WASHINGTON – Unearthed under legal pressure, three-decade-old documents portray President Bush (search) as a capable and well-liked Air National Guard (search) pilot who stopped flying and attending regular drills two-thirds of the way through his six-year commitment -- without consequence.
The files, many of them forced to light by Freedom of Information (search) lawsuits by The Associated Press, conflict with some of the harshest attacks Democrats have levied on Bush's Vietnam-era service, such as suggestions that Bush was a deserter or absent without leave.
But gaps in the records leave unanswered questions about the final two years of his military service in 1972 and 1973. Chief among them: Why did Bush's commanders apparently tolerate his lapses in training and approve his honorable discharge?
Bush's commanders could have punished him -- or ordered him to two years of active duty -- for missing drills for six months in 1972 and skipping a required pilot's medical exam. Instead, they allowed him to make up some of his missed training and granted him an honorable discharge.
"Obviously, the commander saw the lieutenant's interest in the guard was waning," said retired Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver Jr., a former head of the Air National Guard. "Had he been good before? Yeah. Does that mean he should nail him to the wall? No. The culture at the time was not to enforce that."
But the culture apparently did not apply to everyone. Although no records mention any punishment against Bush other than being grounded, the Texas unit's files show another airman was ordered to involuntary active duty in March 1972 as punishment.
There are also unresolved questions about what, if any, work Bush did while temporarily assigned in 1972 to an Alabama unit and why the future president suddenly switched back to training jets shortly before giving up as a pilot.
White House spokesmen say Bush fulfilled all of his obligations and was never disciplined for any wrongdoing while he was in the Texas Air National Guard from 1968 to 1973. While Bush did not meet requirements for pilots in 1972 and 1973 and skipped months of training, there is no record of his commanders ordering him to active duty or initiating an investigation.
Bush has been dogged by questions about his military service since he first ran for Texas governor in 1994, and some Democrats have alleged he deserted without fulfilling his obligation. Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) has said he respects Bush's Guard service, but frequently notes he engaged in combat in Vietnam.
Bush's spokesmen and the Pentagon had insisted all of the president's files were made public last February when the White House released records it hoped would put an end to the questions.
AP, however, identified large numbers of documents that should have been produced under the Guard's 1970s regulations but had not been released, such as flight logs and mission orders. It sued in both federal and Texas state court and filed supplemental document requests to get answers.
The Pentagon and Texas National Guard responded by conducting sweeping new searches that turned up more than 100 pages of new documents since August, including Bush's long-sought flight logs and dozens of orders showing what work the future president attended or missed.
But even when the government insisted in sworn affidavits that all documents about Bush had been made public last month, AP persisted and won permission to allow two law professors to review boxes of files in Texas to make sure nothing was missed.
The professors found dozens of pages of new memos overlooked in the government's searches. The government's only explanation was that dust and rat excrement in the boxes made it hard to review the files.
"This is a lesson that the routine use of the Freedom of Information Act is very helpful when you're trying to report important stories to the public," said Lucy Dalglish, an attorney and executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (search).
The newly discovered records were a mixed political bag.
Democrats, who contended Bush got favored treatment because his father was a congressman during the Vietnam war, crowed when a letter from the elder Bush came to light this fall suggesting a training commander took special interest in the congressman's son.
And records showed Bush missed some of his unit's drills, including a mission to guard the Southwest border in fall 1972.
But the White House had its own ammunition to counter allegations Bush got a free pass in the Guard when flight logs emerged showing Bush scored well on most of his training exercises and piloted a fighter jet for more than 300 hours.
The newly released flight logs also contain a mystery: Bush abruptly switched from his solo fighter jet to flying mostly in two-seat training jets about six weeks before his final flight as a Guardsman. The files don't explain why, and Bush's spokesmen could only opine that there might have been a shortage of fighter planes.
The biggest questions about Bush's service focus on 1972 and 1973. Payroll records show Bush failed to show up for training between mid-April and late October of 1972. At the time, he had relocated to Alabama to work on the ultimately unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign of Winton M. Blount, a friend of his father. He was also supposed to do some training with an Alabama unit.
Except for a January 1973 dental examination, no records have turned up that show what, if any, work Bush did for the Guard while in Alabama.
The payroll records show Bush was credited for service in October and November 1972 and in January and April of 1973. An evaluation from Texas covering the period between May 1972 and May 1973 says Texas officers did not see Bush during that time.
His evaluation for the previous year was glowing.
"Lt. Bush is an exceptional fighter interceptor pilot and officer," then-Maj. William D. Harris, Jr., wrote in May 1972.
The Texas Air National Guard grounded Bush in September 1972 for skipping a required medical exam. Although Air Force rules at the time required an investigation and report on every pilot who skipped his exam, no records of such an investigation have surfaced.
Bush has said he skipped the exam because he knew he would not be flying F-102A fighters in Alabama.