George W. Bush, in his memoir Decision Points, says he was shown a copy of a purported memo about his shirking of his National Guard duty before a story citing the document appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes-2," and the former president gloats over the resulting controversy that cost the jobs of anchor Dan Rather and his star producer Mary Mapes.
Bush's account also suggests that the White House may have had a larger role in discrediting the memo than generally understood.
According to Bush, he was shown the purported memo by White House aide Dan Bartlett after stepping off Marine One late one night in September 2004.
"Dan told me CBS newsman Dan Rather was going to run a bombshell report on 60 Minutes based on the document," Bush wrote. "Bartlett asked if I remembered the memo. I told him I had no recollection of it and asked him to check it out.
"The next morning, Dan walked into the Oval Office looking relieved. He told me there were indications that the document had been forged. The typeface came from a modern computer font that didn't exist in the early 1970s."
Though Bush does not specify whether Bartlett's assessment of the memo's authenticity came before or after the "60 Minutes-2" segment was aired on Sept. 8, 2004, Bush adds that "within a few days, the evidence was conclusive. The memo was phony."
White House press spokesman Scott McClellan later said CBS had provided several of the purported National Guard memos in the days prior to the broadcast and that the White House subsequently released them to other news organizations so they could be examined.
"We made those documents available to everybody else so you could look at them yourselves," McClellan said at a press briefing on Sept. 15, 2004. "Since that time there have been a number of questions that have been raised about these documents and their authenticity."
However, Bush's recollection about Bartlett's initial examination and the speed at which right-wing bloggers seized on alleged inconsistencies in the memos immediately after the CBS broadcast suggest that the White House recognized the memos as a weak link in the story and helped feed the furor.
Though the CBS report cited other evidence about Bush's failure to fulfill his National Guard duty, the accusations of memo forgery raced through the right-wing media based in part on an early false assumption that IBM Selectric typewriters couldn't produce superscripts that appear on some of the memos allegedly typed in the early 1970s.
As the right-wing media defined the story, the mainstream media quickly fell into line. The press corps downplayed the overwhelming evidence that the then-president had ducked out on his National Guard assignment, which had kept him out of the Vietnam War, and instead competed for scoops about shortcomings in CBS document vetting.
Instead of Bush being the focus, the harsh spotlight swung to Rather and producer Mary Mapes, who just a few month earlier had broken the story of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
A Secretary's Recollection
Several days into the controversy, Marian Carr Knox, the secretary of Bush's ex-commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, told Rather in an interview that she doubted Killian, who died in 1984, had typed the purported memos.
However, Knox confirmed the substance of the memos, recalling that Killian was "upset" that Bush had refused to obey his order to take a flight physical and that Bush's refusal to follow the rules had caused dissension among other National Guard pilots.
Even though Bush was U.S. president in 2004 and was sending young National Guard soldiers to serve and sometimes die in Iraq, the news media couldn't get enough of the intricate analyses offered by document experts who generally agreed that CBS had failed to adequately authenticate the memos.