10/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Watchdog': McCain Should Release His Navy Records on 3 Accidents

In a piece posted tonight at the NIeman Watchdog site, Barry Sussman, editor of the Watchdog (which is affiliated with the NIeman Foundation at Harvard), calls on John McCain to release all of his Navy records, particularly those surrounding three unusual accidents that he was involved in before getting shot down over Vietnam.

Sussman was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post for 22 years and had a role in the Watergate era at the paper.

He wrote his call in response to a massive Washington Post piece by Micheal Leavy on McCain's Navy years, noting "Leahy mentioned, without laboring over them, three near-catastrophes McCain had as a pilot. Reporters should look into these incidents. They should do so soon, and not wait until just before the election, or after it. It's unusual for military pilots, let alone presidential candidates, to have so many mishaps in a relatively short career of flying What do they tell us, if anything, about McCain's judgment, ability and character?"

The second accident was particularly troubling, Sussman suggests: '"McCain had completed flight training and was deployed to the Mediterranean. 'He was flying low one day when he decided to have some fun,' Leahy wrote. He dropped so low that he knocked down power lines over southern Spain, cutting off electricity in the area. McCain later referred to his own behavior as 'daredevil clowning' and said he had created 'a small international incident.'"

Leahy wrote that McCain had a "desultory performance" in the air. On the face of it, the incident in Spain stands out as an example of rash, poor judgment. The other two also raise questions. How much was a problem with the equipment, how much was pilot error? What about McCain's responses: What do they tell us about his temperament?

The Navy investigates all such events and keeps records of them. Included as a rule are accounts by the people involved, which generally are not made public. One of the first steps for reporters would be to ask McCain to have the Navy release statements he made--or to release them himself. Reporters should also file Freedom of Information Act requests with the Navy for all documents pertaining to McCain's crashes and incidents.

A journalist with experience in such research says the files should contain "accident/incident/safety reports" and first-hand accounts. In addition, this journalist notes, "given the age of the incidents, it would appear the records for them would be in the Naval Historical Center, and FOIAs go through the Chief of Naval Operations. FOIA information can be found on the Web site of the Naval Safety Center."

Reporters also might seek a Privacy Act waiver to obtain all of McCain's military and health records, including those from the Naval Academy. McCain and his supporters have made his military career--his knowledge and judgment--a key to his campaign, a main reason to vote for him. His behavior as a young rebel is widely known and wouldn't surprise or shock anyone. McCain wants to be president; he should be willing to have these records made public.

The full piece is at:

Greg Mitchell's new book on Iraq and the media is titled "So Wrong for So Long."