'Unfit for Command' Author Defends His Book

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Aug. 17, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: The man at the center of the allegation that John Kerry has misrepresented his war record is an old adversary and fellow Vietnam veteran who once debated Kerry on television more than 30 years ago. He is John O'Neill (search), co-author of the book "Unfit for Command," which reports the sharply critical views of dozens of the men who served with Kerry in Vietnam and who strongly dispute Kerry's version of a number of the events in there. He joins me now.

Welcome to you, sir.

JOHN O'NEILL, AUTHOR, "UNFIT FOR COMMAND": Thank you, very much, Brit.

HUME: Now, do I take it that your role in this book was principally editor and author-writer, rather than witness?

O'NEILL: Yes. There's a chapter relating to the debate but the bulk of the book contains the recollection of more than 60 people who served directly with John Kerry (search). About 17 of the officers who were with him, all of his commanding officers — I'm a person who is putting down their recollection for most of the book.

HUME: There have been a lot of question about your motivation. You debated him back on the old "Dick Cavett Show" back in the early '70s. That seemed to be about the criticisms Kerry made of what was going on in Vietnam after he had come home. May I take it that you still feel strongly about that and that is a factor in your participation in this project now?

O'NEILL: It is, Brit. My children didn't even know that I had debated Kerry, to tell you the truth. It was more than 30 years ago. But yes, I feel John Kerry lied when he accused U.S. troops generally of war crimes and specifically our unit. And the people in our unit, all of them feel very strongly about that.

HUME: Well, that obviously takes up a good part of the book. But the book is also given over to a number of incidents, including those for which Kerry was decorated. Where the veterans that are on your side on this, critical of Kerry, are disputing the official record. And I want to ask you about that because for example, one of the fitness reports, George Elliott (search) mentioned earlier by Major Garret, this was December 14, 1968 to March of 1969.

Quote, "Kerry was unsurpassed. He emerged as the acknowledged leader in his peer group." Later on he said, quote, "Kerry rapidly assessed the situation and ordered his units to turn directly into the ambush. This decision was resulted in routing the attackers with several enemy KIA." That means of course killed this action.

Now, that's the official Navy record. And Kerry, you know, points with some pride, I think and so do his supports to that. This is what you and the other veterans are up against. This is what the official record says. Why would we not want to believe that official record?

O'NEILL: I think the problem, Brit, is when you look at the record, the actual record, many of them are the very strongest support that we have. The fitness reports you've read basically place Kerry in the middle of the pack at that particular division as Commander Elliot has explained. But Commander Elliot was not with Kerry on his operations. He relied on the reports that Kerry actually submitted.

And what we have done is go and take the actually reports that Kerry submitted and compared those to Kerry's own accounts in books like "Tour of Duty." And we find that he...

HUME: That's the Douglas Brinkley...

O'NEILL: Absolutely.

HUME: The historian Douglas Brinkley's book about Kerry and his Vietnam service, published to considerable acclaim some months ago.

O'NEILL: Exactly. For example, there's the sanpan incident, outlined in Kerry's book "Tour of Duty," in which it's undisputable it was a tragedy. There was a husband and a wife and a child and a baby, on a sanpan. The husband was killed. The child was killed. We don't criticize that, although it could be criticized. But what we did is get the actual report out of the Navy Archives and all of a sudden, there is...

HUME: Now, which actual report is this? This is the after action report that was filed by whom?

O'NEILL: By John Kerry on January 20, 1969, but which he has omitted from his Web site. That report, which went to Commander Elliott, shows no longer the child being killed, the child that John Kerry said in "Tour of Duty," would be seared in his mind forever. All of a sudden, it shows an entire squad, five Viet Cong on the boat that were never there in the real world being killed. It shows the mother and child as Viet Cong captured in action.

It went up the chain of command and John Kerry received back congratulations. Just like the ones you are reading from commanders that had no idea that he had lied to them.

HUME: So what you're saying is that when Elliot said these things, he was based on Kerry's say so. And he has changed his mind now because he no longer believes these things to be true.

O'NEILL: What Commander Elliott said was like Churchill; Kerry was a guy who knew history would treat him kindly because he wrote it.

HUME: I understand. All right. Now, let's just to talk about you a little further here. There are allegations flying — I saw some of them today on web sites and so on — that you are a Republican activist. And partisan, who has been a registered Republican for the past 20 years or so and has given something on the order of $14,000 to Republican candidates. Your response.

O'NEILL: Well, first of all. Of course, there are 254 guys in our operation, 60 of them won the Purple Heart. I'm only one of many people, but as to me, that is not true either. The actual records, which I actually drawn, show that I have given more money to Democratic candidates than to Republican candidates.

But I'm not a Republican or a Democrat. I have always voted for the person. I have given money for example to Duane Sand who went to the Naval Academy. On the other hand, I have given money to Bill White, who is a Democratic candidate for mayor of Houston. And I've done that because I thought they would be good people.

HUME: Well, what about the 14 grand? Were those contributions you actually did make to Republicans?

O'NEILL: Actually, about half of them were mine and I've given in excess of $25,000 to Democrats over the same 15-year period. About three times as much.

HUME: What about the rest of the other $7,000?

O'NEILL: Those are actually funds, as nearly as I can tell, that were given my law partner who has almost the same name, Edward J. O'Neill. I simply didn't give them. I would have been happy to give them. I just didn't.

HUME: Mr. O'Neill, it's nice to have you. Thank you for coming. Hope we can see you again.

O'NEILL: Thank you very much. Thank you, Brit.

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