The Back Story Behind the Back Story
In 2004, CBS News was offered documents confirming that George W. Bush had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. Dan Rather aired a report based on these documents and within a suspiciously short time, they were alleged to be false. The story “blew up” in Rather’s face, forcing his early retirement. Russ Baker, who was in Texas at the time, found telling indications that the documents were likely a clever ruse to trap CBS and convince others that investigating Bush’s past was hazardous.
George W. Bush sent thousands of Americans to their deaths in wars that could have been avoided — while he himself dodged the draft as a young man. Dan Rather’s reporting on how Bush allegedly got away with it led to the famed television news anchorman’s spectacular downfall.
A new film, Truth, starring Robert Redford as Rather, and Cate Blanchett as his producer Mary Mapes, claims to show what really happened. The film is about to open, and we haven’t seen it yet. But we thought you’d be interested in WhoWhatWhy editor Russ Baker’s own discoveries on the tricks behind the scenes to rewrite history — including indications that a trap was laid for Rather and Mapes, with the goal of scaring all media off the investigative trail. Here, from his best-seller Family of Secrets, are related excerpts. (This is the second of a two-part series. Please go here to see Part 1.)
Doubt Creeps up on a Cocky Bush
During the 2000 election, W.’s National Guard record did not catch on with the mainstream press despite The Boston Globe report that seemed to definitively establish that Bush had failed to show up for a year of service.
Several journalists did pursue the story, including Mary Mapes, a Dallas-based CBS News producer. In 1999, Mapes had to drop her inquiries into W.’s military service because of conflicting assignments. Five years later, however, her dogged pursuit of the Bush Guard story would explode into an enormous scandal that changed the election, traumatized CBS News, and destroyed her career and that of her colleagues, including the anchorman Dan Rather.
Certainly, the Bush forces were keeping a wary eye on the issue, but by 2004 any potential storm seemed to have passed. The further W. got from TV Reporter Jim Moore’s persistent questions in 1994 about his Guard service, and the more the damage control effort seemed to be working, the more casual he got about his “military problem.” In fact he became downright cocky. While governor, though he stayed away from Camp Mabry, he bragged about flying an F-102 jet while visiting a veterans’ cemetery. As President, speaking at a Veterans Day event at Arlington National Cemetery in 2003, Bush declared:
Every veteran has lived by a strict code of discipline. Every veteran understands the meaning of personal accountability and loyalty, and shared sacrifice. From the moment you repeated the oath to the day of your honorable discharge, your time belonged to America; your country came before all else.
To many listeners, it sounded as though he was talking about himself. But by 2004, as the president continued to order National Guard troops to Afghanistan and Iraq — men and women who, like himself, had assumed that Guard duty would not involve fighting abroad even in wartime — deep public doubts had set in. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction was becoming a huge problem. Tough questions threatened to dominate the campaign, and W.’s prospects were iffy at best.
Moreover, the Democratic field included not one but two highly decorated war veterans, John Kerry and Wesley Clark. It would be a disaster if a majority of Americans were to conclude that Bush was a trigger-happy commander-in-chief who had plunged the United States into a cataclysmic and unnecessary war — after he himself had shirked his own service.
Deflection for Reelection
For a time, the issue of Bush’s Guard service bubbled along mostly on the Internet and talk radio. But in January 2004, the filmmaker Michael Moore — a supporter of General Wesley Clark’s candidacy — called Bush a “deserter” at a rally of more than a thousand people outside Concord, New Hampshire. On February 1, matters escalated further when the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, appeared on a Sunday chat show and accused Bush of being AWOL. His counterpart at the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie, quickly called the comments “slanderous” in an interview with The New York Times.
“President Bush served honorably in the National Guard,” Mr. Gillespie said in a telephone interview. “He was never AWOL. To make an accusation like that on national television with no basis in fact is despicable.”
In his syndicated newspaper comic strip, he offered a ten-thousand-dollar reward to anyone who claimed he or she had “personally witnessed” Bush reporting for drills at Dannelly Air National Guard base in Alabama between May and November 1972. No one did so.
Soon, the matter had exploded into a full-scale crisis — so grave that Bush, who hardly ever gave media interviews, went on NBC’s Meet the Press to insist again that he had served in Alabama.
TIM RUSSERT: The Boston Globe and the Associated Press have gone through some of the records and said there’s no evidence that you reported to duty in Alabama during the summer and fall of 1972.
BUSH: Yeah, they’re — they’re just wrong. There may be no evidence, but I did report; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been honorably discharged. In other words, you don’t just say “I did something” without there being verification. Military doesn’t work that way. I got an honorable discharge, and I did show up in Alabama.
For the Bush forces, exposure was a fundamental threat. Any new revelations regarding the candidate’s own record could be devastating, especially in crucial swing states such as Florida, chock ablock with military personnel past and present.
And the stakes were higher still: Abandoning military service is a felony with no statute of limitations. Punishment is at the discretion of the soldier’s commander, and can range from a mild “rehabilitation” to more severe penalties, especially in war time.
A Masterpiece of Spin
Anybody who had watched the Bush team in action knew how it would respond: a fierce defense, followed by a rapid reversion to attack mode. It moved quickly to suppress the Guard story, and then to destroy the messengers. Then it seized the offensive and raised doubts about Kerry’s service as a soldier in Vietnam. It was a staggering display of chutzpah, and like a refresher course in Psy-Ops 101.
The first part — diverting inquiry into Bush’s missing two years of National Guard duty — was particularly challenging. But the Bush team was primed for challenges.
No sooner had McAuliffe fired his “AWOL” salvo than the White House communications apparatus swung into action. It tried to overwhelm the media by dumping large quantities of military records, usually on short notice. Many of these records turned out to be duplicates of previous releases from 2000; sometimes there were multiple copies within a single set. In some cases, journalists were allowed to look at documents but not make copies. The Bush team understood media time pressures and overburdened reporters, and leveraged those liabilities to its advantage.
The White House also depended on friendly journalists to ask safe questions and run out the clock. There was punishment and virtual exile from Republican campaign sources for those who demanded answers.
Meanwhile, stonewalling was the order of the day. Suddenly, military offices of all types, used to routinely responding to reporters’ requests, were indicating that their hands were tied. In general, all inquiries to military offices were redirected, without explanation, to the Pentagon, starting in mid-February. “If it has to do with George W. Bush, the Texas Air National Guard or the Vietnam War, I can’t talk with you,” Charles Gross, chief historian for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, DC, told reporters from the Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review.
None of this erased the fundamental dilemma. There were abundant indications that in May 1972, when he abruptly left Houston for Alabama, the future president and commander-in-chief had simply walked away from his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War. No amount of equivocation could get around that. Neither could an honorable discharge received in 1973 explain why the sole evidence that he had actually shown up anywhere after May 1972 was a machine-generated form listing dates and points earned. The fact was, his own officers had not seen him in Texas, and no credible documentation or witnesses emerged in Alabama.
A related issue was his failure to continue piloting a military jet for the full six-year period of his contract. Though he was supposed to serve as a pilot through 1974, Bush’s last time in a cockpit was in April 1972. The Bush White House explained that W. had stopped flying because to continue he would have needed to take an annual flight physical. It was almost laughable, but surprisingly effective in obscuring the central point: Bush had simply left his Houston unit without taking the required physical. He just hadn’t bothered; and so it was his own action — or rather inaction — that had led to the end of his flying career. On that basis alone, he was essentially AWOL. Bush had made an effort to join a postal unit in the Alabama Guard.
When he was rejected as “ineligible,” he got permission to join a flying unit in which he would not be required to fly — where, as best as can be determined, he never even bothered to show up.
In short, Bush abruptly stopped flying, walked away from his unit, failed to take a physical, and, all credible evidence indicates, never again put in a day of service. This, as we have seen, became a problem three decades later. In 2003, Bush was ordering thousands of National Guardsmen into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan — including large numbers from Texas. Few of these part-timers had ever expected to see combat abroad, just as W. himself hadn’t.
Many of them felt poorly prepared. In interviews, they said that they had had only a few weeks of specialized training and that they had begged for more, in vain. In addition, they complained about inadequate equipment and vehicle armor. One Guard soldier described how his unit lacked even a basic handbook on tactical procedures, much less any briefing on the complicated social fabric of Iraq. In other words, they were sitting ducks.
During this period, the published lists of military casualties in Iraq frequently included Guardsmen. And here was evidence that their commander-in-chief, the one who had ordered them to duty, had apparently skipped out when it had been his turn to serve, even though it was a cushy assignment that involved practically no physical danger.
Regarding Bush’s failure to take his flight physical in 1972, his political handlers presented an array of inadequate and conflicting explanations. During the 2000 presidential campaign, a spokesman stated that Bush did not take the exam prior to his birthday in July 1972 as required because he was in Alabama at the time while his personal physician was back in Texas. That answer was misleading at best. Only authorized flight surgeons could perform the physical, and such surgeons were certainly available in Alabama. And if Bush believed that any doctor could perform the physical — i.e., not just his personal one — why didn’t he simply go to a doctor in Alabama?
By 2004, the Bush team was putting forward a new excuse. White House communications director Dan Bartlett said Bush had failed to take the physical because he knew he would be on non-flying status in Alabama.
That was not credible either, since it was not up to Bush to make that decision. Besides, according to regulations, the physical exam was compulsory for all inducted pilots in the Air National Guard, whether or not they were actively flying at the time.
Some reporters tried to dig deeper, but most ended up getting spun. Dan Bartlett worked backward. Bush’s honorable discharge, he said, couldn’t have come about unless Bush had attained the required number of annual service points — and you couldn’t get the required number of service points without showing up.
This argument neatly sidestepped the possibility that high-ranking Guard officials had manufactured an honorable discharge for a favored son of a favorite son. At the time, Richard Nixon was in the White House, Poppy was head of the Republican Party, and the DC offices of the National Guard were notoriously politicized. Indeed, the director would later resign in disgrace over favoritism-related charges.
Besides, as everyone knew, if you could get into the Guard through politics, you could get out the same way. The unsubstantiated points sheet of unknown provenance could easily have been manufactured during this period. And even the honorable discharge itself was questionable on its face.
W. got it eight months before his service obligation ended. It didn’t take a cynical opposition researcher to raise an eyebrow. The main problem for Bush was simply the lack of hard evidence that he had ever set foot on the Montgomery base during his six months in Alabama.
Several supposed eyewitnesses did surface to support Bush, but their claims were less than convincing. For example, one member of the Montgomery-based unit in which Bush was supposed to serve did his best to back up the president in an interview with the Birmingham News:
Joe LeFevers, a member of the 187th in 1972, said he remembers seeing Bush in unit offices and being told that Bush was in Montgomery to work on Blount’s campaign. “I was going in the orderly room over there one day, and they said, ‘This is Lt. Bush,’” LeFevers said Tuesday. “They pointed him out to me … The reason I remember it is because I associate him with Red Blount.”
The account is sketchy at best. Yet apparently, reporters never tried to confirm LeFevers’s account, nor to ascertain his credibility or possible motivations, which is standard journalistic practice. Instead, Bush’s defenders quickly spread the LeFevers story around the Internet and talk circuit.
Another “witness” would make an appearance by the end of this crucial week, in The Washington Post:
A Republican close to Bush supplied phone numbers yesterday for an owner of an insulated-coating business in the Atlanta area, John B. “Bill” Calhoun, 69, who was an officer with the Alabama Air National Guard. Calhoun said in an interview that Bush used to sit in his office and read magazines and flight manuals as he performed weekend duty at Dannelly Field in Montgomery during 1972. Calhoun estimated that he saw Bush sign in at the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group eight to 10 times for about eight hours each from May to October 1972. He said the two occasionally grabbed a sandwich in the snack bar.
Calhoun, the unit’s flight safety officer, told the Associated Press: “I saw him each drill period. He was very aggressive about doing his duty there … He showed up on time and he left at the end of the day.”
Inconveniently, however, even Bush himself would not claim to have done duty in Alabama during the summer months. Someone had perhaps forgotten to coordinate the stories. Still, the White House did not disavow Calhoun’s claims. Calhoun even came with a sidekick — a doctor friend who claimed that the officer had brought Bush to him for a physical.
But again, there was no documentation that any physical exam had actually been performed. And again, not even Bush was claiming that. It turned out that the doctor himself wasn’t even making the claim. It was the doctor’s son who spoke to a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser — because, he said, at age sixty-four, his father could not handle the volume of inquiries.
Meanwhile, NBC News introduced another witness, of sorts:
CORRESPONDENT DAVID GREGORY: Joe Holcombe, who worked with Mr. Bush on that Alabama Senate campaign, does recall asking why Mr. Bush was absent from a meeting.
JOE HOLCOMBE: I just innocently asked where George was, since he wasn’t there, and then I was told that he was at a National Guard [drill] that weekend.
Holcombe wasn’t claiming that he knew Bush was doing Guard training, or even that Bush had told him so, only that a third party had said that he was. This did not stop the White House from pointing Holcombe out as an “eyewitness” of sorts, and reporters began citing him.
On February 12, 2004, things started to get really knotty for Bush. MSNBC’s Hardball featured Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett, the former Texas National Guard consultant who recounted his claim to have personally observed efforts to clean up Bush’s records:
I witnessed the governor’s office call to the adjutant general of the Texas National Guard, [giving him] a directive to gather the files. And then the subscript to that was make sure there was nothing there that would embarrass the governor …
I witnessed that in fact there was some activity under way with some files of — some personal files of “Bush, George W., First Lieutenant,” “1LT” as it was put in handwriting at the top of files within a trash can …
The orders came in a telephone call with Mr. Joe Allbaugh, chief of staff of the governor’s office. Mr. Dan Bartlett [Bush’s communications director] was also on that telephone call.
Bartlett denied the allegations, and Allbaugh called them “hogwash,” but they reinforced the sense of sketchiness about the president’s version. If he had done his duty, why had so few people actually seen him?
The Burkett story soon jumped into the print media, where The New York Times noted that Burkett had first made the allegation way back in 1998 in a letter to a Texas state senator. Then the story made the CBS Evening News.
Bush Gets His Teeth into Alabama
A distraction was urgently needed, and the White House dug deep. Within minutes of the Burkett Hardball appearance, it came up with a new military record, this one purporting to show that Bush had visited a dentist, Dr. John Andrew Harris, at Dannelly Field Air National Guard Base in Montgomery on January 6, 1973 — well after he had finished working on the Alabama campaign and returned to Texas.
The dentist visit became important corroboration — if not that Bush had done his Guard duty in Alabama during the summer and fall of 1972, at least that he had been present on an Alabama base at some point. The following day, building on the dental visit record, Scott McClellan declared that Bush now recalled returning to Alabama for additional Guard service even though he was no longer living there. As reported by The New York Times:
Asked about the 16 members of the 187th who do not remember Mr. Bush serving in Alabama, Mr. McClellan responded that Mr. Bush’s dental examination “demonstrates that he was serving in Alabama.”
A high school reporter might have had some questions. Yet it seemed to satisfy the major media. ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings took the new White House bait. Terry Moran reported, “That puts Mr. Bush in Alabama, on duty, and seems to disprove the charge by Democratic Party leader Terry McAuliffe and others that the president was AWOL at that time.”
The same night, NBC Nightly News reported: “The White House has released a copy of a dental exam from January 1973 that they say confirms President Bush served at an Alabama air base.”
But there was more to work with in McClellan’s press conference (again, The New York Times):
Mr. McClellan also said that at least two people recalled Mr. Bush serving in Alabama, among them Joe Holcombe, who worked on the Senate campaign with Mr. Bush, and Emily Marks Curtis, who has said she briefly dated Mr. Bush in Alabama.
So now McClellan had folded in Holcombe, despite the gauziness of his claim — and gotten it into The New York Times. And now there was a girlfriend too.
They Said, She Said, He Said
At that press conference, McClellan pointed to an article that had just appeared in the TimesDaily, an Alabama newspaper (and in its sister papers, including The Tuscaloosa News). The article quotes Emily Marks Curtis talking about Bush and his Guard service.
The substance of her brief remarks got a vigorous buffing. First, the Alabama newspaper misrepresented what she said. Then McClellan cited that misrepresentation, and finally it was accepted by The New York Times and other media organizations. Here’s how The Tuscaloosa News opened its story, headlined “Friend: Bush Did Duty in Alabama”:
A friend of President Bush on Wednesday corroborated Bush’s contention that he reported for National Guard training in Alabama in 1972, despite the lack of official supporting records.
In fact, the quote from Emily Marks Curtis did not corroborate Bush in any way. Rather, it suggested the need for further inquiry that might have found that Bush had in fact not done his Alabama Guard service:
“The thing I know about George is that after the election was over in November, George left and he said he came back to Montgomery to do his guard duty,” Curtis said. She said she and Bush, then a first lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard, dated briefly.
Her statement actually said that Bush left Alabama as soon as the election was over, then returned some time later, at which time he told Emily Marks Curtis that he had come back to do his Guard duty. As the Bush-friendly interpretation gained circulation, Emily Marks Curtis would often be characterized as Bush’s girlfriend. That seemed to give greater credibility to her ability to vouch for Bush, since, presumably, a girlfriend would know whether he had actually been doing military service. Seven months later, with the 2004 general election nearing, she was still being presented that way.
Here’s The New York Times on September 20, 2004:
Ms. Marks, the daughter of an old Montgomery family, was dating George Bush, and she remembers that he was in the Guard but could offer no detailed recollections. “A lot of people were doing Guard duty,” she said in an interview.
Yet Emily Marks Curtis had not been Bush’s girlfriend. The two had not even dated during the six months they both worked on the Blount campaign. Several campaign staffers, including Devere McLennan, who was friendly with Bush, confirmed that to me. In fact, the only time the two went out was during that brief period when Bush came back to Alabama — in early January 1973.
So here’s the full extent of the Emily Marks Curtis–dental connection: When Bush returned briefly to Alabama, he did three things. He called up Emily Marks and asked her out. He told her he was in town for Guard duty. And he went to get a dental checkup.
For the complete story, you’d have to ask Poppy Bush. As noted in chapter 8, the events in this period suggest that it was the father’s idea that his son go to Alabama in the first place, and his idea also that his son go back to Alabama and have the dental checkup at the military base — along with a “date” with a local girl to confirm his presence in the state.
When I talked to people who worked in the dental clinic, they could not remember such a routine exam from decades ago, which was not surprising. However, I did learn that they would have treated anyone who walked in wearing a flight jacket (Bush never relinquished his and liked to wear it publicly for many years thereafter). They would not have required him to present evidence that he was serving in an Alabama Guard unit, or even that he had done so in the past.
So the dental exam proved only that W. had a flight jacket and was wearing it on a particular day in Alabama. Yet the media reported the story as though it corroborated Bush’s account.
Doonesbury Creator Offers Reward
Within a couple of weeks of that media frenzy in February 2004, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau upped the ante. In his syndicated newspaper comic strip, he offered a ten-thousand-dollar reward to anyone who claimed he or she had “personally witnessed” Bush reporting for drills at Dannelly Air National Guard base in Alabama between May and November 1972. No one did so.
Seven months later, in September 2004, a group called Texans for Truth went further and offered fifty thousand dollars to anyone who could prove President Bush had fulfilled his service requirements, including mandatory duties and drills, in the Alabama Air National Guard in 1972. No one claimed that either. This reward was offered just as Bush traveled to Las Vegas to address the National Guard Association’s convention.
By March 2004, Texas television reporter James Moore published Bush’s War for Reelection: Iraq, the White House and the People. The new book examined Burkett’s allegations and explored in the most detail ever the specific documentation surrounding Bush’s service record. Moore, too, concluded that Bush had been AWOL beginning in May 1972.
”Witnesses” on Tap
More than anything, Bush needed former members of the Champagne Unit to assert that he had been an exemplary airman until the moment he left for Alabama. This would suggest that there was nothing questionable about his abrupt departure and justify his honorable discharge. For that, he had a core group that he had been cultivating since his early days as governor, through help with legal and personal problems, among other things.
Four men would supply most of the quotes on Bush’s service. A fifth witness was Jim Bath, Bush’s fellow pilot, drinking buddy, and later, business investor, who provided early quotes and then essentially went underground. Unlike the others, Bath was close enough to both George Bushes that he needed no cue cards to know what to say. But Bath had so many liabilities himself that eventually he was removed from the witness list.
Certainly the most interesting of Bush’s witnesses were Major Dean Roome and Colonel Maury H. Udell. Together they did much to keep a lid on the Guard story straight through the 2004 election. Roome, who claimed to have been Bush’s formation flying partner and roommate during full-time fighter pilot training, provided journalists, including myself, with bland accounts of a fellow who never did anything interesting. “He was very friendly, and outgoing, affable, fun to be around, and, uh, just an overall super good guy,” Roome told me.
What actually happened was that an accusation against Bush — probably an accurate one — was used to hang his accusers. It was a brilliant exercise in disinformation; and like so many matters we have encountered, it has “covert operation” written all over it.
Roome’s sidekick, Maury Udell, had been George Bush’s flight instructor at Ellington Field. Bush would devote only a few pages to his Guard service in his autobiography, A Charge to Keep, but Udell was singled out for praise. Bush described him as a tough and exacting instructor, a “270-pound black belt in judo” who required “blindfold” position checks for the plane’s instruments. While Bush’s flattering autobiography was in the works, Udell in turn was ladling out admiring reports on Bush to reporters.
“He had his boots shined, his uniform pressed, his hair cut and he said, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir,’ Udell would recall. “I would rank him in the top 5 percent of pilots I knew. And in the thinking department, he was in the top 1 percent. He was very capable and tough as a boot.”
Reporters who quoted Roome, Udell, and Walter “Buck” Staudt, Bush’s top commanding officer, did not know that they were not independent witnesses. Besides being avid Bush boosters, Roome and Udell were hoping that Governor Bush would help them address lingering problems with the Texas National Guard, while Staudt was embroiled in his own little scandal.
The three stayed in regular contact with Bush’s staff, and reported any and all inquiries from the media. Roome in particular became part of an email chain that served as a nerve center and feedback loop. It included Bush campaign (and later White House) staff as well as top Guard officials. The email chain could give Bush’s operatives information on media inquiries and stories in the works, and also receive “talking points” and defensive strategies. The list, with blind copies to recipients, grew to the extent that the talking points were being shared not only with pilots but with many of the country’s top conservative talk show hosts as well.
We need you to close the ranks.
The story that became colloquially known as “Memogate” or “Rathergate” is understood by many people to be about a news organization that used phony documents to tar President Bush’s military service record. It was, in this telling, a prime example of media bias.
What actually happened was that an accusation against Bush — probably an accurate one — was used to hang his accusers. It was a brilliant exercise in disinformation; and like so many matters we have encountered, it has “covert operation” written all over it.
It began in March 2004, when, with John Kerry holding an eight-point lead in the polls, W. flew to Houston to reinvigorate his base. The scene was quintessentially Texan: the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. “I thought there was a lot of bull in Washington,” W. chortled, donning the obligatory cowboy hat and gazing admiringly at prize heifers. W. also attended a fundraiser at a nearby Hilton Hotel. But two events not on the press itinerary were more significant and telling. In a private Hilton suite away from prying eyes, W. held court with some old buddies he hadn’t seen in a long while: his former fellow pilots from the Texas National Guard.
Bush flattered, seduced, and wheedled. The country needed to stick together at this difficult time, he said. And, heck, if a president couldn’t count on old chums to back him, whom could he trust?
To the dozen or so in attendance, the message was clear: you’ll be hearing from reporters and dirt-diggers, and we need you to close ranks. “We had the president of the United States give us essentially a national security briefing [on Iraq],” recalled Dean Roome. “I was very thrilled that somebody of his stature would take time out of his day.”
The meeting did not come to light until after the election, in an interview between Roome and Corey Pein of the Columbia Journalism Review. Roome told Pein that between briefings on Iraq and Afghanistan, “there was a lot of joking around, slapping on the back. Weird to call him Mr. President but we did.” He added, “It made you feel pretty important, getting briefed by the president on world affairs.” When Pein visited with Roome, a photograph of Roome’s meeting with Bush hung on the wall.
Setting the Fuse
While W. was at the livestock show, so too was his nemesis Bill Burkett. The retired officer and rancher was expecting a package. In early March, according to Burkett, he had received a call from a man who instructed him to call a Houston Holiday Inn that night and speak with a guest named Lucy Ramirez. When he got Ramirez on the line, she told him that she was an intermediary whose responsibility was to deliver to him a packet of documents.
During that phone call Ramirez had asked if Burkett would be in Houston anytime soon. He replied that he would be there in two weeks to attend the Houston livestock show, where he displayed and sold his prize Simmenthal cattle and promoted the bull semen that was a source of income for ranchers.
In Houston, Burkett was approached by a man who could have been Hispanic, who handed him a legal-sized envelope — presumably the man associated with “Lucy Ramirez.” (A woman in the next booth confirmed to two reporters that a man approached Burkett and gave him an envelope.) That package would turn out to be metaphorical dynamite, and in a few months it would blow up in the faces of quite a few people — including Burkett, Mary Mapes, and the TV correspondent and news anchor Dan Rather.
A Swift Boot
The Bush forces began to regain the campaign offensive in May. That month, a day after John Kerry unveiled a twenty-seven-million-dollar advertising campaign highlighting his Vietnam service, a new group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth held its first press conference.
One of Karl Rove’s basic tenets is that you attack an opponent at their point of strength. Kerry, oblivious to this, had led with his proverbial chin, and rested his campaign first and foremost upon his status as a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. That is where the Swift Boat cadre went to work and eventually demolished the most threatening point of comparison between Kerry and Bush.
To be sure, Kerry had invited the venom from some of his fellow Swift Boat officers. He had authorized the historian Douglas Brinkley to write a book about his military service, in which he criticized several fellow officers. One of them was Roy Hoffmann, the former commander who up until then had been friendly to Kerry. It is quite possible that this slight played a role in Kerry’s defeat. It did not matter that even John O’Neill, a lead figure in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, apparently did not think much of George W. Bush either. “He always referred to him in private as ‘an empty suit,’” recalled Bill White, who was a law client of O’Neill’s.
The anger these men felt toward Kerry was catnip for the Republican attack operation, and before long, hardened pros were helping spread their anti-Kerry message. George W. Bush’s biggest backers footed the lion’s share of the bill — even though the anti-Kerry groups supposedly were independent. There were million-dollar-plus infusions from a cast of characters straight out of Dickens. From builders of houses whose roofs routinely caved in to leading emitters of cancer-causing substances, these moneymen were kept way in the background while public relations experts quietly directed grizzled veterans before the cameras.
The Swift Boat vets themselves had plenty of Bush connections. One legal adviser, Benjamin Ginsberg, had been serving as national counsel for W.’s presidential campaign. The vets’ advertising production team was the same one that had helped mock Michael Dukakis for Poppy in 1988. And the biggest donor to the Swift Boaters was Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, a longtime friend and associate of Karl Rove. Rove and the White House insisted that they had nothing to do with it. No one could prove otherwise.
To its credit, the mainstream media approached the claims with skepticism. (A study by the organization Media Matters found that only one of the fifteen major newspaper editorial boards gave credence to the charges of the Swift Boat Veterans.) However, on cable TV and in the blogosphere, the accusations raged twenty-four hours a day for weeks. This was especially true after the release in August of the book, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, published by Regnery, which media critic and former conservative journalist David Brock describes as “a right-wing Washington house that filled the best-seller lists in the 1990s with a slew of largely fictional anti-Clinton tracts packaged as nonfiction.” The various arms of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — especially Fox News and the New York Post — helped push the book into bestseller territory.
This was a serious problem for Kerry. At the 2004 Democratic Convention, noted Frank Rich, he “placed most, if not all, of his chips on presenting himself as a military hero.” It was not exactly brilliant strategy. In effect he was making himself the issue, rather than the incumbent Bush. Making matters worse, when the Swift Boaters attacked, Kerry did virtually nothing, thus confirming the popular impression that he was actually a wimp who wouldn’t hit back. Instead, he gave news photographers a photo op of himself windsurfing off Nantucket, thus suggesting that he was an elitist wimp to boot. He decided he didn’t want to dignify the smear with a response, thus conceding the spin war to the attackers.
Eventually, other Swift boat veterans surfaced to defend Kerry, but the damage had been done. Kerry’s service had become the issue, rather than W.’s failure to serve. It was a psy-ops coup, and just a warm- up to what was ahead.
The Chase Is On
After the February scrum, the pack of journalists looking at Bush’s service record had quickly diminished. Among the small band who continued was Mary Mapes, the Dallas-based CBS producer who had scored a big success earlier in the year by breaking the story about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.
Despite the CBS scoop, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and The New Yorker now receive, and deserve, the lion’s share of the credit for exposing the scandal, because CBS initially bowed to the Pentagon’s request not to broadcast the prison abuse photos. The network only went ahead when it learned that Hersh’s article was about to run — and only The New Yorker ran the pictures. But now Mapes was back on the Guard story.
As for Bill Burkett, he had hidden away his little care package. But by summer, rumors began circulating about the existence of documents that could explain or corroborate W.’s missing service record. According to Burkett, “Lucy Ramirez” had instructed him to handle the documents in a precise manner, and made him promise that he would do so.
He was to copy the documents, and then burn the originals, along with the envelope they had come in. Ramirez made Burkett promise to keep her identity — and her role in providing the documents — a secret.
Burkett claims to have done exactly as he was told. Though Burkett had personal axes to grind with Bush, given his military history and his own fierce sense of honor, many reporters considered his story credible. Burkett said he believed that Ramirez’s insistence that he burn the materials was for security reasons — to remove any traces of DNA, which might expose whoever originally obtained them.
As the temperature rose around the story, various reporters from The New York Times, Vanity Fair, USA Today, and other news organizations sought a piece of the action. But 60 Minutes II had the inside track. What happened next morphed into an epic scandal that would soon overwhelm questions about Bush, and influence media coverage for the rest of the election.
There would be many casualties: CBS anchorman Rather, producer Mapes, and three other CBS staffers were fired or dismissed. Bill Burkett would become a pariah, and his life would collapse around him. As such, he became yet another in a long line of people who had stood up to the Bushes and suffered the consequences.
A Texas-based freelance researcher, Mike Smith, on retainer for CBS, had been communicating with Burkett, and as the document rumors grew, he began pressing the former Guard official for concrete evidence. In late August, Burkett agreed to meet with Mapes and Smith. Burkett, accompanied by his wife, brought a huge stack of documents, many of them pertaining to his own history with the Guard, to their rendezvous at a pizza parlor in rural West Texas. The CBS team suffered through Burkett’s agonizingly extensive preliminaries and finally pressed him to get to the matter at hand.
Burkett reached into a blue folder and pulled out a sheet of paper, dated August 1, 1972. It appeared to be an order from Bush’s superior, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, suspending Bush both for “failure to meet annual physical examination as ordered” and for “failure to perform to USAF/Tex ANG standards.” It said that Bush “has made no attempt to meet his training certification or flight physical” and that he “expresses desire to transfer out of state including assignment to non-flying billets.” It also referred to his pilot status as “critical.”
Burkett showed Mapes and Smith a second, related document (and three days later would provide another four). Mapes read the two documents with growing excitement, and then focused on the reportorial issue: how to get copies. Burkett, however, was ambivalent. He told Mapes he was worried about the consequences of getting into a renewed dustup with the president of the United States. His wife, Nicki, was even more reticent. After a show of what Mapes took to be great anguish — perhaps it was — Burkett released the documents.
If there was a single moment at which things went off track for Mary Mapes and CBS, this was it. Mapes was elated at the appearance of manna from heaven, as most reporters would be. The documents comported with what she knew of Bush’s military service based on years of reporting. Now she had what seemed to be concrete evidence. Her main concern at the moment was to get out of the pizza joint before Burkett changed his mind. Every second seemed like an hour. The group drove to a Kinko’s copy center in Abilene, the nearest large town, and her heart beating, Mapes faxed the documents to New York.
Mapes instructed an associate there to begin the crucial process of vetting — to the extent that it is possible to verify such photocopies. The documents were presented to a handful of experts, from a CBS military consultant to independent document examiners around the country. After scrutinizing the materials in New York, and comparing the purported Killian signatures with verified ones found on other official documents, handwriting expert Marcel Matley told Mapes that he felt that, on balance, the memo signatures seemed to be authentic. Colonel David Hackworth, a CBS consultant and the most decorated living soldier in the United States, gave his overview of what the documents suggested to him about Bush: “He was AWOL.”
The sentiment was not universal. It was exceedingly difficult to establish with any degree of certainty whether the documents were real. For one thing, Burkett had presented the reporters with copies, not originals. That eliminated telltale signs of authenticity such as age of paper, an ink signature, and evidence of the model of typewriter used. Furthermore, as a copy is further copied, other clues become degraded. With each generation, details such as spacing and even the appearance of letters begin to change subtly.
What Burkett gave to Mapes was at best a copy of an original, and perhaps a copy of a copy. What CBS New York received by fax from Abilene and sent to several document examiners was a generation worse. Then there were issues surrounding the skills required to judge these copies. One needed some kind of expertise in specialized military procedure and jargon from a particular time frame, as well as a detailed knowledge of the history of typography.
Could such documents have been produced in 1972? One could not prove them real beyond question, but could they be proven fake? In a somewhat parallel case, the distinguished investigative reporter Seymour Hersh had used what he believed to be letters from Marilyn Monroe to sign a $2.5 million contract with ABC for a new Kennedy documentary. Then someone noticed that the letters contained a five-digit zip code, though those had not yet been invented.
Mapes desperately wanted more time. But CBS executives, under competitive pressures, decided that the story had to air within a few days. Other news organizations were pressing Burkett for the documents, and there were scheduling issues as well. The CBS brass didn’t want to be scooped.
The Bloggers Who Ate CBS — Mwuhahahahaha!!!
60 Minutes II had a monumental broadcast planned for September 8, 2004. In the middle of a tight election, the program was prepared to challenge the veracity of a sitting president’s military service. Former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes was ready to tell the story of how he kept W. from getting drafted. And Dan Rather was ready to present the documents that would finally help answer the broadcast’s tantalizing question: “So what happened with Mr. Bush, the draft and the National Guard?”
Within 30 seconds of the documents appearing on television screens, one Internet user was already posting his doubts. An active Air Force officer, Paul Boley — who was serving in Montgomery, Alabama, the same place George W. Bush had been in 1972 — was the first to weigh in. On the right-wing Web site FreeRepublic.com, using the pseudonymous handle TankerKC, Boley wrote:
WE NEED TO SEE THOSE MEMOS AGAIN!
They are not in the style that we used when I came in to the USAF. They looked like the style and format we started using about 12 years ago (1992). Our signature blocks were left justified, now they are rigth [sic] of center … like the ones they just showed.
Can we get a copy of those memos?
Less than four hours after Boley’s post came a more “authoritative” statement of doubt from a fellow FreeRepublic .com poster — a group that self-identify as “FReepers” — calling himself “Buckhead.”
Every single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman. In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts.
The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late 90’s. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn’t used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid 80’s used monospaced fonts.
I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old.
This should be pursued aggressively.
And it was. In the wee hours, the discussion began to spread across the blogosphere. First it was picked up by two conservative blogs, Power Line and Little Green Footballs. It went quickly from blogs to online magazines, starting with Rupert Murdoch’s conservative opinion publication the Weekly Standard, which cited document experts who pronounced the memos probable forgeries. The story didn’t linger in the blogosphere or opinion media, but leaped right to the commercial outlets.
Twenty-four hours after the story aired, Buckhead proclaimed triumph back on the FreeRepublic .com message board:
Victory in this case justly has a thousand fathers. Tanker KC first pegged them as fakes by the overall look, and I later noted the font issue. Many other defects have been noted by others. I haven’t gotten any work done, but it’s been a ton of fun. The most amazing thing is how this thing has exploded across the internet.
Another commenter chimed in with:
Isn’t this cool? It’s on the front page of tomorrow’s Washington Post! Great work!
As one “FReeper” posted:
With all due respect, this event showcases a phenomenon of “new media” power that could only have occurred through a vehicle with the community force multiplying tools of FR [Free Republic].
… No single blog can rally a rapid response over a huge number of vital issues like FR can. This forum is, to use a trite old 90s term, synergy at its most powerful.
Places like FR (in other words FR because it is inimitable) and the blogosphere can work in concert. We’re the town square arguing, vetting and digesting, they’re the disseminating REPORTERS of valuable insights, leads and other interesting stuff we shake loose.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Wallsten did some digging, and unearthed Buckhead’s identity. He was Harry MacDougald, an activist Republican lawyer in Atlanta and a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative law group. He played coy with the Times, declining to tell the reporter how he was able to create his critique so quickly, and failing to explain the basis for his expertise in the matter.
Another aspect, this one not reported by the Los Angeles Times, was the manner in which MacDougald’s critique was amplified. Shortly after he posted under a pseudonym, his wife, posting under her own name, Liz MacDougald, and making no mention of their connection, recommended his post to Power Line, which propelled the story further. Actually, there were two people who did so. The other, Tom Mortensen, was also deeply involved with the Swift Boat group.
Whether the response to the memos was coordinated beyond that is difficult to say. Boley (TankerKC) told me in an interview that he had seen the 60 Minutes show by accident, as his wife just happened to turn the set on. He could post his suspicions so quickly, he said, because his computer was on and just steps away. He said that as a career Air Force officer, he noticed instantly that the position of the signature block was based on military protocol that existed only since 1992, and that the memo header deviated from standard.
Regardless of the intentions of the posters and the merits of the arguments about the authenticity of the documents, the story of the backstory took on a life of its own. Soon more people were convinced that Dan Rather and Mary Mapes — instead of Bush — had done something wrong.
Lost in all this was the fact that the documents merely confirmed what reporters had already concluded from their own investigative work. Indeed, The New York Times had asked CBS if it could co-report the memo content and break the story at the same time. And USA Today published the documents the morning after CBS aired its story — though it did not face the firestorm or consequences that CBS did.
USA Today later turned on Burkett and CBS — claiming that, in exchange for providing the documents, Burkett had asked Mapes to put him in touch with the Kerry campaign. Mapes said she merely called the Democrats, with her boss’s permission, to check out a claim Burkett had made about how he had offered them advice on responding to the Swift Boat attacks. It was a tempest in a beer can, but again, it became an Internet sensation.
The “Independent” Panel
Faced with a growing storm, CBS initially stood firm. Two days later, on its website, the company declared:
his report was not based solely on recovered documents, but rather on a preponderance of evidence, including documents that were provided by unimpeachable sources, interviews with former Texas National Guard officials and individuals who worked closely back in the early 1970s with Colonel Jerry Killian and were well acquainted with his procedures, his character and his thinking.
On CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, the old warhorse echoed that, and added, “If any definitive evidence to the contrary is found, we will report it.” But for the time being, he said, “There is none.”
As the criticism mounted, though, CBS News president Andrew Heyward was demanding answers. One of the questions, to Burkett, was about the source of the documents. In the days after Mapes faxed them from Abilene, she had barraged Burkett with demands that he reveal his source. Finally, grudgingly, he had identified George Conn, a friend from the National Guard, who divided his time between Germany and Texas. Mapes had tried repeatedly to reach Conn for confirmation, without success.
But now that the story had exploded, Burkett admitted to Heyward that he had only told Mapes the Conn story to get her off his back, because he had promised not to reveal the involvement of Lucy Ramirez. Now the Ramirez version — supposedly the truthful one — came out.
But was this the real story? As I later learned, there was a Hispanic couple who had worked for the Guard, could have had access to the files of the late Lieutenant Colonel Killian, and were a possible match for the pseudonymous Ramirezes. Their surname was even similar. When I visited their home in Houston, the woman seemed to know exactly why I was there. She cryptically explained that her husband had prohibited her from speaking about the matter. I noticed what seemed to be their recent good fortune: they had apparently just moved into a brand-new house in a brand-new housing development, and had a brand-new car out front. Beyond that, there was little by way of clues, let alone answers.
“Did you use the word ‘horse shit’?
Meanwhile, CBS’s parent company was shifting into damage-control mode. On September 22, two weeks after the program aired, CBS announced plans to convene an “independent review panel” headed by pedigreed outsiders. The two big names on the panel created for this purpose turned out to be former US attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Lou Boccardi.
Thornburgh was a particularly odd choice, considering that he had been attorney general during Poppy Bush’s administration. Thornburgh, who had briefly made headlines back then for ordering the statues of scantily clad females on display in the Justice Department modestly draped on official occasions, was back on the morals beat. During the CBS inquiry, he expressed keen interest in Mapes’s use of salty language. “Did you use the word ‘horse shit’? Was that really appropriate in a newsroom?”
After retiring from the AP, Boccardi had been retained by The New York Times to investigate the fabrications of its reporter Jayson Blair. But he remained almost entirely silent during the closed panel hearings. He only asked two questions, including, “When did you realize the documents had been faked?” When Mike Smith replied that it had not been established that the documents were counterfeit, the panel lawyers laughed at him.
Although Smith had been assured that CBS had his best interests at heart, and that the company would look out for him, it soon became apparent that he was raw meat. To Smith, it felt like a McCarthy hearing. The panelists were concerned that Smith had worked for the late columnist Molly Ivins. They even asked if he had ghostwritten columns for Ivins, which was unlikely, since Ivins had one of the nation’s most distinctive — and idiosyncratic — writing styles. There also was a question about a hundred-dollar donation to a fund-raiser for a liver transplant involving a liberal partisan.
Potential bias could have been relevant, but it unquestionably is a secondary consideration behind truth. Nevertheless, the upshot became clear: CBS was going to cover its own behind by portraying its reporters as anti-Bush liberals who didn’t deserve the company’s support. The network did nothing to defend the principles of journalistic inquiry. Still less did CBS get past the procedural missteps of its employees to resolve the underlying factual issues of the Guard story — as Mary Mapes herself had wanted to do. No formal inquiry by military and document experts was ever convened, and to this day the question of whether the documents are forgeries hasn’t been resolved.
CBS-Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone, whose company was facing crucial regulatory decisions by Bush’s Federal Communications Commission, admitted his “severe distress” at the Rather report. He noted his belief “that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.”
In the end, what mattered most was this: the documents were either real or they were forgeries that closely mirrored the reality of Bush’s National Guard experience at that point in time. If the latter, then this could mean that they had been concocted with built-in anomalies to set up CBS and Bush’s critics.
Might that explain why the bloggers were ready to respond so quickly?
On the other hand, if the forgeries were designed by anti-Bush conspirators to hurt the president, it wasn’t clear how. The memos didn’t add a great deal to what reporters had already established, beyond a kind of black-and-white confirmation — though it was enough of an addition to trigger the CBS report. If anti-Bush forgers were going to go to all that trouble, wouldn’t they have added some juicy new meat to the rather skeletal facts that were already known?
Lost in all the commotion about the authenticity of the documents and the ethics of the journalists at CBS was this undeniable fact: The overwhelming evidence, even absent these documents, is that the president of the United States had gone absent without leave from his military unit in 1972 and had never been held accountable for that crime.
But in the court of public opinion, the only jurisdiction that counted in this case, it was a trifecta for the defense: CBS, Bill Burkett, and the entire Guard story had been taken out in one fell swoop.
To this day, most Americans think that it was Dan Rather, and not George W. Bush, who did something wrong related to Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. Whatever the truth about those documents, it must be recalled that the Bush family had long expressed deep animus for Dan Rather, who alone among major television newsmen had dared to talk back to them. In a heated 1988 interview, Rather pressed Poppy for details on the Iran-contra scandal, eventually stating, “You made us hypocrites in the face of the world!”
There was certainly an effort to destroy Rather in the aftermath of the report on W. That effort to take down one of the most powerful figures in journalism — among the few relatively independent voices in American television — was one of the most successful attempts to intimidate the media in American history.
After the CBS debacle, no news organization wanted to get near anything about Bush and the Guard or Bush and Iraq. In fact, no news organization really felt like being out front with anything critical of Bush at all. They just wanted the whole thing over with.
In September 2004, after the CBS piece aired, I interviewed Janet Linke, the Florida widow of the man who replaced W. in the Champagne Unit after he left for Alabama in 1972. As noted in chapter 8, she told me how Bush’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Killian, had confided to her and her husband that W. had been having trouble operating his plane, and had intimated that it was some combination of nerves and perhaps substance abuse that had led him to depart his unit.
In the end, it was not reporting or truth that triumphed, but the forces of disinformation.
Memogate appears to underline the extent to which the cynical techniques of the spy world have leaped the wall and taken root in the processes of American democracy itself.
This is what people like Karl Rove and his allies effectuate on a daily basis. While the media thinks it is reporting an electoral contest with a Madison Avenue gloss, something deeper and more insidious often is going on, largely unexamined. It is fitting that the Bushes, with their long-standing ties to the covert side of things, have been a vehicle through which the political process has been further subverted and the public sandbagged.
And it has worked, time and again. After Mickey Herskowitz shared with me his account of Bush’s admissions — on the Guard and on Iraq — I found editors deeply wary about publishing those revelations. Most told me that CBS’s experience made tough stories on related subjects essentially radioactive. Without a tape of Bush himself saying something incriminating, it was too dangerous to touch.
The public would be none the wiser, and Bush slid sideways into another narrow victory and another four years in office.
Related front page panorama photo credit: President George W. Bush (Staff Sgt. Michael Holzworth / US Air Force), Dan Rather (Charlie Llewellin / Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]), Mary Mapes (Peabody Awards / YouTube [Creative Commons])