THE TORN DOCUMENT….So what’s the deal with the George Bush AWOL story? There are a million tedious details, but as near as I can tell here’s the nub of the whole thing.

Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 and in May 1972 asked for a transfer to Alabama because he wanted to work on a political campaign there. His transfer was approved and off to Alabama he went. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to have actually performed any of his required guard duty either in Alabama or after he returned to Texas. He just blew it off. There are several bits of evidence for this:

Case closed, right? Bush was AWOL. And for normal people at least, this would have been a serious problem, prompting an official investigation and a transfer to active duty, or possibly even a dishonorable discharge.

But wait. Although there are no records showing that he attended drills in Alabama, there is one piece of evidence demonstrating that Bush showed up for drills after he returned to Texas: the infamous “torn document.” Here it is:

This document supposedly records Bush’s attendance record in Texas from May 1972 to May 1973. However, the astute observer will note several things about this document:

  • It is strategically torn along its left edge.

  • There is no name on the document, only a single letter: W. Does it say “1LT BUSH GEORGE” just before the initial? Maybe, but the page has been torn so there’s no way to tell.

  • The Social Security number is blacked out.

  • The tear eliminates the year and month of all the dates. (The date at the bottom right is just a note added by a reporter.)

In other words, there’s really no evidence that this document refers to George W. Bush or even that it refers to the period 1972-73. But it’s even worse than that: it turns out that this document wasn’t even part of Bush’s original service file.

Rather, back in 1999 the nascent Bush campaign, which was apparently already worried about his service record, hired Albert Lloyd Jr., a former Texas Air National Guard personnel director, to help make sense of Bush’s file. Lloyd “scoured” the archives and found the document above, which he says contains Bush’s Social Security number beneath the redaction. It has since been inserted into Bush’s file. (In fact, there are two versions of this document. If you’re really a masochist, see here for more details.)

So that’s the story. The torn document wasn’t originally part of Bush’s service file and is basically laughable as a piece of evidence since it contains no names or dates. What’s more, there’s specific evidence that his superiors in Texas say he wasn’t around for the entire period from May 1972 through May 1973. (On the other hand, as points out, the last date on the torn document and the first two dates on Bush’s 1973-74 attendance record seem to match up with the dates on this document ordering him to attend drills during May and June of 1973. That’s the best evidence there is that the torn document is genuine.)

If the torn document is genuine, it means Bush attended Guard drills when he got back to Texas starting in November 1972. But even Lloyd seems to believe that at the very least he was AWOL while he was in Alabama:

Lloyd said it is possible that since Bush had his sights set on discharge and the unit was beginning to replace the F-102s, Bush’s superiors told him he was not “in the flow chart. Maybe George Bush took that as a signal and said, ‘Hell, I’m not going to bother going to drills.’

“Well, then it comes rating time, and someone says, ‘Oh…he hasn’t fulfilled his obligation.’ I’ll bet someone called him up and said, ‘George, you’re in a pickle. Get your ass down here and perform some duty.’ And he did,” Lloyd said.

That would explain, Lloyd said, the records showing Bush cramming so many drills into May, June, and July 1973. During those three months, Bush spent 36 days on duty.

Was Bush just a victim of sloppy paperwork? It’s hard to say, although Phil Carter has some ideas about ways to track down corroborating evidence for Bush’s side of the story. And at least one person thinks there’s much worse than bad recordkeeping at work here:

“His records have clearly been cleaned up,” says author James Moore, whose upcoming book, “Bush’s War for Re-election,” will examine the issue of Bush’s military service in great detail. Moore says as far back as 1994, when Bush first ran for governor of Texas, his political aides “began contacting commanders and roommates and people who would spin and cover up his Guard record. And when my book comes out, people will be on the record testifying to that fact: witnesses who helped clean up Bush’s military file.”

Of course, much of this controversy could be defused if Bush just voluntarily released his complete service record. If he did that, for example, the Social Security number wouldn’t be blacked out on the torn document. Apparently, though, there’s something in his record bad enough that it’s worth keeping parts of it under wraps (or redacted) despite the problems it’s caused. What do you think it is?

POSTSCRIPT: It’s hard to keep all the details correct on this story. If I’ve made any mistakes, however, I’m sure that Bob Somerby and his encyclopedic memory will set me straight.

The complete set of known documents related to Bush’s service record is here.

UPDATE: There’s more here about the issues surrounding the torn document and whether it’s genuine or not.