Thursday, September 23, 2004

White House political adviser Karl Rove yesterday scoffed at Democratic charges that he was somehow behind the release of faked documents to CBS that attacked President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.

And he returned fire, saying there are plenty of outstanding questions that Democrats must answer about their involvement with CBS anchorman Dan Rather’s now-discredited story, which heavily relied on the bogus memos.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has insinuated twice since CBS’ “60 Minutes” aired the charges on Sept. 8 that Mr. Rove or other Republicans might have been involved in some way.

Mr. McAuliffe has offered no proof.

Mr. Rove mocked the suggestion when asked about it at a luncheon with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

“Obviously, you know the answer is no. Do you feel good about asking that question?” he said before repeating, “The answer is no, obviously.”

He also called Mr. McAuliffe “a wild-man ranter and raver.”

Mr. Rove also said it’s not for him to demand an apology from Mr. Rather to the president. But he said it was noteworthy that Mr. Rather has yet to admit that the documents were forged, instead saying only that their authenticity cannot be proved.

“He’s probably the only person in America that still thinks there’s a possibility these are true and accurate documents,” Mr. Rove said.

Republicans think they have evidence of collusion. Retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett of the Texas Air National Guard, who this week acknowledged leaking the memos to CBS, talked with Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart before CBS aired the documents. Mr. Lockhart says he did not discuss the memos.

“60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes, who got the memos from Col. Burkett, referred the longtime Bush critic to the Kerry campaign.

Mr. Rove told The Washington Times yesterday that it’s not up to him to say whether Mr. Lockhart should be fired.

“I’m going to leave it up to the Kerry campaign to decide whether or not someone who was clearly in collusion with CBS on this should stay or go,” he said, but he challenged them and CBS to answer a series of questions.

“What did Mary Mapes tell Lockhart? We haven’t heard from her on this. Who did Lockhart tell what to in the campaign? What other contacts were there between CBS and people in the campaign?” he said.

He then said Mr. McAuliffe and the DNC must answer questions about their own series of attacks on Mr. Bush’s National Guard record, which he said “broke coincidentally with the CBS story.”

“I mean, they’d have to be awful nimble to have prepared all those ads and materials without foreknowledge. And the question is: Did they have foreknowledge, and if so from who, and why?”

Mr. Rove said the Kerry campaign has shifted in the past few weeks toward a strategy of personal attacks with the addition of new advisers, some of them former Clinton aides, including Mr. Lockhart.

“When they arrived, they made it clear that they were going to run a campaign of character at the president, which was a polite way of saying they were going to run a campaign of character assassination. And they’ve been true to their word,” he said.

“When you have to defend as many different positions and votes as he has offered up, you want to change the subject. And the best way to change the subject, as this crowd on the other side believes clearly, is to go after the personal character of their opponent.”

Two days after expressing regret over the Sept. 8 report on Monday, CBS yesterday named an independent panel to investigate the process by which the storied news division reported the much-criticized story.

CBS named Dick Thornburgh, U.S. attorney general in the Reagan administration and first Bush administration; and Louis D. Boccardi, who retired in 2003 as president and chief executive officer of the Associated Press.

The naming of Mr. Thornburgh, a Republican and former Pennsylvania governor, appeared to be a gesture toward political conservatives who think Mr. Rather and “60 Minutes” is biased against them.

Mr. Boccardi most recently served on a group of journalists who examined the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times. The reporter’s trail of fictitious reporting and plagiarism ultimately resulted in the resignation of executive editor Howell Raines.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward, after resisting an internal probe and vouching for the segment’s accuracy, did an about-face on Monday. The network and Mr. Rather announced that it no longer had confidence that the memos were authentic, but they did not say they think the memos are fake, a conclusion reached by virtually all documents experts contacted by the press.

Within hours of the “60 Minutes” broadcast on Sept. 8, bloggers and document analyzers posted items on the Internet charging that the documents are fakes. Later, the mainstream press quoted forensic experts as saying the memos, supposedly written by Mr. Bush’s squadron chief, the late Lt. Gen. Jerry Killian, were produced by computer software not available in 1972 and 1973.

A major question for Mr. Thornburgh and Mr. Boccardi is why CBS went ahead with the broadcast after two of its hired experts expressed doubts about the memos’ authenticity.

A CBS statement said “the two-person review panel will commence its work this week and will have full access and complete cooperation from CBS News and CBS, as well as all of the resources necessary to complete the task. The panel will report its findings to CBS News and CBS. The findings also will be made public.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie yesterday noted the close timing between a Democratic National Committee ad campaign, dubbed “Operation Fortunate Son,” and the CBS broadcast.

“One might argue that these steps were taken without advance knowledge of the existence of the documents and this is all coincidence, but that strains credibility,” Mr. Gillespie said.

Mr. Gillespie specifically mentioned Democratic National Committee spokesman Howard Wolfson, a senior Kerry aide, as the man behind the “Fortunate Son” attacks.

Mr. Wolfson responded by saying, “Republican allegations of a ‘vast left-wing conspiracy’ designed to expose the truth about the president’s military service are laughable. No conspiracy is necessary to make clear that the president used strings to get into the Guard, missed his required physical and failed to fulfill his duty.”

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