“With respect: answer the questions,” said Dan Rather, the CBS News anchor. He was asking a direct question to President George W. Bush, his re-election campaign and his political allies in the press and on the Web. “We’ve heard what you have to say about the documents and what you’ve said and what your surrogates have said, but for the moment, answer the questions.
“I say that with respect,” he added. “They’d be a lot stronger in their campaign if they did do that.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 14, Mr. Rather remained steadfast despite a brutal onslaught of criticism from Bush defenders-including Laura Bush-critics and competing news organizations over the authenticity of memos reportedly typed by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Mr. Bush’s squadron commander in the early 1970’s, which suggested that Killian felt pressure from his superior to “sugarcoat” negative evaluations of the future President’s performance.
Since 60 Minutes reported on those documents on Wednesday, Sept. 8, their veracity has been assaulted by Web critics, politicians and document experts who put the burden of proof on Mr. Rather, his producers and on CBS News, and say that the reputation of the news organization is at stake.
Mr. Rather asserted that the lack of denial was itself evidence of the essential truth of his findings. The questions raised by his reporting, he said, have remained unanswered by the Bush administration: Did Mr. Bush get preferential treatment for the Texas Air National Guard? Was then-Lieutenant Bush suspended for failing to perform up to Texas and Air Guard standards? Did then-Lieutenant Bush refuse a direct order from his military superior to take a required examination?
“It’s never been fully, completely denied by the Bush-Cheney campaign or even the White House that he was suspended for meeting the standards of the Air Force or that he didn’t show up for a physical,” he said. “The longer we go without a denial of such things-this story is true.”
On Friday, Sept. 10, Mr. Rather said on the CBS Evening News that he believed that some of the criticism came from people who were “partisan political operatives,” implying that right-wing elements have managed to turn the story into a referendum on the story itself-and thus on Mr. Rather, a longtime target of conservative critics.
Mr. Rather said that the focus on questions over the veracity of the memos was a smoke screen perpetrated by right-wing allies of the Bush administration.
“I think the public, even decent people who may be well-disposed toward President Bush, understand that powerful and extremely well-financed forces are concentrating on questions about the documents because they can’t deny the fundamental truth of the story,” he said. “If you can’t deny the information, then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger, the bearer of the information. And in this case, it’s change the subject from the truth of the information to the truth of the documents.
“This is your basic fogging machine, which is set up to cloud the issue, to obscure the truth,” he said.
Mr. Rather said that he and his longtime CBS producer, Mary Mapes, had investigated the story for nearly five years, finally convincing a source to give them the National Guard documents. He did not reveal the name of the source, but Mr. Rather said he was a man who had been reluctant to come forth with them because he’d been harassed by political operatives. “Whether one believes it or not, this person believed that he and his family had been harassed and even threatened,” he said. “We were not able to confirm that, but his fear was that what had already been threats, intimidation, if he gave up the documents, could get worse-maybe a lot worse.”
On the Monday, Sept. 13, CBS Evening News , however, Mr. Rather said that not all of his critics were politically motivated. But CBS News, he said, “believed” the memos were real based on a new set of document experts who said “the documents could have been created in the 70’s.”
The story has fallen into a wormhole of seemingly unanswerable questions: Could an IBM Composer, Selectra or Executive have created the superscripts and proportional spacing? Would the Texas Air National Guard have had such expensive models? Was Killian the type to … type?
The responses have mostly depended on who you asked, although a large number of analysts have cast serious doubt on the documents, with CBS’s experts being the conspicuous exceptions.
And CBS’s initial sources have since recanted after the segment aired, including retired Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, a Bush supporter who had provided the initial confirmation by phone about the sentiments expressed in the Killian memo. The other CBS source was a handwriting expert, Marcel Matley, who said he could not verify the authenticity of the typefaces and fonts, only the signature.
If Mr. Rather’s defense sounded like a shout of “vast right-wing conspiracy,” in this election year it was no longer as crazy as it sounded-particularly during a week when the Republican National Committee had already beat him to the conspiracy-mongering. When the Democratic National Committee launched a TV ad called “Fortunate Son” on Tuesday, Sept. 14, using a clip of Mr. Rather’s 60 Minutes sit-down with the former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Ben Barnes, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee released a statement saying that “the video the Democrats released today is as creative and accurate as the memos they gave CBS.”
Double-agent theorizing has been tossed around as well by CBS News staffers confused by the whole thing. One construction has Karl Rove circulating forged memos to discredit the supposedly left-wing newsman Dan Rather, blunting the story and paying back 60 Minutes for its exclusive bombshell on the Abu Ghraib prison abuses-a story dug up by Mr. Rather’s producer, Ms. Mapes.
Mr. Rather didn’t buy those theories.
“There are people who believe that there are little green folks in the center of the earth,” he said. “I don’t believe that. It’s possible, but I don’t believe it.”
Mr. Rather said that it would require an exceptional amount of knowledge to craft a forgery-and not just the typographical kind. “You’d have to have an in-depth knowledge of Air Force manuals from 1971,” he said. “You’d have to have Bush’s service record, you’d have to have the Air Force regulations from 1971, you’d have to know nearly all of the people involved directly at that time, including the squadron commander, who was Bush’s immediate superior, and his attitude at the time-you’d have to know all those things and weave all those things in.”
Mr. Rather said he was well aware of reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post that had finely detailed examinations of inconsistencies in the memos. And he said he took those reports seriously and appreciated the “competitive response” of other news organizations. But despite a number of experts calling the memos forgeries, he said that “the truth of these documents lies in the signatures and in the content, not just the typeface and the font-style. Let me emphasize once again, these are not exact sciences. Not like DNA or fingerprints.”
That was why, he said, half of the experts agreed and the other half didn’t. That supposed stalemate left nothing but the truth at the center of the documents.
“In terms of the experts, you’re going to find an equal number of experts on the authenticity arguments,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to resolve the argument. The core truth of the reporting, I think it’s already clear that it’s true. And I think as time goes along, it will become even more apparent.”
What about the Washington Post story of Sept. 14? The story pointed to discrepancies in military language, between the way Killian usually signed his letters and his signature on the memos CBS put on the air. And what about Mr. Bush’s address on one memo, “5000 Longmont #8, Houston,” where he apparently no longer lived in 1972?
“Both of the allegations are wrong,” he said. “I feel confident in saying that.”
But when asked to offer a specific rebuttal to the observation about the address, Mr. Rather didn’t have one, saying only: “It’s our position, and I believe we demonstrated it …. The address doesn’t match the Bush service time frame-that’s their basic allegation? We think that’s wrong. We took a look at this, and we just think they’re wrong about it.”
Mr. Rather brought up Mr. Hodges, the former National Guard major who CBS News relied on to verify the contents of Killian’s memo. Mr. Hodges, a Bush supporter, had since declared the documents forgeries. “He doesn’t think the documents are real,” said Mr. Rather. “As far as I can tell, he didn’t deny that they sounded familiar to him. If he did, he didn’t confirm it to The New York Times .”
And what if it was discovered that the documents were indeed forged?
“If,” said Mr. Rather, reiterating “if,” ” if at any time we’re able to come up with information that demonstrates that we’re wrong, we’ll report it. We won’t wait. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. The story is true.”
Mr. Rather said that he and Ms. Mapes had heard about the National Guard memos as long ago as 1999.
“We eventually came in contact with somebody who said he knew about the documents, and it took a while to get in contact with the man who was supposed to have had the documents,” he said. “It took a long time for us to create a reportorial relationship with him in which he trusted us, and at the same time we were checking him out to see if he was a trustworthy person.”
While Mr. Rather and Ms. Mapes were able to glean the contents of the memos before they actually acquired them, and while they worked to convince the source to hand over the memos, he said they tried to verify the facts in them so they could be sure they were on the right trail.
“Within the last few months,” he said, “we got a look at the documents, and we said we’d like to have a copy of the documents.”
He said they met the source in a “remote location.” “[The source] said they were copies of the documents, and he told us some of the history of where they came from and how they came to him,” Mr. Rather said.
Finally, after showing the reporting to CBS News president Andrew Hayward, senior vice president Betsy West and 60 Minutes Wednesday executive producer Josh Howard, Mr. Rather said he went to officials at the White House.
“Look, we have accumulated a body of information based on some long reporting that lays out a different picture of then-Lieutenant Bush’s service,” he said, “and we now have documents which to our own satisfaction we believe to be authentic, we believe to be true …. These are unpleasant truths. But they are truths. There was and is no joy in reporting them. But part of what reporters are supposed to do is ask questions, dig for facts and, when truths are found, share them with the public and, when called upon to do so, speak truth to power. This we did.”
In the last week, a Newsweek report suggested that the CBS source was Bill Burkett, a former National Guard employee who, since the late 1990’s, has claimed to have overheard a conversation in which Mr. Bush’s records were to be “cleansed” and who also claimed to have seen the files in a trash can. It has been established that Ms. Mapes spoke with Mr. Burkett for the 60 Minutes story. Mr. Burkett, who lives in Abilene, Tex., has been called a “discredited source” by the Bush White House. Mr. Rather wouldn’t comment on Mr. Burkett as the source, but in an interview, Mr. Howard, the executive producer, seemed aware of Mr. Burkett’s reaction to the Newsweek allegations.
“I know that Burkett is talking about at least having his lawyer call and discuss this with them,” he said.
Mr. Burkett could not be reached for comment.
In the meantime, tens of thousands of e-mails from angry Bush supporters have poured in to the CBS offices in New York. A new Web site has been established called Rathergate.com, which has asked concerned critics to fax complaints to CBS’s local affiliates and advertisers, putting more pressure on the news organization to either shore up the loose ends or establish an internal investigation, much as New York Times columnist William Safire had suggested in his column on Monday, Sept. 13. In his column, Mr. Safire had urged Mr. Rather to give up the ghost, urging him, “Courage!”
“I like Bill. I’ve known him a very long time,” was all Mr. Rather would say about that.
But inside the West 57th Street offices of CBS News, some staffers felt the organization had acted like a ponderous sloth batting away a swarm of flies. They think the network had already lost.
“I think it’s too late to make a difference,” said one angry CBS News staffer. “These guys lost the debate last week by taking a beating for 48 hours on Web and cable before making feeble attempts to defend themselves.” The 60 Minutes defense, said the staffer, “should have been on last week and should have been much better illustrated.”
Did Mr. Rather worry that the current scandal would tarnish his reputation, especially in the twilight of his career? Yes, said Mr. Rather, he did worry-but he also seemed to worry for his colleagues in the press.
“I certainly care about it,” he said. “To me, even people who aren’t inclined for one reason or another to like me know I’m a lifetime reporter trying to be independent and to report without fear or favor, to be an honest broker of information. On the times when I’ve failed, either because I didn’t ask enough of the right questions, or didn’t ask the right questions, I, and almost every other journalist, have taken a fair enough criticism for, in many people’s judgments, not asking the right questions, or not asking the right questions strong enough, long enough in the time preceding the war. And I think some of that criticism is justified. I do not except myself in that criticism.”
Mr. Rather said that he was sure that the credibility of CBS News would hold up after the memo scandal had passed.
“I think over the long haul, this will be consistent with our history and our traditions and reputation,” he said. “We took heat during the McCarthy time, during Vietnam, during civil rights, during Watergate. We haven’t always been right, but our record is damn good.”