EASTLAND, TEX.—Three days before Dan Rather was to retire from the CBS Evening News on March 9, the man who gave him the suspicious memos that precipitated his departure as anchor sat in a Mexican restaurant here, 126 miles west of Dallas.
Former National Guardsman Bill Burkett, 55, has grown a full, white beard since his last face-to-face meeting with Mr. Rather, on Sept. 18, 2004. That day, the CBS anchor interviewed him for three hours at the Crescent Court hotel in Dallas, 10 days after 60 Minutes Wednesday had first presented the memos from Mr. Burkett asserting that George W. Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard.
Cameras rolling, Mr. Rather had asked Mr. Burkett, his former source–whom he had once promised not to “hang out”–point-blank, if he had misled the network about their provenance.
The former National Guardsman, knowing he was writing his own epitaph, said he had.
“I looked him in the eye,” recalled Mr. Burkett, “and I said, ‘Dan, do you know what you just did to me? Will you attend my funeral?’”
And, according to Mr. Burkett, Dan Rather replied: “Will you attend mine? In fact, I want you to read the eulogy.”
Afterward, said Mr. Burkett, “Dan couldn’t look me in the eye.”
Texas is the place where Dan Rather’s career ballooned, first on local television and then in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and Texas is the place that punctured it, as Mr. Rather might say, like a rattlesnake striking the tire treads of a prairie pick-up. And in Texas, if not at Black Rock itself, the question of just what brought Mr. Rather low still remains open. Even apparently to him.
When Mr. Burkett’s admission aired Sept. 20, it did nothing to resolve the mystery behind the documents. But it did mark the point at which CBS, embattled by attacks from consumers, ideologues and politicians, stopped defending its Sept. 8 report on Mr. Bush’s National Guard service and started a massive, and somewhat panicked, clean-up.
Mr. Rather continued hunting down the source of the documents, according to sources–when CBS convened an independent panel to investigate the process behind the story, Mr. Rather sought to hire a New York–based private eye with his own money, for a price sources put in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A CBS News spokesperson denied via e-mail that Mr. Rather had made any such offer.
But sources said that Mr. Rather did just that, and that CBS News president Andrew Heyward turned him down. To supplement the panel, the network hired its own P.I., whose quest for the source of the documents abruptly faded after the November 2004 Presidential election.
CBS’s pursuit of the story was sidelined. The network, and CBS News, then became focused on righting itself in the public eye, aggressively finishing its panel report and completing what the producers of the National Guard story felt became a “corporate execution,” according to Mike Smith, a freelance producer who worked on the story. Mr. Smith–a soft-spoken, 33-year-old Austin native with a ponytail and spectacles–worked closely with Mary Mapes, Mr. Rather’s faithful producer.
Ms. Mapes was fired in January 2005, after the panel’s report came out, and three other employees involved in the segment–executive producer Josh Howard, senior vice president Betsy West and senior broadcast producer Mary Murphy–were asked to resign. Mr. Howard has not. And Mr. Rather was ushered to a conclusion of his tenure on his 24th anniversary as anchor–a year earlier than the anniversary he’d planned.
Ms. Mapes, Mr. Smith and Mr. Burkett–two producers and their source–are in contact with each other every day, still puzzling over the memo scandal.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” said Mr. Smith. “Mary and Bill are trying to figure out how to get out from under this thing.”
In the past week, Mr. Smith has sought to help The New York Observer reconstruct the story of the network’s investigation. The investigating panel needed him: After Sept. 20, he was the only person connected to CBS News that Mr. Burkett was willing to talk to.
“He needed someone to hold his hand,” said Mr. Smith. “That was my role.”
Mr. Smith had first convinced Mr. Burkett to give CBS News the memos–supposedly written by National Guard Lt. Col. Jerry Killian–which cast a negative light on Mr. Bush’s Vietnam-era service.
In early September 2004, Mr. Smith carried those four pieces of paper in his leather briefcase. But by the end of September, Mr. Smith began filling the briefcase with dozens of 90-minute microcassettes recording his telephone discussions with everyone he spoke to about the memo scandal.
Mr. Smith said he made the recordings to guard against being used by CBS to lay blame on people he sympathized with–Mr. Burkett and Ms. Mapes–and because he felt uncomfortable with his position: CBS News was paying him to get the angry Mr. Burkett to cooperate with the panel. Meanwhile, the panel was investigating Mr. Smith himself.
“It would be stupid not to tape,” he said.
The conversations consisted of daily exchanges with Ms. Mapes and Mr. Burkett; with a private eye named Erik T. Rigler, who was hired by CBS; and with Linda Mason, the CBS News senior vice president who was coordinating interviews for the panel. They portray an investigation that bred confusion, occasional desperation and a deep suspicion in its subjects. Mr. Smith said they document how “no one really seemed to be interested in the truth.”
In a tape from late December, days before the report was released, Ms. Mason was asked by Mr. Smith if CBS News would ever regain its former glory after the incident.
“I certainly hope so,” she said, “but this has shaken … Mike, we’re part of this huge corporation now. And [Viacom C.E.O.] Sumner Redstone commented on it at one point. Who needs him commenting about things? Let him stay with his entertainment.
“In the news, when it was first happening,” she continued, “he was away in Hong Kong or something. He made some kind of stupid statement about how he didn’t like this, but he was out of town and he had to learn more about it or something. I mean, wow, right?”
On Sept. 2, 2004, Mr. Smith and Ms. Mapes met with Mr. Burkett and his wife, Nicki Burkett, in a Whataburger restaurant in Clyde, Tex. They discussed the possibility of procuring the Bush National Guard documents. Mr. Smith had worked with Ms. Mapes on a number of 60 Minutes and CBS Evening News pieces starting in 2000. He was hired again as a freelancer in August to work on the National Guard story.
“The road to the White House leads through the Clyde Whataburger” was the group’s joke.
Mr. Burkett gave them one of the documents that day.
“He said, ‘Well, what do you think about this?’” Mr. Smith recalled. “It contained a lot of the elements that had happened with Bush. We read it and our jaws dropped: ‘Wow, that’s exactly what we heard happened.’ So we were stunned when he pulled this document out.”
Mr. Burkett has said that this document and the others he gave CBS were provided on a “stand-alone” basis–meaning he wouldn’t vouch for their authenticity–and under a promise of the utmost secrecy. He had first told Ms. Mapes that the memos had come from a former Guard colleague named George Conn.
In the Sept. 18 interview and thereafter, he has maintained instead that a woman calling herself Lucy Ramirez phoned him–from a number later traced to a Holiday Inn in Houston–and instructed him to attend a livestock show, where he was handed the papers in an envelope.
Despite Mr. Burkett’s desire for secrecy, as CBS News came under fire for peculiarities in the documents’ format, newspapers began citing him as the possible source. With scrutiny mounting, Mr. Burkett requested a conversation with Mr. Rather himself.
The anchor called him at a Holiday Inn in Bozeman, Mont., where the Burketts were staying to avoid attention. Mr. Rather promised to protect his source, according to Mr. Burkett.
“It was very candid–very hard,” recalled Mr. Burkett. “Twenty minutes. He said, ‘Bill, I believe in you. I realize you’re a truth-teller, and I understand we have a commitment to you. We’re not going to hang you out.’”
On Sept. 16, while the media surrounded his house with cameras, Mr. Burkett set up a conference call with CBS News president Andrew Heyward, Mr. Rather, Ms. West and Ms. Mapes. He said he wanted to set the record straight, fearing that, in his poor health, he might die of a heart attack.
“We agreed that we would do an interview–initially, we would do an interview which we would store,” said Mr. Burkett, his voice growing somber and tears welling in his eyes. “It would be so Nicki would have it in case I died, for the protection of me. We talked about name-clearing for Bill Burkett, not for CBS.”
Mr. Burkett insisted that the full taped interview of Sept. 18–a copy of which he said CBS promised him and never delivered–would correct the record regarding his involvement in the segment.
The tape, he said, would show Mr. Rather admitting that CBS had promised him absolute anonymity–a promise that he said was broken, and that unleashed events that ruined his life, from media attacks to health problems to a flagging cattle business.
Asked if Mr. Burkett had been treated fairly, CBS’s Ms. Mason was silent for at least 30 seconds.
“There was no agreement,” she finally said. “There was never an agreement with Burkett. He decided to speak without his lawyer’s permission. In Burkett’s mind, there was an agreement.”
A CBS News spokesperson said that Mr. Rather had not promised Mr. Burkett absolute anonymity and rejected Mr. Burkett’s claim that the interview backed him up, asking, “Why would you do an on-camera interview if you wanted to remain anonymous?”
From then on, Mr. Burkett refused to talk to CBS. He said he distrusted the investigative panel, led by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press head Louis Boccardi Jr., which he saw as bought and paid for by CBS.
“It was nothing more than a corporate damage-control plan,” said Mr. Burkett.
He was not alone in having reservations about the panel. A number of critics and observers–including Mr. Rather–complained that the panel was tilted by the inclusion of Mr. Thornburgh, a Republican and Bush family friend. The nonpartisan Mr. Boccardi was supposed to be the neutralizing factor.
Convinced that it had made a mistake in broadcasting the report, CBS seemed more interested in trying to atone for its confessed error than in trying determine whether the memos were a hoax or not. On Oct. 5, CBS president Leslie Moonves promised at a Goldman Sachs media conference that the network would withhold the report until “after the election, so it won’t affect what is going on.”
Still, CBS did take at least one step to dig into the document mystery: After Mr. Rather offered to hire his own private eye, Mr. Heyward stepped in, promising him and Ms. Mapes that Mr. Rigler would pursue the case.
Mr. Rigler is an employee of the New York–based corporate investigative group Safir Rosetti. The company was founded by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s ex-police commissioner, Howard Safir.
Mr. Rigler, a former F.B.I. agent, first introduced himself via e-mail to Mr. Smith and to Mr. Burkett. In that message, sent in early October, Mr. Rigler said his “client” was an “investigative firm hired by CBS.” But Mr. Rigler seems to have been confused about his assignment: In a tape from late October, he complained to Mr. Smith of uncertainty about exactly whom he was working for–the independent panel, which could presumably want to know the source of the documents in order to judge the broadcast, or CBS, which had hired him for the express purpose of finding the documents.
Mr. Rigler said that he would be filing reports directly to Mr. Thornburgh, according to Mr. Smith. On Oct. 25, Mr. Rigler told Mr. Smith: “I got to talk to the former Attorney General at length. What it means is they have enough trust in me to talk to [Bill Burkett] and then carry his message back to them.”
But that apparently wasn’t the CBS plan. Mr. Rigler said on tape that Ms. Mason, the CBS News senior vice president, didn’t want him interacting with the panel. In the recording, he said that he’d consulted with her about questions the panel had asked him: “‘You know, these people are asking a lot of questions about this. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to answer–so what’s my role in all of this? Am I CBS’s investigator or the commission’s investigator?’”
Ms. Mason, he told Mr. Smith, “promptly chewed me out,” saying explicitly: “You should never talk to those people!”
“I said, ‘Wait a minute–you’re the one that told me to call them!’” he recalled. “So it’s like, I guess, a runaway grand jury or something like that.”
The incident in question took place on Oct. 27, after Ms. Mapes discovered that the panel had spoken with Mr. Rigler and received a two-page report on Ms. Mapes herself.
On Feb. 22, Michael Missal, the lead council for the panel, told The Observer that the memo was for cross-checking other things Ms. Mapes had told them.
But Ms. Mapes was infuriated by what she considered to be a double-cross by Mr. Heyward, who had told her the private eye was strictly for searching out the source of the documents, not for investigating staff. In a conversation taped in late December, Ms. Mason told Mr. Smith that Mr. Rigler’s investigation was separate from the panel’s and that his information only passed on through her.
“He was independent,” Ms. Mason said. “Well, through me. If we had gotten information, I would have passed it on to the panel. But he was independent.”
On March 1, Mr. Missal told The Observer that, contrary to what Ms. Mason had said, the panel had been in direct contact with Mr. Rigler on a regular basis and received a number of leads from him, including information about a possible source, J.R. Rodriguez, a former National Guardsman who worked with Lieutenant-Colonel Killian.
Reached for comment, Ms. Mason said via e-mail that Mr. Rigler had spoken to the panel “only twice.”
“You may want to ask [Mr. Missal] again,” she wrote.
In the late October tape, Mr. Rigler suggested that CBS News was only interested in the documents if they could get them before the Presidential election. After Nov. 2, he said, his services would no longer be needed.
“I’m going to be unemployed after the election,” Mr. Rigler said on the tape. “I know what’s coming. I think 5 p.m. Friday, I’m gone–which makes me wonder if this whole thing wasn’t so CBS could tell Mary Mapes, ‘Well, we tried.’ Whatever you’re going to do … if they take any employment action against her and she says, ‘Well, wait a minute, you didn’t even try to verify my side of the story or make an attempt to contact this guy …. ‘”
A CBS spokesperson said via e-mail that Mr. Rigler’s investigation ended on its own schedule. “CBS News wanted to find the source of the documents,” the spokesperson wrote. “When all the attempts failed and the leads dried up, we stopped looking. That occurred before the election. If there were continuing leads, we would have followed them.”
On tape, Mr. Rigler described spending an afternoon with J.R. Rodriguez and his wife, Charlotte, a woman whom Mr. Rigler and a number of reporters refer to by the nickname “Cookie.” The couple lives outside Houston, the site of the livestock show where Mr. Burkett said he received the documents.
Mr. Smith had urged CBS to look into the Rodriguezes, and CBS had Mr. Rigler investigate the two. Mr. Missal said the panel actually called Mr. Rodriguez too, counting him as one of the 66 people the panel interviewed.
But Mr. Rigler said he came away unconvinced that they were related to Lucy Ramirez. In a taped conversation with Mr. Smith, he said, “I don’t see it. She’s Anglo, and he’s retired and patriotic.”
Mr. Missal wouldn’t describe conversations the panel had with Mr. Rodriguez. But when contacted, the former Texas Air National Guard senior master sergeant said he’d never heard of Mr. Thornburgh, had only vaguely recalled the word “panel” in conversations he’d had with reporters and had no recollection whatsoever of Mr. Rigler.
In any case, Mr. Rigler went on to say that interviews with former National Guardsmen were leading him to believe the truth of the documents, if not their authenticity.
“It was so well known for years at Camp Avery about Bush and his failure to serve in the Texas Air National Guard,” he said, referring to the base where Mr. Bush had been stationed in the early 1970’s. “It was just so very, very common. You know, he didn’t even show up out there during his whole eight-year tenure as governor and commander in chief of the Texas Air National Guard–not once did he go to Camp Avery. So most people just sort of looked at him as a draft dodger. They didn’t hold him in very high regard at all.”
He continued: “The story–and I’m talking to some people at Camp Avery–the story about the files, the non-service, the memos, stuff like that, had floated around for years. For that reason, it makes you think it’s likely true.”
By Nov. 23, when Mr. Rather announced he was retiring, Mr. Rigler was long out of the picture. He told Mr. Smith that the investigation was a “black hole,” calling his awkward position between the panel, Ms. Mapes, CBS and Mr. Burkett a “no-win situation.”
“This is not a real investigation,” he told Mr. Smith.
By Dec. 30—10 days before the report was released—Mr. Smith’s last-minute attempts to get Mr. Burkett to cooperate had failed. Mr. Burkett had offered to answer the panel, but only on the condition that his answers be confidential. The panel refused.
Mr. Smith was crestfallen.
“You’ve made a heroic effort,” Ms. Mason told Mr. Smith on one of his tapes. “You know how you follow a lead until you hit a dead end? Well, we’re at a dead end. We’re at an impasse here. He’s not going to do something, and we’re running out of time. So I would fold my tent and leave.”
So he did. But Mr. Smith said a powerful memory stayed with him from the whole ordeal. When Mr. Burkett’s Sept. 18 interview with Mr. Rather was completed after three hours, Mr. Smith said that Mr. Burkett’s wife Nicki had wept and said, “They set a trap. They set us up.”
Shortly after, other witnesses said, a cheerful and relieved CBS News senior vice president named Betsy West walked into the makeshift green room in the Crescent Court hotel to find the Burketts. She discovered them on their knees, praying. According to people who were there, Ms. West was highly unsettled.