The man CBS News touted as the "unimpeachable source" of explosive documents about President Bush's National Guard service turns out to be a former Guard officer with a history of self-described mental problems who has denounced Bush as a liar with "demonic personality shortcomings."
Over the past three years, retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett has given dozens of newspaper and television interviews accusing the president and his aides of destroying documents and stealing elections. In e-mail messages to an Internet chat group for Texas Democrats, he has also said that the "Bush team" sent "goons" to intimidate him at his ranch in Baird, Tex.
"They can go to hell," the retired officer, 55, wrote in a March 29 posting. "I'll continue to defend the freedom of this nation -- not the liars who have wrested its helm."
Burkett's allegations against Bush and leaders of the Texas National Guard were featured prominently in a controversial book, "Bush's War for Reelection," by a former reporter, James Moore, that was published in February. The book led to Burkett's briefly becoming a TV talk-show celebrity, with his allegations of corruption and favoritism in the National Guard.
Stories about Burkett appeared in dozens of newspapers, including the New York Times, along with outraged denials from former Bush aides. Burkett said he overheard a conversation in 1997 between Joe M. Allbaugh, who was then Bush's chief of staff, and the commander of the Texas National Guard on how to "sanitize" National Guard files to prevent any political embarrassment to Bush, who was running for reelection as governor of Texas.
A Feb. 13 story in the Boston Globe noted that a former Guardsman cited by Burkett as a key corroborating witness denied that he led Burkett to a room where Bush's records were being vetted. "I have no recall of that whatsoever," said George O. Conn, a former chief warrant officer with the Guard and a friend of Burkett's. "None, zip, nada." Burkett later said that Conn, a civilian employee of the U.S military in Germany, recanted his story because of political pressure from the White House.
Conn could not be reached to comment.
As a former planning officer in the Texas National Guard, Burkett had the opportunity -- at least in theory -- to witness the events that he described. But he also had a clear motive to attack his former superiors. In 1998, he became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Guard over medical benefits after he contracted a mysterious disease while on assignment in Panama.
In interviews, Burkett accused the Guard of failing to provide him with proper medical treatment, as a result of which he became partly paralyzed and had a nervous breakdown. He told author Moore that, in desperation, he saved himself from death by taking a dose of cattle penicillin that turned out to be three times the correct dosage for his body weight.
Moore was one of Burkett's staunchest defenders until the "60 Minutes" program, but said yesterday that he no longer knew whether to believe him. "I've got so caught up in the white noise of political skullduggery that I no longer trust anything anyone tells me," Moore said.
For Burkett, attacking Bush, posting Internet messages and giving media interviews have become such all-consuming passions that he has had little time to tend to his ranch. As reporters began gathering outside his modest one-story house on the Texas scrub last week, neighbors complained that Burkett's cattle were roaming across their land.
Interviewed over the weekend by CBS, Burkett acknowledged that he had "misled" the network by simply "throwing out a name" when asked to reveal the source of the documents. He insisted that he had not forged the documents and that he had urged CBS producers to investigate their authenticity before using them in a broadcast.
For 10 days, CBS declined to name Burkett as the person who provided the disputed Guard documents, saying only that they came from an "unimpeachable source." CBS spokeswoman Kelli Edwards said yesterday that the network was investigating a Sept. 9 statement that asserted the network had spoken with "individuals who saw the documents at the time they were written."
In the rush to air the documents Burkett provided, CBS producers inadvertently left clues about their confidential source. People asked by CBS to authenticate the documents said the papers bore a header showing they had been faxed from a Kinko's in Abilene, Tex., 21 miles from Burkett's home. Documents examiner Emily Will said the footer indicated the document had been sent at 6:41 p.m. on Sept. 2.
The next day, at 7:32 p.m., Burkett posted a message hinting that CBS News was on the verge of airing a major scoop on the Bush National Guard controversy. "No proof, just gut instinct," he wrote.
Staff writer James V. Grimaldi contributed to this report.