ROCHESTER, Minn. — The White House yesterday slammed CBS anchorman Dan Rather for offering President Bush campaign advice and for relying on the “feelings” of a Bush critic to impugn his military record.
Ending a weeklong reluctance to wade into the debate over whether Mr. Rather used forged documents to criticize Mr. Bush’s service in the National Guard, White House press secretary Scott McClellan adopted a more aggressive stance yesterday.
“CBS has now acknowledged that the crux of their story may have been based of forged documents,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One.
The spokesman also fired back at Mr. Rather for challenging the president to “answer the questions” raised in his widely discredited report, which aired Sept. 8 on “60 Minutes II.” The anchorman told an interviewer on Tuesday that such presidential candor would help Bush win re-election.
“It’s always best for journalists to stick to reporting the facts and not try to dispense campaign advice,” Mr. McClellan said.
He also commented on Mr. Rather’s attempt to salvage the story by interviewing an 86-year-old Bush critic on Wednesday’s edition of “60 Minutes II.” The anchorman asked Marian Knox, a secretary for a National Guard unit more than 30 years ago, whether Mr. Bush received preferential treatment.
“I feel that he did,” she replied.
To which Mr. McClellan answered, “So now some are looking at feelings and not the facts. We don’t have to rely on the feelings of a nice woman who has firmly stated her opposition to the president.”
White House aides were furious that Mr. Rather did not disclose to viewers that Mrs. Knox told the Dallas Morning News that she opposed the president’s re-election, calling him “unfit for office” and “selected, not elected.” Bush advisers were also incredulous that Mr. Rather gave such credence to a woman who openly admitted that much of what she was telling the newsman was “conjecture” and “gossip.”
Privately, some Bush advisers said Mr. Rather has become part of the story and therefore should recuse himself from further coverage. They suggested a more objective journalist at CBS should begin aggressively pursuing the question of whether the documents were forged.
Mr. McClellan said CBS has been slow to investigate its own story and did so only after other news outlets launched their own probes.
“They have determined that they will follow other news organizations and look into the serious questions that have been raised,” he said. “A number of media organizations have been doing that. And now CBS has decided to do so, as well.”
Despite growing demands for full disclosure, CBS has refused to reveal the source of its documents, which appear to have been written on a modern computer, not a typewriter from the early 1970s. But a growing number of news organizations have identified disgruntled former Texas National Guard soldier Bill Burkett as a possible source for the CBS report.
For years, Mr. Burkett has leveled unsubstantiated charges that Mr. Bush’s political operatives sanitized his National Guard records while he was governor of Texas. Mr. Burkett once claimed Bush aides retaliated by sending him to Panama, an assertion he later retracted.
He also has told journalists that after leaving the Guard, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for depression.
Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that the documents appeared to have been faxed to CBS from a Kinko’s copy shop in Abilene, Texas, just 21 miles from Mr. Burkett’s home. Former National Guard officer Robert Strong told the paper that he was shown the documents during an interview by CBS and that he noticed that one of them bore the fax header: “Kinko’s Abilene.”
On Wednesday, the New York Times quoted an anonymous CBS staffer who confirmed Mr. Burkett was a source for the “60 Minutes II” report. Earlier this week, Newsweek magazine reported that Mr. Rather’s producer on the story, Mary Mapes, flew to Texas over the summer to interview Mr. Burkett.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Harold Baer Jr. Wednesday ordered the Pentagon to make public by next week any unreleased files about Mr. Bush’s Vietnam-era Air National Guard service, the Associated Press reported.
Pentagon officials told Judge Baer that they plan to complete their search by Monday. Judge Baer’s order was in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the AP, which led to the disclosure of previously unreleased flight logs from Mr. Bush’s days piloting F-102A fighters and other jets.
White House officials have said Mr. Bush ordered the Pentagon earlier this year to conduct a thorough search for the president’s records, and officials allowed reporters to review everything that was gathered back in February.