CBS, Rather stand firm on Bush story as furor swells

Critics call into question cited memos' authenticity

September 11, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

CBS anchor Dan Rather vigorously defended yesterday his reliance on memos that appeared to show President Bush avoided fulfilling his service obligations as a lieutenant in the Air National Guard in the early 1970s, even as a controversy intensified over the authenticity of those documents.

The original report, broadcast on Wednesday's edition of 60 Minutes, sparked a near-immediate backlash on conservative Web sites and radio programs. Forensic experts subsequently interviewed by other news outlets - including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and NBC News, among others - questioned the authenticity of the documents, pointing to typeface and spacing features more consistent with modern computer word-processing programs than IBM typewriters of the era. Also, the family members of the squad leader who reportedly wrote the memos and who died two decades ago denounced the story, saying they did not believe the memos are genuine.

"The 60 Minutes report was based not solely on the recovered documents but on a preponderance of evidence, including documents that were provided by unimpeachable sources, and interviews with former officials of the Texas National Guard," Rather said during a six-minute story on the CBS Evening News last night. "If any definitive evidence to the contrary of our story is found, we will report it."

The Dallas Morning News is reporting today that an official named in one of the disputed memos for pressuring an officer to "sugar coat" Bush's military evaluation apparently left the National Guard more than a year before the memo was supposedly written. Late last night, a CBS News spokeswoman said the network did not have a direct response to that development. "We stand by our story," said the spokeswoman, Kelli Edwards.

CBS fought challenges directly through the day, as Rather defended the 60 Minutes piece, first on CNN and again on his newscast. Additionally, the network issued statements that explicitly rejected Internet reports, on such sites as the Drudge Report, that it had launched an internal inquiry into the veracity of its account. Instead, during his newscast, Rather portrayed the criticism as "counterattacks" fueled in part by "partisan political operatives" seeking to distract attention from the wider foundation of his story. Although producer Mary Mapes had reported much of the story, Rather served as the on-air correspondent for the 60 Minutes report, and he conducted the interviews that appeared. No dissenting voices were heard in last night's newscast, though Rather summarized several objections.

The disputed report is the latest in a series of controversial charges over how the nation's two main presidential candidates conducted themselves during the Vietnam War era. Throughout the summer, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry found himself defending his record as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 after a group of Navy veterans questioned his version of incidents that led to some of his combat medals. While those allegations have been largely discredited, they are widely believed to have contributed to Kerry's recent slump in the polls.

The White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign were willing to see the growing controversy cast doubt on the broader allegations that the future president had shirked his duties. "We are just watching the report unfold," campaign spokesman Reed Dickens said.

"We don't know whether the documents were fabricated or authentic," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday morning. "CBS has not disclosed where the documents came from." As of last night, CBS had not revealed the identity or nature of its source.

The 60 Minutes report included an interview with Ben Barnes, a powerful Texas politician who said he pulled strings to get Bush into the Air National Guard unit so he could avoid the military draft and combat service. Barnes said he had been asked by a wealthy Texas oil executive to help the young man, whose father, future President George Bush, was then a Houston congressman.

Yesterday's CBS report followed the release this week of military records that were supposed to have been made public in February and that, like other documents, do not show conclusively that Bush fulfilled his duties. The Boston Globe also reported this week that a fresh analysis of Bush's record in the guard from 1968 to 1973 shows that he failed to meet his responsibilities under two contracts he signed - a lapse that the newspaper said could have resulted in his reassignment to combat duty.

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