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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

CBS Backs Away From Authenticity of Documents

Network says it's continuing to probe whether National Guard memos are fakes.

September 16, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen and Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — Faced with numerous reports that controversial documents about President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service were forgeries, CBS News officials stopped asserting Wednesday that the papers the network had obtained were real, and said they would "redouble" their efforts to resolve the contradictions.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward wouldn't comment when asked if he still believed that the documents, purportedly from the early 1970s, were genuine, as he had insisted a day earlier.

"I have great confidence in our sources and reporting, but obviously there are unanswered questions," he said in an interview.

Heyward said Wednesday night that the network's new efforts were not an investigation but simply "an extension of the reporting we said we'd do."

"There are significant questions swirling around the documents," he said. "We said all along we would continue to report all aspects of the story, and this is an aspect well worth looking into."

Even as CBS acknowledged the questionable origin of the memos, the network asserted that the thrust of its report aired Sept. 8 on "60 Minutes" was true: that Bush had not fulfilled his National Guard commitment 30 years ago and that he had received favorable consideration that allowed him to avoid being sent to Vietnam.

On Wednesday night, the network aired an interview with Marion Carr Knox, who worked for 23 years at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston and served as a secretary and typist for the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, then Bush's squadron commander, and several other officers.

Knox told anchor Dan Rather that she had not typed the memos on which the network had based its first report. She did, however, say that she had typed documents like them, and that Killian had been angry about Bush's refusal to follow an order to take a physical.

She added that the young lieutenant seemed to have a casual attitude about attending drills, and that other officers in the unit were resentful of his absence.

"It seems to me that Bush felt that he was above reproach," Knox told Rather. "I think it's plain and simple. Bush didn't think that he had to go by the rules that others did."

The controversy swirling around CBS stemmed from six memos the network said it had obtained from a source it will not identify but calls "unimpeachable." Four of those memos were used in the "60 Minutes" broadcast last week. The network has acknowledged that the documents are not originals.

Knox repeated statements she had made to other news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times -- that she believed the memos were fake but accurately reflected Killian's concerns about Bush's failure to take his physical examination in 1972 and efforts by his superiors to minimize any fallout.

On Wednesday, CBS' actions were parsed by broadcast rivals and other media outlets. And members of both parties weighed in on the revelations.

Republicans were split, with one high-ranking member of Congress calling for an investigation and another disparaging the idea.

The network "should be doing the internal investigation, working very aggressively to make sure that what they thought was credible about their source holds up," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It's possible that their source was tricked. Getting the chain of control correct is CBS' burden right now."

On Capitol Hill, a House Republican leader called for a congressional investigation of CBS News' use of "apparently forged documents" concerning Bush's National Guard service "intended to unfairly damage his reputation and influence the outcome of the 2004 presidential election."

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, made the request in a letter to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan declined to speculate about who might have falsified the documents, but he accused the Democrats of "orchestrated attacks" on the president.

"The Democrats have made it clear that they intend to try to tear down the president and throw the kitchen sink at us because they can't run on John Kerry's record, and because they see him falling behind in the polls," McClellan said.

Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, lashed out at Bush: "What we still don't know is why Bush didn't fulfill his duty or why he has continued to lie to the American people about it."

In an interview Wednesday with The Times before she headed to New York, Knox said Killian had been under pressure to "sugarcoat" Bush's military service record. The pressure prompted him, as Bush's commanding officer, to keep scrupulous records of Bush's supervision.

"It seemed that Bush was getting more attention than he should have been getting," Knox told The Times. "Killian decided it was a good idea to keep a record. It was a personal journal, really."

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