Lt. Col. Bill Burkett is the retired Guard official who helped provide “60 Minutes” with the memos.
Prior to his involvement with the '60 Minutes' report, Burkett, who retired from the Austin headquarters of the Guard in 1998, has said he once saw some of Bush’s military records in a trash can. He also says he overheard a conversation among Guard officials about sanitizing the president’s military records, which Guard officials strongly deny.
Chris Matthews interviewed Burkett on ‘Hardball’ earlier this year (February 12, 2004) about this allegation.
It was this 'Hardball' interview that Burkett says lead a Lucy Ramirez to contact him, and to offer the documents he later gave CBS. ()
“There is something I have that I want to make sure gets out,” he quoted her as saying. (Burkett earlier identified George Conn, a former Texas National Guard colleague as the source. He now says he made up the story about Conn to divert attention.)
Read a transcript of the 'Hardball' interview, below.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Lieutenant, what can you tell us, Colonel, about the president‘s National Guard records?
LT. COL. BILL BURKETT (RET.), TEXAS NATIONAL GUARD: Mr. Matthews, thank you for caring enough to ask the questions, first of all.
But in a series of three sub-events, I witnessed the governor‘s office called to the actual general of the Texas National Guard, a directive to gather the files. And then the subscript to that was make sure there was nothing there that would embarrass the governor.
I witnessed also the directive and informal directive to a staff member to gather those files.
And then on a third occasion, I witnessed that in fact there was some activity underway with some personal files of “Bush, George W., First Lieutenant,” “1LT” as it was put in handwriting at the top of files within a trash can.
MATTHEWS: Well, let‘s set this in time. When did you make these—did you see these events occur?
BURKETT: These events occurred in late spring of 1997.
Tell me about the location of these events. Where were you when you witnessed these three events that involved the president‘s National Guard records?
BURKETT: Mr. Matthews, I was a traditional guardsman until 1996. And to make this extremely brief, I‘m a strategic planner in the private world, or was.
I was brought to active duty for a short period of time under a special project to build a strategic plan that would make the Texas National Guard more effective, more efficient, and more relevant to the active duty force.
I had access and, in fact, worked directly for Adjutant General David James through other people. It sounds like a conflict. But in this case, when you‘re doing planning, you have to know the vision and the intent of the commander. That was my job as a professional officer.
In 1997, I had access to hear the telephone call and then I also had access to hear the transference and the event itself.
MATTHEWS: OK. Let‘s go through events that you‘re an eyewitness to. First of all, there‘s a telephone call, a conference call involving the adjutant general James. What did you hear him say about the president—or heard said to him about the president‘s guard records? And who was talking?
BURKETT: Well, there was nothing said about the guard records as far as quality or something. But the conveyance directive was, and these are paraphrased words. The exact words are probably within—better phrased outside. And I don‘t want to play a word game.
But the conveyance was for the adjutant general to gather those files or cause those files to be gathered, that Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett from the governor‘s office would be out. They were writing a book for the governor‘s re-election campaign. Or something further, maybe.
And that those files need to be gathered. And the last conveyance was to insure that there was nothing in there that would embarrass the governor.
MATTHEWS: Whose voices did you hear on the phone?
BURKETT: Mr. Joe Allbaugh , chief of staff of the governor‘s office. Mr. Dan Bartlett was also on that telephone call.
MATTHEWS: And how about Karen Hughes? What was her role?
BURKETT: She was not on that phone call. I never had access to, nor did I see Karen Hughes within this entire event. She was simply referred to as coming out to get Mayberry (ph) to view the files and write a book.
MATTHEWS: How do you know that Dan Bartlett‘s voice was the voice you heard? How do you know Joe Allbaugh‘s voice was the one you heard?
BURKETT: Primarily because there was reference to both of them in the first phone call. There was reference to both of them within the conveyance, the informal but direct conveyance of that message to gather the files for the state service...
MATTHEWS: What do you mean by conveyance? What‘s a conveyance?
BURKETT: It is just, in this case, it was a—General James was moving between meetings very rapidly. General officers do that sort of thing. Senior officers do that thing. He happened into somebody that was on the way to—he was—that he saw on the way to the meeting that was responsible for that area. And he told him he wanted this done.
MATTHEWS: And where was that? Where did you overhear that?
BURKETT: That was the following—that was the following day, Mr. Matthews. The day after the directive from the governor‘s office.
MATTHEWS: So how many instances did you observe this effort to try to gather the president—the now president‘s records? How many times did you overhear conversations?
BURKETT: The first time I overheard a conversation. Then I heard the conveyance, as I said, the directive to get it done. The third time I saw files in a trashcan.
MATTHEWS: Now those file in the trashcan, how far—were you behind a desk or in front of a desk to get a look? Trashcans are normally behind desks. How did you get a line of sight on that trashcan?
BURKETT: No. And that‘s what‘s so important here, Mr. Matthews. This thing needs to be put in context. And it takes a lot longer than most people are willing to listen.
We walked into a facility. There was a standard folding table there with a large trashcan. Old style. Metal trashcan, roughly 15 gallon, tabletop high. I was standing next to that trashcan, right next to that trashcan. These files were there.
And of course, in the course of a very informal conversation about the files, I looked down. And the top piece of paper was—had the header on it in handwritten, on a standard form in handwritten letters, “Bush, George W.,” his initial, “1LT.”
As those individuals did walk away I did something that I‘m not terribly proud of. But I did look at the first five or six or seven or eight pages, and they were all Mr. Bush‘s files.
MATTHEWS: Why were they drawn to your attention?
BURKETT: Because of the first occurrence in which I had listened, I had head that call, and because I had also witnessed the second conveyance of the directive. And here I was actually seeing something that I considered to be an effort to shape an image.
MATTHEWS: As you went through those, you sorted through those six pages, you found in the trashcan with Bush‘s—President Bush‘s name on it, at the time a lieutenant, did you notice anything that was written on those pages?
BURKETT: I noticed a type of document more than anything else. These were performance type...
MATTHEWS: What was it?
BURKETT: These were performance type documents. Performance certificates. Either you did or did not attend drill. And in a couple of cases, there were photocopies of pay documents.
MATTHEWS: Did you ever hear someone say, “Hide the documents, destroy the documents, make sure there‘s no bad stuff in there?” What was the closest you can remember to the language that was given as conveyance or instructions to the appropriate officials?
BURKETT: Make sure there‘s nothing there that embarrasses the governor. That message was said...
MATTHEWS: Who said that? Who said that?
BURKETT: Mr.—Mr. Allbaugh said that initially.
MATTHEWS: You heard that when you were standing in a room? The circumstances, again, Colonel, you‘re standing in a room. You‘re overhearing a conference call which was open at your end. And you were in the room or outside the room?
BURKETT: I was just outside the room, sir.
MATTHEWS: Was the door closed?
BURKETT: The door was cracked open about eight to 10 inches.
MATTHEWS: And you were standing right at the door, so you could hear the entire conference—you could hear the conference call with that part of it in it. Clearly.
BURKETT: Yes. I don‘t like—you know, I don‘t like the way this looks or sounds and turns out. My ear was not to the door. No, I had peeked—The door was open. I heard voices. I had access to ask quick questions to General James in doing the strategic plan.
BURKETT: I quickly peeked in. There was nobody in the office. I stepped out. I was uncomfortable. I was within a foot and a half. and there was no doubt that I heard clearly.
MATTHEWS: OK. What month—You say this was in spring of 1997. Can you say which month it was?
BURKETT: It was in April-May.
And how much time—And how much time elapsed between the time you overheard the conference call outside a doorway involving Joseph Allbaugh, the president‘s friend, who as you said was trying to gather evidence that might be bad for the president. I heard you there.
How much time elapsed between that time and the time you saw trash in a trashcan with George Bush‘s name on it, Lt. Bush‘s name on it?
BURKETT: The first occurrence was, I would say, it was day one. I heard the instructions passed along on day two. And it was approximately 10 days later that I actually saw those forms at the top of a trashcan.
MATTHEWS: Did you tell anyone at the time that you had saw these things and heard these things?
BURKETT: The evening that I heard the first call, I had dinner with a very close friend who I consider to be an ethical advisor, someone that had strong ethics. He was another preacher‘s—I‘m a preacher‘s kid. He was another preacher‘s kid. We both are haunted by that.
MATTHEWS: And what did he say? Without identifying who, if you don‘t want to, what did he say was right or wrong about this? What you should do with this information?
BURKETT: He did not give any real strong advice. He did not say no or yes. He just kind of had a, well, be careful.
MATTHEWS: Did you tell anyone else about this?
BURKETT: Not on that evening.
MATTHEWS: Why not?
BURKETT: After the second conveyance...
MATTHEWS: I mean this obviously had a big impact on you. And you feel that it was a sign of something, you know, foul play of some kind or unfair advantage for a person.
Why in 1997 did you not do something with this information? Something official?
BURKETT: I did in 1997. I did something in 1997. I first tried to work through the system. And understand something, there‘s risk to everything that you do, and I am a human being. It doesn‘t mean that I at all shirk that responsibility.
But I did make effort, both officially and unofficially through some political—contacts, including somebody that was very political in the guard. I did.
MATTHEWS: Are you a person who generally supports President Bush and Governor Bush at the time. Are you a Democrat or Republican? Is that—I just want to know your point of view about the president and the then governor.
BURKETT: I was a very—I would say very nonpolitical person.
Before that time, probably a Charlie Stinholm (ph) type Democrat.
MATTHEWS: I get you. I get what you mean. You were a yellow dog. A very conservative Democrat.
BURKETT: That‘s correct. However, let me finish this quickly if I can.
At the time that I take a job, whether it‘s in business or in the military, politics has nothing to do with it. But I was in support of a Republican governor. And it was my job...
MATTHEWS: Would you swear to all this, Colonel Burkett? Would you swear to what you just said in the last couple minutes, under oath?
BURKETT: Under oath? I‘m swearing to you on camera, and I‘m swearing to the American people. And God is my pilot on this. And I have sworn this all along.
MATTHEWS: That‘s pretty affirmative. Thank you very much, Colonel Burkett. Thanks for joining us on HARDBALL tonight.