Dan Rather vigorously defended his "60 Minutes" story on President Bush's National Guard service yesterday, saying the 30-year-old memos he disclosed on the show this week "were and remain authentic," despite questions raised by some handwriting and document experts.
"Until someone shows me definitive proof that they are not, I don't see any reason to carry on a conversation with the professional rumor mill," the CBS anchor said. "My colleagues and I at '60 Minutes' made great efforts to authenticate these documents and to corroborate the story as best we could. . . . I think the public is smart enough to see from whom some of this criticism is coming and draw judgments about what the motivations are."
The memos, described as having been written by Bush's squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, indicate that Bush got special treatment as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard and failed to carry out a superior's order to undergo a physical exam. Several experts consulted by news organizations say the memos contain typographical and formatting features that suggest they were written on a computer or word processor rather than on an early 1970s government typewriter.
Rather said that CBS's lead expert was Marcel Matley of San Francisco, a member of the National Association of Document Examiners who has taught, lectured and written about his field, testified in numerous trials, and consulted for government agencies. Matley said last night that a "60 Minutes" executive had asked him not to give interviews.
The Dallas Morning News cast fresh doubt on the documents by reporting last night that the officer named in one memo as exerting pressure to "sugarcoat" Bush's military record was discharged a year and a half before the memo was written. The paper cited a military record showing that Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt was honorably discharged on March 1, 1972, while the memo cited by CBS as showing that Staudt was interfering with evaluations of Bush was dated Aug. 18, 1973.
The White House is raising doubts for the first time about the documents' authenticity. "I think there's a big question mark, like major news organizations are suggesting," communications director Dan Bartlett said last night. "Obviously, we see the same things that other people are pointing out now. But at the time, I had every reason to believe that a major news organization had authentic documents."
Killian's widow and son have also questioned whether the documents are real.
CBS News President Andrew Heyward staunchly defended the piece. "I have full confidence in our reporting on this story and in every reporter on both sides of the camera," he said last night. "This is going to hold up. This was thoroughly vetted."
Conservatives hammered Rather and CBS yesterday on talk radio and Internet sites. "I predict . . . that it's only a matter of time before CBS admits it was deceived," wrote Weekly Standard Managing Editor Richard Starr.
In an interview, Rather stressed that CBS had talked to two people who worked with Killian in the Texas Guard -- his superior, retired Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, and his administrative assistant, Robert Strong -- and both described the memos as consistent with what they knew of Killian. Hodges, who told CBS he was "familiar" with the documents, is an avid Bush supporter, and "it took a lot for him to speak the truth," Rather said.
Before airing Wednesday's segment, he said, CBS "vetted" the confidential source who provided the memos and concluded that "he did have the ability to get access to these documents and he was being truthful." Beyond that, Rather said, CBS consulted with military experts about Killian's language and the documents' format and compared them to other Bush service records previously released by the White House. "We decided there was a preponderance of evidence that they are what they purport to be," he said.
Asked if he was troubled by the handwriting and document analysts who say some of the typography and spacing did not exist in the early 1970s, Rather said he could not rule out the possibility of a hoax but sees no need for an internal inquiry.
Some CBS employees, who asked not to be identified while questioning their bosses' actions, expressed concern that the network had issued only a terse statement Thursday, when the authenticity of the documents was first questioned and until yesterday had refused to name any of the experts it had consulted or provide an on-the-record spokesman. One staff member, who has examined the documents but did not work on the "60 Minutes" piece, saw potential problems with them: "There's a lot of sentiment that we should do an internal investigation."
"The first rule of public relations is to get all the bad news out right away," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University's College of Communication. "It looks like CBS News has made some serious errors here, and if so, they should plead nolo contendere and not do the perp walk later."