A defensive Dan Rather suggested last night that although he may have used forged documents in a CBS report criticizing President Bush’s military service, the “thrust” of his report was true.
“Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the heart of it, the major thrust of our report,” he told viewers on “60 Minutes.” “George Bush received preferential treatment to get into the National Guard and, once accepted, failed to satisfy the requirements of his service.”
He added: “If we uncover any information to the contrary, rest assured we shall report that also.”
The unusual remarks were made hours after CBS News President Andrew Heyward grudgingly promised to “redouble” efforts to answer questions about whether the network used forged documents in a report that aired on the Sept. 8 edition of “60 Minutes.”
“We would not have put the report on the air if we did not believe every aspect of it,” he said on “CBS Evening News.” But he added: “Enough questions have been raised that we’re going to redouble our efforts to answer those questions.”
The remarks by Mr. Heyward and Mr. Rather marked the first time in a week that CBS appeared to be entertaining the possibility that it had built its story on forged documents. But Mr. Rather challenged the president through an interview published yesterday in the New York Observer.
“With respect: answer the questions,” he said. “We’ve heard what you have to say about the documents and what you’ve said and what your surrogates have said, but for the moment, answer the questions.”
He added: “They’d be a lot stronger in their campaign if they did do that.”
But even before Mr. Rather issued that challenge on Tuesday, The Washington Times published a front-page article in which the White House said Mr. Bush did not defy a direct order from his commanding officer. One of the CBS documents purports to show that Mr. Bush refused an order to undergo a physical examination.
Many in the media and in Congress have called for an apology, but Mr. Rather only tried to downplay questions about the authenticity of his documents while clinging to the essence of their accusations. To that end, he aired a lengthy interview with 86-year-old Marian Knox, the secretary who worked for Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Mr. Bush’s former commanding officer, who died in 1984.
Mrs. Knox said last night that she did not type the documents, which she called forgeries. She speculated that the forger had based the documents on real memos, although she could not produce them.
“It seems that somebody did see those memos and then tried to reproduce and then maybe changed them enough so that he wouldn’t get in trouble over it,” she said. “That’s all supposition.”
In an interview with The Washington Times yesterday, Gary Killian rebutted Mrs. Knox’s previous claims that his father kept secret files.
“She alluded to the fact my dad had a secret file and kept secret documents in it,” said Mr. Killian, who had served in the same squadron as Mr. Bush during the time in question. “I can tell you he didn’t. He wasn’t the type person to do that. He was direct. If he had a problem, he would deal with the person directly.”