The Swift Boat Controversy Explained

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Aug. 10, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: John Kerry (search) has made his Vietnam service a centerpiece of his campaign. But that service has been called into question by a group of veterans who say they served with him. The Kerry camp has responded by saying of these men that none of the critics ever served on the same swift boat as John Kerry. So what is that term "serving with" someone mean to the men who were in Vietnam?

For answer we turn to Fox News contributor Bill Cowan, a retired Marine officer, who spent three years on combat assignments in Vietnam.

Bill, welcome.


HUME: So, we're talking about units who served on these visit boats. I'm going to ask you about swift boats in a moment. But when men who searched in these kinds of situations talk about serving with someone, what does that mean?

COWAN: Well, serving with doesn't mean you had to be in the same squad in the infantry or that you had to be seated next to the guy as he was flying the airplane. It really means that you were in the same unit, the same tactical organization. I served with probably 800 Marines in the Third Battalion 26 Marines. I didn't know them all, would never meet them all. But if I met one on the street today and he said he was in 326 when I was, we could say that we served together. So the people coming out for Senator Kerry indeed served with him when they say that.

HUME: Well, but if — as the Kerry campaign asserts — it is the case that these men were the not on the boat.

COWAN: Right.

HUME: Well, there was more than one boat, but were not on a swift boat with John Kerry at any point, would they be in any position to observe his action? There you see a swift boat of the kind that he served on. Would they be in a position to observe his service and how well he did it?

COWAN: Well, not only would they be able to see his service in combat...

HUME: Or they might be able to.

COWAN: Or might be able to. Depending on if they were out with three to four, to five boats on some of the missions like the swift boats would often do, if one boat was engaged, the others would be watching. They'd be providing cover. The same thing with the smaller boats; the PBRs, which were a smaller version of the swift boat. You always went out in pairs.

HUME: Did you serve on both sides?

COWAN: I spent about two and a half years working with the Navy on PBRs. That's about a 30-foot boat. The swift boat is about a 50-foot boat. And these PBRs, they had a similar mission. The PBRs went a little bit into smaller waterways and what have you.

But nonetheless, you always went with a number of boats. You couldn't have a boat out there by itself. If it got into trouble and didn't have support, it was in real trouble. So other people around your boat that may be engaged are able to watch what's happening.

HUME: So it's possible, at least, that without being on a swift boat with an officer, that you could observe what would happen on his boat and how even perhaps he...

COWAN: No question

HUME: ... he functioned?

COWAN: No question, Brit. In fact, when are you in combat itself, you on another boat are more likely to see what's happening to a boat over there, because you've got the wide angle lens here. I can see what's happening. You are here. You are getting shot at from there. You are getting shot at from here. I'm watching everything that's happened. If you are on the boat that's under fire, you are really pretty consumed in what's happening around you. You are not able to really record it all. You are just too busy responding.

HUME: You mean you might be on one side of the boat taking fire and you won't know whether the guys on the other side are taking fire or not.

COWAN: Precisely. Precisely. And somebody standing off and another boat watching what's happening. Same thing on the ground in an infantry battle; a platoon over here engaged, a platoon over here not. These guys are not engaged are watching what's happening. They're seeing everything unfold before their eyes, even though they're not participating in that battle yet.

HUME: All right. Now, let's turn to this question that arose really yesterday, when this book about Kerry had been called "Unfit for Command" surfaced. One of the charges in it that seemed to attract some attention yesterday, was this business about whether John Kerry who had said on at least two occasions, one as recently as his Senate speech in 1986, that he was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968. And was taking fire up there. Now, these veterans scoff at that and say that it is not possible that he was there. Is it possible to say that with certainty that he wasn't there?

COWAN: I think so, Brit. Now, if you go back to that period of time, the last thing, the last thing the United States could have afforded at that time would have been have a United States Navy swift boat shot or sunk in Cambodia. You know, those were very difficult times. We had very, very few units operating across the border in Cambodia. They weren't big units like boats. It was small teams going across. Even that was probably certainly illegal at the time.

HUME: You're talking about commando-style operations?

COWAN: Commando-style, special operations group, which was a Special Forces so to speak. But the chance, I would say — the chance of a U.S. Navy craft, patrol craft, being across the border in Cambodia where it might be shot at, sunk, photographed, whatever, highly unlikely. Highly unlikely.

HUME: In fact, that might explain why the Kerry camp is now saying that as far as the senator is concerned, all he recalls is being near Cambodia. I assume that makes more sense?

COWAN: Much more sense. We were certainly close to Cambodia border, a lot of major forces. I was close to the Laotian border. You know, a lot of units close to borders. But crossing the other side, you can't stand the scrutiny, the international scrutiny or the international furor if you get caught over there.

HUME: All right. Bill Cowan, always good to have you, Bill. Thank you very much.

COWAN: Thanks, Brit.

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