In the early-morning hours of Sept. 8, Dan Rather was preparing to fly to Washington for a crucial interview in the Old Executive Office Building, but torrential rain kept him in New York.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett had agreed to talk to "60 Minutes," but only on condition that the CBS program provide copies of what were being billed as newly unearthed memos indicating that President Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard. The papers were hand-delivered at 7:45 a.m. CBS correspondent John Roberts, filling in for Rather, sat down with Bartlett at 11:15.
Half an hour later, Roberts called "60 Minutes" producer Mary Mapes with word that Bartlett was not challenging the authenticity of the documents. Mapes told her bosses, who were so relieved that they cut from Rather's story an interview with a handwriting expert who had examined the memos.
At that point, said "60 Minutes" executive Josh Howard, "we completely abandoned the process of authenticating the documents. Obviously, looking back on it, that was a mistake. We stopped questioning ourselves. I suppose you could say we let our guard down."
CBS aired the story eight hours later, triggering an onslaught of criticism that has left Rather and top network officials struggling to explain why they relied on a handful of papers that even some of Rather's colleagues now believe to be fake.
An examination of the process that led to the broadcast, based on interviews with the participants and more than 20 independent analysts, shows that CBS rushed the story onto the air while ignoring the advice of its own outside experts, and used as corroborating witnesses people who had no firsthand knowledge of the documents. As CBS pushed to finish its report, it was Bartlett who contacted the network -- rather than the other way around -- at 5:30 the evening before to ask whether the White House could respond to the widely rumored story.
Later, Bartlett would explain why he did not challenge the documents with a question: "How am I supposed to verify something that came from a dead man in three hours?"
Other questions abound: How could a program with the sterling reputation of "60 Minutes," which created the television newsmagazine during the Johnson administration, have stumbled so badly? And how could Rather, at 72 the dean of the network anchors, have risked his reputation on such a story in the heat of a presidential campaign?
CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who joined the network 23 years ago as Rather's producer, said his staff was extremely careful with the story. "We have a thorough vetting process," Heyward said last week. "Everyone was aware this was a high-stakes story." He approved the piece, Heyward said, because "we felt it was ready."
Rather also dismissed the notion that CBS was negligent: "I'm confident we worked longer, dug deeper and worked harder than almost anybody in American journalism does."
The Mother Lode
Mary Mapes had been trying to get her hands on the rumored documents for five years.
The Dallas-based producer, known for staying calm when everyone else is agitated, goes back a long way with Rather. In 1999, a judge ordered her jailed for refusing to turn over transcripts of Rather's interview with a man accused in the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. -- but she was spared when CBS finally surrendered the papers. When Rather broke the story of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib this spring, it was Mapes who helped obtain the shocking pictures.
In mid-August, Mapes told her bosses that she had finally tracked down a source who claimed to have access to memos written in 1972 and 1973 by the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush's squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard. The memos, she was told, revealed how the young pilot from a famous family had received favorable treatment, even after refusing an order to report for a physical. Rather and his producer met the source at an out-of-the-way location.
Mapes, an associate producer and a researcher were carrying the journalistic load. "The show is not so lavishly budgeted that we have tons of people doing this," said Harry Moses, a "60 Minutes" producer not connected to the story. "You do the pre-interviews yourself and then bring in the correspondent."