Former Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett, who provided CBS News with possibly fraudulent documents purporting to show that President Bush shirked his Guard duty, is looking for a lawyer to pursue a possible defamation case against the network.
Burkett is angry with CBS and anchor Dan Rather for disclosing his identity after promising him anonymity, his current attorney, Gabriel Quintanilla, said yesterday. Quintanilla said Burkett's life had become "pure hell" since Monday, when Rather disclosed on the "CBS Evening News" that Burkett was the network's confidential and "unimpeachable" source for the controversial documents.
Burkett has had little luck finding a lawyer to represent him. His first attorney, David Van Os of San Antonio, bowed out because he was involved in the initial negotiations with CBS and feels a conflict of interest. Quintanilla said he is suffering from severe back problems and cannot handle the deluge of calls and messages in an incident that, he said, has generated more conspiracy theories than the "grassy knoll" did in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
A third lawyer, Lin Wood of Atlanta, who represented former Olympic Games security guard Richard Jewell in a successful defamation suit against several news organizations, said yesterday that he had declined a request from Quintanilla to take the Burkett case. Wood pleaded "time constraints" as well as his "high regard for CBS News."
"It appears highly questionable that he has a legitimate defamation claim" against CBS, said Wood, noting that his opinion was based on news reports about the case rather than privileged information.
In an e-mail message yesterday evening, Burkett, who runs a cattle ranch in western Texas, said that he was not "making comments of any kind." He complained through his lawyer that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had misquoted him as saying that he had discussed the documents with Kerry campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart. Burkett told the newspaper that CBS had set him up as a "fall guy" to cover up its mistakes.
A CBS spokeswoman, Sandy Genelius, declined to comment.
Quintanilla acknowledged that Burkett had misled the network by naming another retired guardsman, George Conn, who now works for the U.S. Army in Germany in a civilian capacity, as the original source of the documents. Burkett now maintains that he was alerted to the documents by a woman named Lucy Ramirez, who contacted him after seeing him on television and has subsequently disappeared. He says he was handed the documents at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on March 3 by an unknown intermediary.
According to Quintanilla, Burkett believes that CBS officials divulged his identity to the New York Times even before Rather went on the air to state that the network could no longer vouch for the authenticity of documents purportedly written by Bush's former Guard commander.
Quintanilla said an announcement on a new attorney for Burkett is expected shortly.