In a triple bylined story, the Washington Post reconstructs the origin of Hurricane Dan: “In rush to air, CBS quashed memo worries.” Key paragraphs:
An examination of the process that led to the broadcast, based on interviews with the participants and more than 20 independent analysts, shows that CBS rushed the story onto the air while ignoring the advice of its own outside experts, and used as corroborating witnesses people who had no firsthand knowledge of the documents. As CBS pushed to finish its report, it was Bartlett who contacted the network — rather than the other way around — at 5:30 the evening before to ask whether the White House could respond to the widely rumored story.
Later, Bartlett would explain why he did not challenge the documents with a question: “How am I supposed to verify something that came from a dead man in three hours?”
The story notes in passing the role played by blogs in the origin of Hurricane Dan:
The first sign of trouble came the next afternoon, when a staffer told [60 Minutes executive Josh] Howard that a Web site was questioning whether the Killian memos could have been produced on an early 1970s typewriter. In fact, the Internet was buzzing with such critiques. Howard asked Mapes about one of the charges, that typewriters of that period did not use superscripts, such as a raised “th,” that appeared in the memos. She came back with military documents that used a small “th,” but the letter combination was not raised above the rest of the type, as true superscript would be. Howard said he believed some of the outsiders’ questions about superscript and proportionate spacing were “kind of silly.”
The predicate of the Washington Post story is of course that the CBS/60 Minutes documents were forged. The article attempts to determine how could CBS have disgraced itself with a story that raised so many red flags. The whole 60 Minutes crew sounds like Captain Ahab in search of the white whale, deranged by a monomaniacal obsession to discredit President Bush. Where is the Ishmael who will survive the shipwreck to tell the tale?
Today’s New York Times confirms our report yesterday that Rather was traveling to Texas to dig a little deeper: “Bush says questions about Guard memos used by CBS ‘need to be answered.'” The Times reports:
Several people involved in the reporting process said Mr. Rather and [CBS News executive] Ms. [Betsy] West flew yesterday to Texas, where they were to meet with at least one man who has been identified as a source for the report, a former Texas Air National Guard officer named Bill Burkett.
The Times story reveals that CBS did not obtain the documents until September 3, and suggests that the network is in the dark about the ultimate source of the documents:
When questions first arose, CBS News officials said they were confident about the documents in part because the lead producer of the report, Mary Mapes, had been working on the story for years. But an official said yesterday that the actual documents – six in total, four of which were used in the report – did not fall into CBS News’s possession until Sept. 3. That was less than a week before the report ran…
A CBS News spokeswoman denied last week that there had been questions about the documents’ authenticity at least two days before the report was broadcast. But officials acknowledged yesterday that questions lingered up to the day the report was shown.
Asked about a report in The Los Angeles Times yesterday that network officials were questioning the documents’ authenticity at a meeting several hours before the start of the “60 Minutes” broadcast, Mr. Howard said: “We were sitting there with the lawyers, asking ourselves a million questions. ‘Are we sure we got it right?’ And the answers were all, ‘We got it right, yes.”’
One mystery among CBS staff members is why network officials remained so confident for so long about the documents as so many questions arose.
During an interview yesterday Mr. Howard said that Ms. Mapes, who broke the news for CBS about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal earlier this year, continually pledged confidence in her sources, who were said to have access to Mr. Killian’s personal file.
Mr. Howard acknowledged yesterday that he had not, in fact, known who Ms. Mapes’s primary source for the documents was before the report was broadcast. But, he said, “Mary Mapes told us her source made her completely confident about where they came from, and that they were authentic, and that made me confident.” Ms. Mapes has not returned calls seeking comment.
For now, Mr. Burkett seems to be a focus of the network’s efforts to get to the bottom of the documents’ validity, which it hopes it can do as early as Monday.
One person at the network, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Burkett had been at the very least a go-between for the documents, but that very few people at the network know from whom he might have obtained them, if anyone.
Another person at the network said that among the questions Mr. Rather would probably try to resolve was: “Is it possible he made this up, or did he get it from a source who made it up?” Mr. Burkett’s lawyer has repeatedly said he did no such thing.
Does Captain Ahab notice the wreckage around him as he sinks beneath the waves for the third time?