Rathergate: The cover-up

What the hell was Watergate? Thirty years later, we lack a clear understanding of the most basic facts regarding the scandal. Who ordered the bungled second break-in of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972? What was the motive for the break-in? What was the role played by the CIA in the break-in or its bungling? We do know that as early as June 20, President Nixon took charge of efforts to cover up his campaign’s link to the break-in and and manipulated the resources of the executive branch toward the cover-up.

During the long denouement in which Nixon sought to bring the scandal to a conclusion, he fired Robert Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, his top aides, as well as Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and presidential counsel John Dean. Nixon announced the four resignations/firings in a nationally televised speech on April 30, 1973.

Nixon purported to accept responsibility as “the man at the top” for wrongdoing committed on his behalf, but denied knowledge of events prior to March 21. As he explained in his memoirs, he thought he could put Watergate behind him with “excuses,” but later realized that “he could not have made a more disastrous miscalculation.”

It was the following March, as the House Judiciary Committee was adding impeachment concerns to Nixon’s ongoing legal struggles, that Nixon made his most notable contribution to Dan Rather’s career. At the broadcasters’ convention meeting in Houston, Nixon held a press conference where Rather — CBS’s White House correspondent — addressed a question to him. As Rather stood at the microphone, the rowdy applause of the assembled executives delayed his question. Nixon asked him, “Are you running for something?” Rather gibed, “No, Mr. President, are you?” Nixon’s visible discomfort at being bested by Rather is unforgettable.

On July 27 the Judiciary Committee passed its first article of impeachment charging Nixon with participation in the cover-up of unlawful activities — a cover-up that formed a “course of conduct or plan” to obstruct the investigation of the Watergate break-in. On August 8, 1974, only six months after Nixon’s famous encounter with Rather, Nixon resigned in disgrace and was gone.

As the 60 Minutes story on President Bush’s Air National Guard service was prepared for broadcast, Rather’s career seemed to be turning full circle. Two days prior to the September 8 broadcast of the story, Rather spoke with CBS News President Andrew Heyward. Rather told Heyward (report page 104) that the story had been thoroughly reviewed; Rather said that he had not “been involved in this much checking on a story since Watergate.”

Little attention has been paid to the Rathergate report’s powerful narrative of the cover-up phase of the scandal. For twelve days, CBS attempted to wait out the storm raised first by the blogs and then by the media regarding the 60 Minutes story. During those twelve days, Dan Rather resembled no one so much as Richard Nixon himself as he stonewalled the issues, playing on his reputation and status to assure his audience that the story derived from an “unimpeachable” source. All that was lacking was Rather’s denial that he is a crook.

The Rathergate report recounts the cover-up phase of the Rathergate scandal at pages 153-210. So far as it goes, the report’s narrative of the cover-up is a bravura performance. It demonstrates that in every public communication, press release, and CBS News story following the September 8 broadcast until its September 20 apology, CBS flatly misrepresented the facts regarding the story and its continuing post-broadcast corroboration of the story.

The lies and misrepresentations documented in the report during the cover-up are manifold and shocking. On September 14, for example, CBS obtained signed statements regarding the fraudulent documents from Marcel Matley and James Pierce. CBS posted the statements on its Web site. The report (page 191) summarily disposes of the inadequacy of the Matley statement on its face. As to the Pierce statement, the report (page 192) makes this stunning disclosure:

Pierce’s letter did state that he believed the documents to be authentic, the first such unequivocal statement from any 60 Minutes Wednesday expert, albeit without any detailed rationale for that conclusion. However, in a phone interview with counsel for the Panel, Pierce said that he told 60 Minutes Wednesday personnel that he could not authenticate the documents, but that he was asked by them to prepare a letter stating that he did. Pierce further advised counsel for the Panel that he was merely giving the client what it wanted and that he informed 60 Minutes Wednesday personnel they “could get into trouble” if they used the letter that he signed. Despite these warnings, the letter from Pierce was posted on the CBS News website shortly thereafter along with the Matley letter.

The report is more or less mysteriously silent on the inquiries, participation, knowledge or involvement of top CBS management including CBS News President Andrew Heyward and CBS President Les Moonves during the twelve-day cover-up. “Shortly” after Rather’s on-camera interview of Burkett on September 18, the report (page 202) states, “Heyward determined that CBS News would issue an apology for the September 8 Segment on Monday, September 20 on the CBS Evening News.”

One of the eerie echoes of Watergate in the Rathergate affair is the four terminations — of CBS News Senior Vice President Betsy West; 60 Minutes Executive Producer Josh Howard; Howard’s deputy, Mary Murphy; and 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes — with which CBS has now sought to end the scandal. Dan Rather is not pulling the strings here; perhaps Rather himself is only a bit player like Ron Ziegler. Could it be that Moonves or Heyward, and not Rather, is playing the role of Richard Nixon in the Rathergate scandal?

UPDATE: Jack Risko writes:

No one seems to care about this but me, but the Panel report makes clear that Heyward, West, Howard, Rather, Mapes and Miller had all been informed, directly or indirectly, by document experts (Tytell), or content experts (Hodges) by the evening of September 10, that the Rathergate memos were phony.

The cover-up then proceeded for another ten days. Sumner Redstone sold $12MM of Viacom stock on September 14, in the midst of the cover-up, and with Rather’s ratings plummeting (but not disclosed).

Doesn’t that seem odd, in light of what we know now?

Risko cites the report as follows:

Miller and Howard both heard directly from an expert that the documents were phony (pages 174-175):

Tytell told the Panel that he told Miller on Friday, September 10, that the documents aired on the Segment were prepared in Times New Roman, a typeface available on modern computers but one that did not exist on typewriters in the 1970s. Tytell said that Miller responded that the documents were “real” because the documents were obtained from a “trusted source” and other document examiners had indicated that the documents were “good.” Tytell asked her to identify the other examiners, but she declined.

Later on September 10, Tytell spoke at length on the telephone with Howard. [Footnote omitted.] Tytell explained his concerns in detail and offered to come to CBS News to explain why he believed the Killian documents were forgeries. Howard told the Panel that he spoke to Tytell for about 30 minutes and found Tytell to be convincing. He found the discussion to be an “unsettling event” that shook his belief in the authenticity of the documents. Howard later reported his conversation with Tytell to Mapes, West and Heyward. West suggested he tell Mapes about the call. According to Howard, Mapes’ response was that one could always find experts willing to take different sides in an authentication debate.

Howard’s concerns increased during the day, and produced possibly the most damning lines in the deeply flawed Panel report on Rathergate (page 163):

Later on September 10, Howard would again express concerns to West, Mapes and Heyward about the Segment after speaking with Peter Tytell, an individual with extensive typewriter experience. At that time, Howard’s concerns again were not acted upon and thereafter Howard did not have a major role in the Aftermath, with West apparently taking the management lead and Mapes taking the production lead on follow-up stories that defended the Segment.

(Emphasis added in both quotations.) Click here and here for Risko’s posts at Dinocrat.com.

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