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Thursday, September 16, 2004


MEMOGATE: The real story...

I've come up with what I believe to be a plausible explanation of the entire "memogate" episode: Where the documents came from, how and why they got into CBS' hands, how Dan Rather put together his 60 Minutes II story, why CBS sent the White House advance copies, why the White House distributed those copies to other news media, why Bush has not angrily denounced the documents as forgeries, why Dan Rather is so insistent on their authenticity and refuses to back down on his story or reveal his source, etc.

I've tried to construct a reasonable scenario which could encompass all of the fantastic elements of this evolving story, and all the questions which have been raised by both supporters and opponents of Bush.

WARNING: This is a long narrative. Also, it is only speculation on my part, as I've tried to put myself into the minds of the various participates. I've no doubt that my tale is erroneous in many details, but I believe it's a better meta-explanation than what anybody else has so far proposed.

EMPHASIZED DISCLAIMER: I am only guessing about the individuals involved and their possible conversations below. It is my personal opinion. I have no way of know what was actually said, or if I have correctly identified the perpetrators of this hoax. That should all be obvious from the context, but these days one has to make it explicit and crystal clear.

Let's get some preliminaries out of the way.

First, the documents themselves are fakes. This has long since ceased to be matter of serious dispute. I'm not going to rehash all the many, many reasons why. The best forensic analysis I've read is provided by Joseph Newcomer at If you are someone who still harbors hopes that the documents are genuine, you can stop reading right now.

Second, the contents of the documents probably contain at least a germ of truth. Most fakes do, or no one would proceed any further. George Bush likely received some degree of preferential treatment in being admitted to the National Guard. That could have ranged anywhere from the silent wink-wink type of door-opening on behalf of a young man from an influential family, to explicit (but undocumented and unprovable) behind-the-scenes string-pulling by influential family friends. Towards the end of his National Guard service, Bush likely finagled an early exit. This could have ranged from a no-big-deal lots-of-people-leave-early type of thing (with the Vietnam War having wound down) to a deliberate avoidance of medical exams and further participation in drills (perhaps punctuated by disputes with his commanding officers).

Third, there were undoubtedly lots of rumors floating around about Bush's service. Rumors and multiple retellings of tales take on a life of their own, especially when the people doing the telling inject their own slants and/or have an ax to grind. Memories fade and change over three decades, and people can often convince themselves that they remember events in a certain way which may or may not be accurate or encompass the entire story.

Fourth, Bush supporters and Bush opponents will each evaluate the "facts" through the prisms of their own world-views. Bush supporters who are certain that the President is a decent and honest man of strong moral character will be extremely skeptical of claims that Bush failed to live up to his obligations. Bush opponents who think the "unelected" President is a lying ambitious intellectually-challenged scion of a powerful and ruthless family will have no doubt that Bush cut corners to avoid Vietnam and get out of the military early (and maybe even went AWOL), and then covered up the evidence.

Okay, now let's get on to our narrative.

For the past four years Dan Rather and 60 Minutes have been pursuing the rumors revolving around Bush and the National Guard, trying to nail down sources and put together a broadcastable story. While insisting that he is a fair expositor of the news, Dan Rather nevertheless has personal and political reasons to want to damage George Bush (for example, Rather had a famous confrontation with George H.W. Bush in a 1988 interview, and Rather raised money at a Democratic fund-raiser in 2001). Dan Rather would dearly love to author a story which would counterbalance the impact of the Swift Boat Veterans, cause Bush to lose the 2004 election, and cap Rather's career with a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism as he retires in 2005.

Among the rumor sources contacted by 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes were Ben Barnes and Bill Burkett. Ben Barnes is a big-time Democrat fund-raiser and a former Texas Lt. Governor who for several years has claimed to have used his influence to get Bush into the National Guard. Bill Burkett is a former National Guard officer with a colorful history and a strong dislike for Bush.

Bill Burkett has long believed that George Bush's military service was abbreviated and that Bush used his family connections to cover it up. Burkett has had a couple of nervous breakdowns and blames Bush for much of his troubles. In his own mind Burkett knows that Bush disobeyed orders. He has convinced himself over the years that memos containing those orders once existed but were later destroyed, and he has a pretty clear idea of what the memos would have said. He has told his tale to various people, touting his secret and/or inside knowledge.

In the course of many conversations with Mapes and later with Dan Rather, Burkett satisfies them that he's telling the truth about Bush. They keep asking him if he has any proof, and he always evades the question while dropping hints that he just might. So they try the classic ploy of pretending they know more than they do. Mapes tells Burkett that she has other sources who confirm many of his statements, but those other witnesses are afraid to come forward. If CBS can just show them some evidence, it will be all they need to reveal their story on camera and thereby destroy George Bush.

Mary Mapes: 'Don't you have anything we can use? Old documents or memos? We just need copies to show to our other sources.' Bill Burkett: 'Even if I did, I wouldn't dare use them. I know the Bushes. They tried to destroy me once, and this time they'd do it for sure.' Mapes: 'So then you do have memos?' Burkett: 'Sorry, I just can't take the chance.' Dan Rather (in later conversation): 'Bill, if you have memos, this is our only chance to stop George Bush's re-election. This can save our country from a Bush family dictatorship. You have my word that we will protect you. The memos will never be traced back to you, and we'll only use them to get our other source to appear on 60 Minutes. You know me, and in all my years as a broadcaster I have never, ever burned a source. I swear to you, on my personal honor, that no matter what happens we will never reveal where the memos came from.'

After much repeated coaxing, Burkett finally agrees to provide the memos just to get the other source to talk. Burkett figures he can reproduce what the real but destroyed memos would have said. They don't have to be perfect, since the public will never see them. He doesn't have to go looking for an ancient typewriter (which would leave a trail anyway), he can just do them on his computer and fuzz them up real good.

So he opens up Microsoft Word and types away [see memos]. Does that lettering look right? Oh sure, he remembers that there were typewriters back then which could do that. Oops, the computer just turned that "th" in "111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron" into a superscript. Better not take a chance; delete it, retype it, and move the mouse cursor back to the end of the line. Good, that worked. Type, type, type. Oops, now it superscripted that "st" in "1st Lt." Okay, let's redo that and try leaving a space between the "1" and the "st". Yeah, that worked. Type, type, type. Burkett gets busy composing his memo, and no longer pays that much attention when another "th" gets superscripted. After all, it's no big deal. He's pretty sure that typewriters had that superscript character anyway. Besides, only the unidentified CBS source is going to see these memos. Burkett is much too focused on getting the content right. Same with the other memos.

Now Burkett runs over to the Kinko's in Abilene and recopies each memo over and over until it looks fuzzy enough to be safe. He faxes them to Mapes. Mary Mapes almost faints when she sees them. Here's the smoking gun they've been looking for! Here's the Pulitzer Prize she'll share with Dan Rather for producing the segment of 60 Minutes which will topple a President, right in her hands.

The next stop is Ben Barnes. Barnes knows that Bush cut ahead of the line to get into the National Guard. He's not adverse to claiming that he personally was responsible (and is now repentant), but realizes that it's a hard sell. After all, he's clearly a partisan Democrat with a strong self-interest in defeating George Bush. Still, it would be a huge coup if he could be responsible for electing John Kerry. He'd become an enormously influential figure in a Kerry Administration. But he's not going to go out on a limb all by himself, with no other evidence.

Mapes lays it on thick: 'We have documentary evidence and other sources who will swear that Bush got favorable treatment in the National Guard. All you need to do is tell how you pulled strings to get him in. That ties in with our hard evidence, and you'll just be the corroborating witness.' Barnes: 'I've got to see that evidence.' Mapes: 'Here it is. These are only copies, of course, and I can't leave them with you, but I can tell you the source is unimpeachable.' Barnes: 'Okay.'

Now the 60 Minutes II crew starts assembling the story, but they still have problems. Burkett refuses to let them put the memos on the air, and they promised him they wouldn't. But without the documents they don't have a second source to back up Barnes and bolster their case. They've got to make Burkett change his mind.

They come up with a clever idea: They'll get a reaction out of the White House. They decide to fax the memos to the White House and ask for a comment. It will place Bush in a terrible bind. After all, Bush could have no way of knowing that copies of the memos still existed or what other memos CBS might have. He'll have to come out with a mealy-mouthed statement about how it doesn't matter and he fulfilled his Guard obligation and this is dirty politics. Then CBS can move forward with the broadcast, having Bush's tacit admission that they are genuine.

Burkett is persuaded to allow them to do this. He figures that Bush is likely to panic and blurt out the truth, and then the memos will no longer matter. Besides, Burkett has been told that other witnesses will nail Bush's hide on the program, and this is just a way of smoking Bush out ahead of time.

Karl Rove gets the faxed documents and goes running to Bush with the bad news. Bush: 'This can't be right. I never got any orders from Jerry Killian to report for a medical exam.' Rove: 'Well Dan Rather is going to be putting these on his 60 Minutes broadcast. He's got to have people lined up who will vouch for them.' Bush: 'Karl, Jerry would never write down anything like this. Somebody's feeding bullshit to CBS.' Rove: 'Okay, let's start by calling in the FBI and checking if these memos are real.'

An hour later two high-power experts are pouring over the documents. Within fifteen minutes they're telling Bush and Rove that the memos are not only fakes, they are really, really bad fakes. Rove: 'How easy would it be for other experts to see that?' Expert: 'Anyone can see it. I can't believe that CBS found a legitimate expert to authenticate these. No professional is going to risk his reputation by saying that these are genuine, especially if he only has copies to go by.'

But what's the White House going to do? Rove expects 60 Minutes to show a small picture on the TV screen with a blow-up highlighted overlay of a couple of critical sentences from each memo. It won't be enough for experts to analyze. The general public will believe it, and White House denials will be brushed aside.

Now Rove comes up with a counter-ploy: Re-fax the documents to the rest of the news media. That way they'll have the evidence available for their own experts to analyze and knock down. Don't say much of anything; just reiterate the usual boilerplate that the President fulfilled his National Guard obligation and was honorably discharged.

The 60 Minutes crew is a bit surprised by the White House tactic, but immediately concludes that Rove is trying a pre-emptive strike, to minimize the significance of the memos. In a way it's even better than an angry response. It shows that the White House is shell-shocked! The White House reaction proves that the memos are genuine, despite the doubts which have been raised during the pro forma review by CBS' outside experts, and despite the denials of Killian's son.

So Dan Rather goes back to Bill Burkett and tells Burkett that they've got Bush on the run. 60 Minutes must have permission to use the memos on the air. The White House knows the memos are the real thing (and of course Burkett is privately sure that real memos once existed which said essentially the same stuff). Besides, the memos are out there now. The other major networks and newspapers have copies. That wasn't Dan Rather's intention, and he's sorry it happened, but what's done is done. Now it's time to twist the sword and finish Bush off.

Burkett reluctantly gives permission, after more assurances from Dan Rather that his identity will never be revealed.

The 60 Minutes blockbuster airs, and Dan Rather settles back to savor the results. They aren't long in coming. A poster on Free Republic quickly notices the proportional spacing type font and wonders aloud whether the memos are genuine. In a matter of hours the first wave of doubts reverberates around the Internet and turns into a tsunami.

Dan Rather isn't worried. He's talked to Burkett many times, and Burkett is absolutely sincere in his description of how Bush got out of the National Guard. Rather knows that the memos are genuine because of the way the White House reacted to them. This is just the usual Republican smear attack. They can't admit the truth, so they set out to discredit the source. But this time Dan Rather is sitting in the catbird seat.

As the storm builds, Rather verbally blasts anyone at CBS who dares to question his story or raise doubts about authenticity of the documents. Rather is not going to let a few right-wing cranks sitting in their pajamas in front of computers undermine his reputation or that of CBS. There will be no hedging and no retractions, because Dan Rather is taking George Bush down once and for all.

The rest of the story you know. The slow-motion CBS train-wreck still in process. Dan Rather's career is coming to an inglorious end, with his reputation (and that of CBS News) shattered beyond repair. The big story has become the forgery, and the cover-up of the forgery. Instead of mortally wounding George Bush's re-election hopes, Dan Rather has almost guaranteed Bush's re-election.

How plausible is the above scenario?

It answers all of the extant questions. The original source of the forged documents was not the Kerry campaign or the DNC or or Karl Rove or some incompetent teenage hoaxer. It was an individual with limited computer and forgery skills, peddling anti-Bush charges, who felt himself cornered by 60 Minutes producers and decided to recreate documents to verify his story which he knew to be true. He never expected the documents to be subject to intense public scrutiny by numerous outside experts.

Dan Rather and CBS had reasons to believe the fundamental story was accurate, and they were willing to take the risk of short-cutting normal journalistic procedures and safeguards in order to break a story which could literally change the world. Instead it blew up in their faces.

The White House played it brilliantly, giving a little shove to encourage CBS to run with the questionable documents, and then staying silent most of the time and letting others do the heavy lifting of exposing the forgeries.

I believe these are plausible answers to the constantly-asked questions as to who and how and why anyone (outside of a mental ward) would attempt to perpetrate such a crude hoax and think they could possibly get away with it.

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