- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

“We are confident about the chain of custody” of these documents, a CBS spokeswoman told the New York Times on Sept. 14. We hope some aspiring novelist is taking notes because, as retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett acknowledged Monday to USA Today, “This is going to sound like some damn sci-fi movie.”

Mr. Burkett, recently outed by CBS News as the source of the now-discredited Texas Air National Guard memos allegedly written by President Bush’s former commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, has recently shed light on that “chain.”

The story begins in March, when Mr. Burkett, who had just been on MSNBC’s “Hardball” discussing Mr. Bush’s Guard service, received a call from a mysterious woman he calls Lucy Ramirez. Previously, Mr. Burkett had identified the source of the memos as one George Conn, another former Texas National Guard officer, conveniently abroad in Europe. In an e-mail to USA Today, Mr. Conn denied any involvement with the Killian memos. Mr. Burkett himself admits that he had lied about his source as a way of protecting her.

In their conversation, Lucy Ramirez explained how she had in her custody damaging documents to Mr. Bush and scheduled a meeting with Mr. Burkett to hand them over. That meeting occurred on or around March 3 at a livestock show in Houston. But, according to Mr. Burkett, Lucy Ramirez didn’t show up. Instead, as he told USA Today, an unknown “man handed him an envelope and quickly left.” After receiving the memos, Mr. Burkett said he stopped off at a Kinko’s store in Waco and made copies. In the parking lot outside, Mr. Burkett said he then burned the originals, pursuant to Lucy Ramirez’s wishes. Over the next few days, Mr. Burkett said he hid the copies “in cold storage” at an undisclosed location 100 miles from his home in Baird.

Then, apparently, five months go by. Five months in which this very vociferous anti-Bush partisan sits on the most damaging documents yet found that all but seal a case he’s been making for years. Consider, also, that on Aug. 13, in an online post, Mr. Burkett wrote: “I have found no documentation from Lt. Col. Killian’s hand or staff that indicate that this unit was involved in any complicit way to … cover for the failures of 1Lt. Bush.”

Then suddenly, on or around Aug. 21, Mr. Burkett contacts former Sen. Max Cleland, indicating that he had potentially damaging information about Mr. Bush’s service. Mr. Cleland apparently told Mr. Burkett to contact the Kerry campaign directly. According to Mr. Burkett, he then “gave them the information.” In another online post, Mr. Burkett said he contacted the Democratic National Committee, but they were apparently “afraid to do what [he] suggest[ed].”

In early September, a CBS producer phoned Joe Lockhart, former Clinton press secretary and senior Kerry adviser, asking him to call Mr. Burkett. According to Mr. Burkett, he had agreed to turn over the documents to CBS if the network would arrange a conversation with the Kerry campaign. CBS News denies there was any deal. Mr. Lockhart acknowledges he called Mr. Burkett but that it was a one-time conversation and the disputed memos were not discussed.

By Sept. 3, CBS producer Mary Mapes had some of the documents in her possession and began writing the story that would air on “60 Minutes II” on Sept. 8. Meanwhile, in the very same week, the Kerry campaign launched “Operation Fortunate Son,” a campaign video that depicts Mr. Bush as “a very fortunate son who uses connections and pulls strings for special favors,” according to an AP story dated Sept. 9. The story also mentioned “newly unearthed memos by the late Col. Jerry B. Killian” as being part of the ad.

On the face of it, Mr. Burkett’s story hardly instills confidence. It is shockingly sad that CBS News fell for such obvious trickery. But it is also just as sad that CBS News permitted partisan bias to govern its judgment on a story.

So, this convoluted chain ends with Mr. Lockhart — a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign. Is it believable that Mr. Burkett, at no time during his conversation with Mr. Lockhart mentioned the documents in his possession, as Mr. Lockhart contends? Is it believable that Ms. Mapes never mentioned to Mr. Lockhart that CBS was planning on using these documents in a story about the president’s Guard service? Finally, is it believable that the Kerry campaign’s launch of “Operation Fortunate Son” the day after the “60 Minutes II” story aired was entirely coincidental?

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