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After 11 days of widespread criticism, CBS News anchor Dan Rather issued a statement saying he no longer will defend the authenticity of documents he used in a report that raised questions about President Bush’s National Guard service.
A separate statement by CBS News President Andrew Heyward identified the source of the documents as former Texas Guard official Bill Burkett, a fierce critic of Bush.
In response, White House spokesman Scott McClellan there “are a number of serious questions that remain unanswered and they need to be answered.”
“Bill Burkett, who CBS now says was their source, is not an unimpeachable source, as CBS claimed,” McClellan said. “There are news reports of Burkett having senior level contact with the Kerry campaign. That raises questions. What were those contacts and what was discussed? Who is the original source of the documents? Who is responsible for forging the documents?”
Rather’s statement said:
“Last week, amid increasing questions about the authenticity of documents used in support of a ’60 Minutes Wednesday’ story about President Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard, CBS News vowed to re-examine the documents in question – and their source – vigorously. And we promised that we would let the American public know what this examination turned up, whatever the outcome.
Now, after extensive additional interviews, I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically. I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers. That, combined with some of the questions that have been raised in public and in the press, leads me to a point where?if I knew then what I know now?I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.
But we did use the documents. We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.
Please know that nothing is more important to us than people’s trust in our ability and our commitment to report fairly and truthfully.
Anticipating the statement, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote it would “represent a huge embarrassment for the network, which insisted for days that the documents reported by Dan Rather on ’60 Minutes’ are authentic.”
But Kurtz said the statement would “also help defuse a crisis that has torn at the network’s credibility.”
As WorldNetDaily reported, CBS News stood by its claims in the face of widespread accusations that early 1970s documents used on a Sept. 8 “60 Minutes II” segment to discredit Bush are forgeries, created with a modern word-processing program.
Among the assertions the news program derived from the documents – four memos by Bush’s late squadron commander Col. Jerry Killian – were that the commander was pressed to “sugar coat” a performance evaluation for Bush and that the future president did not follow an order to report for a physical.
Heyward said Burkett “has acknowledged that he provided the now-disputed documents” and “admits that he deliberately misled the CBS News producer working on the report, giving her a false account of the documents’ origins to protect a promise of confidentiality to the actual source.”
But in a letter to the American Spectator, Burkett’s lawyer David Van Os said:
“Based upon my personal knowledge of Bill Burkett’s character from knowing him and knowing of his reputation among his peers, I will state unequivocally that Bill Burkett did not falsify or create the “CBS documents.” I do not assume that anyone falsified or created those documents until more is known, but if anyone did, it was not Bill Burkett. I will stake my reputation and good name on this certainty. Further from my knowledge of Bill Burkett’s character and integrity, I will state unequivocally that if, hypothetically speaking, Bill Burkett handled documents that were recent creations rather than true copies of originals, he would have done so only because he had reason to believe they were true copies rather than recent creations.”
Van Os is a candidate for the Texas Supreme Court.
The documents were found to have been faxed to CBS from a Kinko’s in Abilene, Texas, 21 miles from Burkett’s Baird, Texas, home.
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 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 – Chief of Staff Joe M. Allbaugh and spokespersons Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett – strongly deny the allegations, reported the Washington Post.
Burkett said an Aug. 21 e-mail to Texas Democrats that he passed along the information about Bush to Sen. John Kerry’s campaign through former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland.
After getting through “seven layers of bureaucratic kids” in the campaign, Burkett said, he talked with Cleland about information that would counter criticism of Kerry’s Vietnam War service, according to the Associated Press.
“I asked if they wanted to counterattack or ride this to ground and outlast it, not spending any money. [Cleland] said counterattack. So I gave them the information to do it with,” Burkett wrote.
Burkett said no one at the Kerry campaign called him back.
Echoing McClellan’s remarks, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said, “We accept CBS’ apology for a breach of the journalistic standards that provide the American people confidence in news organizations, but some disturbing questions remain unanswered.”
Gillespie noted the timing of the CBS report with the Democratic National Committee’s own focus on Bush’s Guard record.
“Did Bill Burkett, Democrat activist and Kerry campaign supporter, who passed information to the DNC, work with Kerry campaign surrogate Max Cleland?” he asked. “Did Bill Burkett’s talks with ‘senior’ Kerry campaign officials include discussions of the now discredited documents? Was the launch of the Democrat National Committee’s Operation Fortunate Son designed with knowledge of the faked forged memos? Terry McAuliffe said yesterday that no one at the DNC or Kerry campaign, ‘had anything to do with the preparations of the documents,’ but what about the distribution or dissemination?”
Gillespie said, “In an effort to regain the trust of the American people CBS should not only investigate the process that led to the use of these documents but they should identify immediately those engaged in possible criminal activity who attempted to use a news organization to affect the outcome of a Presidential election in its closing days.”
Hours after the CBS announcement, the Democratic National Committee continued to cite the documents on its webite in a section titled, “Bush lied.”
‘Continue to work tirelessly’
While not stating the documents are forgeries, CBS News said it could not authenticate them.
“Based on what we now know, CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report,” Heyward said. “We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret.
“Nothing is more important to us than our credibility and keeping faith with the millions of people who count on us for fair, accurate, reliable, and independent reporting,” the CBS News president said. “We will continue to work tirelessly to be worthy of that trust.”
The network said additional reporting on the documents will air on tonight’s “CBS Evening News,” including an interview of Burkett by Rather.
CBS News pledged “an independent review of the process by which the report was prepared and broadcast to help determine what actions need to be taken.”
The New York Times reported network officials met last night with Rather to go over the information it had collected about the documents one last time before deciding on any final course of action.
The admission the network was misled into putting false information on the air is a major reversal from previous statements by Heyward.
“We established to our satisfaction that the memos were accurate or we would not have put them on television,” Heyward said last week on the ‘CBS Evening News.’ “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.”
According to the Times, document specialist Emily Will who inspected the memos for CBS and said she raised concerns about their authenticity, confirmed a Newsweek report that “a producer had told her that the source of the documents said they had been obtained anonymously and through the mail.”
She reportedly declined to name the producer who told her this, but indicated the producer was in a position to know.
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