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The officer cited in controversial CBS memos as having pressed to “sugar coat” a performance review for George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard denies he ever sought preferential treatment for the future president.

In his first public statement since “60 Minutes II” aired a program claiming it had unearthed damaging memos, retired Col. Walter Staudt told ABC News that Bush was a highly qualified officer who passed all the necessary tests.

“I never pressured anybody about George Bush because I had no reason to,” Staudt said.

Staudt, who served as brigadier general of Bush’s unit in Texas, retired in 1972. A purported memo by Bush’s squadron commander Col. Jerry Killian dated Aug. 18, 1973 — 18 months after Staudt left the Guard — said Staudt was putting on pressure to “sugar coat” the performance evaluation of Lt. Bush.

CBS has tried to explain the discrepancy by suggesting Staudt still was in the sphere of influence.

But Staudt said that after his retirement he had no involvement in Guard affairs.

“I didn’t check in with anybody — I had no reason to,” he said. “I was busy with my civilian endeavors, and they were busy with their military options. I had no reason to talk to them, and I didn’t.”

Staudt told ABC that during his Guard service he never tried to influence Killian or other Guardsmen, adding he also never came under pressure to accept Bush.

“No one called me about taking George Bush into the Air National Guard,” he said. “It was my decision. I swore him in. I never heard anything from anybody.”

Staudt told ABC he came forward because he saw erroneous reports on television.

Bush did not use political influence to get into the Air National Guard, he asserted.

“I don’t know how they would know that, because I was the one who did it and I was the one who was there, and I didn’t talk to any of them.”

Staudt said he was in charge of deciding which pilots to accept for training.

Bush was “highly qualified,” Staudt said.

“He passed all the scrutiny and tests he was given.”

Staudt says he recalled Bush’s eagerness to join the pilot program.

“I asked him, ‘Why do you want to be a fighter pilot?’” Staudt recalled in the ABC interview. “He said, ‘Because my daddy was one.’ He was a well-educated, bright-eyed young man, just the kind of guy we were looking for.”

He regarded Bush as being in the upper 5 or 10 percent of pilots applying.

“We were pretty particular, because when he came back [from training], we had to fly with him,” Staudt said.

Staudt said he continues to support Bush.

“My politics now are that I’m an American, and that’s about all I can tell you,” he told ABC. “And I’m going to vote for George Bush.”

Meanwhile, CBS commentator Andy Rooney distanced himself from his network’s reports, saying he believes the documents are fake and could ultimately be costly to anchor Dan Rather, the New York Daily News reported.

“I’m surprised at their reluctance to concede they’re wrong,” Rooney said, referring to CBS officials.

At least one of the documents bears a faxed header indicating it was faxed to CBS News from a Kinko’s copy shop in Abilene, Texas miles from the Baird, Texas, home of Bill Burkett, a retired officer in the Texas National Guard who has been identified by other news organizations as a possible source.

Asked about Burkett’s role in the “60 Minutes” story, President Andrew Heyward declined to comment, except to say, “I’m not going to get into any discussion of who the sources are.”

In August, Burkett wrote a commentary [pdf file] for a left-leaning website in which boasted he had “reassembled” Bush’s National Guard files.

The commentary’s footnote said he had served as “one of the sources for information” in Michael Moore’s film “Farenheit 9/11,” which refers to Bush as a “deserter.”

Related stories:

CBS docs traced
to Texas Kinko’s

CBS News chief
defends memos

Congress asked to probe CBS

Democrats hammer Bush in new video

Ben Barnes’ daughter: Father lied about Bush

Rather backs docs on Evening News

CBS News denies Bush docs forged

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