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September 20, 2004
THE NEWS MEDIA
CBS News Concludes It Was Misled on National Guard Memos, Network Officials Say
By JIM RUTENBERG
After days of expressing confidence about the documents used in a "60 Minutes'' report that raised new questions about President Bush's National Guard service, CBS News officials have grave doubts about the authenticity of the material, network officials said last night.
The officials, who asked not to be identified, said CBS News would most likely make an announcement as early as today that it had been deceived about the documents' origins. CBS News has already begun intensive reporting on where they came from, and people at the network said it was now possible that officials would open an internal inquiry into how it moved forward with the report. Officials say they are now beginning to believe the report was too flawed to have gone on the air.
But they cautioned that CBS News could still pull back from an announcement. Officials met last night with Dan Rather, the anchor who presented the report, to go over the information it had collected about the documents one last time before making a final decision. Mr. Rather was not available for comment late last night.
The report relied in large part on four memorandums purported to be from the personal file of Mr. Bush's squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, who died 20 years ago. The memos, dated from the early 1970's, said that Colonel Killian was under pressure to "sugar coat'' the record of the young Lieutenant Bush and that the officer had disobeyed a direct order to take a physical.
Mr. Rather and others at the network are said to still believe that the sentiment in the memos accurately reflected Mr. Killian's feelings but that the documents' authenticity was now in grave doubt.
The developments last night marked a dramatic turn for CBS News, which for a week stood steadfastly by its Sept. 8 report as various document experts asserted that the typeface of the memos could have been produced only by a modern-day word processor, not Vietnam War-era typewriters.
The seemingly unflappable confidence of Mr. Rather and top news division officials in the documents allayed fears within the network and created doubt among some in the news media at large that those specialists were correct. CBS News officials had said they had reason to be certain that the documents indeed had come from the personal file of Colonel Killian.
Sandy Genelius, a network spokeswoman, said last week, "We are confident about the chain of custody; we're confident in how we secured the documents.''
But officials decided yesterday that they would most likely have to declare that they had been misled about the records' origin after Mr. Rather and a top network executive, Betsy West, met in Texas with a man who was said to have helped the news division obtain the memos, a former Guard officer named Bill Burkett.
Mr. Rather interviewed Mr. Burkett on camera this weekend, and several people close to the reporting process said his answers to Mr. Rather's questions led officials to conclude that their initial confidence that the memos had come from Mr. Killian's own files was not warranted. These people indicated that Mr. Burkett had previously led the producer of the piece, Mary Mapes, to have the utmost confidence in the material.
It was unclear last night if Mr. Burkett had told Mr. Rather that he had been misled about the documents' provenance or that he had been the one who did the misleading.
In an e-mail message yesterday, Mr. Burkett declined to answer any questions about the documents.
Yesterday, Emily J. Will, a document specialist who inspected the records for CBS News and said last week that she had raised concerns about their authenticity with CBS News producers, confirmed a report in Newsweek that a producer had told her that the source of the documents said they had been obtained anonymously and through the mail.
In an interview last night she declined to name the producer who told her this but said the producer was in a position to know. CBS News officials have disputed her contention that she warned the network the night before the initial "60 Minutes'' report that it would face questions from documents experts.
In the coming days CBS News officials plan to focus on how the network moved ahead with the report when there were warning signs that the memorandums were not genuine.
Ms. Will is one of two documents experts consulted by the network who said they raised doubts about the material before the segment was broadcast. Another expert, Marcel B. Matley, said in interviews that he had vouched only for Colonel Killian's signatures on the records and not the authenticity of the records themselves. Mr. Matley said he could not rule out that the signatures had been cut and pasted from official records pertaining to Colonel Killian.
In examining where the network had gone wrong, officials at CBS News turning their attention to Ms. Mapes, one of their most respected producers, who was riding particularly high this year after breaking news about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal for the network.
In a telephone interview this weekend, Josh Howard, the executive producer of the "60 Minutes'' Wednesday edition, said that he did not initially know who was Ms. Mapes' primary source for the documents but that he did not see any reason to doubt them. He said he believed Ms. Mapes and her team had appropriately answered all questions about the documents' authenticity and, he noted, no one seemed to be casting doubt upon the essential thrust of the report.
"The editorial story line was still intact, and still is, to this day,'' he said, "and the reporting that was done in it was by a person who has turned in decades of flawless reporting with no challenge to her credibility.''
He added, "We in management had no sense that the producing team wasn't completely comfortable with the results of the document analysis.''
Ms. Mapes has not responded to requests for comment.
Mr. Howard also said in the interview that the White House did not dispute the veracity of the documents when it was presented to them on the morning of the report. That reaction, he said, was "the icing on the cake'' of the other reporting the network was conducting on the documents. White House officials have said they saw no reason to challenge documents being presented by a credible news organization.
Several people familiar with the situation said they were girding for a particularly tough week for Mr. Rather and the news division should the network announce its new doubts.
One person close to the situation said the critical question would be, "Where was everybody's judgment on that last day?''
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company