- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

CBS News admitted yesterday that it was duped when Dan Rather presented as authentic now-discredited memos that accused President Bush of shirking his duties as a Texas Air National Guard fighter pilot during the Vietnam War.

The announcement, in which CBS said “we deeply regret” using the documents it “cannot prove” are real, was a remarkable about-face for the storied network news division.

CBS had insisted since the first airing on “60 Minutes” Sept. 8 that memos purportedly written by Mr. Bush’s squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, are bona fide.

Mr. Rather had himself resisted an internal inquiry and called critics of the report “partisan political operatives.”

But seven minutes into last night’s “CBS Evening News With Dan Rather,” the anchorman introduced a segment on the memos, this time to admit mistakes on his part and issue an apology — directly to viewers.

CBS News acknowledged for the first time yesterday that retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, a disgruntled former guardsman, was its source for the four memos, and the network accused him of victimizing it by lying to producer Mary Mapes.

On the newscast, Mr. Rather introduced a brief clip of a testy interview he conducted with the retired lieutenant colonel in Texas this weekend.

In the interview, Col. Burkett admits that he lied to CBS when he said the documents had come from a former guardsman.

“I simply threw out a name that was basically I guess to take a little pressure off for a moment” as the CBS producer pressed for the name of the source, Col. Burkett told Mr. Rather.

Col. Burkett later provided a second name as the source, but CBS says it has been unable to verify the source’s connection to the Guard.

On Sept. 10, when Mr. Rather was asked whether an internal probe was needed, he said it was “not even discussed, nor should it be.” Yesterday, CBS said a soon-to-be-named panel would conduct an “independent review” to “help determine what actions need to be taken.”

Col. Burkett has waged a long campaign to discredit Mr. Bush’s military service. A CBS statement last week said it got the memos from “unimpeachable sources.”

Col. Burkett, who has connections to Texas Democrats, has retracted some of his past accusations. Witnesses have failed to support his other accusations.

Journalistic ethics require reporters to conceal the identities of confidential sources, unless the source deliberately provides wrong information or agrees to be named.

Republicans, who last week called for an investigation into whether Mr. Rather was trying to influence the presidential election with fake documents, kept up the pressure yesterday.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said the CBS investigation should probe whether the documents came out of a Burkett-Democratic Party conspiracy. The Democratic National Committee has begun broadcasting an ad, “Fortunate Son,” that attacks Mr. Bush’s Guard duty.

The Associated Press reported during the weekend that Col. Burkett communicated with Kerry advisers before CBS aired the memos.

“CBS has now answered questions about the authenticity of the documents but questions remain surrounding who created the documents, who provided them to CBS, and if Senator Kerry’s supporters, party committee or campaign played any role,” Mr. Gillespie said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who has suggested that White House political adviser Karl Rove floated the fake memos, responded by unleashing another attack on Mr. Bush.

“We know that George Bush was a fortunate son, a child of privilege, who refuses to admit that he used his connections to avoid fulfilling his requirements,” Mr. McAuliffe said. “But what we still don’t know is why Bush didn’t fulfill his duty to his country or why he has continued to lie to the American people about it.”

CBS News President Andrew Heyward, in a personal statement, said the four memos should never have been used.

“Based on what we know,” Mr. Heyward said, “CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report. We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret.”

Mr. Rather, who conservatives say is consistently biased against Republicans, also offered an apology. He said:

“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.”

“If I knew then what I know now,” he said, “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.”

“Memogate,” as some have dubbed it, will surely rank high in the pantheon of journalistic scandals, up there with Janet Cooke’s bogus Pulitzer-Prize-winning story at The Washington Post, and fictitious reporting by Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today.

All three newspapers did internal probes and admitted mistakes.

Mr. Rather disclosed the four memos on prime time Sept. 8 as a major exclusive. But within hours, bloggers and document analysts crowded the Internet with accusations that the memos were created by computer software not available in the early 1970s.

In the following days, recognized forensic document experts were nearly unanimous in telling the press that the memos were forged because they likely were typed on Microsoft Word software.

In addition, the signature of Col. Killian, who died in 1984 of a heart attack, did not appear to match known samples of his memos.

Attention then shifted to how CBS News veterans such as Mr. Rather could have aired such suspect papers and who could have provided them.

Suspicion centered on Col. Burkett, who has called Mr. Bush “Hitler.” He has told stories — still unproven — of attempts inside the Guard to cleanse Mr. Bush’s records of supposedly incriminating documents in the late 1990s when he worked at state headquarters.

In one account, Col. Burkett said he saw Mr. Bush’s personnel file in a trash can near a museum on the grounds of Guard headquarters in Austin. But the friend he named to corroborate the story said he had no memory of such an incident.

Col. Burkett also retracted an accusation that the Guard retaliated against him for criticizing Mr. Bush’s Guard service.

The CBS independent investigation likely will examine why “60 Minutes” relied on a critic such as Col. Burkett for the documents, and apparently ignored some of its own hired document experts, who expressed doubts before the broadcast.

His lawyer, David Van Os, released a statement last week attacking the Bush White House and reporters for focusing on whether the memos were legitimate.

The CBS statement yesterday cast the network as being victimized by Col. Burkett.

Col. Burkett “also 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,” the statement said.

“Burkett originally said he obtained the documents from another former guardsman. Now he says he got them from a different source whose connection to the documents and identity CBS News has been unable to verify to this point,” the network said.

CBS also was feeling political pressure. Thirty-nine Republican members of Congress sent a letter to Mr. Heyward calling for an investigation.

Mr. Bush weighed in during the weekend.

“There are a lot of questions about the documents and they need to be answered,” Mr. Bush said in New Hampshire. “I think what needs to happen is people need to take a look at the documents, how they were created, and let the truth come out.”

Press reports on Mr. Bush’s National Guard service have surfaced nearly every time he runs for office.

The Yale graduate enlisted in the Texas Guard in May 1968 and successfully completed flight training in the demanding F-102 interceptor. In 1972, he sought to leave flight status and move to Alabama to work on a senatorial campaign. He received an honorable discharge in 1973 and enrolled in Harvard Business School.

Democrats say Mr. Bush was “AWOL” by missing drills during that 1972-73 span. The White House says he arranged with Col. Killian to go off flight status and made up missed drills to earn enough credits for an honorable discharge.

The CBS memos further inflamed the Democratic accusations. According to the documents, Col. Killian ordered Mr. Bush to take a flight physical and Mr. Bush refused. A memo also discussed pressure from higher-ups to “sugarcoat” his performance evaluations.

As the “60 Minutes” documents crumbled under the weight of evidence, Mr. Rather changed course. He subsequently interviewed a former Guard secretary, 86-year-old Marian Carr Knox. An admitted Bush critic who calls him “unfit” to be president, Mrs. Knox said she believed the memos are fake, but contended that some of their contents were true.

But Mr. Bush’s flying mates and Col. Killian’s son, rebutted that accusation. They said pilots were never ordered to get physicals and that Mr. Bush was well respected by fellow pilots.

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