The Omaha World-Herald has two big stories up today that might impact the hotly contested Nebraska Republican Senate primary between former Bush administration official and Midland College president Ben Sasse and former state treasurer Shane Osborn.
Osborn has a notable and distinguished military record as a former Navy lieutenant commander. Most famously, in April 2001, the EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft he was flying was struck by a Chinese fighter plane. Osborn managed to land the plane safely, but in Chinese territory. This sparked the first of many foreign policy crises during the Bush administration. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for courage and airmanship, and the Meritorious Service Medal for leadership as a result of the episode.
Despite saving the 23 crew members on board, there have always been questions about Osborn's conduct during the sensitive reconnaissance mission. The World-Herald headline today is: "Some in military challenge Shane Osborn's view of 2001 heroism."
Some veterans say, in strong terms, that Osborn should have ditched his four- engine EP-3E ARIES II propeller craft in the South China Sea instead of handing over a highly sensitive electronics platform to Chinese authorities — even if it meant killing himself and much of his crew.
“Our standing order was 'If you can't get back to the carrier, you put it down in the water,' ” said Danny Mason, a retired Navy captain from Papillion who flew EA-6B Prowlers in the western Pacific during a military career that stretched from 1980 to the mid-2000s.
“In the 20 years I was flying — any aircraft — you weren't going to take it into China.”
They also question Osborn's decision to obey the commands of the armed Chinese soldiers who surrounded the aircraft only minutes after it had landed and ordered the crew to leave. Abandoning a ship to opposing forces violates a powerful Navy tradition that dates back to the early days of the republic.
Osborn understandably dismisses these criticisms as "armchair quarterbacking," and his conduct might be perfectly defensible. What's most problematic is the manner in which the Osborn campaign tried pushing back against these criticisms. Another World-Herald story today notes, "Friend of Shane Osborn, not Navy, issued memo that supports him":
Dogged by questions about his 2001 decision to land a crippled Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane in China, U.S. Senate candidate Shane Osborn has distributed an official-looking Navy memo supporting his account.
The memo, written Aug. 8, 2013, on Navy letterhead, is titled “Disposition of actions by EP-3E flight crew on April 1, 2001.” It explains that Osborn's plane was authorized to land on China's Hainan island “due to the extreme circumstances and condition of this aircraft.”
But The World-Herald has learned that the unsigned memo was not authorized by the Navy, or vetted through normal channels, and was written as a favor to Osborn by a Navy buddy working at the Pentagon.
“We cannot confirm the authenticity of this document,” said Lt. Cmdr. Katie Cerezo, a Navy spokeswoman. “We couldn't discuss a memo that we can't authenticate.”
Even worse, the memo "cites classified Department of Defense instructions" and might have been illegal:
For a commissioned military officer, circulating an unauthorized memo could potentially lead to a criminal charge of violating orders or dereliction of duty. It could also result in administrative punishments such as a reprimand or fine.
If it were prepared on a government computer or during working hours, it could also represent a violation of the Hatch Act. That law forbids federal employees from participating in political activities while on duty.
Navy officials said they wouldn't speculate on whether there would be an investigation.
Neither Osborn nor his campaign manager, Bill Novotny, could say how many people have received the memo, which is being shared among some Republican activists locally.
Osborn has been running hard on his military record, and his latest ad highlights how his service record speaks to his character. These revelations would seem to undercut that message. Why would Osborn go through the trouble of fudging the memo? The survival of his crew and the medals he was awarded should have been enough to portray any criticism of his military conduct as unseemly. Misrepresenting the source of a Navy memo and jeopardizing someone's military career to further Osborn's political aspirations seems like a self-inflicted wound for the Osborn campaign.