CBS backs off Guard story|
By Dave Moniz, Kevin Johnson and Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY
CBS News acknowledged Monday that it received disputed documents critical of President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard from a former Texas Guard officer who now says he lied about where he got them and has doubts about their authenticity.
The network said Bill Burkett, a former lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army Guard, was its source for the memos that were the basis of a 60 Minutes broadcast Sept. 8. Burkett provided the documents to USA TODAY later that night.
Initially, USA TODAY and other news organizations took the CBS report at face value but in subsequent days, inspired by Internet sites, began to report doubts about the documents' authenticity. For a week, CBS staunchly defended the documents against a stream of experts' opinions that they were fake. In a statement issued Monday, the network acknowledged it had been wrong and said it should not have used the documents.
"That was a mistake, which we deeply regret," CBS President Andrew Heyward said. The network's chief anchor, Dan Rather, apologized for "a mistake in judgment."
The admission was a major blow to the credibility of the news organization and of Rather, who has a history of skirmishes with politicians and is a favorite target of conservative commentators.
Heyward promised an "independent review of the process by which the report was prepared and broadcast to determine what actions need to be taken." The network aired an interview with Burkett on the Evening News Monday, after which Rather said, "I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry."
In interviews in recent days with USA TODAY, both in person and on the phone, Burkett said he had merely been a conduit for the records purported to be from the private files of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, one of Bush's former Guard commanders, who died in 1984. Burkett admitted lying to USA TODAY about the source of the documents but said he did not fabricate the papers.
In earlier conversations with USA TODAY, Burkett had identified the source of the documents as George Conn, a former Texas National Guard colleague who works for the U.S. Army in Europe. Burkett now says he made up the story about Conn's involvement to divert attention from himself and the woman he now says provided him with the documents. He told USA TODAY that he also lied to CBS.
Burkett now maintains that the source of the papers was Lucy Ramirez, who he says phoned him from Houston in March to offer the documents. USA TODAY has been unable to locate Ramirez.
When Burkett gave copies of the documents to USA TODAY, it was on the understanding that his identity would not be disclosed. USA TODAY honored that agreement until Burkett waived his confidentiality Monday.
"I didn't forge anything," Burkett said. "I didn't fake any documents. The only thing I've done here is to transfer documents from people I thought were real to people I thought were real. And that has been the limitation of my role. I may have been a patsy."
The White House on Monday welcomed the network's admission but said it "raised more questions than answers." Communications director Dan Bartlett called for an investigation that includes "whether the president's political opponents were behind these attacks." He added, "Since CBS News and USA TODAY had both obtained these forged documents, we now urge them to lead the way in finding the truth."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush was told of the CBS statement as he flew to Derry, N.H., for a campaign appearance. McClellan said Burkett "is not an unimpeachable source as was previously claimed. Bill Burkett is a source who has been discredited, and so this raises a lot of questions."
Burkett's own doubts about the authenticity of the memos and his inability to supply evidence to show that Ramirez exists also raise questions about his credibility. Burkett has strong anti-Bush views. He has posted comments on Internet Web sites critical of Bush and has chastised Sen. John Kerry's organization for what he called its inept campaign.
Tired of 'being the bad guy'
Burkett's emotions varied widely in the interviews. One session ended when Burkett suffered a violent seizure and collapsed in his chair. Earlier, he said he was coming forward now to explain what he had done and why to try to salvage his reputation. In the past week, Burkett was named by many news reports as the probable source of the documents.
"It's time," Burkett said. "I'm tired of me being the bad guy. I'm tired of losing everything we've got," a reference to his financial and health struggles since he left the Guard. Turning to his wife, Nicki, he said: "We've lost it all, baby. We've lost everything."
Sitting in a rocking chair in his weathered ranch house south of Baird, Texas, Burkett recounted his continuing efforts — beginning before he was discharged from the Texas Army National Guard in 1998 — to clean up what he saw as Guard corruption and mismanagement. He said that activity led to a telephone call in March from Ramirez and her offer to provide documents damaging to President Bush.
Burkett said Ramirez told him she had seen him the previous month in an appearance on the MSNBC program Hardball, discussing the controversy over whether Bush fulfilled all his obligations for service in the Texas Air Guard during the early 1970s. "There is something I have that I want to make sure gets out," he quoted her as saying.
He said Ramirez claimed to possess Killian's "correspondence file," which would prove Burkett's allegations that Bush had problems as a Guard fighter pilot.
Burkett said he arranged to get the documents during a trip to Houston for a livestock show in March. But instead of being met at the show by Ramirez, he was approached by a man who asked for Burkett, handed him an envelope and quickly left, Burkett recounted.
"I didn't even ask any questions," Burkett said. "Should I have? Yes. Maybe I was duped. I never really even considered that."
By Monday, USA TODAY had not been able to locate Ramirez or verify other details of Burkett's account. Three people who worked with Killian in the early 1970s said they don't recognize her name. Burkett promised to provide telephone records that would verify his calls to Ramirez, but he had not done so by Monday night.
An acquaintance of Burkett, who he said could corroborate his story, said he was at the livestock show on March 3. The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said Burkett asked if he could put papers inside a box she had at the livestock show. Often, she said, friends ask to store papers in her box that verify their purchases at the livestock auction. She said she did not know the nature of the papers Burkett gave her, and he did not say anything about them.
A political hurricane
The documents story exploded into view Sept. 8, when 60 Minutes aired a report alleging that Bush had been shown political favoritism in getting into the Texas Air National Guard and that Killian had doubts about his performance as a fighter pilot.
The network interviewed Ben Barnes, a former speaker of the Texas House, who said he used his contacts to help Bush get into the Guard and avoid being drafted for Vietnam service. But that interview was eclipsed by the controversy over the rest of the report, which was based on documents supposedly retrieved from a personal file Killian kept and supplied to CBS by Burkett.
About an hour after the 60 Minutes story aired, Burkett also gave the documents to a USA TODAY reporter who had flown to meet him in Bozeman, Mont., where he said he was visiting friends.
Burkett had twice before been an on-the-record source for USA TODAY stories: a Dec. 18, 2001, story on inflated troop counts in the Guard nationwide — so-called ghost soldiers — and a Feb. 12 story this year in which Burkett recounted what he said were efforts by top Texas Guard officials to "cleanse" Bush's military record of embarrassing information in the summer of 1997.
Burkett's comments about cleaning up Bush's file were widely reported. The White House called the accusation "outrageously false."
In the Sept. 8 segment on CBS, Bartlett rebutted the charges that Bush failed to fulfill his Guard obligations, but he did not challenge the documents' authenticity. Within hours after the report aired, though, Internet sites began to raise questions about whether the papers were real. Two former FBI forensic document specialists enlisted by USA TODAY to examine the documents said they probably were forgeries.
The critiques focused on several factors: individual typed letters in the memos showed variable spacing, a feature rare on 1970s-vintage typewriters, and some terminology wasn't consistent with language used in the Air Guard at that time. Handwriting experts found discrepancies between Killian's signature on the memos and samples of his writing in Bush's publicly released files.
Last Tuesday, doubts about the documents' authenticity grew when Killian's former secretary, Marian Carr Knox, told The Dallas Morning News that she didn't type them and that the papers appeared to be fakes.
She repeated the account on CBS the next day. But she said in an interview with USA TODAY that Killian had written similar memos, which she had typed, and kept them in a locked drawer in his office at Ellington Air Force Base. Killian, a stickler for rules, was having trouble keeping Bush in line, she said.
"I was in a position where I heard a lot, and a lot was said in front of me," Knox, 86, said. "I had been with the military a long time. I know how they think, and I wasn't deaf." She said she liked Bush personally but doesn't approve of him as president.
Burkett said he began to have doubts about the papers' authenticity as evidence piled up suggesting they were fabricated. He said that by last Wednesday, he had begun to believe that he had been misled. Finally, he agreed in extended interviews with two USA TODAY reporters to give up his insistence on anonymity and to tell the story of how he says he became a conduit for the documents. USA TODAY spoke with him daily from Thursday through Monday.
Intense political feelings
Testaments to Burkett's intense feelings about politics are all over his house. On a side table is a copy of the book Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. In the front entry is a photograph of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whom his wife supported against Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries.
After he received the documents in Houston, Burkett said, he drove home, stopping on the way at a Kinko's shop in Waco to copy the six memos. In the parking lot outside, he said, he burned the ones he had been given and the envelope they were in. Ramirez was worried about leaving forensic evidence on them that might lead back to her, Burkett said, acknowledging that the story sounded fantastic. "This is going to sound like some damn sci-fi movie," he said.
After keeping the copies for a couple of days, he said he drove to a location he would not specify, about 100 miles from his ranch, to put them "in cold storage." Burkett said he took the action because he believed the papers were politically explosive and made him nervous. "I treated them like absolute TNT," he said. "They looked to me like they were devastating."
Reporters who knew of Burkett's role as a Bush critic continued to call as they searched for files that could fill in details on a gap in Bush's service record. Bush was a well-regarded pilot but stopped flying fighter jets in 1972 and moved to Alabama, where he worked on a political campaign and apparently missed required Guard drills.
Ultimately, Burkett decided to turn over the documents to one of the most persistent journalists, CBS producer Mary Mapes, sometime in August. He and his wife met Mapes and CBS reporter Mike Smith at a pizza restaurant a few miles from their ranch. At first he gave them only two of the six documents, which Mapes said she planned to have analyzed for authenticity, according to Burkett.
Burkett said he passed the rest of the documents to Smith around Sept. 5, at a drive-in restaurant near Baird.
As Burkett told his story, he appeared overwrought, fatigued and unsure of how to deal with what he characterized as the extreme pressure of national attention. He spoke of being under a severe strain.
At one point Thursday, as he spoke on a cell phone to his San Antonio lawyer, David Van Os, Burkett's voice froze in midsentence and his body convulsed in a violent seizure. He was helped to the floor and then to a couch. He has had such bouts sporadically over the past several months, but this one was worse, his wife said.
The next day, Burkett resumed the interview. He lay on the couch with a wet cloth on his forehead.
Conn, the Texas Guard friend Burkett initially identified as the source of the documents, denied any connection in an e-mail exchange with USA TODAY. He wrote: "Know absolutely nothing about the Killian memos." Conn declined to be interviewed further.
Pressed about the inconsistency between his initial account and the story of Ramirez, the mysterious Houston source, Burkett confessed that the Conn story had been a lie to throw reporters off the trail.
"I just pushed too far," Burkett said. "I implied that George had something to do with this. I lied to you." He said he told the same story to CBS, but asserted that all his other dealings in the documents case had been honest. "I honest to God can't remember anything else I feel bad about," Burkett said.
Burkett voiced frustration that his effort to call attention to what he believes are legitimate questions about Bush's military service is now being obscured by a new story line: "that I am some kind of nut."
"The only reason I'm going on the record is because I've got to tell the story to save my name."
Moniz and Johnson reported from Texas, Drinkard from Washington. Contributing: Blake Morrison