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2004-09-21

Killing the Messenger: Who Gave Rather the Memos and Why

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As Dan Rather apologizes for documents used in a story about President Bush’s National Guard service, the Republicans charge that it’s a Democratic conspiracy but most agree the scandal only helps George W. Bush. We speak with veteran Texas journalist Jim Moore. [includes rush transcript]

With Iraq in the midst of one of the bloodiest periods since the beginning of the US invasion, there is another story that in many media circles is dominating the news. That is the controversy over documents used by CBS anchor Dan Rather in a story on President Bush’s National Guard Service during the Vietnam War. After nearly two weeks of defending its reporting against accusations that the documents key documents in the report were fraudulent, Dan Rather and CBS News apologized last night for what Rather called a "mistake in judgement."

  • CBS News, September 20, 2004.

That was Dan Rather last night on his own newscast. He also announced that CBS was convening an independent panel to investigate the controversy and that the network would make the findings public. An hour before the CBS Evening News went on the air, Rather was interviewed on the local New York CBS affiliate, where he first issued his public apology.

  • Dan Rather being interviewed on CBS News, September 20, 2004.

At the center of the controversy are documents CBS now says it received from retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett. The network said yesterday that Burkett gave veteran CBS producer Mary Mapes a false account of the origins of the documents, which were allegedly authored by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. CBS said Burkett originally told them he obtained the documents from another former guardsman but now says he got them from a different source whose identity CBS News has been unable to verify. Last night on the Evening News, Rather aired an interview he did with Burkett over the weekend.

  • Dan Rather interviewing Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, September 20, 2004.

Since the CBS story aired on September 8, controversy swirled over the authenticity of the documents, the question of who created them and ultimately who facilitated getting the documents into Dan Rather’s story. The Republicans and their allies in the corporate media began a whirlwind of rumors and speculation that the documents were part of a Democratic Party smear campaign. As evidence, they point to the fact that shortly after the CBS story aired, the Democrats launched a major series of attack ads focusing on Bush’s National Guard record, the so-called "Fortunate Son" campaign. To compound these accusations, reports emerged yesterday that a key aid to John Kerry called Bill Burkett at the behest of CBS producer Mary Mapes. Former Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart says Mapes told him there were some records "that might move the story forward."

Lockhart said he talked to Burkett for a few minutes and that Burkett had "some advice on how to deal with the Vietnam issue and the Swift boat" allegations," saying Burkett told him "These guys play tough and we have to put the Vietnam experience into context and have Kerry talk about it more." Lockhart said he does not recall talking to Burkett about Bush’s Guard records and called the accusations that the Kerry campaign was involved baseless.

Senior Kerry advisor Max Cleland also spoke to Burkett before the story aired and USA Today reported yesterday that Burkett said he also spoke to Howard Dean before the story aired. Further, the key figure in the CBS segment Ben Barnes, who says he intervened to get Bush into the guard at the behest of George HW Bush is listed on John Kerry’s website as a vice-chair of fundraising for Kerry in Texas.

Add to this the fact that Burkett is a known Bush critic who has posted anti-Bush comments on a Democratic website in Texas and the pundits have spun this as a democratic hatchet job orchestrated by Kerry supporters, if not by the campaign itself. Here is what White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday. Note that his comments were made well before Rather went on the air last night.

  • Scott McClellan, White house press secretary, September 20, 2004.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, speaking yesterday. But while the Republicans are spinning this as a democratic conspiracy against Bush, few observers would disagree that this scandal only helps the Bush campaign. The very real issue of Bush"s record in the Texas National Guard has now been trumped by the controversy over the documents and the fate of one of the most famous newsmen in the US. Last night in his interview with the local New York CBS affiliate, Rather was asked if he thought he had been "set up?"

  • Dan Rather being interviewed on CBS News, September 20, 2004.
  • James Moore, Emmy Award winning TV news correspondent in Texas. He is the author of "Bush’s War for Re-Election" and the co-author of "Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush President."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After nearly two weeks of defending its reporting against accusations that the documents in the report were fraudulent, Dan Rather and CBS News apologized last night for what Rather called a mistake in judgment.

DAN RATHER: News about CBS News and the question surrounding documents we aired on this broadcast and on the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes" on September 8. The documents purported to show that George W. Bush received preferential treatment during his years in the Texas Air National Guard. At the time, CBS News and this reporter fully believed the documents were genuine. Tonight, after further investigation, we can no longer vouch for their authenticity.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dan Rather last night in his own newscast. He also announced that CBS is convening an independent panel to investigate the controversy, and that the network will make the findings public. An hour before the "CBS Evening News" went on the air, Dan Rather was interviewed on the local New York CBS affiliate where he first issued his public apology.

DAN RATHER: I made a mistake. I didn’t dig hard enough, long enough, didn’t ask enough of the right questions, and I trusted a source who changed his story. It turns out he misled us, lied to us about one thing. But there are no excuses. This not a day for excuses. I have made a mistake, we have made a mistake, and I’m sorry for it.

AMY GOODMAN: At the center of controversy are documents that CBS now says it received from retired Texas National Guard officer, Bill Burkett. The network said yet Burkett gave veteran CBS producer, Mary Mapes, a false account of the origins of the documents, which were allegedly authored by the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian. CBS said Burkett originally told them he obtained the documents from another former Guardsman, but now says he got them from a different source, whose identity CBS News has been unable to verify. Last night, on the "CBS Evening News," Rather aired an interview he did with Burkett over the weekend.

DAN RATHER: Why did you mislead us?

BILL BURKETT: Well, I didn’t totally mislead you. I did mislead you on the one individual. You know, your staff pressured me to a point to reveal that source.

DAN RATHER: Well, we were trying to get the chain of possession.

BILL BURKETT: I understand that.

DAN RATHER: You said you had received them from someone.

BILL BURKETT: I understand that.

DAN RATHER: We did pressure you to say, well, you received them from someone and this someone was whom. And it’s true, we pressured you, because it was a very important point for us.

BILL BURKETT: And I simply threw out a name that was basically — it was I guess to get a little pressure off for a moment.

DAN RATHER: Have you forged anything?

BILL BURKETT: No, sir.

DAN RATHER: Have you faked anything?

BILL BURKETT: No, sir.

DAN RATHER: But you did mislead us? You use the word "lie"…

BILL BURKETT: That’s an admission.

DAN RATHER: You lied to us.

BILL BURKETT: Yes, I did.

DAN RATHER: Why would I or anyone believe that you wouldn’t mislead us about something else?

BILL BURKETT: I can understand that question. I can. That’s going to have to be your judgment and anybody else’s.

DAN RATHER: Burkett still insist that the documents are real, but says he was in no position to verify them.

BILL BURKETT: I also insisted when I sat down with your staff in the first face-to-face session, before I gave up any documents, I wanted to know what you were going to do with them. And I insisted that they be authenticated.

AMY GOODMAN: Since the CBS story aired on September 8, controversy has swirled over the authenticity of the documents, the question of who created them and ultimately who facilitated getting the documents into Dan Rather’s story. The Republicans and their allies in the corporate media began a whirlwind of rumors and speculation that the documents were part of a Democratic party smear campaign. As evidence, they point to the fact that shortly after the CBS story aired, the Democrats launched a major series of attack ads focusing on Bush’s National Guard record, the so-called "Fortunate Son Campaign." To compound these accusations, reports emerged yesterday that a key aide to John Kerry called Bill Burkett at the behest of CBS producer, Mary Mapes, former Clinton Press Secretary, Joe Lockhart, says Mapes told him, "There were some records that might move the story forward." Lockhart said he talked to Burkett for a few minutes and that Burkett, had "some advice on how to deal with the Vietnam issue and the swift boat allegations," saying Burkett told him, "These guys play tough and we have to put the Vietnam experience into context and have Kerry talk about it more." Lockhart said he did not recall talking to Burkett about Bush’s Guard records, and called the accusations that the Kerry campaign was involved baseless. Senior Kerry adviser, former-Senator Max Cleland, also spoke to Burkett before the story aired, and USA Today reported yesterday that Burkett said he also spoke to Howard Dean before the story aired. Further, the key figure in the CBS segment, Ben Barnes, who says he intervened to get Bush into the Guard at the behest of George H.W. Bush, is listed on John Kerry’s website as a Vice Chair of Fundraising for Kerry in Texas. Add to this the fact that Burkett is known — is a known Bush critic who has posted anti-Bush comments on a Democratic website in Texas, and the pundits have spun this as a Democratic hatchet job, orchestrated by Kerry’s supporters, if not by the campaign itself. Here’s what White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, told reporters yesterday. Note that his comments were made well before Rather went on the air last night.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: An announcement by CBS and there are additional conversations with Mr. Burkett, raise a number of serious questions. These are serious questions that are being raised. They need to be answered in terms of what contacts people had, what contacts did Mr. Burkett have with Democrats. There are reports that he had senior-level contacts with members of the Kerry campaign. There are reports that he misled CBS on who the original source of the documents were. Those are serious questions. Why did CBS rely on Bill Burkett, a previously discredited source, for this information? CBS said that he was an unimpeachable source. The fact is he is not an unimpeachable source. He is he a discredited source from the past and someone who has been very involved with Democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan speaking yesterday. But while the Republicans are spinning this as a Democratic conspiracy against Bush, few observers would disagree that this scandal only helps the Bush campaign. The very real issue of Bush’s record in the Texas National Guard has now been trumped by the controversy over the documents and the fate of one of the most famous newsmen in America. Last night in his interview with the local New York CBS affiliate Rather was asked if he thought he had had been, "set up?"

DAN RATHER: Certainly anybody who has been in journalism as I have, for as long as I have, you are going to accumulate enemies. Some of those are going to be enemies because they have their own partisan political agendas or ideological agendas, but we are responsible. We have made a mistake and we have to own up to it and we did own up to it today.

AFFILIATE ANCHOR: Did somebody try to set CBS up?

DAN RATHER: I don’t think so. And even if they did, it was our job to find that out. No, I don’t think we were set up for it. You never can rule anything completely, totally out. You know, "beware of certitude" is one of the laws of journalism. But I don’t think we were set up, no. The mistake was in our web, the wound in this case is self-inflicted.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dan Rather on the local CBS affiliate in New York last night. [break]

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now to Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, and James Moore, who wrote the book, Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush President. James Moore, you’re in right Texas now. First of all, your response to this overall controversy?

JAMES MOORE: Well, I think it’s terribly, terribly sad that what has happened to CBS has happened. I don’t think there’s any —- I don’t think there’s any doubt—- [Sound fades.] Hello...

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about your assessment of what took place, what you see at this point as having happened.

JAMES MOORE: Well, it’s technically hard to know. Until yesterday, when I heard the story about the envelope being turned over to Bill Burkett in Houston. I don’t — what I don’t understand is why Burkett would continue to protect the source, an individual whom he does not know, as well as why CBS did not do an adequate job of vetting the document. When I was first provided a copy of the document, a number of references in it — as a result of my long familiarity with Mr. Bush’s released file — a number of references in the document such as "O.E.T.R.," rather than "O.E.R." for Officer Effectiveness Report, and the abbreviation for "group" — "flight group" — in this document was "grp." rather than the Air Force standard of "gp." There was a reference to "billet," which is an army term. There were just a number of things that jumped right out, and I doubted the veracity of the documents. Now Bill Burkett, on the other hand, is someone I’ve been checking out for almost two years; and even the people who today are calling him a liar, when I first began checking him out had described him as a truth-telling, stand-up guy who when he opened his mouth he was always honest. He worked himself very hard, had impeccable credentials and work and ethical standards, and yet now he’s obviously misled CBS and is clearly guilty of lying in some regard.

AMY GOODMAN: In the guest commentary, you wrote for buzzflash.com, Jim Moore, you said that the first lie actually belongs to the President of the United States, that no one any longer has doubt that there are records missing from the President’s military personnel records jacket. Can you elaborate on that?

JAMES MOORE: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, if the President had simply or would simply still today come forward and offer an explanation of his grounding. It was something more than just not showing up for a physical. You have standing orders as a pilot to get a physical every single year. Our president, who is now crossing the country and — and promising to protect the country in times of terror, had made a similar pledge when he was a young man, to protect the country for six year, and he didn’t do that. And there’s not an explanation that has ever been offered by him as to why he did not take that physical; nor has any reporter ever asked him point blank, Mr. President, why did you not take your physical? The only person ever to answer that question has been Dan Bartlett, and Bartlett always offers a rather insufficient explanation, that the President was no longer flying, so it was just a formality. Well, the truth is, a pilot does not get to unilaterally decide, four years into his six year hitch, that he is not going to fly anymore. The President disobeyed orders, and he’s not explained that. And documents that are required by regulation — Now, I have studied these regulations rather extensively, and when a pilot is grounded, that pilot is then required — the commanders are required to conduct a board of inquiry, and that board of inquiry has to issue a report on its findings as well as what is referred to as a "counciling statement," and that counciling statement informs the pilot how he might rehabilitate himself and get back in the air or get reassigned. Mr. Bush — none of these records are in Mr. Bush’s file. They’re missing.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote the book, James Moore, Bush’s Brain. You speculate in your piece about these CBS memos. Can you do that for us now?

JAMES MOORE: Well, I think that a number of things have to be considered. I know that people —-people have often said of me, and any number of other people who watched Karl Rove for years, that we give him credit for more than he deserves; but I, like any other political reporter who’s been around for twenty or thirty years, knows talent when they see it. I have watched Rove closely for over twenty years, almost twenty-five years. And he’s the best there is. He’s the best there ever has been at political skullduggery, and it is not beyond comprehension for him to have planted these documents, knowing that they might surface and get them into the right hands. Mr. Burkett doesn’t know the individual who gave them to him. He has checked out the background of this person and says he may have had access to the National Guard, but he doesn’t know the person. He never met the person. The individual who gave him the documents apparently -— he had no way of knowing if that was a person who called him on the phone. So, he appears on television and all of a sudden he gets a mysterious phone call, and a few months later, when he is at a livestock show, he gets these documents. They’re planted. They’re either planted, or someone — someone who was so angry about what Mr. Bush was doing to the country recreated something that they knew was in the original file. Either way we have a situation where the good guys ended up using lies to take on the bad guys, and now they’ve smeared themselves and they’ve covered up what I think is a critical question about our President’s background, and that is: How did he behave at a time in our country’s history when he had taken a pledge to protect us during the war in Vietnam? And I think the context for this is what’s critical, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of the President’s National Guard service. He is presently calling young people into active duty from the National Guard, and they’re dying in Baghdad and all over Iraq. These are young people that are supporting our war and serving based upon their pledge. Mr. Bush’s war would be nowhere if those young people were acting as irresponsibly as he did. I think that this goes to his moral authority to call people to active duty and to send them into combat.

AMY GOODMAN: But James Moore, could you explain more why would — I mean this is something that’s been swirling around for the last few weeks: Did Karl Rove plant these documents? — but why would it be in any way in George W. Bush’s interests?

JAMES MOORE: Say that again.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you —

JAMES MOORE: Why wouldn’t it be in George W. Bush’s interests?

AMY GOODMAN: Why would it be? This whole controversy. These whole allegations.

JAMES MOORE: This is — this is a standard Rove tactic, to attack — to attack the messenger, rather than the message. If you can discredit the messenger, therefore you’ve discredited what the messenger is saying. Now, look at — look at the fact that the White House — the White House has believed that Bill Burkett was discredited by the Boston Globe story back in February. Now, if we can get documents into the political discourse and attach them to Bill Burkett (and during this process his personal medical files were leaked that showed he had a nervous breakdown while he was suffering from a viral attack he contracted in Panama) — Well, if you can take a story that is generally viewed as probably true by the majority of people, and you can attach that story to someone who is discredited, well you’ve pretty much destroyed the story, and that would serve the President in this whole National Guard controversy quite well. Frankly, from now on, I think in any political campaign, for some time to come, when documents surface, people are immediately going to say, "Oh, it’s not one of those National Guard things, is it?" Because Bill Burkett has been discredited and his story has now been discredited. If this were a political tactic or strategy employed by Rove or by Republican operatives, it’s worked quite well.

AMY GOODMAN: James Moore is author of Bush’s War for Re-Election and co-author of the book, Bush’s Brain.

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