Sen. John Kerry’s campaign said yesterday they do not think that contacts between senior adviser Joe Lockhart and the man who leaked fake memos about President Bush to CBS News were wrong or show that Mr. Lockhart helped disseminate the documents.
Mike McCurry, an adviser and spokesman to the campaign, told reporters that Mr. Kerry “does not believe Joe did anything improper. He made a call at the suggestion of CBS News.”
But Republicans, who long had suggested that Democratic operatives were behind the spread of the memos, called on the campaign to further disclose the extent of Mr. Lockhart’s contacts with retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, the man who has admitted being the source for CBS.
Republicans also called on Mr. Kerry to say whether other campaign staffers had contact with Col. Burkett or were involved with the documents.
“It is time Senator Kerry came clean about all the contacts between CBS, his campaign and Bill Burkett,” Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Ed Gillespie said on Fox News Channel. “What did they know? When did they know it? What did they do, and when did they do it? It is an increasingly tangled web.”
Mr. McCurry told reporters traveling with the campaign that senior campaign staff are checking to see whether anyone else in the Kerry camp contacted Col. Burkett, but he said as of now, the campaign is “pretty satisfied no one else had contact with Burkett.”
Still, the spokesman said, the furor over the report “diverts from the discussion to be had” on the Kerry campaign’s key issues.
CBS has apologized for its report and admitted that it cannot vouch for the documents, purportedly from Mr. Bush’s commanding officer in the Texas Air National Guard. The documents in question suggest that Mr. Bush shirked duty and that his superior, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, faced political pressure to “sugarcoat” then-Lt. Bush’s evaluation.
Mr. Lockhart has admitted having a brief conversation, at the urging of CBS News producer Mary Mapes, with Col. Burkett, who used to be with the Texas Air National Guard and is a longtime anti-Bush activist.
But Mr. Lockhart says the memos weren’t discussed. He also said he called Col. Burkett before the documents were revealed to be forgeries.
Col. Burkett told USA Today in a story published yesterday that he did ask that CBS put him in touch with the campaign in exchange for providing the network with the documents. But he told the newspaper that he wanted to contact the campaign for reasons other than the memos.
“My interest was to get the attention of the national [campaign] to defend against the attacks,” he said.
Mr. Lockhart said Mrs. Mapes asked him the weekend before the story broke to call Col. Burkett, according to the Associated Press.
“She basically said, ‘There’s a guy who is being helpful on the story who wants to talk to you,’ ” Mr. Lockhart said, adding that it was common knowledge that CBS was working on a story raising questions about the president’s Guard service.
Mrs. Mapes told him that there were some records “that might move the story forward,” Mr. Lockhart said. “She didn’t tell me what they said.”
Another Kerry adviser, former Sen. Max Cleland, Georgia Democrat, has said Col. Burkett also contacted him to talk about how Mr. Kerry should defend against accusations about the candidate’s service in the Vietnam War.
Mr. Cleland said he gave Col. Burkett’s name to the Kerry campaign research team.
Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Terry McAuliffe said yesterday he stands by his statement that neither the DNC nor any other Democratic operative had a hand in producing or disseminating the documents.
He said Mr. Lockhart’s explanation that he did not discuss the memos backs up that position.
“I can unequivocally state the DNC had nothing to do with the CBS documents,” he said, before challenging Mr. Bush to be as certain in his own answers. “Why doesn’t George Bush unequivocally state why he skipped that flight exam?”
He said the evidence concerning Mr. Bush’s shirking duty stems from other sources, including reports by the Associated Press, the Boston Globe and U.S. News & World Report.
And yesterday, he repeated his charge that Republicans might be behind release of the memos.
“In today’s ‘New York Post,’ Roger Stone, who became associated with political ‘dirty tricks’ while working for Nixon, refused to deny that he was the source of the CBS documents,” Mr. McAuliffe said.
“Will Ed Gillespie or the White House admit today what they know about Mr. Stone’s relationship with these forged documents?” he said. “Will they unequivocally rule out Mr. Stone’s involvement? Or for that matter, others with a known history of dirty tricks, such as Karl Rove or Ralph Reed?”
Two weeks ago, amid the first stories questioning the documents’ authenticity, Mr. McAuliffe insinuated that Mr. Rove, political adviser to the president, might have been behind them.
Mr. McCurry implied that the White House is keeping the story alive for political gain.
“It changed the subject from talking about Iraq — anything they can do to change the subject,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Gillespie upped the rhetorical ante in the two-week-old controversy by pointing out that forging official military documents is against the law.
“There could be criminal involvement here,” he said. “I don’t know that that’s the part of Kerry campaign. Somebody in this process clearly has committed a crime.”
RNC adviser Terry Holt also doubted the Kerry campaign’s attempt to distance itself from Col. Burkett and CBS, which has apologized for what Mr. Holt called “one of those classic dirty tricks that happen in campaigns.”
“It’s a little naive for them to think that we don’t see the connection between Joe Lockhart and the CBS producer collaborating on this,” Mr. Holt said on Fox. “This stinks to high heaven.”
He added: “I’m almost as dizzy following this story and Kerry’s involvement as I am trying to decipher John Kerry’s position on Iraq.”