The chief critic of John Kerry’s military record told President Richard Nixon in 1971 that he had been in Cambodia in a swift boat during the Vietnam War — a claim at odds with his recent statements that he was not.
“I was in Cambodia, sir. I worked along the border,” said John E. O’Neill in a conversation that was taped by the former president’s secret recording system. The tape is stored at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, O’Neill did not dispute what he said to Nixon, but insisted he was never actually in Cambodia.
“I think I made it very clear that I was on the border, which is exactly where I was for three months. I was about 100 yards from Cambodia,” O’Neill said in clarifying the June 16, 1971, conversation with Nixon.
Chad Clanton, a spokesman for the Democratic presidential candidate, said the tape “is just the latest in a long line of lies and false statements from a group trying to smear John Kerry’s military service. Again, they’re being proven liars with their own words. It’s time for President Bush to stand up and specifically condemn this smear.” O’Neill served in Vietnam from 1969-70 and says in a recent book that he took command of Kerry’s swift boat after the future Massachusetts senator returned home from the war.
O’Neill has emerged as a leading figure in the attacks on Kerry’s war record. He is co-author of “Unfit for Command,” which accuses Kerry of lying about his record, and is a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has aired two television commercials harshly critical of Kerry. In the book, O’Neill wrote that Kerry’s accounts of having been in Cambodia on Christmas Eve of 1968 “are complete lies.”
“… Kerry was never ordered into Cambodia by anyone and would have been court martialed had he gone there,” he wrote. O’Neill wrote that the Navy positioned its own craft along the border area to make sure no American vessels strayed across the border from Vietnam.
In an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” O’Neill said: “Our boats didn’t go north of, only slightly north of Sedek,” which he said was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the Cambodian border.
Kerry’s campaign has acknowledged that he may not have been in Cambodia on Christmas Eve of 1968, as he has previously stated. The campaign says Kerry does recall being on patrol along the Cambodia Vietnam border on that date, although it’s unclear if he crossed into Cambodia.
Referring to the tape of the Oval Office meeting with Nixon, O’Neill criticized Kerry for making claims, including in the Senate, that he was in Cambodia. “I’ve never represented on the floor of the Senate, or told people 50 times like John Kerry did that I was in Cambodia. That never happened. And I don’t think he was ever there either,” O’Neill said.
The snippet of taped conversation surfaced after more than a week of controversy surrounding claims that Kerry lied about his actions in a war in which he won five military medals.
The Democrat and his allies have vigorously attacked such claims as a smear, laboring to undermine the charges as well as cast doubt on the men who are making them.
For his part, Kerry accused the swift boat group of being a “front group” that was doing Bush’s dirty work.
The Bush campaign denies any involvement with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.