For the past two months, a major American magazine and an allied news service have been engaged in a legal battle with the United States Navy over records that they believe show that John McCain once was involved in an automobile accident that injured or, perhaps, killed another individual.
Vanity Fair magazine and the National Security News Service claim to have knowledge "developed from first-hand sources" of a car crash that involved then-Lt. McCain at the main gate of a Virginia naval base in 1964, according to legal filings. The incident has been largely, if not entirely, kept from the public. And in documents suing the Navy to release pertinent information, lawyers for the NS News Service allege that a cover-up may be at play.
"Plaintiffs have also obtained documents showing that law enforcement officers were ordered back to the accident scene to retrieve personal physical effects. The Navy has never publicly acknowledged this information," one document reads. "This request involves federal government activity, as it addresses what may be an attempt by the Navy to protect by concealment the involvement of a former Navy officer, sitting Senator and Presidential candidate in a serious incident involving the injury or death of another human being."
The first request for information concerning duty assignment logs to Portsmouth Naval Hospital -- where McCain was allegedly brought after the accident -- came in the form of a Freedom of Information Act request on August 28, 2008. The Navy acknowledged receipt of the request and advised that it had located the relevant information a few weeks later, only to deny the FOIA on grounds that it didn't prove an "imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual" or satisfy the criteria of "a breaking news story of general public interest."
"The patient admission record logs that you seek are exempt from release," wrote G.E. Lattin, Deputy Assistant Judge Advocate General, "as information in personnel and medical files, as well as similar personal information in other files, that if disclosed to a requestor, other than the actual person in which the information is pertaining to or next of kin, would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
NS News Service and Vanity Fair appealed the decision and asked for expedited treatment of the case, as the end of the presidential election loomed. But the Navy denied that request as well.
"It appears to be a deliberate refusal to provide clearly releasable information concerning assignments to Portsmouth Naval Hospital," wrote legal representatives for the two news organizations. "Allowing the Navy to extend its time to respond beyond a date when the documentary facts of this matter would be available for public consideration prior to the national election on Tuesday, November 4, 2008 would violate the spirit, as well as the provisions of the FOIA."
Staff for National Security News Service and the company's lawyer both refused to discuss the proceedings. And there are only parcels of information concerning the story that can be gleaned from the court documents.
At a minimum it seems clear that Vanity Fair and NS News Service have launched an investigation "disclosing first-hand witnesses' recollection of an automobile accident in which then Lt. John S. McCain III was involved. Those witnesses specifically recall McCain's assignment to that [hospital] facility with the other person involved in the accident." This episode in McCain's life has, it seems, not been made public, and the plaintiffs suggest that the Navy may be attempting to actively restrict information about the incident.
"The subject matter of the documents is a matter of current exigency to the American public," reads a document filed by legal representatives for the news service, "because the requester is preparing a current news report addressing whether the Navy continues to conceal the involvement of a Navy officer in a serious automobile accident in July 1964."