WASHINGTON – The man in the middle of the debacle dogging CBS News about documents purporting to show that President Bush shirked his Vietnam-era National Guard duty says the network was caught "flat-footed" and he believes he is being set up to be a scapegoat.
"It caught CBS very flat-footed. They were not prepared. And I had warned them ... that this would probably be one of the most highly coordinated vicious attacks that they would ever have to face," Bill Burkett said in an interview published Friday in the Fort-Worth Star Telegram.
Burkett, a former Texas Air National Guardsman, said that he and CBS News anchor Dan Rather (search) spoke "forcefully" after questions arose about the documents, which are now suspected of being fakes.
Burkett said CBS is making him the "fall guy" and that the documents are real. He said he got them at a Houston stock show from a man he didn't know. Some media reports say Burkett is pondering suing the network for defamation and libel. He told the Star-Telegram that CBS "duped" him by identifying him as the source.
"Dan Rather ruined me in front of 70 million people," Burkett said.
As for suspected coordination with John Kerry's (search) presidential campaign, Burkett said that during a single phone conversation with Joe Lockhart (search) — a senior adviser to the Democratic presidential nominee — Burkett suggested a "couple of concepts on what I thought [Kerry] had to do" to beat Bush.
Lockhart apparently called Burkett after CBS told the Kerry campaign that the former Guardsman had some information that may be valuable and that he wanted to talk to someone from the campaign.
Burkett said that when he talked to CBS, the network tried to "convince me as to why I should give them the documents."
The Star-Telegram originally reported that Burkett said Lockhart tried to convince him to hand over the documents but the newspaper later retracted that version of the story and said it was CBS — not the Kerry adviser — who pressured Burkett.
Lockhart has maintained that he only listened to Burkett for three to four minutes during a phone conversation that took place after CBS called the Kerry adviser to tell him Burkett might have some information for the campaign. The former Clinton White House spokesman also said the topic of the Texas Air National Guard memos never came up, and that Burkett only talked about different ways the Kerry campaign could counter attack ads being launched by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
"Mr. Burkett was simply concerned because he felt that the swift boat veteran attack that has been going on all summer was not being swiftly enough responded to by the Kerry campaign. That's all he told Mr. Lockhart," Gabe Quinntanilla, Burkett's former attorney, told FOX News on Friday. "Mr. Lockhart acknowledged that it was very pleasant, very short ... there wasn't anything substantive having to do with CBS. There was nothing at all."
The CBS call came soon before the network aired the disputed documents, which allege that a young Lt. George W. Bush received preferential treatment to get into the Guard to avoid going to Vietnam, and that his superiors were pressured to "sugarcoat" his record.
Since the documents aired, multiple experts have come forth questioning the authenticity of the documents. CBS, after arguing that it stood by its source of the memos, publicly acknowledged that it was duped, apologized and appointed a panel to investigate exactly where the documents came from and exactly how they got on the air without being effectively verified.
Burkett said he initially misled CBS on how he obtained the documents because he wanted to protect his source, who identified herself as Lucy Ramirez. If that is her true name, he said, she could be in "grave danger."
The CBS investigation into what happened is also expected to include whether the network's call to Lockhart was part of a deal made with Burkett, who allegedly told producer Mary Mapes (search) that he would hand over the documents to the television network if it put him in touch with the Kerry campaign.
Burkett also told the newspaper that he did not coordinate the release of disputed documents with Kerry's campaign, but warned CBS that the papers would be vigorously challenged and should be independently validated.
Sumner Redstone, chairman and chief executive of Viacom — the parent company of CBS — said Thursday that the "memogate" investigation will take only "a few weeks," not months.
The investigation is "appropriate and the consequences will be appropriate," Redstone told the business magazine Forbes at a conference in Hong Kong.
While sources told the New York Post that the network's investigation will be wrapped up in a few weeks, CBS insists there is no deadline.
"Everyone at CBS would like it done as quickly as possible, but the most important thing is that it be done as thoroughly and as completely as possible," CBS News spokeswoman Sandra Genelius said.
Campaign to Oust Rather?
On the Rather front, there's an effort under way to oust the veteran newsman from the network that now has a black eye.
Station managers at several CBS affiliates said Thursday they appear to be a target of a national e-mail campaign placing pressure on the network to oust Rather as anchorman of the "CBS Evening News."
Bob Lee, president and general manager of WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va., and head of the CBS affiliate board, said many e-mailers offer the same message: I will not watch CBS News again until Rather is gone.
The campaign appears to originate from a blogger on the Web site, Rathergate.com, who is forwarding e-mails to stations around the country.
"The buck has to stop," said Mike Krempasky of Falls Church, Va., who works for a political advertising company and set up Rathergate.com, as well as the conservative-oriented Web site Redstate.org. "He's the one who sneered at anyone who dared criticize him on the story for 10 days. He's the one who put his credibility on the line when he said he believed in the story."
Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite (search) called the CBS report "embarrassing," but urged patience until the investigation is complete.
"We must wait while CBS management conducts the investigation they have promised. We can then decide what our reaction should be," said Cronkite, 87, who was in Boston on Thursday night to receive an award.
"The reaction at the moment, of course, is embarrassment for everyone who is connected to CBS, and that embarrassment, I hope, will be squashed in time as we know what happened."
FOX News' Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.