Published September 21, 2004
Apologizing for a "mistake in judgment" in its story questioning President Bush's Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard, CBS News said Monday it was misled by the source of documents that many experts have singled out as fakes.
The network said it would appoint an independent panel to look at its reporting about the memos. The story has mushroomed into a major media scandal, threatening the reputations of CBS News (search) and chief anchor Dan Rather (search).
It also has become an issue in the presidential campaign. The White House said the affair raises questions about the connections between CBS' source — retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett (search) — and Democrat John Kerry's campaign.
Rather joined CBS News President Andrew Heyward in issuing an apology Monday.
"We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry," Rather said. "It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism."
Rather added: "It was a mistake CBS News deeply regrets. Also, personally and directly, I am sorry."
Almost immediately after the story aired Sept. 8, document experts questioned memos purportedly written by Bush's late squadron leader, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian (search), saying they appeared to have been created on a computer and not on the kind of typewriter in use during the 1970s.
CBS strongly defended its story. It wasn't until a week later — after Killian's former secretary said she believed the memos were fake — that the news division admitted they were questionable.
Burkett admitted this weekend to CBS that he lied about obtaining the documents from another former National Guard member, the network said. CBS hasn't been able to conclusively tell how he got them, or even definitely tell whether they're fakes or not. But the network has given up trying to defend them.
CBS said it approached Burkett initially about the documents. Rather said Burkett was well known in National Guard circles for several years for trying to discredit Bush's military record.
Burkett, in an interview with Rather aired on the "CBS Evening News," said he was pressured by CBS to reveal his source for the documents, and "I simply threw out a name that was basically, I guess, to get a little pressure off for the moment."
He said he didn't fake or forge any documents.
"I didn't totally mislead you," he said. "I did mislead you about one individual."
Burkett said he also insisted that CBS authenticate the documents on its own. Two document experts consulted by CBS later said they raised red flags that network officials apparently disregarded. Rather acknowledged CBS failed to properly determine whether the documents were genuine.
"'60 Minutes Wednesday' had full confidence in the original report or it would not have aired," Heyward said in a statement.
"However, in the wake of serious and disturbing questions that came up after the broadcast, CBS News has done extensive additional reporting in an effort to confirm the documents' authenticity. … Based on what we now know, CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report. We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret. Nothing is more important to us than our credibility and keeping faith with the millions of people who count on us for fair, accurate, reliable, and independent reporting. We will continue to work tirelessly to be worthy of that trust."
Rather himself also issued a written statement, saying, "I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically," adding that airing the documents was an "error in judgment."
"I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers," Rather continued. "That, combined with some of the questions that have been raised in public and in the press, leads me to a point where — if I knew then what I know now — I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question."
The original CBS report mainly relied on four memos purportedly written by Killian. Dated in the early 1970s, the papers say that Killian was pressured to "sugarcoat" the young Lt. Bush's record and that Bush ignored a direct order to take a physical.
'Someone Needs to Pay the Price'
"It's about time. I think CBS is the last group in America that doesn't understand these are forgeries — and really abusive forgeries," former Republican National Committee Chairman Bill Brock told FOX News after the statement was released. "Hallelujah they are finally admitted they were wrong and I hope they will be very forthcoming about their source and that they were duped."
The president was told about the CBS statement while aboard Air Force One.
"We appreciate that they deeply regret this, but there are still questions to be answered," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters traveling with the president, adding that Burkett has in the past been discredited and has had senior-level contacts with the Kerry campaign, which raise serious questions.
"Where I come from, if you make a mistake or spread lies or allegations, you damn well better apologize to the guy you're offending. In my opinion, they owe the president of the United States an apology directly," Joe Allbaugh, who served as chief of staff for then-Gov. George Bush, told FOX News Monday after CBS released its statement.
"They [CBS] were trying to directly, with false information, affect the outcome of this presidential election. Someone needs to pay the price," Allbaugh added.
Top CBS executives huddled throughout the weekend and refined the wording of its correction and apology throughout Monday morning.
"This is a fact of CBS being used by a wide wrap of Democratic operatives," Terry Holt, a senior RNC adviser, told FOX News.
"I think that [Democratic Party Chairman] Terry McAuliffe, John Kerry — they've been at the heart of a wide range of groups over the past several months designed to attack the president and take him down and I think that's unfortunate."
Holt opined that the Kerry camp was "desperate to find any way they could to change the subject" from the Vietnam swift boat tangle it found itself in after some Vietnam vets charged that Kerry exaggerated some stories of valor from the war and that he didn't deserve all his war medals.
"They had motive, they had opportunity and they definitely had desperation," Holt added.
CBS went into a "defensive crouch" and should have acknowledged sooner the possibility they were duped, Richard Cohen, a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, told FOX News on Monday.
But "I essentially think it's a tempest in the teapot — it was a mistake … all news organizations make mistakes … if they're aggressive and really care about covering the news … it's part of the business."
Some Democratic insiders, however, point out that despite the source of the documents, CBS is standing by its contents and the fact that few are disputing the inconsistencies described in Bush's military record.
"There's still a ton of unanswered questions by this president about his military service," such as whether he got enough points for an honorable discharge, as questioned by The New York Times in a Monday article, said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus.
"I think the thing that we need to look at … is the pattern inside this White house and this president in terms of their credibility … and how they're talking about this Guard story and how they're talking about the war in Iraq today … he has not answered any questions about where he was that year" or in Iraq today, she added.
Adding more fuel to the fire, Burkett, who lives in Abilene, Texas, has now also said that he passed the documents on to former Sen. Max Cleland (search), a Georgia Democrat and triple amputee from Vietnam, who is working with the Kerry campaign. Burkett also has urged Democratic activists to wage "war" against Republican "dirty tricks."
Burkett's had a long-running feud with Bush over health benefits and the Texas National Guard. Bob Hunter, a Republican legislator who investigated Burkett's charges, told FOX News he found them to be groundless.
Over the weekend, Bush commented publicly on the issue for the first time.
"There are a lot of questions about the documents, and they need to be answered," he told The Union Leader of Manchester, N.H. The president has continued to maintain that he is proud to have served in the Guard.
The Bush-Cheney campaign has maintained that Kerry campaign staffers are behind the memo snafu.
"The timing is not in question and the coordinated effort by the Democrats and the Kerry campaign to use these old recycled attacks is not in question," McClellan said.
FOX News' Liza Porteus, Major Garrett and Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.