Thursday, September 16, 2004

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.”

Asked about the son’s statement, Mrs. Knox replied on CBS: “He has no way of knowing whether it’s true or not.”

Mr. Rather and Mr. Heyward were not the only CBS officials who sounded defensive yesterday. Wyatt Andrews, the CBS correspondent tasked with reporting on his own network, said on Mr. Rather’s show last night: “Some at this network believe the backlash against the ‘60 Minutes’ report is pure politics.”

Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker called for a congressional investigation.

Rep. Christopher Cox of California said there is a “growing abundance of evidence that CBS News has aided and abetted fraud.” He suggested that the probe be conducted by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt called on CBS to retract its story and accused the network of stonewalling. He sent a letter, signed by 40 House members, to Mr. Heyward.

“CBS’s response to the specific and devastating criticisms of the accuracy of its reporting has been to question the motives of its critics, to offer half-truths in its own defense, to refuse to disclose crucial evidence, and to circle the wagons,” Mr. Blunt wrote.

“CBS reporters would not accept such behavior from public officials like ourselves, and we cannot accept it from them,” he added.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi lashed out at Republicans for going after CBS.

“The Republicans’ latest attempt to intimidate the news media is a waste of taxpayer money and an egregious example of how this Republican House only exercises its oversight responsibility for partisan political reasons,” the California Democrat said.

“Clearly, Republicans will stop at nothing to distract the public from their miserable record,” she added.

The White House pointed out that although Mr. Bush has publicly praised Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry’s military record, the Massachusetts Democrat has not reciprocated.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan blamed Mr. Kerry’s campaign for the latest assault on Mr. Bush’s service in the National Guard.

“I believe that Democrats and the Kerry campaign are behind these old, recycled attacks on the president’s service, absolutely,” Mr. McClellan said. “Democrats are clearly orchestrating attacks on the president, because they can’t talk about the future, and they can’t win when the discussion is on the issues.”

Both the White House and the Bush campaign stopped short of echoing first lady Laura Bush, who called the documents apparent forgeries. But Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke called them “creative” and accused the Democrats of giving them to CBS.

In addition to broadcasting the interview with Mrs. Knox, CBS released a statement saying the network was “not prepared to reveal its confidential sources or the method by which ‘60 Minutes’ … received the documents,” and characterizing questions about the authenticity of the memos as “disagreements among ‘dueling experts.’ ”

While acknowledging “unanswered questions about the documents,” CBS defended the story itself: “Through all of the frenzied debate of the past week, the basic content of the [Sept. 8] report — that President Bush received preferential treatment to gain entrance to the Texas Air National Guard and that he may not have fulfilled all of the requirements — has not been substantially challenged.”

• Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.

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