Amid mounting accusations he trumpeted forged memos to bring down a sitting president, CBS’ Dan Rather is finally acknowledging doubts over the documents’ authenticity, while new revelations show they were faxed to CBS from a Kinko’s in Abilene, Texas.
“If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I’d like to break that story,” Rather said last night, according to the Washington Post. “Any time I’m wrong, I want to be right out front and say, ‘Folks, this is what went wrong and how it went wrong.’ ”
Yet, despite an avalanche of evidence that the documents are fakes, last night CBS News President Andrew Heyward was still defending the documents as “accurate.”
“We established to our satisfaction that the memos were accurate or we would not have put them on television,” Heyward said on yesterday’s Evening News broadcast. “There was a great deal of corroborating evidence from people in a position to know. Having said that, given all the questions about them, we believe we should redouble our efforts to answer those questions, so that’s what we are doing.”
As WorldNetDaily reported, CBS News has doggedly stood by its claims in the face of widespread accusations that early 1970s documents used on a “60 Minutes II” segment last Wednesday to discredit Bush are forgeries, created with a modern word processing program.
With a broad consensus that the documents are probably bogus, the big question then is: Where did they come from?
At least one of the documents bears a faxed header indicating it was faxed from a Kinko’s copy shop in Abilene to CBS News.
CBS has declined to reveal the source of the hotly disputed documents since airing them in a “60 Minutes” broadcast Sept. 8.
The only Kinko’s in Abilene, says the Post report, is 21 miles from the Baird, Texas, home of Bill Burkett, a retired officer in the Texas National Guard who has been identified by other news organizations as a possible source for the documents.
Asked about Burkett’s role in the “60 Minutes” story, Heyward declined to comment, except to say, “I’m not going to get into any discussion of who the sources are.”
Burkett has accused Bush aides of attempting to have some of the president’s National Guard records destroyed to avoid political embarrassment. Earlier this year, Burkett told news organizations he had overheard a phone conversation in 1997 during which top Bush aides – namely, Chief of Staff Joe M. Allbaugh and spokespersons Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett – tried to get the head of the Texas National Guard to sanitize Bush’s files. A few days later, Burkett claims, he witnessed the dumping of dozens of pages from Bush’s military file in a trash can at the Guard’s Camp Mabry headquarters.
All three Bush advisers, as well as former Texas National Guard Maj. Gen. Daniel James, strongly deny the allegations, reported the Washington Post.
Burkett told numerous news organizations earlier this year of alleged corruption and malfeasance in the management of the Texas National Guard, although most of his charges have never been substantiated. USA Today has also relied on Burkett as a key source for several reports – and coincidentally obtained copies of the same memos as CBS used in its now-tarnished story.
USA Today also refuses to identify the source of its documents, citing confidentiality concerns.
Why would Burkett try to hurt the Texas National Guard? Since contracting a tropical disease during a military assignment in Panama, he’s been engaged in a bitter dispute with the Guard over medical benefits, said the report. Burkett, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for depression after leaving the Texas National Guard, has given different accounts of exactly which Bush records he allegedly saw disposed of in that Camp Mabry trash can. While sometimes describing them as “payroll-type documents” and performance assessments, on another occasion he has said he saw “a two-page counseling statement” signed by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, the officer who supposedly signed the damaging “60 Minutes” Bush memos.
‘Trying to make it about me’
Some of Rather’s closest friends are worried about the 72-year-old newsman’s future, wondering whether the scandal over the Bush memos – some are calling it “Rather-gate” – might force an early exit from CBS before his current contract expires at the end of 2006.
“I think this is very, very serious,” CBS’ chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer told the Post. “When Dan tells me these documents are not forgeries, I believe him. But somehow we’ve got to find a way to show people these documents are not forgeries.”
Oddly, Rather is positioning the documents’ authenticity as a side issue – even a distraction from the real story.
“Instead of asking President Bush and his staff questions about what is true and not true about the president’s military service,” Rather said of other news organizations, “they ask me questions: ‘How do you know this and that about the documents?’”
“This is not about me,” Rather told the Post before anchoring last night’s newscast. “I recognize that those who didn’t want the information out and tried to discredit the story are trying to make it about me, and I accept that.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with WorldNetDaily, CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said Heyward’s pledge to “redouble” efforts to answer questions does not mean the network is conducting an internal probe.
“It means we will continue to aggressively report this story in the course of our normal day-in and day-out reporting,” she said.
Genelius said she could not clarify Heyward’s statement that the memos are “accurate,” because she had not seen the Evening News broadcast and was not familiar with the statement.
WND asked whether Heyward’s particular wording meant CBS believes the content of the memos is accurate but reserves judgment on the authenticity of the documents themselves.
For that question, she referred WND to spokesman Kevin Tedesco, but he was unavailable.
On the CBS Evening News last night, Rather said he “drew new fire today” over his “60 Minutes II” piece, reporting the “latest attack” as a charge from congressional Republicans that the accusations against President Bush are based on fake documents.
Rather interviewed Killian’s secretary, Marian Knox, 86, who said she did not type the memos but believes the information contained in them is accurate.
Killian’s widow has told reporters her husband didn’t type.
In the interview, conducted for a new “60 Minutes II” segment, Knox told Rather that Killian liked Bush but not his attitude.
“First of all Killian was very friendly with Bush, they had fun together,” she said. “And I think it upset him very much that he was being defied.”
Reporter Wyatt Andrews said “CBS News officials say the memos came from a confidential source – and that they remain certain the content of the story is true.”
The Evening News report then featured Heyward’s statement.
Andrews closed with: “Some at this network believe the backlash against the ’60 Minutes’ report is pure politics. But that’s the critics’ point as well – that fake, or real, the fact that ’60 Minutes’ got these documents during an election year was no accident.”
Along with the Evening News broadcast, CBS issued a statement [pdf file] saying the “60 Minutes” report “was based on a preponderance of evidence: many interviews, both on- and off-camera, with individuals with direct and indirect knowledge of the situation, atmosphere and events of the period in question, as well as the procedures, character and thinking of” Killian.
The statement said, “In accordance with longstanding journalistic ethics, CBS News is not prepared to reveal its confidential sources or the method by which” it received the documents.
“CBS News’ reporting determined that the source of the memos had access to the documents he provided and an opportunity to obtain copies of them. Our sources included individuals who had first-hand knowledge of the events in question.”
Additionally, the statement said, “Mary Mapes, the producer of the report and a well-respected, veteran journalist whose credibility has never been questioned, has been following this story for more than five years. She has a vast and detailed knowledge of the issues surrounding President Bush’s service in the Guard and of the individuals involved in the story. Before the report was broadcast, it was vetted and screened in accordance with CBS News standards by several veteran “60 Minutes Wednesday” senior producers and CBS News executives.”
Experts have concerns
On Friday, Rather used his Evening News broadcast to defend the “60 Minutes” report, claiming “partisan political operatives” are behind much of the criticism, without mentioning that Killian’s widow and son both think some or all of the papers are fraudulent.
Rather followed up on broadcasts this week with continued defense of the memos despite further questions raised by experts in mainstream media stories and on the Internet weblogs where the story came to life.
ABC News reported, for example, that two of the document experts hired by CBS say the network ignored concerns they raised prior to broadcast of the report.
On Tuesday, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., asked for a congressional probe into CBS. In a letter to Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Cox asked for an official investigation “into the continued use by CBS News of apparently forged of documents concerning the service record of President George W. Bush intended to unfairly damage his reputation and influence the outcome of the 2004 presidential election.”
Cox cited several news stories and opinions of experts who say the documents are fake and alleges CBS has tried purposely to damage Bush’s reputation ahead of the November presidential election.
In an interview with the New York Observer published Tuesday, Rather said questions raised by the memos “have remained unanswered by the Bush administration: Did Mr. Bush get preferential treatment for the Texas Air National Guard? Was then-Lt. Bush suspended for failing to perform up to Texas and Air Guard standards? Did then-Lt. Bush refuse a direct order from his military superior to take a required examination?”
“It’s never been fully, completely denied by the Bush-Cheney campaign or even the White House that he was suspended for meeting the standards of the Air Force or that he didn’t show up for a physical,” Rather said.
The news anchor said focus on “questions over the veracity of the memos was a smoke screen perpetrated by right-wing allies of the Bush administration.”
“This is your basic fogging machine, which is set up to cloud the issue, to obscure the truth,” he said.
According to a Rasmussen poll, 27 percent of voters believe the memos are authentic, compared to 38 percent who think they are forgeries.
Among voters following the story very closely, 56 percent believe the memos are forgeries and 27 percent believe they are authentic.
Overall, 38 percent of voters say they are following the story “very” closely and 34 percent say they are following it “somewhat” closely.
Only 16 percent of voters think questions about President Bush’s National Guard service are “very” important.
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