Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) "registered their group under Section 527 of the U.S. tax code and went public at a news conference held in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on May 4, 2004." 
The group, rebranded as Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, is an advocacy organization formed in 2004 by opponents of John Kerry's U.S. presidential campaign. (The group's name refers to the class of boat on which Kerry and some of the organization's members served in the Vietnam War.)
Primary projects have been: their www.swiftvets.com website, the book Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry (released by the conservative Regnery Publishing), and a series of television advertisements challenging John Kerry's military record and activism against the Vietnam War.
The SBVT propaganda smear campaign was financed by Sam Fox, a billionaire and hardline rightwinger. The fact that Fox financed this project was revealed during his Senate confirmation hearings to become US ambassador to Belgium. Although the Senate blocked his confirmation pointing out Fox's pernicious activities, George Bush appointed Fox over the authority of the Senate during a "Senate recess". Furthermore, the PR company responsible for the SBVT (and whose bill Fox paid) was Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates run by Arthur J. Finkelstein, the "dirty-tricks guy for the Republicans".  Finkelstein is best know for his black-propaganda campaigns that are primarily character assassinations or smearing -- as the SBVT campaign demonstrates.
In late November 2004, The Hill reported that SBVT "is pondering its next step." One possibility, said former SBVT consultant Chris LaCivita, is that "the Swiftvets will become a full-time public-relations outfit for veterans." LaCivita, a former Marine who served in the first Gulf War, said "many conservatives are disgusted with what they see as a left-wing caricature of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam as 'crazed hippies that went around mowing people down.'" Veterans "endure a lot more, and they do a lot of good things people back home never hear about," said LaCivita. 
SBVT founder Roy Hoffmann told The Hill, "We have definitely an interest in continuing our work on the discharge and activities in regard to the POWs. ... At this point, we really haven't made any firm decisions. We feel that our primary mission has been accomplished." But Hoffman guessed that SBVT "members would probably be interested in fighting a future Kerry bid for the White House." 
<youtube size="small" align="right" caption="The Nightline news show did a story examining one of the many accusations the Swift Boat Vets made against John Kerry's war record. They interviewed eyewitnesses at a Vietnam site where Kerry earned the Silver Star. The eyewitness account of what happened contradicts the Swift Boat Vets accusation. For the rest of the Nightline report, click here.">Yp7P5b_boz4</youtube>The group is devoted to calling Kerry's war record into question, particularly with regard to the length of his tour of duty and the nature of the injuries for which he received three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star. It has also questioned claims by Kerry that he was sent on an illegal mission to Cambodia in December of 1968.
"Our mission is to provide solid factual information relating to Mr. Kerry's abbreviated tour of duty as a member of Coastal Division 14 and Coastal Division 11. Since many who are involved with Swiftvets.com themselves had swift boat duty and knew John Kerry personally, they are in a unique position to provide such information," their website previously stated. 
It also takes issue with Kerry's remarks 30 years ago that "war crimes" were taking place throughout the military conflicts in and about Vietnam "on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."  In a May 2004 letter to Kerry, the SBVT wrote "It is our collective judgment that, upon your return from Vietnam, you grossly and knowingly distorted the conduct of the American soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen of that war (including a betrayal of many of us, without regard for the danger your actions caused us.) Further, we believe that you have withheld and/or distorted material facts as to your own conduct in this war."
In his testimony before Congress, Kerry recounted statements by Vietnam Veterans at the Winter Soldier hearings of incidents by some troops in what were alleged to be war crimes.  These comments were later played back, out of context, in the SBVT ads.  
In September 2004, Vice Admiral Ronald A. Route, the Navy inspector general, completed a review of Kerry's combat medals, initiated at the request of Judicial Watch. In a memo to the Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England, Route stated 
- "Our examination found that existing documentation regarding the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals indicates the awards approval process was properly followed. In particular, the senior officers who awarded the medals were properly delegated authority to do so. In addition, we found that they correctly followed the procedures in place at the time for approving these awards.
- "Conducting any additional review regarding events that took place over 30 years ago would not be productive. The passage of time would make reconstruction of the facts and circumstances unreliable, and would not allow the information gathered to be considered in the context of the time in which the events took place.
- "Our review also considered the fact that Senator Kerry's post-active duty activities were public and that military and civilian officials were aware of his actions at the time. For these reasons, I have determined that Senator Kerry's awards were properly approved and will take no further action in this matter."
The SBVT criticisms against Kerry are not the first time that SBVT leader John E. O'Neill has campaigned against him.  Writing in The New Yorker, Joe Klein reported that, in 1971, Richard Nixon's chief counsel Charles Colson formed the Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, featuring O'Neill, to publicly criticize Kerry.
Klein recounted a conversation with Colson years after the war in which Colson said of Kerry: "He was a thorn in our flesh. He was very articulate, a credible leader of the opposition. He forced us to create a counterfoil. We found a vet named John O'Neill and formed a group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace. We had O'Neill meet the President, and we did everything we could do to boost his group."
The New York Times reported that the initial SBVT meeting comprised 10 veterans gathering in the Dallas office of Merrie Spaeth of Spaeth Communications, Inc. Spaeth is the widow of Tex Lezar, "eternal Kerry antagonist and Dallas attorney" John E. O'Neill's law partner. 
The website for SBVT was registered on April 14, 2004, under the name of Lewis Waterman, the information technology manager for Gannon International, a St. Louis company that has diversified interests, including in Vietnam. Joe Conason wrote in Salon that "although Waterman wouldn't discuss why he had set up the Web site, he didn't deny that his boss, Gannon president and CEO William Franke, had asked him to do so." 
"The information about my client is confidential," Waterman told Conason. He acknowledged knowing, however, that his boss Franke is a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam on swift boats. Gannon vice president Stephen D. Hayes, who oversees the company's office in Alexandria, Va., is likewise a swift boat veteran who first met Franke when they served together in the Mekong Delta.
On May 4, 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth went public at a news conference organized by Merrie Spaeth at the National Press Club.
Spaeth defended her role, insisting that she had no connection with the Bush re-election campaign. "Being director of media relations with Reagan is a long way from being part of the Bush team. Anyone who understands politics knows that. The Kerry people have jumped all over me as a Bush operative. I haven't been involved in this [Bush/Cheney] campaign, and I wasn't involved in 2000. The Swifties are asking people to be open-minded and look at the facts," Spaeth told the Dallas Observer's John Gonzalez.
Spaeth told the NYT that she had only visited the White House once during the presidency of George W. Bush. Initially she said she had been there as a guest of Kenneth Starr, who had been her client. She later confirmed doing public speaking training work in 2003 for Bush's chief economic adviser, Stephen Friedman. When asked if she had worked with other White House officials, Spaeth said "The answer is 'no' unless you refresh my memory." 
Prompted by her comments, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a Freedom of Information request for the White House information on contacts with Spaeth and a number of others associated with the SBVT.
In late August 2004, Bloomberg reported that Benjamin Ginsberg, a Patton Boggs attorney, had provided legal advice to SBVT. Ginsberg had been an attorney for the Bush campaign during the Florida recount and was counsel for the Bush 2004 re-election campaign. A spokeswoman for SBVT, Jennifer Webster, said "it was an effort to make sure we were doing everything legal, that's why you hire a lawyer." Webster said Ginsberg was sought out because he had worked on election law and had worked with the Republican National Committee. 
Following the public revelations that he worked for both the Bush campaign and SBVT, Ginsberg resigned. In his resignation letter to Bush he wrote "I have decided to resign as national counsel to your campaign to ensure that the giving of legal advice to decorated military veterans, which was entirely within the boundaries of the law, doesn't distract from the real issues upon which you and the country should be focusing." 
The SBVT book Unfit for Command, published by Regnery Publishing has sold well with strong support from conservative cable programs. Robert Novak, who has a syndicated column with Creators Syndicate and appears on CNN's Crossfire program, has touted the book but without revealing that his son, Alex Novak, is head of marketing for Regnery. Robert Novak dismissed concern about the failure to disclose the link, telling the New York Times "I don't think it's relevant." 
Affidavits as 'evidence'
According to John Gonzalez, the newly formed group hired former-FBI-agent-turned-private-investigator Tom Rupprath, "to locate swift boat vets and to dig up whatever he could regarding Kerry's service record." 
John O'Neill told the New York Times that the private investigator was hired as a "neutral way of actually questioning people involved in these incidents." 
Central to the SBVT media campaign has been a reliance on sworn affidavits to be provided as 'evidence' to journalists. However, Patrick Runyon, who provided a statement about the mission for which Kerry was awarded his first Purple Heart, found the interest in his views to be more partisan than neutral. When his statement was returned for his signature, he told the New York Times, references to being fired on had been removed. "It made it sound like I didn't believe we got any returned fire ... He made it sound like it was a normal operation. It was the scariest night of my life," he said. 
Commander George Elliott--who praised Kerry's conduct during the Vietnam War--provided an affidavit criticizing Kerry for being awarded a Silver Star.
However, what appeared at first as a coup for them appeared to backfire when, on August 5, 2004, a Boston Globe article reported that Elliott had recanted his criticism of Kerry. The article quoted Elliott as saying, "It was a terrible mistake probably for me to sign the affidavit with those words. I'm the one in trouble here." The affidavit states that the incident for which Kerry received the medal was actually shooting "a wounded, fleeing Viet Cong in the back." Elliott said he felt "time pressure" to sign the affidavit "That's no excuse," Elliott said, "I knew it was wrong. ... In a hurry I signed it and faxed it back. That was a mistake." 
In the same article Elliott maintained that, "based on the affidavits of the veterans on other boats," Kerry's being awarded the Bronze Star and third Purple Heart might be questionable. He said: "I simply have no reason for these guys [signing the other affidavits] to be lying, and if they are lying in concert, it is one hell of a conspiracy. So, on the basis of all of the information that has come out, I have chosen to believe the other men. I absolutely do not know first hand."
On August 6, 2004, Elliott claimed he had been misquoted in the Boston Globe article, and reaffirmed his original statement with another affidavit. However, since issuing the second affidavit Elliot has refused to speak to reporters. 
The Washington Post reported August 19, 2004, that the military records of Larry Thurlow, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, contain several references to "enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire" directed at "all units" of the five-boat flotilla. Both Kerry and Thurlow were awarded Bronze Stars for their actions on that day. According to the Washington Post, Thurlow's citation praises him for providing assistance to a damaged swift boat "despite enemy bullets flying about him."
But James Rassmann, who Kerry pulled back into the boat after he was knocked overboard following an explosion, "said he has never had any question that Kerry deserved the Purple Heart."  In response to the controversy fueled by the SBVT campaign, the Kerry campaign released an advertisement featuring Rassmann, who described himself as a Republican.
The success of the SBVT campaign in gaining profile also prompted reluctant participants in the debate to come forward. William B. Rood was an officer serving in another swift boat on the day Kerry's actions led to him being awarded his Silver Star. Rood, now the editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote a 1600-word account of the events that day.
"The critics have taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there," Rood wrote. 
"But I know that what some people are saying now is wrong. While they mean to hurt Kerry, what they're saying impugns others who are not in the public eye," he wrote.
SBVT television advertisements
In August 2004, SBVT aired its first television advertisement, accusing Kerry of lying about his war record, in three swing states. 
One of the SBVT told the New York Times that it would be spending $500,000 on the advertisement but declined to comment on how long it would remain on the air. "A Kerry aide said the buy was far smaller, $156,000 in seven smallish markets like Green Bay, Wis., and Toledo, Ohio, suggesting it was a 'vanity buy' intended to attract news coverage," the Times reported.
If the aim was to gain more free airtime coverage than paid advertising time, the strategy was successful. While the SBVT ad and official statements by the group correctly claim only that the speakers "served with" Kerry, not that they were on the same boat, the distinction was lost on others. Only one of the members of SWVT was actually a crewmate of Kerry.
The second of their advertisements--Sellout--featured comments, taken out of context, from John Kerry's 1971 Senate Testimony interspliced with comments from other veterans. The advertisement opened with a brief excerpt featuring Kerry stating "soldiers had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads ..." and then cuts to veteran Joe Ponder: "The accusations made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating."
The advertisement omitted the beginning of Kerry's sentence, which referred to what had been said by veterans themselves at a meeting in Detroit as part of the Winter Soldier Investigation. The transcript of Kerry's evidence included him telling the committee that at the Detroit meeting "many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia" and relived the "absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do."
"They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country," Kerry said. 
On its website, the SBVT sidesteps addressing what were specific statements of veterans, instead portraying Kerry's comments as being against all Veterans. "For more than thirty years, most Vietnam veterans kept silent as we were maligned as misfits, addicts, and baby killers. Now that a key creator of that poisonous image is seeking the Presidency we have resolved to end our silence." 
As the coverage of the SBVT claims became more widespread, Kerry's campaign was forced to respond. Speaking at a firefighters convention in Boston, Kerry criticized George W. Bush for not publicly distancing himself from the campaign. "The fact that the President won't denounce what they're up to tells you everything that you need to know--he wants them to do his dirty work ... The president keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country. Instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that," Kerry said. 
Racist comments by Jerry Corsi of SBVT
The claim to objectivity by the Unfit for Command book also appeared to be undermined by the revelation that Jerome Corsi (also known as Jerry Corsi), listed as co-author (O'Neill claims Corsi acted as "simply an editor"), regularly posted comments to a conservative website portraying Muslims and Catholics as pedophiles. The Associated Press reported that in one posting to freerepublic.com, he wrote: "Islam is a peaceful religion--just as long as the women are beaten, the boys buggered and the infidels are killed."
Free Republic is one of the conservative websites where Corsi's racist contributions were posted. Scott Swett, webmaster of WinterSoldier.com and Free Republic's Director, is also the webmaster for the Swift Boat Veterans website--further indication that the group is neither unbiased nor nonpartisan.
In another message Corsi wrote: "So this is what the last days of the Catholic Church are going to look like. Buggering boys undermines the moral base and the lawyers rip the gold off the Vatican altars. We may get one more Pope, when this senile one dies, but that's probably about it." Asked about his comments, Corsi said they were meant as a joke and he apologized. 
However, an examination of the full list of Jerome Corsi's Free Republic postings reveals that Corsi has made hundreds of them, many of which are racist. A February 2003 posting by Corsi asked "Who are the Frogs going to cry to when the ragheads destroy the Eiffel Tower?" . And in March 2004, Corsi even made the wild claim that "JaneFondaKerry is being heavily funded by Iranians--check out how [Al] Gore was funded by the Chinese in 2000." 
SBVT, Susan Arceneaux, and The Majority Leader's Fund
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth appears to have sought professional help with Federal Election Commission compliance. In May 2004, it paid $7500 to Political Compliance Services Inc., a consulting company in Fairfax, VA.  Political Compliance Services describes itself as "an accounting services vendor specializing in FEC regulations. Our comprehensive approach to your individual accounting needs will deliver you from the headaches and legal ramifications of FEC non-compliance." 
However, Political Compliance Services itself appears to have strong Republican ties. All of its known clients are conservative.  Its administrative contact Susan Arceneaux is a Republican stalwart involved with several right-wing organizations. She is treasurer of The Majority Leader's Fund , a listed contact for FreedomWorks , and was the custodian of records for David Horowitz's defunct 527, PoliticalWar.com Inc. 
On August 24, 2004, the extent of Arceneaux's involvement with SBVT became clear. According to The New York Times, SBVT had admitted the previous day that Arceneaux "helped set it up and works for it." The Times had discovered that Arceneaux "is given as the contact person on the post office box that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth lists as its address." The article also pointed out that The Majority Leader's Fund "receives significant financing from Bob Perry," the major donor to SBVT. 
Chris LaCivita, media strategy adviser to SBVT
On August 25, 2004, the New York Times reported that Chris LaCivita was working for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as an adviser on media strategy. LaCivita works for the DCI Group, a Republican lobbying firm. He is also involved in Progress for America, a conservative 'grassroots' organization which was set up by Tony Feather, who is a close ally of Karl Rove.
According to the article  , "Mr. LaCivita said yesterday that he worked as a private contractor for DCI and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and that there was no coordination between the firm and the group. 'Obviously, I don't work for the Bush campaign,' he said. Mr. LaCivita described his role as providing advice on the news media and placing advertisements. Asked to describe how close his involvement was or how Mr. Ginsberg was involved, Mr. LaCivita referred calls to a spokesman for Swift Boat Veterans, which declined to comment."
A Richmond Times-Dispatch article shed further light on LaCivita and SBVT. According to the article, LaCivita said: "I'm a Republican. What are they going to do, go to a Democrat? ... They came to me because I'm a combat veteran myself and I could identify with them ... I provided guidance and counsel in the paid media campaign."  The article also said that asked whether he wrote the ad himself, LaCivita said the "veterans wrote the ad."
The article also explains how SBVT was put in contact with LaCivita. "Retired Rear Adm. Roy Francis Hoffmann, chairman of the swift-boat group and a virtual neighbor of LaCivita in Chesterfield County ... said CRC (Creative Response Concepts), a public-relations firm in Arlington, put the group in touch with LaCivita. CRC is involved in a number of conservative causes." 
The Donatelli Group, which produced the RNC website , on July 30, 2004, registered the SWIFTBOATVETSFORTRUTH.ORG website with Connell Donatelli Inc. (a.k.a. The Donatelli Group) as registrant. Connell Donatelli Inc. also registered the SWIFTBOATVETSFORTRUTH.COM website on July 30, 2004, with CD, Inc. as both the website's administrator and tech organization.
The SWIFTVETS.COM website ("SwiftVets.com | The Real Story on John Kerry's Military Service") was registered with the registrant Domains by Proxy, Inc., registered through GoDaddy.com, Inc. (http://www.godaddy.com). Data dates from November 21, 2005.
Due to the length of this article, several sections of this page have been moved to separate pages. These are:
- Complaint against SBVT filed with the FEC
- SBVT Membership
- SBVT Funding
- SBVT Researchers
- Personal Expressions
- Swift Boat Veterans for Kerry (Vets who served with Lt. John F. Kerry, and publicly supported him)
PO Box 26184
Alexandria, VA 22313
Email: Latch AT swiftvets.net
Related SourceWatch Resources
- 527 committee
- Bush National Guard Veterans for Truth
- Charles Wyly and Sam Wyly
- Chris LaCivita
- Creative Response Concepts
- DCI Group
- front groups
- George W. Bush's military service
- Marc Morano
- Merrie Spaeth
- Political Compliance Services Inc.
- Progress for America
- Susan Arceneaux
- Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Republican Connection
- Swiftboating John Murtha
- Texans for Truth
- Vietnam Vets for the Truth
- Arthur J. Finkelstein
- Sam Fox
Records & Data
- John F. Kerry's Official Navy Records.
- Schema-root.org: Swift Boat Veterans For Truth current and archived news feeds.
- John Kerry's Vietnam medals. Links to all the key documentation, including U.S. Navy material not on the official Kerry site and statements by veterans who where really there and who support Kerry.
- There are other veterans groups opposing Kerry too such as Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry and Vietnam Special Forces Against Kerry.
- Swift Boat Veterans For Truth's IRS Report of Contributions and Expenditures for April 23-June 30, 2004 (PDF).
- ^ Jennifer Siegel, Controversial Envoy to Belgium Vows More Campaign Giving, Forward, 13 April 2007.
- ^ Jeff Halper, Dirty Politics, KPFA, 16 January 2006, relevant section starts at the 33:35m mark. ("They use the most sophisticated American PR firms, specially a guy called Finkelstein that you have never heard of in the States, but he is the dirty tricks guy for the Republicans. When Karl Rove and the Republicans when they go through all the campaign and you start getting negative advertising, the dirty tricks, and the Swift Boats, the dirty-dirty stuff, that is Finkelstein.")
- See extensive list of hotlinked articles.
Banana Republicans, the latest book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, lays bare how the “right-wing conspiracy,” as represented by the national GOP and its functionaries in the media, think tanks and lobbying establishment, is undermining dissent and squelching pluralistic politics in America. An excerpt is available. It can be ordered online. All royalties from book sales go to the Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes SourceWatch.