- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

NEW YORK — CBS apologized today and said it was misled about the authenticity of documents used to support a “60 Minutes” story that questioned President Bush’s Vietnam War-era National Guard service, after several experts denounced them as fakes.

“We should not have used them,” CBS News President Andrew Heyward said. “That was a mistake, which we deeply regret.”

CBS also said it was commissioning an independent panel to review the incident, and would announce the name of the participants shortly.

The White House said the affair raises questions about the connections between CBS’s source and Democrat John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

CBS’s concession was a major blow to the credibility of the news organization and anchor Dan Rather, who reported the story and issued his own apology Monday.

“We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry,” he said. “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.”

Almost immediately after the Sept. 8 story aired, document experts questioned memos purportedly written by Bush’s late squadron leader, saying they appeared to have been created on a computer and not a typewriter that was in use during the 1970s.

CBS strongly defended its story, and it wasn’t until a week later - after the military leader’s former secretary said she believed the memos were fake - did the news division admit they were questionable.

Even then, Rather said no one had disputed the story’s premise: that the future president had pulled strings to get a relatively cushy National Guard assignment and failed to satisfy the requirements of his service.

Rather this weekend interviewed Bill Burkett, a retired Texas National Guard official who has been mentioned as a possible source for the documents. His interview was to be broadcast on “CBS Evening News” on Monday.

CBS said Burkett acknowledged he provided the documents and said he deliberately misled a CBS producer, giving her a false account of their origin to protect a promise of confidentiality to a source.

The Associated Press could not immediately reach Burkett for comment.

Rather said he would not have gone ahead with the story Burkett admitted that the documents were not authentic.

“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,” he said.

“Please know that nothing is more important to us than people’s trust in our ability and our commitment to report fairly and truthfully,” he added.

The documents were said to have been written by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, indicating he was being pressured to “sugarcoat” the performance ratings of a young Bush, then the son of a Texas congressman, and that Bush failed to follow orders to take a physical. Killian died in 1984.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush was told about the CBS statement as he flew to Derry, N.H.

“CBS is now for the first time publicly acknowledging that the documents were likely forged and they came from a discredited source,” McClellan said. “There are a number of serious questions that remain unanswered and they need to be answered. Bill Burkett, who CBS now says is their source, in fact is not an unimpeachable source as was previously claimed. Bill Burkett is a source who has been discredited and so this raises a lot of questions. There were media reports about Mr. Burkett having senior level contacts with the Kerry campaign.”

For “60 Minutes,” it’s the biggest ethical mess since the 1995 incident captured in the movie, “The Insider,” which depicted the newsmagazine caving to pressure from CBS lawyers and not airing a whistleblowing report from an ex-tobacco executive.

The call for an independent review was also reminiscent of CNN’s “Tailwind” scandal in 1998. The cable network retracted a story that the U.S. military had used nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam war.

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