Friday's must-reads: Fakes and forgeries edition


Geraldine Sealey
September 10, 2004 6:56PM (UTC)

The case of the Killian memos is far from solved. Was CBS News the victim of a hoax? Matt Drudge claims Dan Rather is pacing in his office, preparing himself for an embarrassing mea culpa if the documents he revealed in an exclusive 60 Minutes II report the other night turn out to be fakes.

But are they fakes? Mainstream news organizations, inspired by questions swirling in the blogosphere and a report in the Weekly Standard, hunted down several "forensic documents experts" who shared their qualms about the memos CBS says were found in the personal files of officer Jerry Killian and showed that George W. Bush defied a direct order to take a physical while he was serving in the National Guard.

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The Washington Post and New York Times produced stories in this morning's editions that did not advance the story terribly much beyond what the Standard and conservative blogs reported and speculated yesterday. The Standard consulted William Flynn, "a forensic document expert widely considered the nation's top analyst of computer-generated documents" who examined the Killian memos posted on the CBS Web site (not the originals) and concluded "it looks very likely that these documents could not have existed" in the early 1970s, when they were allegedly written." Richard Polt, an Xavier University philosophy professor and typewriter aficionado, told the Standard that "while he is not an expert on typesetting," the documents appear to have been created on a word processor.

The Standard summed up its questions about the memos this way: "First the typographic spacing is proportional, as is routine with professional typesetting and computer typography, not monospace, as was common in typewriters in the 1970s. (In proportional type, thin letters like "i" and "l" are spaced closer together than thick letters like "W" and "M". In monospace, all the letter widths are the same.)

"Second, the font appears to be identical to the Times New Roman font that is the default typeface in Microsoft Word and other modern word processing programs. According to Flynn, the font is not listed in the Haas Atlas--the definitive encyclopedia of typewriter type fonts.

"Third, the apostrophes are curlicues of the sort produced by word processors on personal computers, not the straight vertical hashmarks typical of typewriters. Finally, in some references to Bush's unit--the 111thFighter Interceptor Squadron--the "th" is a superscript in a smaller size than the other type. Again, this is typical (and often done automatically) in modern word processing programs. Although several experts allow that such a rendering might have been theoretically possible in the early 1970s, it would have been highly unlikely. Superscripts produced on typewriters--the numbers preceding footnotes in term papers, for example--were almost always in the same size as the regular type."

The Standard's report drew from this post in the conservative Powerline blog, which acknowledged yesterday: "Several have pointed out that the Executive line of IBM typewriters did have proportionally spaced fonts, although no reader has found the font used in the memos to be a familiar one or thought that the IBM Executive was likely to have been used by the National Guard in the early 1970's."

Speaking of the Executive, Atrios found a brochure extolling the proportional spacing feature of the Executive -- a typewriter IBM put on the market in 1941. And other liberal bloggers fired back this morning, countering the forgery allegations way more thoroughly than the press has thus far.

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At Daily Kos, blogger Hunter rather exhaustively addresses each of the claims made on Powerline and in the Standard:

"This typeface -- Times New Roman -- didn't exist in the early 1970s."

"There are several problems with this theory. First, Times New Roman, as a typeface, was invented in 1931. Second, typewriters were indeed available with Times New Roman typefaces.

"And third, this isn't Times New Roman, at least not the Microsoft version. It's close. But it's not a match. For example, the '8' characters are decidedly different. The '4's, as viewable on other memos, are completely different; one has an open top, the other is closed.

"So yes, we have proven that two typefaces that look similar to each other are indeed, um, similar. At least when each document is shrunk to 400-500 pixels wide... and you ignore some of the characters."

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"Documents back then didn't have superscripted 'th' characters"

"That one was easy. Yes, many typewriter models had shift-combinations to create 'th', 'nd', and 'rd'. This is most easily proven by looking at known-good documents in the Bush records, which indeed have superscripted 'th' characters interspersed throughout."

"This document uses proportional spacing, which didn't exist in the early 1970s."

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"Turns out, it did. The IBM Executive electric typewriter was manufactured in four models, A, B, C, and D, starting in 1947, and featured proportional spacing. An example of its output is here. It was an extremely popular model, and was marketed to government agencies."

"OK, fine, but no single machine had proportional spacing, 'th' characters, and a font like that one."

"No, again. The IBM Executive is probably the most likely candidate for this particular memo. There is some confusion about this, so to clear up: the IBM Selectric, while very popular, did not have proportional spacing. The Selectric Composer, introduced in 1966, did, and in fact could easily have produced these memos, but it was a very expensive machine, and not likely to be used for light typing duties. The proportional-spacing Executive, on the other hand, had been produced in various configurations since the 1940's, and was quite popular."

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"(Note: However, it is not immediately clear that the Selectrics and Selectric IIs could not in fact emulate "proportional" spacing. There is skepticism in some circles that these memos really show "proportional" spacing. Looking at the blowups, it appears pretty obvious to me that there is, but still researching.)"

Salon's Scott Rosenberg pointed out that if the memos were forged, it was a pretty pathetic attempt at a con job. "If these things are fake, then someone took an immense amount of care to futz up the papers and make them look old and get a signature on there that experts seem to think is a pretty good rendition of Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian's -- then forgot to change the fonts on his word processor."

"It's certainly possible. But it seems awfully strange. Furthermore, if you were going to the trouble of producing a forgery, wouldn't you go all out and really nail Bush directly on something more spectacular than the murkier, though still somewhat incriminating, details of these memos?"

Doubts about the CBS memos, though, also came from Killian's family members. In fact, the New York Times led its piece today with an interview Killian's son gave yesterday to the Associated Press, only later getting to the questions about typewriters. "Gary Killian said he doubted that his father had written some of the memos. 'I am upset because I think it is a mixture of truth and fiction here,' Mr. Killian said."

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Killian's wife, too, has her doubts, telling ABC News that the wording in the documents "is very suspect" to her, and that her late husband did not type nor take "copious" notes. "He carried everything in his mind," she said. With all due respect, the opinion of family members seems less relevant here than even the questions about the fonts and spacing. Killian's wife and son most likely did not know everything that went on at Killian's job, but his superiors did.

And the Washington Postreports that one of CBS' sources was retired Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges, Killian's immediate supervisor -- who agreed that the content of the Killian memos corresponded with what he remembers took place. "A CBS reporter read the documents to Hodges over the phone and Hodges replied that 'these are the things that Killian had expressed to me at the time.'"

"'These documents represent what Killian not only was putting in memoranda, but was telling other people,' the CBS News official said. 'Journalistically, we've gone several extra miles.' The official said the network regarded Hodges's comments as 'the trump card' on the question of authenticity, as he is a Republican who acknowledged that he did not want to hurt Bush."

But the AP spoke to a fellow officer of Killian's who says he thinks the documents were forged (there's no mention of why he thinks this based on any expertise with documents). "I don't think Killian would do that, and I knew him for 17 years," the officer named Rufus Martin said. But another fellow officer, Robert Strong, told CBS the memos were "compatible with the way business was conducted at the time."

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It's worth noting that the White House also did not question the authenticity of the documents, releasing them to the media without comment on Wednesday night after CBS supplied the memos.

CBS says it ran the documents past experts before airing the 60 Minutes segment -- and stands by Rather's story.


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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