On Sept. 20 of last year, CBS announced that it was employing an independent panel to investigate how 60 Minutes Wednesday had ended up relying on shaky-looking memos in its segment about President Bush’s past service in the Texas Air National Guard. The investigators, CBS said, would “determine what errors occurred in the preparation of the report and what actions need to be taken.”
Five days later, CBS launched another inquiry into the memo scandal. The network hired a private investigator named Erik T. Rigler, a former F.B.I. agent and Navy aviator, to track down the source of the troublesome documents.
Mr. Rigler’s sleuthing was not mentioned in the list of interviews and other pursuits in the independent panel’s final report on Jan. 10. Though CBS had promised transparency in investigating the memo scandal, of a half-dozen CBS News producers who spoke to The Observer, only one had even heard a rumor that the network had hired the private investigator.
Segment producer Mary Mapes and anchor Dan Rather were both aware of Mr. Rigler’s assignment. Because the independent panel was looking into the memos, Ms. Mapes and Mr. Rather were no longer investigating the case themselves. CBS News president Andrew Heyward assured Ms. Mapes that CBS was pursuing the source of the papers, according to two people familiar with the situation.
Neither Ms. Mapes nor Mr. Ratherwould comment on any aspect of the segment or the investigation. CBS sources said that Mr. Rather has been officially muzzled: On March 9, when he steps down as anchor of the CBS Evening News, he will be limited to seven controlled interviews with the press to avoid questions about the scandal.
But sources said that Ms. Mapes was glad to cooperate with the private eye. Her lawyer, Richard Hibey, said that Ms. Mapes handed over all of her leads and notes about the National Guard story to Mr. Rigler.
But Mr. Rigler’s search for the origins of the documents dead-ended with the man who had given them to CBS, former National Guard employee Bill Burkett. His work did yield one result, which he passed on to the independent panel: a two-page memorandum about Ms. Mapes herself.
Mr. Hibey and another outside source said that Ms. Mapes was dismayed to learn that the ostensible investigation of the documents had turned into an inquiry into the producer.
“When she saw the report she felt completely betrayed by Heyward and CBS,” Mr. Hibey said. “Because this guy didn’t apparently do what Heyward said he was going to be doing.”
Mr. Rigler provided the panel, led by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press head Louis Boccardi Jr., with personal information about Ms. Mapes, including her answers to a line of inquiry about her estranged father. He did not report on his unsuccessful pursuit of the documents.
Michael Missal, the lead counsel for the independent panel, confirmed that the panel had received information from CBS’ hired hand, but only material about Ms. Mapes.
“We saw a summary of what they discussed to see if there was any inconsistency” with what the producer had told the panel on other occasions, Mr. Missal said.
“We were aware that CBS was still pursuing the source of the documents independently of the panel,” he said, “and we were given access to information CBS gave in that regard.”
“He didn’t get any more information beyond Burkett,” said Mr. Missal. “There was nothing to give us.”
Mr. Rigler declined to comment on his work for CBS.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for CBS News said that “CBS News hired a private investigator with the full knowledge and enthusiastic approval of all of those involved in the original Sept. 8 report for one purpose only: to help get to the bottom of the authenticity and origin of the documents.”
The CBS spokesperson said the private investigator’s aims were not to find critical information about any of CBS’s producers. “The investigator’s brief report was not critical of any individuals involved in producing the original Sept. 8 report,” she said. “To this day, the basic questions about the documents have not been answered, but we remain hopeful that, one day, they will be.”
The fact that CBS had a private investigator looking into its own employee suggests that well before the panel issued any findings, network management had begun to shift its focus away from solving the mystery behind the documents and toward placing the blame for the decision to air the segment. That foreshadowed the investigative panel’s own report, which, having failed to figure out the source of the memos, focused instead on internal procedural and journalistic failures at CBS.
Was CBS getting ahead of itself?
It’s easy to argue that Ms. Mapes was worth investigating, given her instrumental role in dragging the network into a wholesale disaster. Ms. Mapes, the panel’s final report concludes, convinced everyone to trust her throughout both the airing and the defense stages of a segment that depended on still-unverified memos.
But whatever breaches of journalistic procedure Ms. Mapes may have committed, CBS News still hasn’t solved the mystery surrounding her fundamental news judgment: Was she the victim of a hoax or not?
The final assessment of the report was that it could not conclude “with absolute certainty whether the Killian documents are authentic or forgeries.”
As a result, the panel reported that it had no choice but to focus on the news-gathering sins. “While the focus of the Panel’s investigation at the outset was on the Killian documents,” it read, “the investigation quickly identified considerable and fundamental deficiencies relating to the reporting and production of the September 8 Segment and the statements and news reports during the Aftermath.”
As it stands, the report’s conclusions about the news gathering-and particularly about the follow-up-are still under attack. As of Tuesday evening, the three CBS staffers asked to resign as a result of the investigation continued to refuse to do so, with former 60 Minutes Wednesday executive producer Josh Howard demanding CBS correct the record about his own responsibility.
But also on Tuesday, Salon reported on a 2,600-word letter that Mr. Burkett had written to CBS, in which the former National Guardsman seemed to agree with the panel: He blamed CBS for failing to properly vet the documents, which he said he had offered only on the condition that he not have to explain their chain of custody.
“CBS, through its employees, had to make a critical decision as to whether they were willing to take that risk,” he wrote. “There were no expressed or implied warranties about the documents. Yet I believed them to be authentic.”
Few producers inside CBS News seemed interested in the veracity of the memos, focusing instead on their colleagues who had taken the blame. But few felt that the report had led to justice-and that its injustice began with its failure to resolve the mystery.
“It’sabig gaping hole, isn’t it?” said one CBS News staffer.
Other avenues of cracking the case, outside the network’s own investigation, don’t appear very promising at the moment. If the documents are fakes, they are apparently illegal-it is against the law in Texas to forge a government document, according to Chapter 32.21 of the Texas Penal Code. The chapter on forgery makes it clear that forging a government record, state or federal, is a felony.
But Mr. Burkett has never been pursued by authorities, who could feasibly force him to answer questions under oath about where he got the memos supposedly drafted by former Texas Air National Guard Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who was President Bush’s commanding officer in the early 1970′s.
On Oct. 5, 2004, 51 members of Congress called for an investigation into the suspected forgery. A spokesperson for Texas Representative Lamar Smith said that Mr. Smith’s efforts to drum up support for an investigation had not yielded results. “We are not aware of any legal action on this,” he said.
Kathy Colvin, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in Dallas, said she was “not aware of any charges that have been filed.”
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