The Thornburgh Report: What It Says, and What It Doesn’t Say

I’ve now read the Thornburgh report in its entirety, and have just finished giving an interview to CBS News, some (small) portion of which is likely to be on the evening news tonight.
In general, the Thornburgh report is better than I expected. It criticizes 60 Minutes harshly, and is a treasure trove of factual information. However, while the report is damning, the question is whether it is damning enough. In two key respects, the report walks up to the precipice, but declines to jump.
First, it directly addresses the question whether the 60 Minutes report was motivated by political bias against President Bush. The panel’s conclusion is at page 211: “The Panel does not find a basis to accuse those who investigated, produced, vetted or aired the segment of having a political bias.” But the grounds set forth in support of this conclusion are unpersuasive, and the authors completely fail to address the evidence of political bias that their own report contains, especially with respect to Mary Mapes.
In fact, the report contains repeated indications that Mary Mapes, in particular, dripped with anti-Bush venom. On July 23, Michael Smith, a freelance journalist in Texas who was working on the story along with Mapes, sent her an email that began: “I am close to something that the Bushies are worried about…” Mapes responded: “I desperately want to talk to you….Do NOT underestimate how much I want this story.”
On July 30, Mapes sent an email to one of her superiors at CBS in which she wrote: “…there is some very interesting Bush stuff shaking out there right now…Re…his qualification [sic] and refusal of service in Vietnam, etc. Lots of goodies.”
On August 3, she emailed again: “There is a storm brewing in Austin re the Bush stuff….It is much more intense than it was four years ago and there is a strong general feeling that this time, there is blood in the water.”
Finally, on August 31, only eight days before the 60 Minutes show aired, at a time when Smith and Mapes were desperately trying to persuade Bill Burkett to give them the anti-Bush documents that they had heard he possessed, Smith sent an email to Mapes proposing that they set up a book deal for Burkett so that he could be paid in exchange for turning over the documents:

Today I am going to send the following hypothetical scenario to a reliable, trustable editor friend of mine…
What if there was a person who might have some information that could possibly change the momentum of an election but we needed to get an ASAP book deal to help get us the information? What kinds of turnaround payment schedules are possible, keeping in mind that the book probably could not make it out until after the election.

Mapes replied: “that looks good, hypothetically speaking, of course.”
It’s also worth noting that both Mapes and Dan Rather continue to defend the 60 Minutes report, and to claim that the documents are authentic. Rather says he believes in the documents because “the facts are right on the money.” Given what we now know, this statement is delusional. The Thornburgh report does an excellent job of analyzing the content of the fake documents, and showing that they are, in many respects, at odds with reality as we know it from other sources. And the report discloses for the first time that, during the course of her “investigation,” Mary Mapes was told that no influence was used to get President Bush into the National Guard, that there was no waiting list for pilots, and that Bush actually volunteered to go to Vietnam. So one can only wonder in what respect Rather thinks “the facts are right on the money.”
Mapes’s reaction to the knowledge that there was, in fact, no waiting list for pilots during the relevant time period is redolent of bias against President Bush, if not monomania:

Mapes indicated in the April 1999 email that she had been informed that there was no waiting list for President Bush’s TexANG unit at the time he entered. She posited the “darkest spin” that then-Colonel Walter Staudt, then in charge of the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, deliberately kept these spots open “to take in the children of privilege…while maintaining deniability.” Mapes told the Panel that she never found any proof for this theory.

Finally, what are we to make of the fact that the Panel specifically found that the 60 Minutes report broadcast on September 8 contained repeated misrepresentations? The report, often in harsh and condemnatory language, specifically finds that the program misrepresented what CBS had been told by document examiners. It says, with respect to the interview with Robert Strong, that “virtually every excerpt used from the Lieutenant Strong interview was either inaccurate or misleading.” And it concludes that the Ben Barnes interview excerpts were “misleading.” These characterizations are at odds with the report’s assurance that the problems with the report were due only to haste and competitive pressure. Competitive pressure does not cause a reporter to make affirmative misrepresentations and misleading statements. If it wasn’t political bias that drove the show’s inaccuracies and misleading content, what was it?
The second issue that the report fails to address is the communication and apparent coordination between 60 Minutes staff and the Kerry campaign. We now know that there was more communication than had previously been acknowledged. In addition to Mapes’s famous phone call to Joe Lockhart, asking him to talk to Bill Burkett, she had several conversations with Chad Clanton, who also worked for the Kerry campaign. Clanton told the panel that Mapes asked him what information the Kerry campaign had gotten from other reporters about the National Guard story, and also told him about the story she was working on for 60 Minutes. So at a minimum, we know that the Kerry campaign knew about the 60 Minutes story while it was in preparation. And it is fair to assume that Clanton put the most benign interpretation on his several conversations with Mapes.
There is obvious circumstantial evidence for coordination as well as communication, given that the DNC launched its “Fortunate Son” ad campaign, which duplicated the themes of the 60 Minutes program, the very next morning after the program aired. The Thornburgh report raises some tantalizing questions about the timing of the 60 Minutes report, but does not try to answer them. First, it notes that early in the summer of 2004, Mapes wrote in an email that the program would air in September–a time usually devoted to reruns. At that time, the story had not yet coalesced; how could Mapes state with such assurance when it would run? Then, the program was moved at the last minute from late September to September 8. The Thornburgh panel attributes the haste with which the show was put together to this schedule change, but never asks why the change was made. An obvious possibility is that 1) the show was moved up because the information being put out by the Swift Boat Vets was killing John Kerry’s candidacy, and the Kerry campaign wanted the show moved up to help stem the tide; and/or 2) the show was moved to September 8 to tie in with the DNC’s “Fortunate Son” ad campaign. Unfortunately, the Thornburgh group seems not to have pursued this important question.
The relationship between the Kerry campaign and the 60 Minutes story is a subject that badly needs to be investigated, but the Thornburgh group did not pursue the issue beyond noting the communications between 60 Minutes staff and the Kerry campaign.
No doubt we will be commenting further on the Thornburgh report in the days to come, but those are my chief thoughts after reading the report.
I should add that I don’t attach great significance to the authors’ failure to state a definite conclusion that the documents were fakes. The report does an excellent job of marshalling the evidence as to content, format and typography. No one (except, perhaps, Dan Rather) can read that evidence without concluding that the documents were a hoax. Whether the authors stopped short of the obvious conclusion in order to help CBS, or out of an excess of caution, I have no idea. But the evidence arrayed by the authors against the CBS documents is the last nail in the coffin of those who have continued to argue that they might, after all, be genuine.

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