Bill Burkett fights back

A key player in the Dan Rather Memogate saga sends a letter to CBS, charging that its independent investigation destroyed his reputation and ignored the network's own culpability.

Published February 22, 2005 3:43PM (EST)

If CBS CEO Leslie Moonves had hoped the investigation by an independent panel into the network's botched "60 Minutes Wednesday" feature regarding President Bush's National Guard duty would be enough to put the controversy behind the media giant, recent days have brought him unsettling developments. Five weeks after the panel issued its 224-page report, those it singled out for wrongdoing are fighting back -- taking issue with the investigation as well as the Viacom-owned network. The new rumblings suggest that the sour taste of CBS's National Guard story may linger for months to come. And it will almost certainly remain beyond the network's planned farewell next month for longtime anchor Dan Rather, who was the on-camera reporter for the story.

Earlier this month, Bill Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard and the man who provided CBS producers with the controversial documents at the heart of the "60 Minutes Wednesday" segment, fired off his response to the panel's investigation. In a 2,600-word letter, obtained by Salon, Burkett charged that the report, through inaccuracies and "selective recall" among the key players, "exacerbated the defamation of character that CBS obviously committed when they laid the blame for the collapse of this story at my feet."

The center of Burkett's claim is that in giving CBS the documents, he expected the network to authenticate them and, in fact, had made a "contingent" agreement with the network to do so. Burkett says he assumed the documents he gave CBS were real, but that he could not and would not vouch for their genuineness. At the same time, Burkett has told inconsistent stories about how the memos fell into his hands. But he insists CBS is ultimately to blame for failing to authenticate the documents.

In his letter Burkett clearly hints at future legal action against the network. "We are actively reviewing each finding of the report and detailing its inaccuracies in anticipation of future events," Burkett wrote on behalf of himself and his wife, Jessie. Michael Missal, an attorney who represents the independent panel, confirmed having received Burkett's letter, saying "the panel will respond as appropriate."

Contacted by Salon about his letter, Burkett issued this statement: "I confirm that I sent a letter demanding correction and name clearing to the Viacom/CBS panel principals, Mr. [Louis] Boccardi and Mr. [Dick] Thornburgh, through panel counsel. I have received no response." He added, "There were mistakes made by professional journalists that placed an undue hardship on me and my family and served as fodder for the destruction of my reputation." Burkett is perhaps the most controversial figure of the drama. Cast by critics as a conspiracy theorist, his allegations have been dogged by inconsistencies, such as the central question of where key documents came from.

The panel itself questioned whether CBS should have relied on Burkett as a source, concluding he "could not be reasonably described as an 'unimpeachable source,'" as CBS had once done. A longtime critic of Bush's National Guard service, Burkett has alleged that Bush's political allies in Texas helped "scrub" his military personnel file in preparation of his run for president in 2000. Burkett, who suffers from seizures, has also waged a lengthy battle with the Guard over health benefits. He was not formally interviewed by the investigating panel and has not spoken publicly about the scandal in nearly six months.

Yet rather than being apologetic for any role he played in the debacle, Burkett seems itching for a fight with CBS: "I was miserably squashed throughout this horrible nightmare. CBS wanted everything that I had and then made every effort to discredit and later blame me for their own errors and failings," Burkett wrote in his letter. Addressing Thornburgh, attorney general for Ronald Reagan and the elder Bush, and Boccardi, the former Associated Press head, Burkett continued: "Gentlemen, it is nothing but fair and right for you as chairmen of this panel to make things correct and right and forward the corrections to the worldwide press. It would further be nothing but right that Viacom/CBS immediately recognize and repair the damages that have been incurred by my wife and I at the hand of the entire Viacom/CBS team and now this panel. This will certainly be no small task."

Burkett's salvo comes on the heels of the revelation that several senior news executives connected to the "60 Minutes Wednesday" segment who were implicated in the scandal have not stepped down although CBS requested their resignations after the panel issued its report. Instead, they're still drawing paychecks and, determined to clear their names, are talking to attorneys about filing their own lawsuits against CBS, according to a report last week in the New York Observer.

Network insiders aren't the only ones raising doubts about the panel's report. The Observer referred to a recent New York Law Journal article by James Goodale, former vice chairman of the New York Times, in which he labeled the CBS investigation "flawed," adding, "It should not be swallowed hook, line and sinker." Online, conservatives were furious when the panel failed to conclude that the memos were forgeries and that the National Guard story was fueled by anti-Bush bias inside CBS, the two harshest allegations raised by the network's critics.

CBS's Sept. 8 story on "60 Minutes Wednesday," focusing on Bush's questionable Guard service during the Vietnam War, featured four documents allegedly written by one of Bush's commanders in the Guard, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who is now dead. The memos, critical of Bush, came from Killian's personal files, CBS reported. Immediately after the broadcast, conservative bloggers began raising questions about the authenticity of the documents, which were bolstered by several typewriter experts who insisted that the typeface (in particular, the superscript "th") used in the memos did not exist, or was quite rare, when Killian served in the early '70s.

For nearly two weeks CBS stood by its story, with varying degrees of certainty, until Sept. 20, when "CBS Evening News" anchor Rather conceded that the network could not vouch for the authenticity of the memos. CBS then launched its independent investigation, which concluded that the National Guard story was rushed to the air for competitive reasons and characterized the story as a train wreck: "Basic journalistic steps were not carried out in a manner consistent with accurate and fair reporting, leading to countless misstatements and omissions."

It's not surprising that Burkett and the singled-out CBS executives feel maligned by the panel's report, which often paints unflattering portraits of them, professionally and, at times, ethically. For instance, the panel raises questions about how much faith CBS producer Mary Mapes should have put in Burkett, given his vocal opposition to Bush. But the stubborn responses from both the targeted CBS executives and Burkett suggest they may be willing to fight back hard regarding the facts of the case.

Burkett's central complaint with the panel's report is its failure to note that in giving the Killian memos to Mapes and Texas-based freelance reporter Mike Smith, who helped her track down the story, Burkett was making, in his words, a "contingent" agreement with them, one that put the onus on them to authenticate the memos before using them.

"As I openly stated, backgrounded in excruciating detail to Mapes, Rather and CBS, the documents had to be able to be 'free standing' before I would release them. I had to be satisfied that CBS had the capability and intent to fully authenticate the documents," Burkett wrote in his letter. "CBS, through its employees, had to make a critical decision as to whether they were willing to take that risk. There were no expressed or implied warranties about the documents. Yet I believed them to be authentic."

As the independent panel chronicled in detail, attempts by CBS staffers to authenticate the memos were a failure: "Neither Mapes nor [associate producer Yvonne] Miller had any prior experience in document or handwriting analysis or the mechanics of document authentication." Trying to track down experts over the busy Labor Day weekend, Mapes seemed to cling to analyses that substantiated the documents' authenticity, while dismissing those that raised serious questions. Only after the controversy began to engulf CBS did it become clear how many unanswered questions about the Killian memos remained at the time the Guard story aired.

Burkett insists he's not to blame for CBS's shoddy gumshoe work, adding that when CBS concluded he had changed his story about the memos' chain of possession, it opted to pin the blame for the entire debacle on him. "The official statement of CBS News on September 20 and the lead story on the 'CBS Evening News' made a most public attempt to transfer the blame for the failure of CBS to me. The blame is not transferable, and your panel had a responsibility to point that fact out," wrote Burkett.

The memos' chain of possession, and how Burkett obtained them, remain key. The panel's report indicates that reporter Smith and producer Mapes recall slightly different versions of how Burkett said he got the documents. Smith told the panel that Burkett said he had received them anonymously in the mail. Mapes said "that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett stated that he received the documents after he was interviewed on a national television show in February 2004 concerning President Bush's TexANG service, but did not say how he received them or from whom."

According to Burkett, as soon as he handed over the memos, Mapes began needling him for information about his source, focusing on George Conn, a former Texas Air National Guard colleague of Burkett's. She "began playing an old media trick of baiting questions to get me to deny their origin. I simply did not play," Burkett wrote. "Mary Mapes did specifically ask me if George Conn was the source. My failure was to not answer that question emphatically -- NO -- though the question was a continued entrapment trick that she used after receiving the documents. Instead, when Mary Mapes specifically asked me if the documents came from George Conn, I did not definitively answer the question, believing it was not germane to any subject since we had reached an agreement that the documents would be authenticated and become 'stand alone' material." Mapes told the panel that Burkett did say the documents had come from Conn. USA Today, which also received copies of the Killian memos from Burkett last September, reported on Sept. 21 that Burkett initially told its reporters that the documents had come from Conn.

In a conference call with senior CBS executives on Sept. 16, as the controversy continued to swell, Burkett revealed that he had received the memos after getting a call from a woman who identified herself as Lucy Ramirez. Burkett said she told him she had documents pertaining to Bush's National Guard service and, after seeing Burkett on television in February discussing the topic, decided to give them to him, arranging to provide them while visiting the Houston livestock show.

According to Burkett, CBS seized on that revelation: "From this meeting in which I disclosed the source, an entrapment began by all or part of these individuals to get my comments on tape and attempt to shift the blame for CBS' failings to someone else -- me," he wrote.

In a taped two-hour interview with CBS that aired Sept. 20 alongside CBS's official apology, Rather brought up the apparent change in Burkett's story:

Rather: "But you did mislead us."

Burkett: "Yes, I misled."

Rather: "You, you lied, you..."

Burkett: "Yes, I did."

Rather: "You lied to us."

Additionally, Rather asked, "Have you forged anything?"

Burkett: "No sir."

Rather: "Have you faked anything?

Burkett: "No sir."

In his letter, Burkett also takes issue with the timing of the segment on "60 Minutes Wednesday," which aired just six days after Burkett first handed over the memos. Initially, the story was pegged to run during the last week of September, but for competitive purposes CBS moved it up to Sept. 8. At his first meeting with Mapes and Smith, on Sept. 2, Burkett says he voiced concern about whether the story could be properly reported and fact-checked by Sept. 29, let alone by Sept. 8. "In fact, CBS took aggressive steps to accelerate the airing (prematurely, I believe) of the documents for whatever reason and under whoever's decision. Without all other considerations, CBS accepted full risk and responsibility," wrote Burkett. "Therefore, CBS erred."

It's an error CBS is still paying for.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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