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Saturday, September 11, 2004

Ah, the wonders of the internet. On Wednesday night, Dan Rather goes on the air to report that Bush got into the National Guard because of his influential family, disobeyed a direct order and did not meet his obligations to the National Guard. The "family influence" claim was based on the statements of Ben Barnes, former Texas Lieutentant Governor. The rest of the claims were based on the now infamous documents obtained by CBS News. The documents were authenticated by Marcel Matley, a document expert, and by Major General (retired) Hodges, the (immediate?) superior of the author of the documents, who was himself Bush's superior officer.

Within twenty four hours, serious questions had been raised concerning all of the new witnesses and new documents trumpeted by Rather. The questions were so serious that Rather felt the need, on Friday evening, to attempt to rebut them on the air.

And by Saturday evening, Rather's rebuttal had been shredded.

His document expert, who supposedly authenticated the documents, formed his opinion after having viewed copies, since that was all CBS had. But that same expert wrote in 2002 that "... modern copiers and computer printers are so good that they permit easy fabrication of quality forgeries. From a copy, the document examiner cannot authenticate the unseen original but may well be able to determine that the unseen original is false. Further, a definite finding of authenticity for a signature is not possible from a photocopy, while a definite finding of falsity is possible." (Emphasis added.) General Hodges stated that CBS had misled him by telling him that the documents had been handwritten, and that all he had said was that if Killian (the supposed author) had written it, then that was how Killian felt about the matter.

The original criticisms of the documents (the use of New Times Roman; the proportional spacing; the centering and superscript) were hardly affected at all by the rebuttal. If you are old enough to remember Watergate, the infamous 18 minute gap in one of the Nixon tapes was explained away by partisans as having been accidentally caused by Nixon's secretary (Rose Mary Woods) performing a complicated stretch across three quarters of her large desk to answer her phone without taking her foot off a floor switch. The explanation was ridiculed as the "Rose Mary Stretch."

Well, the explanation of how Colonel Killian could have produced the documents contemporaneously with their dates had the same ring to it as the Rose Mary Stretch.
He would have to have had a high end IBM typewriter, the IBM Selectric Composer. In the Texas Air National Guard? Right.

He would have had to stop typing, rummage in his desk for another type ball having a smaller typeface, replace the existing type ball with the new one, futz with the paper, and type "th".

He would have had to reverse the process to get back to 12 point New Times Roman.

He would have had to do this several times in the course of one short document.

He would have had to type out and carefully measure the length of each line in the caption for centering purposes and start typing at the proper point on each line on a fresh paper.
I don't understand how there could be any questions about it. It could have happened. It did happen. Of course that's what a man who, according to both his widow and his son, didn't like to type would do!

And new faults were found (the terminology used in the memos was not in use at the time the memos were supposedly written; the signature block was wrong; the caption was wrong; the person said to be exerting pressure to sugarcoat Bush's evaluation had retired 18 months before date of the the memo; both Colonel Killian's son and his widow said he never took notes or kept memos, didn't write like that and admired Bush, even travelling to another base to pin his wings on him and meet Bush the elder; the son also questioned one of the signatures).

Additional document experts have offered opinions contrary to that of Mr. Matley (not to mention Matley's prior article saying that what he had done could not be done).

Rather's first new witness (Barnes) was recalled to have earlier stated exactly the opposite of what he was now claiming and revealed (by his daughter, no less) to have a motive of hyping his upcoming book.

And General Hodges, the witness apparently thought to be the "trump card," recanted, so to speak, as noted above.

I think the documents are forgeries. I think Matley's "authentication" of the documents is complete bullshit (and so does Matley, at least as of 2002) I think Barnes is a terrible witness for the "influence" claim, and that Hodges is a non-witness at best.

But I don't think Rather intentionally trumpeted forged documents and biased, misleading witnesses. I think he fervently wants Bush to lose the election because that's what he thinks needs to happen in order for things to improve in the world, and he allowed that desire to blind him to the multiple, egregious and obvious flaws in the report.

His actions subsequent to the initial report, however, are something different altogether. As Nixon learned, its not the original problem that will kill you, its the coverup. Rather's Friday night rebuttal was pathetic. "Some typewriters" had the superscripted th option in the early seventies? Well, at least one did that used New Times Roman, but for God's sake man:

Who would write a memo and stick it in a file on the off chance that the subject of the memo would be running for reelection 30 freakin years later?

Where were these witnesses and documents in 2000?

Rather's claim that everyone else's document analysis is wrong because they are looking at copies of copies of faxes of copies begs the question: Should not CBS then release the actual documents that Matley was looking at, rather than just copies of them? Why won't it, and why won't they tell us where they got the documents from? If the documents are in fact forgeries, surely they owe no obligation to protect the source that embarrassed them. And since releasing the documents and documenting their provenance appears to be the only way to salvage the claims made by CBS, why won't they do so?

If there are two ways to produce the documents, one taking a whole bunch of time and effort using the Rose Mary Woods Stretch-like procedure outlined above and one taking minutes using nothing but MS Word and maybe Photoshop, does not Occam's Razor tell us that forgery is the more likely explanation?

Why would Colonel Killian keep an official order for Lt. Bush to report for a physical exam in his "personal file?" Why does his widow say that Colonel Killian did not keep such things?

In his rebuttal, Rather said he would report only "definitive evidence" contrary to his story. The various items listed above are not definitive evidence. They are strong evidence. They are, in my opinion, far more than a preponderance of the evidence. But they are not definitive. But then almost nothing could be definitive this long after the fact. The problem here is Rather's disingenous use of the standard of proof required for rebuttal evidence. The evidence for the original story turns out to be flimsy at best, and Rather thinks that only "definitive" evidence countering it is worthy of being reported?

Airing the original story was a mistake. Sticking to it in the face of the volume, nature and quality of the criticism levelled against it is a much, much bigger mistake. It is the type of mistake that ends careers.

Can Rather survive the ridicule? CBS News is already in last place for news among the three broadcast networks. The damage done to their flagship 60 Minutes franchise is massive and will grow larger as people start to ask what did Dan know and when did he know it and as clippies continue to be created and circulated on the net.

NOTE: I normally try hard to credit sources on my posts. In this case, there were just too many. All, repeat, all of the above facts were discovered by others and reported elsewhere on the internet in blogs, mainstream sites, newspapers such as the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, etc. Most of the analysis was done first elsewhere as well, but not, I think, all in one place. My apologies. Today's ration of free ice cream does not include sourcing references. I'll try to do better tomorrow.
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