Senate Republicans, seeking to revive the foundering nomination of John Tower as defense secretary, Thursday released evidence undermining the credibility of a witness who claims he saw Tower drunk and fondling women when touring Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas in the 1970s.
According to information supplied to the Senate by Air Force officials, the nominee's accuser--retired Tech. Sgt. Robert Jackson--left the Air Force after being diagnosed as having "a mixed personality disorder with anti-social themes and hysterical features."
Moreover, the Air Force said, Jackson was not assigned to the base at Austin in 1975 on the only occasion that Tower visited it.
Report Called 'Damn Lie'
Tower, who does not deny that he drank to excess during the 1970s, has characterized Jackson's account of his actions at Bergstrom as "a plain damn lie," according to an aide.
The controversial account of Tower's alleged misbehavior became a major issue on the opening day of floor debate on the nomination of the former Texas senator, who is likely to be rejected by the Senate. The account was written by Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward and appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.
Democrats, led by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), have argued that the evidence they have collected on Tower's excessive drinking and womanizing is based on "first-hand, personal observations by named individuals with no known motive to lie."
Nunn, who in an hourlong floor speech outlined why his committee voted 11 to 9 against Tower, said the FBI's extensive investigation found proof that President Bush's nominee abused alcohol in the recent past, that he had never sought treatment and that he has offered inconsistent versions of his drinking history since being nominated on Dec. 16.
But Republicans argued that the unreliability of Jackson's testimony supports their contention that much of the embarrassing information that the committee and the FBI have collected against Tower is--as Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) put it--"garbage."
Although Republican senators have challenged Tower's Democratic critics to put their evidence against him on the record so the public can evaluate its credibility, the GOP balked Wednesday when Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) did so by characterizing some of the FBI's secret evidence.
After Glenn quoted witnesses who had reported seeing the nominee "drunk, inebriated, loud and garrulous" in 1983, his remarks were expunged from the Senate record at the request of Republicans.
Horrified by Story
Likewise, Republicans were horrified by Thursday's Washington Post story that cited what, until Wednesday, had been secret testimony from the former Air Force sergeant. According to the story, Jackson described in vivid detail how Tower allegedly had fondled two women--one a secretary and the other an enlisted woman--when visiting the base on two occasions between 1976 and 1978. Woodward quoted Jackson as saying also that Tower was "staggering" drunk.
According to Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, neither the Senate panel nor the FBI ever considered Jackson's story particularly believable--even though they knew nothing about the witness' psychiatric history.
"It was given very little credibility at the time," Cohen said.
Yet it was not until the Senate had been debating the Tower nomination for nearly five hours Thursday that Republicans received a letter from Anne N. Foreman, general counsel of the Air Force, providing details of Jackson's military record, which undermined his story. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) quickly rushed to the floor to read aloud from the letter.
Foreman wrote that Jackson had served at Bergstrom between February, 1976, and April, 1978, and then underwent psychiatric evaluation at Wilfred Hall Medical Center, where it was decided that he was no longer fit to perform his Air Force duties. He retired on April 19, 1978.
According to Air Force records, Jackson was in the hospital on the date that he says he witnessed Tower's first visit in 1976 and in retirement in 1978, when he says he witnessed a second visit.
Tower, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, contends that he visited the air base only once in his Senate career--in 1975. According to McCain, Tower's account of his 1975 visit is corroborated by four men who were in command at the base at the time, including the retired vice wing commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Rohr.
At Bergstrom, Airman 1st Class Tom Carrier told The Times that there is no reference in 1976 and 1978 base newspapers to any visit by Tower. He added that such a visit by a member of the Armed Services Committee would have been reported in the newspaper.
The Washington Post's assistant managing editor for national news, Robert Kaiser, said in an interview that the newspaper would "report the matter in more detail. But I can't evaluate the claims that Jackson is mentally unbalanced any more than you can."
Dancing on Piano Discounted
Democrats acknowledged that some witnesses against Tower, such as Jackson, were not credible, and Nunn said he regretted that some of the most erroneous stories had found their way into the news media--particularly a discounted report that Tower had danced naked on a piano with a Soviet ballerina at a party in a wealthy section of Houston.
According to many senators, the witness claimed to be a doctor who was playing the piano at the time, but it was determined that he was not a doctor and could not play the piano. In fact, they said, the man proved to have four aliases.
Nevertheless, Nunn and other Democrats said the evidence of Tower's alcohol abuse was overwhelming and that much of it occurred in recent years--long after the former senator claims to have given up hard drinking on a regular basis in favor of wine at meals.
"The committee searched in vain for a point in time when the nominee himself acknowledged this problem and dealt with it decisively," Nunn said. "The nominee made it clear that he has never sought medical assistance for his drinking problem."
Nunn added: "There are significant inconsistencies in what Sen. Tower told the FBI in the first report read by President Bush . . . what Sen. Tower told the FBI in subsequent reports, his executive session testimony to the committee and his public statements."
Against this backdrop of criticism, two more Democratic senators--Alan Cranston of California and Terry Sanford of North Carolina--said that they would oppose the nomination, bringing the number of Democrats who have announced opposition to 38. Meanwhile, Republican efforts to win over Democrats has come to a standstill since it became clear that Bush was unlikely to line up a majority.
Before Glenn was silenced by the Republicans, he said Tower had been described by witnesses in the initial FBI report that Bush received in such terms as "extremely inebriated," "trouble walking," "bizarre statements," "had to be escorted," "staggering" and "colliding with tables and chairs" in the 1970s.
On a trip in 1983, Glenn added, some describe him as drunk and disruptive, but others say they saw no such behavior.
"The nominee talks about drinking wine as though it's Diet-Rite soda pop," Glenn marveled. "The problem is alcohol--a 1 1/2-ounce shot of whiskey is equal to 12 ounces of beer and a 4 1/2-ounce glass of wine."
Glenn's references to the FBI report were expunged from the record at the request of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) on grounds that it was a violation of the Senate rules of secrecy and unfair to Tower.
More Leaks Feared
Nevertheless, Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), who was presiding at the time, ruled that senators would not be prohibited from discussing matters that had already appeared in the news media--a ruling that some feared would prompt more news leaks.
Nunn and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) disclosed that they had met earlier this week with White House counsel C. Boyden Gray in an effort to develop what they described as a "sanitized" version of the secret FBI report that could be released to the public. But Nunn said they had decided it would not satisfy the public's desire for more details of Tower's private life.
In addition, Gray went to the Capitol in another effort to work out an agreement under which some parts of the report could be made public. Traditionally, FBI investigations of potential Cabinet nominees are kept secret to protect the agency's sources.
Although Republicans had called on the Democrats to present proof of the allegations against Tower, it was the Democrats who urged the President to make the FBI report public.
No Security Breaches
As for the charges of womanizing against Tower, Nunn said the investigation found no evidence that Tower had jeopardized national security by involving himself with foreign women nor did the probe substantiate charges that he had exerted sexual pressure on subordinates.
Nunn said the committee was "not looking for sainthood."
"However," he said, "the committee did find a number of examples of personal conduct (that it considered) indiscreet and which called into question Tower's judgment. These examples add to the cumulative body of concern the committee has about this nomination."
In Tower's defense, Warner said of the FBI reports: "I don't dignify it by calling it evidence. It's an incredible cobweb of fact, fiction and fantasy."
Both Cohen and and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) offered rousing defenses of Tower.
Cohen argued that the senators were imposing a standard on Tower that many of them could not meet. He described the case against Tower as a "crescendo of hysteria" reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts as depicted in Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible."
Gramm rebutted Nunn's contention that Tower's drinking should disqualify him from serving in the military chain of command. He noted that such a standard would also have disqualified Ulysses S. Grant and Winston Churchill from commanding armies.
At the White House, where he was visiting the President, retired Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), a well-known curmudgeon who preceded Tower as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, dismissed the charges as foolish. "If they chased every man or woman out of this town who shacked up with somebody else, or got drunk, there'd be no government," he said.