Published September 22, 2004
NEW YORK – At the suggestion of a CBS News producer, a top adviser to John Kerry talked to the man at the center of the National Guard "memogate" imbroglio before the disputed documents were revealed, FOX News has confirmed.
Joe Lockhart (search) said he got a call from CBS the Saturday before the Sept. 8 broadcast which launched the network into a firestorm of controversy.
The CBS representative alerted Lockhart that a man in Texas, Bill Burkett (search), was interested in helping the Kerry-Edwards campaign. Lockhart then called Burkett, a former Texas Army National Guard official who CBS says provided the doubtful documents.
But Lockhart denied any connection between the Kerry campaign and the documents, saying there is "no basis" for the White House charges that the Kerry campaign had something to do with the memo entanglement.
Lockhart, the second Kerry adviser to confirm contact with Burkett, said he made the call at the suggestion of CBS producer Mary Mapes. Mapes told him there were some records "that might move the story forward," Lockhart said. "She didn't tell me what they said."
He added that it was common knowledge that CBS was working on a story raising questions about Bush's Guard service.
"All I know is that she [CBS producer] called and said 'this gentleman is interested in talking to you,'" Lockhart told FOX News on Tuesday. "Certainly, there was no discussion at all with Mr. Burkett about the National Guard documents ... "I think he was a little bit frustrated he was calling the campaign and I wasn't calling him back. He made some good points and that was the end of it."
"He had some political advice -- he thought we were being too passive on the whole swift boat controversy … I thanked him for the advice," Lockhart continued.
He earlier told FOX News that he only listened to Burkett — a longtime Bush critic — for a few minutes. Lockhart said Burkett made no mention of the documents, but instead said he had a lot of information that would help the Kerry campaign if it wanted to fight back against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search), the unregulated 527 group that sponsored ads challenging Kerry's Vietnam service.
Lockhart described Burkett as "very exercised" over the attacks on Kerry's military record and eager to help Kerry "push back" with information about Bush's Texas Air National Guard (search) service.
Lockhart, chief White House press secretary during Bill Clinton's second term, said he understood that CBS got the documents the Friday before the network producer called him, which would have been Sept. 3.
Burkett had told USA Today that he had agreed to turn over the documents to CBS if the network would arrange a conversation with the Kerry campaign.
But "he certainly didn't have an understanding with me and I didn't have an understanding with anybody else," Lockhart maintained.
CBS spokeswoman Kelli Edwards released a statement saying the Burkett-Lockhart connection is just "one of many" issues an independent commission it is putting together will examine.
"It is obviously against CBS News standards and those of every other reputable news organization to be associated with any political agenda," Edwards said.
The next statement CBS is expected to make will lay out just how that independent review will take place.
White House: Tie Raises 'Serious Questions'
The White House called the exchange evidence of coordination between the Kerry campaign and Burkett.
"The fact that CBS News would coordinate with the most senior levels of Senator Kerry's campaign is a stunning and deeply troubling revelation that raises serious questions," said White House spokesman Dan Bartlett. "It's time for the Kerry campaign to come clean about their involvement in this growing scandal and for Senator Kerry to immediately hold accountable anyone in his campaign that was involved."
Lockhart denied any involvement.
"Bartlett is wrong," he said later Monday. "It's baseless to say the Kerry campaign had anything to do with this," he said earlier.
Rep. Roy Blunt, the House Majority Whip, told FOX News on Tuesday that the Lockhart connection deserves more scrutiny.
"How can that be an objective position to be in?" he asked, noting that Ben Ginsberg (search) recently left his position as counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign at the mere suggestion that there was a connection between the White House and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which he was informally advising. Ginsberg wasn't considered as high-level a strategist as Lockhart.
"I think Joe Lockhart's going to have to explain what he was doing, why he was doing it, why they had these multiple contacts between the campaign," Blunt said, especially since Burkett's allegations "clearly drove this story for days."
Burkett told USA Today that his interest in contacting the campaign had nothing to do with the documents.
"My interest was to get the attention of the national [campaign] to defend against the attacks," Burkett told the newspaper.
CBS News apologized Monday for a "mistake in judgment" in its story questioning Bush's Guard service, claiming it was misled by the source of documents that several experts have dismissed as fakes. The network said an independent panel would look at its reporting about the memos.
"This is an example of the kind of thing that the independent panel that will be named in a few days will look into. When that review is complete, we will comment," said CBS News spokesman Kelli Edwards.
Burkett: 'I Did Mislead You'
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 whether they're fakes.
"Well, I didn't totally mislead you -- I did mislead you on the one individual," Burkett told Rather in an interview that aired Monday night, adding that he still believed the documents were real. "Your staff pressured me to a point to reveal that source ... and I simply threw out a name that was basically, I guess, to take a little pressure off for a moment."
Rather responded by saying the network was simply trying to uncover the "chain of possession."
Burkett told USA Today that the source of the documents is George Conn, a former Texas National Guard colleague who works for the U.S. Army in Europe. Burkett now says he made up the story about Conn's involvement to divert attention from himself and the woman he now says provided him with the documents.
Burkett now maintains that the source of the papers was Lucy Ramirez, who he says phoned him from Houston in March to offer the documents. He said Ramirez claimed to possess the "correspondence file" of Lt. Col Jerry Killian -- Bush's Guard supervisor who was alleged to have written the memps -- which would prove Burkett's allegations that Bush had problems as a Guard fighter pilot.
Kerry ally Max Cleland (search), a former Georgia senator, also said he had a brief conversation last month with Burkett, who told him he had information about Bush to counter charges against Kerry's Vietnam War service. Cleland said he gave Burkett's name and phone number to the campaign's research department.
Kerry spokesman David Ginsberg said nobody in the campaign's research department followed up on Burkett's offer of information.
As more experts came forward to question the authenticity of the documents over the past two weeks, CBS blamed the White House, saying Bartlett, its communication director, should have warned them the documents were fake.
"They came to me at the last minute and expected me to be the one to authenticate them," Bartlett told FOX News. "These are documents that came from a dead man's file, so I had to accept from a news organization that they were authentic."
Bartlett said Bush asked him to explain what happened when he was in the Guard, and that's what has been done for every campaign, because every time Bush is on the ballot, questions about his service surface.
"I was stunned when I started getting calls Friday and Saturday that I sealed the deal for them, that I made it credible to put the documents forward when really I had to call them on Tuesday evening [the night before the documents were aired] and they said they wouldn't give it to us until the next day," Bartlett added. "It is breathtaking to think that after all this, they are now pointing to my interview as saying that I'm the person authenticating the documents, when I was given them at the last minute."
Rather himself told WCBS-TV Monday afternoon that the entire ordeal left him feeling miserable.
FOX News' Carl Cameron, Major Garrett, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.