More than three months after they were appointed to investigate the peddling of fake documents on President Bush’s National Guard service by 60 Minutes, Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi are expected to release their report tomorrow. I have no doubt there will be a report; I have no idea whether there was actually an investigation.
There is a story to be told here: a story about how CBS coordinated its attack on President Bush with the Democratic National Committee; a story about how fake documents were put into the hands of a mentally ill, obsessively anti-Bush crank named Bill Burkett; a story about how Burkett (if he can be believed) not only got the documents into the hands of 60 Minutes, but also into the hands of the Kerry campaign, via Max Cleland; a story about how left-wing CBS producer Mary Mapes pursued the Bush National Guard “story” for five years, beginning when he was Governor of Texas, without finding anything worth reporting until the fake documents came along; a story about how 60 Minutes was warned that the documents appeared to be fakes, but published them anyway; a story about how CBS relied on interviews with people who had neither met President Bush nor seen the documents, like Robert Strong, but carefully avoided talking to the key witnesses who actually had knowledge of relevant events, like Gen. “Buck” Staudt. Whom, by the way, they carelessly slandered in their broadcast.
But I doubt whether Thornburgh and Boccardi will tell that story. To conduct this investigation, you needed an investigator. An old-fashioned investigator who would go to Texas, track down Bill Burkett, and persuade him to talk. Who would immerse himself in the corrupt politics of Travis County, Texas, and pursue leads on who created the forgeries. Who would demand to see Mary Mapes’ telephone records for the last two years, and track down every number she called. Who would make witnesses like Max Cleland either answer questions, or go on record as refusing to talk. Who would, in short, investigate.
CBS didn’t employ an investigator. They employed a couple of distinguished 70-year-old gentlemen: exactly the wrong sort of people. Maybe Thornburgh and Boccardi had the sense to hire investigators, but I doubt it. My guess is that their “investigation” consisted essentially of interviewing CBS employees. At one point, I saw a news item where they proudly announced that they had talked to 36 CBS employees. Wow. What they needed to do was forget about CBS for a while, and go to Texas. If they only talked to CBS people, they would inevitably come away with the impression that 60 Minutes was well-intentioned but regrettably failed to be sufficiently critical of the documents’ authenticity, and therefore fell for a possible hoax.
I say “possible” because I doubt that the Thornburgh/Boccardi report will draw any conclusion about the documents’ falsity. I suspect that they will be agnostic about the documents, much as Mr. Pein was in his recent Columbia Journalism Review article. If I’m right, the report will be useless.
The fundamental question here is whether CBS was the victim of a hoax, or the perpetrator of a hoax. It has been our view for a long time that Rather and his colleagues were perpetrators, not victims, in part because the documents were such obvious fakes that it strains credulity to suppose that they were actually fooled. When you read the Thornburgy/Boccardi report, keep that question constantly in mind: victim, or perpetrator?
There are lots of problems with CBS’s effort to portray itself as the victim of a hoax, but perhaps the most intractable is Dan Rather’s personal vouching for the documents. Trust me, he said to America. I know they’re authentic. They came from an unimpeachable source. That takes CBS out of the category of victim, and into the category of perpetrator.
As a trial lawyer, there are lots of witnesses I’d love to cross-examine and lots of questions I’d love to ask. On Hugh Hewitt’s show tonight, I said that the first one would be of Dan Rather: On what basis did you personally guarantee that the documents were authentic? What source did you describe as “unimpeachable”? Why? If the source was Bill Burkett, it is hard to imagine anyone more impeachable. Maybe Rather was just lying, trying to brazen it out until after the election, so that his last “contribution” would be the election of John Kerry. Or maybe–this is my own idea, just a wild hunch–the source that Rather thought was “unimpeachable” was Max Cleland. But, of course, he couldn’t admit this afterward, as the story unravelled, because his paramount concern was not to admit the coordination between CBS and the Kerry campaign.
If Thornburgh and Boccardi didn’t ask these questions, and if the answers aren’t clearly laid out in their report, what they did wasn’t an investigation. It was a cover-up.
Enough speculation. Tomorrow, the report–and we’ll let you know what we think of it.
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