Last Friday, two of the CBS News staffers who’d been asked to resign over a 60 Minutes Wednesday segment about President Bush’s Air National Guard service finally did so, signing nondisclosure agreements in the process. That seemingly brought the network one step closer to concluding its six-month ordeal-just in time for anchor Dan Rather to retire from the CBS Evening News on March 9.
But the end remains out of sight. Executive producer Josh Howard still refuses to resign. And now Mary Mapes, the producer fired for her involvement in the flawed segment, is preparing to shop a book proposal offering an inside account of what happened at CBS News during the memo scandal.
The book will constitute Ms. Mapes’ defense against charges of journalistic misconduct. According to Wesley Neff, president of the literary and lecture agency that is representing Ms. Mapes, the producer plans to argue for the veracity of the four memos supposedly typed by President Bush’s former National Guard squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, in the early 1970′s.
The independent panel that investigated the segment for CBS did not reach a verdict on those memos, which were at the center of the scandal. In its Jan. 10 report, the panel wrote that it could not conclude “with absolute certainty whether the Killian documents are authentic or forgeries.”
Ms. Mapes’ book proposal will include 40 pages of analysis and documentation that she offered to the panel to back up the documents’ authenticity. In an addendum to that material-supplied on the condition it not be directly quoted-Ms. Mapes avoids direct discussion of fonts and character spacing.
Instead, she argues that the substance of the memos meshes with Mr. Bush’s known records (the panel had claimed the documents clashed) and that inconsistencies in their format could have reflected the work of different typists-as found, she argues, in some of the official records.
Moreover, Ms. Mapes adds, given that two of Mr. Killian’s contemporaries said the documents fit his thoughts and actions, a forger would have had to correctly guess the mental state of a dead man.
“Now that the other people have copped a plea … she’s the only one who can tell this story,” said Mr. Neff, of the Somerville, N.J.–based Leigh Bureau.
Beyond Ms. Mapes’ dossier, CBS’ investigation into the ultimate origin of the memos had gone further than the network has revealed to the public.
According to e-mail documents obtained by The Observer, by October 2004, Erik T. Rigler-the private eye hired by CBS News president Andrew Heyward to find the source of the documents-had identified six “suspects” who might have given the Killian papers to CBS’ primary source, former Guardsman Bill Burkett.
One of Mr. Rigler’s primary interests, according to a source familiar with the investigation, was a man named J.R. Rodriguez, a former first master sergeant in the 147th Regiment of the Texas Air National Guard. Mr. Rodriguez was at Ellington Air Force Base during the period that Colonel Killian was stationed there.
Reached at his home in Richmond, Tex., Mr. Rodriguez said he had worked in the same regiment as Killian, but had never come across the documents. “I have no knowledge of that,” he said.
Mr. Rigler was unable to verify whether Mr. Rodriguez or one of the other five subjects had contacted Mr. Burkett because Mr. Burkett would not speak with him. Via e-mail, Mr. Burkett said that he had refused to cooperate with CBS or its associates unless Mr. Heyward would sign a letter clarifying Mr. Burkett’s role in the debacle.
“Yes, I was contacted by Mr. Rigler,” Mr. Burkett wrote. “I told him I would not submit to an interview UNTIL Mr. Heyward took the actions to clear up facts and clear my name consisting primarily of a simple letter of clarification and a full unedited copy of the Crescent Court Dallas taping.”
Mr. Burkett was referring to a three-hour interview between him and Mr. Rather, of which CBS News showed only a short clip. That clip was used to show that Mr. Burkett “misled” CBS producers about who had given him the documents. Mr. Burkett has said that the full tape casts his dealings with the network in a different light.
Mr. Burkett later scaled down his request, asking only for a letter signed by senior CBS News management stating certain facts about his reporter-source relationship with the network-a set of facts that both CBS and the investigative panel acknowledged to be true.
CBS News turned down Mr. Burkett’s offer.
By not meeting Mr. Burkett’s terms, CBS in essence kept the official and unofficial investigations from cooperating with a central figure in the controversy-thereby potentially cutting off the trail to the documents’ original source.
CBS declined to comment for this story, citing an inability to digest all the assertions presented on deadline, calling them “a mixture of supposition, spin, rumor and perhaps some fact, apparently derived from interested parties, both known and unknown.”
Neither Mr. Rigler nor the six alleged suspects on the private eye’s list were mentioned anywhere in the independent panel’s report.
On Feb. 22, Michael Missal, the lead counsel for the panel, said the group had not received any information about the source of the documents from Mr. Rigler “beyond Burkett. There was nothing to give us.”
But on March 1, Mr. Missal said that multiple members of the panel had direct contact with Mr. Rigler and had received information about some of his leads. Mr. Missal said that the panel had contacted Mr. Rodriguez, saying he was one of the 66 people interviewed for the report.
Mr. Missal would not discuss what the conversation had yielded. “The panel contacted him,” he said. “I don’t think I can go into details beyond what’s in the report.”
When asked about the CBS independent panel, Mr. Rodriguez repeatedly said he had never heard of it, but he acknowledged that he could not distinguish among all the reporters who had called him. “One of the guys that talked to me mentioned some kind of panel,” he said, “but I wasn’t sure what kind of panel he was talking about.”
Mr. Missal also explained that Mr. Rigler’s goal of finding the source of the documents was not the same as the panel’s.
“I think we were generally aware of what he was doing,” he said. “But it was a separate thing. His objective and our objective were different. We were looking at the broadcast; he was trying to find the source of the documents.”
The documents and Mr. Burkett were the focus of skeptics’ scrutiny of the 60 Minutes Wednesday segment from the moment after it aired. Overwhelmingly, critics argued against the authenticity of the typefaces in the memos (starting with the infamous “th” superscript) and against the credibility of Mr. Burkett, who has claimed he witnessed operatives of then-Governor Bush “cleansing” National Guard files in the mid-1990′s.
For its part, the independent panel said that Mr. Burkett should not have been considered an “unimpeachable source,” as Ms. Mapes, anchor Dan Rather and CBS News had once insisted.
After initially suggesting that a former National Guard colleague named George Conn may have been the source of the documents, Mr. Burkett later said that a woman named “Lucy Ramirez” had instructed him by phone to attend a livestock show in Houston, Tex., where he picked up the memos from an unidentified man.
According to an e-mail written by Mr. Rigler and obtained by The Observer, the private eye offered Mr. Burkett an opportunity to look at photographs of six suspects so Mr. Burkett could identify who had handed him an envelope with the four Killian documents inside. Mr. Rigler introduced himself to Mr. Burkett as a former F.B.I. agent who specialized in aviation accidents. His “client,” he said, was “an investigative firm retained by CBS.”
At multiple points during the investigation, Mr. Burkett offered to cooperate with CBS-and thus Mr. Rigler-in exchange for key demands. Starting on Sept. 16, according to a source with knowledge of the proceedings, Mr. Burkett asked CBS News for a copy of the three-hour interview. CBS News refused.
CBS did, however, later give a copy of the tape to Mr. Rigler for his investigation. In Mr. Rigler’s e-mail, he describes reading the transcript of Mr. Burkett’s unedited interview with Mr. Rather and concluding that Mr. Burkett is not “a liar.”
One person who met with Mr. Rigler in the course of the private investigator’s search for the source of the memos was Harvey Gough, a well-known Republican in Texas who owns the Lover’s Lane hamburger stand in Dallas, where legend has it fund-raisers for George W. Bush first met to plan his run for governor in the 1990′s. After meeting with Mr. Rigler in October 2004, Mr. Gough concluded that the investigator believed in the truth of the documents, if not their authenticity.
“He thought there was” reason to believe in the documents, said Mr. Gough. “I think he thought there was at least consistency.”
In November, after the Presidential election, Mr. Burkett dropped his demand for the interview tape. Mr. Burkett instead asked for a letter written on CBS letterhead and signed by senior CBS management that stated the following:
· CBS News initially approached Mr. Burkett, rather than the other way around.
· The original faxed copies of the Killian documents sent to CBS News were sent not by Mr. Burkett, but by Ms. Mapes.
The second point was important to Mr. Burkett because the faxed documents bore a mark from a Kinko’s in Abilene, Tex., which had tipped off The Washington Post to his identity and had launched a full-scale media onslaught of Mr. Burkett’s home.
The independent panel’s report confirmed that both statements were true. And in November, CBS News went so far as to put the facts on CBS letterhead, according to a source who saw the letter-but neither Mr. Heyward nor any of senior management at CBS News would sign it.
For Mr. Burkett, the letter was crucial because it corrected claims in news reports circulating around the Internet that had Mr. Burkett faxing the documents and exposing his own identity.
In Mr. Burkett’s assessment, CBS had breached the confidentiality agreement between reporter and source. An associate of Mr. Burkett said he has claimed some 31 death threats were made against him.
“VIACOM/CBS did absolutely nothing to defend me, though that was a part of my agreement with them,” wrote Mr. Burkett in an e-mail to The Observer. “But even worse, VIACOM/CBS always made sure by acts of commission or omission that they precluded me from defending myself. I will assure you, any source should be wary of dealing with confidences, confidentiality or deals with the media. CBS wasn’t the only one to violate such agreements; but they were far worse than others. And when it came down to the bottom line, VIACOM/CBS senior leaders exposed me … and then blamed me for their own mistakes. I would warn anyone-whistleblowers or not-against trusting either the mainstream or blogger communities. They’re in it for themselves and will sell you down the river at the drop of a hat.”