While CBS news anchor Dan Rather can say there is no internal investigation under way over the alleged forged documents used as the foundation for an investigation into President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, you wouldn’t have been able to tell from the 15 or so 60 Minutes and CBS News” staffers working away feverishly on Friday and Saturday to try to nail down their story.
On Friday, according to CBS News sources, Rather spent the day on the phone and dealing with CBS suits who were nervous about the fall out from the story. “All Dan could say was that this was an attack from the right-wing nuts, and that we should have expected this, given the stakes,” says a CBS News producer. “He was terribly defensive and nervous. You could tell.”
All day Friday, Rather, his producer on the story, Mary Mapes, and other 60 Minutes staffers were scrambling to shore up support from their sources on the story. That effort didn’t go so well. By Saturday, one of their key sources, retired Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, had said that CBS misled him, and that he had never been shown the memos in question.
“We pulled the trick of only calling some sources at the last minute to reconfirm,” says the CBS producer. “Someone called Hodges, I think, on Monday night and read him parts of the document. The late contacts are a standard practice so we don’t tip off the competition or our sources.”
Hodges is a critical loss for CBS News’ credibility. He was the superior officer of the man CBS claims wrote the memo, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who died in 1984.
MEANWHILE, OVER THE WEEKEND journalists from around the country were attempting to track down the original source of the documents. “We’re having a hard time tracking how we got the documents,” says the CBS News producer. “There are at least two people in this building who have insisted we got copies of these memos from the Kerry campaign by way of an additional source. We do not have the originals, and our sources have indicated to us that we will not be getting the originals. How that is possible I don’t know.”
One individual several news outlets were looking at was Bill Burkett, a former Texas National Guard officer. Burkett in the past has cooperated with both press and Democratic Party opposition researchers in slinging mud at President Bush. Burkett gained some national attention earlier in the campaign when he claimed he was at National Guard headquarters in Austin 1997, when he overheard Guard officials and a representative of then Governor Bush discuss how to sanitize Bush’s files. That story was fully discredited. Nonetheless, Burkett sat down for at least three different interviews with CBS News for the story now at the center of the controversy. One of those interviews was with Rather’s producer, Ms. Mapes.
“There are rumors here that if there are any real documents, they are hand-written notes from Killian that someone like Burkett was holding, and that instead of using the hand-written notes, someone typed them up to look more official,” says the CBS News producer. “They would look better on TV and posted on line if they were typed, but on a number of levels, that story just doesn’t hold up. There are too many inconsistencies factually with what is in the memos.”
THE MOST GLARING ISSUES now are the seemingly phony P.O. Box addresses used in the headers of at least one of the memorandums. Such post office box addresses were not used by the National Guard at that time.
Yet another issue: the 18-month gap between the retirement of Col. Walter “Buck” Staudt on March 1, 1972, and August 18, 1973, when the Killian of the disputed memos claimed that Staudt was putting pressure on him to sugarcoat an evaluation of Bush. Almost everyone involved in the National Guard in Texas says Staudt would have had virtually no influence in the active units nearly a year and a half after leaving the service.
PERHAPS MOST TROUBLING to the CBS News staff looking into how its story went off the rails is the timing of the memos’ appearance. “Some 60 Minutes staffers have been working on this story for more than three years off and on,” says the CBS News producer. “There have been rumors about these memos and what was in them for at least that long. No one had been able to find anything. Not a single piece of paper. But we know that a lot of people here interviewed a lot of people in Texas and elsewhere and asked very explicit questions about the existence of these memos. Then all of a sudden they show up? In one nice, neat package?”
This CBS New producer went on to explain that the questions 60 Minutes folk were asking were specific enough that people would have been able to fabricate the memorandums to meet the exact specifications the investigative journalists were looking for. “People were asking questions of sources like, ‘Have you ever seen or heard of a memo that suspended Bush for failing to appear for a physical?’ and ‘Have you heard about or know of someone who has any documentation from back in the 1970s that shows there was pressure to get Bush into the National Guard?’ It was like they were placing an order for a ready-made product. That is the biggest problem I have with this. It’s all too neat and perfect for what we needed. Without these exact pieces of paper, we don’t have a story. Dan has as much as admitted that. Everyone knows it. We were at a standstill on this story until these memos showed up.”
REPORTERS ARE ALSO LOOKING at staff and associates of Sen. Tom Harkin, who enthusiastically held a press conference on Thursday morning using the forged documents as the tent pole for attacks against President Bush. Harkin called Bush a “liar.”
“Harkin has been pushing this story for a while,” says the CBS producer. “Not this specific story, but the ‘Bush is a liar about his record’ story. His people seemed particularly interested in making sure they could keep their boss up to date on what was going on.”
That Harkin was the individual selected to be the attack dog on this particular issue was an interesting one, give that Harkin himself has a checkered history about telling the truth about his involvement in the Vietnam War.
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H/T to National Review Online