Bush hits back over military service claims

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President George Bush has for the first time questioned the authenticity of the disputed memos used by a US television network in a story that claimed he received special treatment during his service with the National Guard.

President George Bush has for the first time questioned the authenticity of the disputed memos used by a US television network in a story that claimed he received special treatment during his service with the National Guard.

In an interview with the Union Leader newspaper of Manchester, New Hampshire, Mr Bush said: "There are a lot of questions about the documents and they need to be answered. I think what needs to happen is people need to take a look at the documents, how they were created, and let the truth come out."

Mr Bush's first comments about the documents, published on Saturday, came as further details emerged yesterday about how CBS, the network which ran the story, had stopped efforts to check if they were genuine once the White House did not challenge their authenticity. According to one report, CBS and its veteran anchor Dan Rather approached White House communications director Dan Bartlett to provide an interview for 60 Minutes. The programme claimed that Mr Bush's service record was "sugar-coated" after he was grounded for his failure to reach required standards or to take a physical examination. Mr Bartlett agreed to the interview but only if he was given a copy of the documents.

Josh Howard, an executive with the flagship programme, told the Washington Post that once CBS learnt that Mr Bartlett had not questioned the authenticity of the documents it "completely abandoned" the process of authenticating the documents. "Obviously, looking back on it, that was a mistake. We stopped questioning ourselves. I suppose you could say we let our guard down," he said.

The debate about the authenticity of the documents, allegedly taken from the personal files of Mr Bush's squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard, the late Lt-Col Jerry Killian, has dominated much of the political debate in recent days and has diverted attention away from the US President's actual record with the National Guard.

Many reports suggest that Bill Burkett, a former Texas National Guard officer who is strongly anti-Republican, may have been the source for the documents, adding to allegations from conservatives that it is evidence of a liberal or Democrat-led conspiracy.

The row has not helped the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, who is now trailing the President in several nationwide polls, as well as in some of the key battleground states. In an effort to regain some initiative, the Kerry campaign will release a new television advert today that will be broadcast in 13 of the most competitive states in which the Massachusetts' senator links the cost of the war in Iraq to domestic problems.

"Two hundred billion dollars. That's what we are spending in Iraq because George Bush chose to go it alone," Mr Kerry says in the advert. "Now the President tells us we don't have the resources to take care of health care and education here at home. That's wrong."

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