CBS anchor Dan Rather acknowledged for the first time yesterday that there are serious questions about the authenticity of the documents he used to question President Bush's National Guard record last week on "60 Minutes."
"If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story," Rather said in an interview last night. "Any time I'm wrong, I want to be right out front and say, 'Folks, this is what went wrong and how it went wrong.' "
Compare: Memo obtained from Pentagon differs from disputed memo obtained by CBS.
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Michael Dobbs, who has been following the story about Bush's Vietnam-era service, was online Monday.
_____More From The Post_____
Expert Cited by CBS Says He Didn't Authenticate Papers (The Washington Post, Sep 14, 2004)
Gaps in Service Continue to Dog Bush (The Washington Post, Sep 12, 2004)
Some Question Authenticity of Papers on Bush (The Washington Post, Sep 10, 2004)
Records Say Bush Balked at Order (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 2004)
Democrat Says He Helped Bush Into Guard to Score Points (The Washington Post, Sep 4, 2004)
Rather spoke after interviewing the secretary to Bush's former squadron commander, who told him that the memos attributed to her late boss are fake -- but that they reflect the commander's belief that Bush was receiving preferential treatment to escape some of his Guard commitments.
The former secretary, Marian Carr Knox, is the latest person to raise questions about the "60 Minutes" story, which Rather and top CBS officials still defend while vowing to investigate mounting questions about whether the 30-year-old documents used in the story were part of a hoax. Their shift in tone yesterday came as GOP critics as well as some media commentators demanded that the story be retracted and suggested that Rather should step down.
"This is not about me," Rather said before anchoring last night's newscast. "I recognize that those who didn't want the information out and tried to discredit the story are trying to make it about me, and I accept that."
For Rather, 72, it is an all-too-familiar role. In his CBS career, he has survived an impertinent exchange with President Richard M. Nixon during Watergate, a clandestine trek through the mountains of Afghanistan, an on-air confrontation with George H.W. Bush over Iran-contra and a much-debated sitdown with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
Now, on the final leg of a career launched by a Texas hurricane, Rather is trying to weather his biggest storm. And some of his closest friends and associates are concerned.
"I think this is very, very serious," said Bob Schieffer, CBS's chief Washington correspondent. "When Dan tells me these documents are not forgeries, I believe him. But somehow we've got to find a way to show people these documents are not forgeries." Some friends of Rather, whose contract runs until the end of 2006, are discussing whether he might be forced to make an early exit from CBS.
In her interview with Rather yesterday, Knox repeated her contention that the documents used by "60 Minutes" were bogus. Knox, 86, worked for Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian while he supervised Bush's unit in the early 1970s.
"I know that I didn't type them," Knox said of the Killian memos. "However, the information in there is correct," she said, adding that Killian and the other officers would "snicker about what [Bush] was getting away with."
Rather said he was "relieved and pleased" by Knox's comments that the disputed memos reflected Killian's view of the favorable treatment that Bush received in the military unit. But he said, "I take very seriously her belief that the documents are not authentic." If Knox is right, Rather said, the public "won't hear about it from a spokesman. They'll learn it from me."
But he also delivered a message to "our journalistic competitors," including The Washington Post and rival networks: "Instead of asking President Bush and his staff questions about what is true and not true about the president's military service, they ask me questions: 'How do you know this and that about the documents?' "
CBS News President Andrew Heyward defended the work that went into the Guard story. "I feel that we did a tremendous amount of reporting before the story went on the air or we wouldn't have put it on the air," Heyward said last night. "But we want to get to the bottom of these unresolved issues," including questions about the memos' typography, signatures and format. "There's such a ferocious debate about these documents."
Heyward said the account by Knox is "significant, which is why we're putting it on our prime-time program," "60 Minutes."