washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Elections > 2004 Election
Page 4 of 4  < Back  

In Rush to Air, CBS Quashed Memo Worries

Pierce, the California analyst first consulted by CBS before the broadcast, gave the network a three-paragraph statement calling the memos "strongly similar to corresponding samples," but CBS did not release any corroborating evidence.

Rather defended the story again on the evening news that night. But this time, he said, "some of these questions come from people who are not active political partisans." He closed by saying that CBS "believes the documents are authentic."

The dispute over memos of President Bush's National Guard record centers on the technology available in the early '70s, when the documents would have been typed. (George Bush Presidential Library Via AP)

The Paper Trail
_____Live Online_____
Post's Michael Dobb's discussed investigations into Bush's service record and the disputed documents. (Transcript)
_____CBS Statement (9/15)_____
Latest Statement from CBS (PDF)

Asked at the time whether there was at least a slight chance that the documents were bogus, Heyward said: "I see no percentage of possibility."

A Telltale Sign

It quickly became clear that the people CBS hired to authenticate the documents had -- and claimed -- only limited expertise in the sometimes arcane science of computer typesetting technology and fonts. Such expertise is needed to determine whether the records could have been created in 1972 and 1973. Independent experts contacted by The Post were surprised that CBS hired analysts who were not certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, considered the gold standard in the field.

These software experts say differences in font widths and printing styles make it impossible to replicate the CBS documents using the printing technology available in the early 1970s. By contrast, reasonably competent computer enthusiasts have created nearly exact replicas of the documents in 15 minutes employing default settings for Microsoft Word and the widely used Times New Roman font.

While Glennon continues to insist that the documents could theoretically have been printed on a Vietnam War-era IBM Selectric, no one has been able to demonstrate this . Leading font developers say the technology simply did not exist 30 years ago.

One telltale sign in the CBS documents is the overlapping character combinations, such as "fr" or "fe," said Joseph M. Newcomer, an adjunct professor with Carnegie Mellon University. Blown-up portions of the CBS documents show that the top of the "f" overlaps the beginning of the next letter, a feat that was not possible even on the most sophisticated typewriters available in 1972. Newcomer calls the documents "a modern forgery."

Tests run by Thomas Phinney, fonts program manager for Adobe Systems, show that none of the possible font widths available on any typewriter or any IBM device from 1972 are able to produce an exact replica of the CBS documents. "Can they do something 'similar'? Sure," Phinney said. "Could they produce those exact memos? Impossible."

The Secretary Speaks

As conservative critics called for Rather's scalp, the spotlight turned to who provided the documents to CBS and whether that person was part of a hoax, or even a political setup.

CBS sources confirmed a report in Newsweek that one of the people Mapes interviewed was Bill Burkett, a retired Guard officer who has accused Bush aides of conspiring with the head of the Texas Guard to "sanitize" the president's military records. Burkett's accusations, which have been denied by the White House and Guard officials, have never been proved.

Since leaving the Guard, Burkett has run a ranch near Abilene, Tex., and been active in local Democratic politics, posting messages on the Internet urging other Democrats to wage "war" against Republican "dirty tricks." He has told reporters that he suffered from depression and had a nervous breakdown after the military declined to treat him for a tropical disease he contracted while on assignment in Panama.

CBS executives declined to address news accounts that pinpoint Burkett as the confidential source for the documents but say they weighed the fact that anyone turning over the material would not be a fan of the president. Burkett would not comment on whether he supplied the documents but said by e-mail to The Post that he would "encourage everyone to not cast too many doubts prematurely" on the "60 Minutes" broadcast.

Strong, the former Guard officer, said last week that when Rather showed him the documents, they contained a header showing they had been faxed to the network from a Kinko's copy shop in Abilene.

As the storm of criticism grew louder, Rather, Heyward and the program's staff still believed that the documents were genuine. They had no way of knowing that an 86-year-old woman in southwest Houston was discussing the controversy with a neighbor.

"I know Dan Rather is right," Marian Carr Knox, a former secretary in Bush's Guard unit, recalled saying. The neighbor said she should do something about it. So she called a Houston newspaper, Knox told CBS, but did not get a call back. Dallas Morning News reporter Pete Slover soon tracked down Knox and showed her copies of the Killian memos.

"These are not real," declared Knox, who said she handled Killian's memos. "They're not what I typed, and I would have typed them for him."

When a "60 Minutes" staffer showed Howard an online version of the Morning News story Tuesday night, "my initial reaction was not, 'Oh, my God, we're wrong,' " he said. But he immediately recognized that his program had to take her account seriously.

CBS got hold of Knox and had her on a plane to New York on Wednesday. Rather started the hour-long interview at 4 p.m., and while Knox said the underlying story was true -- that Killian had made such comments about Lt. Bush -- she insisted the memos were fake. Mapes had three hours to edit the interview for that night's "60 Minutes."

As they continue their investigation into whether they were hoaxed, CBS officials have begun shifting their public focus from the memos themselves to their underlying allegations about the president. Rather said that if the memos were indeed faked, "I'd like to break that story." But whatever the verdict on the memos, he said, critics "can't deny the story."

As the days begin to blur for Josh Howard, he embraces the same logic: "So much of this debate has focused on the documents, and no one has really challenged the story. It's been frustrating to us to see all this reduced to a debate over little 'th's."

Researchers Alice Crites and Meg Smith contributed to this report.

< Back  1 2 3 4

© 2004 The Washington Post Company