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2 Different Views of CBS Source

Some say Bill Burkett is a crusader for the truth. Others say he's an angry veteran on a mission.

September 21, 2004|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Until recently, Bill Burkett led an anonymous -- some say reclusive -- life on a small ranch outside the tiny town of Baird in the flatlands of West Texas. Now that he has emerged as a possible source for disputed documents about President Bush's service in the National Guard, Burkett has arguably become the most well-known person in rural Callahan County.

Besieged by reporters, he has retreated behind the iron gates of his ranch, east of Abilene, and has been refusing interviews. His only comment to an e-mail by The Times requesting an interview Monday was to decline, adding, "If the President would simply answer the questions about his service, no one would have to speculate at all."

His lawyer, David Van Os of San Antonio, a Democratic candidate for the Texas Supreme Court, didn't return phone calls to his office.

But Burkett did keep a prominent place in the news Monday with the airing of an interview with CBS anchor Dan Rather in which Burkett admitted deceiving the network to protect the source of those documents, which some experts believe are bogus.

In interviews with those who have come in contact with Burkett, two contrasting pictures emerge. One is that he is a devout crusader for the truth. The other is that he is an angry veteran on a mission to discredit both the Texas National Guard and George W. Bush.

Royce Kerr, president of the Taylor County Democratic Club in Abilene, falls in the truth camp. He describes Burkett as a man of integrity who would not stoop to deception to advance a cause. Kerr said Burkett, the son of a Church of Christ preacher, had a "respect for the truth. I don't think he has a dishonest bone in his body."

Kerr said he spoke to Burkett on Sunday night. "He told me he was concerned about protecting his source. The way he went about protecting his source is not how I would do it, but his intentions were good.... I trust him implicitly," Kerr said.

Dave Haigler, chairman of the Taylor County Democratic Party, had a similar assessment. "I just don't think Bill Burkett would be part of fabricating memos out of whole cloth," said Haigler, who has known Burkett since March. Burkett sent Haigler an e-mail Monday in which he insisted that there was no connection between the papers he provided CBS and either Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry or the Democratic National Committee.

State Rep. Bob Hunter, an Abilene Republican who chaired a committee overseeing the Texas National Guard, takes a different view of Burkett. Hunter calls him "one of the most disgruntled and angry veterans that ever came to visit with me."

On the phone, in letters and finally during a face-to-face meeting at Hunter's office in Austin during the late 1990s, Burkett railed against the leadership of the Texas National Guard and its failure to provide medical care after he contracted a tropical disease in Panama in 1998, Hunter said. Burkett, 54, retired in 1999 as a lieutenant colonel after 28 years of service.

"He was so angry it was hard to reason with him," Hunter said, adding that if Burkett had information about Bush's records at the time, he didn't say anything. "You can imagine our surprise when we learned in 2004 what is being alleged now."

Hunter said Burkett's medical benefits were eventually restored, and "we thought that was the last we'd hear of him."

But Burkett continued to lambaste the Texas National Guard and Bush, contacting reporters and writing online articles. According to the Houston Chronicle, Burkett wrote in 2003 that as an officer in the Guard, he was ordered to "alter the personnel records of George W. Bush." Burkett later told the paper that the "statement was not accurate." In another online entry last year, Burkett compared Bush to Adolph Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte as one of "the three small men who wanted to conquer and vanquish," according to the Chronicle.

More recently, Burkett has posted frequent notes to an Internet message group for Texas Democrats, urging them to redouble efforts to defeat Bush.

In the e-mail he sent to Haigler on Monday, Burkett said he talked to a number of Democratic leaders during the campaign. But, "there was never a mention, sentence, inference, wink or nod concerning the CBS documents to any individual or representative of either the Kerry campaign or the DNC," his e-mail said.

Last spring, Kerr invited Burkett to speak to local Democrats at a meeting at an Abilene YMCA. Burkett, walking with a cane, seemed weakened by a neurological condition and "did not project an aura of robust health," Kerr said. But his voice was strong and his delivery clear.

"He is a man of conviction," Kerr said. "He has nothing to gain from all of this. He's just saying what's on his mind."

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