During the Republican National Convention in New York, Rather got a call from Ben Barnes, a onetime Texas lieutenant governor and veteran Democrat who has known the anchor, a former Houston TV reporter, for 30 years. Barnes said he was ready to say before the cameras that he had pulled strings to get Bush a coveted slot in the Texas Guard in 1968. Mapes had long been urging Barnes to tell his story.
On Friday, Sept. 3, the day after the convention ended, Mapes hit pay dirt. She told Howard her source had given her the documents. Within hours, Mapes began calling around to find independent analysts who could examine the handful of memos said to have been written by Killian. She found one in Dallas, who helped put her in touch with three others.
The next stop was Texas. Rather was in Florida, so CBS chartered a plane to get him to Austin. On Sunday, Sept. 5, he and Mapes interviewed Robert Strong, an administrative assistant in the Texas Guard during Bush's service there. Strong told them the memos were compatible with what he knew of Killian but did not claim to have seen them before. "I cannot recall that Jerry Killian talked about Bush, and am not sure he would have discussed it with me," Strong recently told The Washington Post.
That same day, back in the ninth-floor offices of "60 Minutes," across West 57th Street from the CBS Broadcast Center, warnings about the story began to surface.
Emily Will of North Carolina, one of the experts CBS had asked to examine the memos, sent Mapes an e-mail outlining her concerns over discrepancies in Killian's signature. She also phoned CBS and raised more questions about whether the typography in the memos existed in 1972 and differences with other military documents. "They looked like trouble to me," Will said.
Linda James, a document examiner who lives near Mapes, was raising similar questions. The two memos she looked at "had problems," James recalled telling CBS, and she could not rule out that they had been "produced on a computer."
Document analyst Marcel Matley flew from California to New York, and Rather interviewed him on Labor Day, Sept. 6 -- footage that would end up on the cutting-room floor. But Matley limited his examination to Killian's signature, which he believed was probably valid, but not certain -- the lowest endorsement he offers. Because the memos were copies, Matley said in a recent interview, "there's no way that I, as a document expert, can authenticate them. . . . I can't say either way from my expertise, the narrow, narrow little field of my expertise."
None of the analysts, including the fourth, James J. Pierce of California, provided the network with a written report before the broadcast. Howard said Mapes told him the analysts' concerns had been addressed.
Rather said he grew more confident when Mapes began speaking with retired Col. Bobby W. Hodges, Killian's superior in the Guard. Hodges said Killian felt that Bush had been treated too leniently in those days. That was important, in Rather's view, because Hodges remained a staunch supporter of the president. But Hodges later said that he felt "misled" by CBS, that the memos were read to him over the phone and that he believes from discrepancies in the military abbreviations that they are forgeries.
On Tuesday, Sept. 7, as Rather sat down in a CBS studio with former Texas lieutenant governor Barnes, the top brass was turning its attention to the explosive story. Heyward, the news division chief, met with Senior Vice President Betsy West; executive producer Howard, who had taken over in June after shifting from the program's Sunday edition; Mapes; senior broadcast producer Mary Murphy; and Esther Kartiganer, whose job is to ensure that interviews are not edited in a misleading way.
"All of us asked questions," Heyward said.
"We asked core questions -- about reliability, authenticity, motivation, could the source have had access to the documents," West said. The executives were satisfied by Mapes's answers, and she began writing the script.
But in separate phone calls to Mapes that day, two of the network's outside experts tried to stop the journalistic train, or at least slow it down.
Linda James said she "cautioned" CBS "if they ran it, that the problems I saw, that other document examiners would see. It just wasn't ready. The package wasn't ready. It didn't meet authenticating [standards]. To go at that stage, I just couldn't imagine."