Lucy Ramirez, where are you?

On the night of Dan Rathers retirement as the CBS news anchor, that question carries particular resonance.

By Eric Boehlert
Published March 9, 2005 9:36PM (EST)

On the night of Dan Rathers retirement as the CBS news anchor, that question carries particular resonance. Ramirez remains the murky figure at the center of the still-unsolved mystery over the disputed Texas Air National Guard memos that CBS's "60 Minutes Wednesday" aired last September in its discredited report, a report anchored by Rather. Critics charge the documents are forgeries, but the independent panel set up by CBS to investigate the debacle found no conclusive evidence to support that theory.

After the controversy erupted, former National Guardsman Bill Burkett, the man who furnished the documents for CBS, insisted he was contacted by Ramirez, who called from a Houston Holiday Inn and arranged to hand over the envelope full of documents at the local livestock show. Since then, Ramirez has not come forward to fill in the unanswered questions, nor has she been located by anyone at CBS or other media. Critics question whether she really exists.

Today's New York Observer fleshes out a bit more of the whodunit, suggesting CBS higher-ups were in no rush to track Ramirez down, and waved off Rather's personal efforts to hire a private investigator to pursue the documents' origins. (Like CBS, the independent panel's final report also showed an unusual lack of interest in locating Ramirez.) "Convinced that it had made a mistake in broadcasting the report, CBS seemed more interested in trying to atone for its confessed error than in trying to determine whether the memos were a hoax or not," the paper writes.

CBS did hire its own private eye, Erik Rigler, who worked in tandem with the panel and was in touch with CBS producer Mary Mapes as well as her Texas-based freelancer Mike Smith. Once the Guard story exploded into a scandal, Smith recorded his conversations with Rigler as well as with CBS executives. The tapes, according to the Observer, "portray an investigation that bred confusion, occasional desperation and a deep suspicion in its subjects. Mr. Smith said they document how 'no one really seemed to be interested in the truth.'"

The private eye himself, a former FBI agent, offered one conclusion -- not on the documents, but regarding the larger story about how Bush routinely failed to report for duty while he was a member of the Texas Air National Guard during the height of the Vietnam War. Conservative critics have tried to use the CBS controversy to suggest that any story about Bush's derelict service is unfounded. "The story about the files, the non-service, the memos, stuff like that, had floated around for years [inside the Texas Air National Guard]," Rigler told Smith. "For that reason, it makes you think it's likely true."

Soon after the November election, Rigler was let go by CBS. On a call to Smith he labeled the inquiry a "black hole," adding, "This is not a real investigation."

A CBS spokesperson told the Observer, "CBS News wanted to find the source of the documents. When all the attempts failed and the leads dried up, we stopped looking. That occurred before the election. If there were continuing leads, we would have followed them."

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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