locate any account of swiftboat support for covert missions across the Cambodian border doesn’t preclude such support having occurred, of course, but it raises many questions given the ease with which it is possible to verify helicopter support for these then-secret and now widely discussed missions. Add to those questions the answers I got from John O’Neill to questions on this particular subject when I interviewed him Friday. O’Neill denied ever having been sent into Cambodia when he commanded a swiftboat, and asserted that no swiftboat commander other than John Kerry has ever claimed to participate in such missions.
Last week, Drudge reported that Douglas Brinkley was preparing a New Yorker story on Kerry’s exploits. Tom McGuire of JustOneMinute doubts whether such an article will appear. I hope he’s wrong because now my curiosity is fully engaged: On what is Brinkley relying?
Did John Kerry really do these Kurtz-like runs into the heart of darkness, or did he just record such things in his journals as stored treasures against the day that he’d authorize a biography to use them? Or did he hatch this stuff post “Apocalypse Now” viewing? Is the magic hat real, or just about the single most damning piece of evidence since the glove-that-did-not-fit-which-led-to-must-acquit?
There’s no down-side to the Bush campaign at this point in pushing the story along because Kerry’s pratfall on Christmas-Eve-in-Cambodia-in-1968 provides blanket immunity to anyone asking tough questions about the rest of the story. Kevin Drum has warned all of us interested in the Kurtz Chronicles that we are displaying “deep unseriousness” about the election by participating in this “smear,” and warns darkly that “[i]t will be remembered.” Heh. As though anyone can look bad after Kerry’s “seared, seared” oration.
The really, really interesting question will follow only if Kerry is exposed has having embroidered this part of his narrative as well. If that’s the case, one can only imagine the summersaults ahead among the lefty bloggers.
And that’s where the John Kerry’s Kurtz Chronicles stand as of Aug. 15, 2004, at 2:00 p.m. PST. Readers with any observations that will either add to the argument that Kerry couldn’t have undertaken these missions or which would support his having done so are invited to send them to me. I will make them available to the newspapers via this website, though at this point I doubt they would cover an extensive photo shoot of Kerry proving he couldn’t have been across the Cambodian border. On the other hand, corroborating evidence is sure to get picked up.