CBS News producer Mary Mapes obtained the copied documents from Burkett, a former officer in the Texas Army National Guard, in the course of pursuing a story about the George W. Bush military service controversy. The papers, purportedly made by Bush's commander, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, included criticisms of Bush's service in the Guard during the 1970s. In the 60 Minutes segment, anchor Dan Rather stated "we are told [the documents] were taken from Lieutenant Colonel Killian’s personal files and incorrectly asserted that "the material" had been authenticated by experts retained by CBS.
The authenticity of the documents was challenged within hours on Internet forums and blogs, with questions initially focused on alleged anachronisms in the documents' typography and content soon spreading to the mass media. Although CBS and Rather defended the authenticity and usage of the documents for a two-week period, continued scrutiny from other news organizations and independent analysis of the documents obtained by USA Today and CBS raised questions about the documents' validity and led to a public repudiation on September 20, 2004. Rather stated, "if I knew then what I know now – I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question," and CBS News President Andrew Heyward said, "Based on what we now know, CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report. We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret."
Several months later, a CBS-appointed panel led by Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi criticized both the initial CBS news segment and CBS' "strident defense" during the aftermath. CBS fired producer Mary Mapes, several senior news executives were asked to resign, and CBS apologized to viewers. The panel did not specifically consider whether the documents were forgeries but concluded that the producers had failed to authenticate them and cited "substantial questions regarding the authenticity of the Killian documents."
Burkett had received publicity in 2000, after making and then retracting a claim that he had been transferred to Panama for refusing "to falsify personnel records of [then-]Governor Bush", and in February of 2004, when he claimed to have knowledge of "scrubbing" of Bush's TexANG records. Mapes was "by her own account [aware that] many in the press considered Burkett an 'anti-Bush zealot,' his credibility in question.
Mapes and Smith made contact with Burkett in late August, and on August 24 Burkett offered to meet with them to share the documents he possessed, and later told reporters from USA Today "that he had agreed to turn over the documents to CBS if the network would arrange a conversation with the Kerry campaign, a claim substantiated by emails between Smith and Mapes detailing Burkett's additional requests for help with negotiating a book deal, security, and financial compensation. During the last week of August, Mapes asked Josh Howard, her immediate superior at CBS, for permission to facilitate contact between Burkett and the Kerry campaign, and Howard and Mapes subsequently disputed whether such permission was obtained.
Two documents were provided by Burkett to Mapes on September 2 and four others on September 5, 2004. At that time, Burkett told Mapes that they were copies of originals that had been obtained from Killian's personal files via Chief Warrant Officer George Conn, another former member of the TexANG.
Mapes informed Rather of the progress of the story, which was being targeted to air on September 8 along with footage of an interview with former Lieutenant Governor of Texas Ben Barnes, who would publicly state for the first time his opinion that Bush received preferential treatment to get into the National Guard. Mapes had also been in contact with the Kerry campaign several times between late August and September 6, when she spoke with senior Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart regarding the progressing story. Lockhart subsequently stated he was "wary" of contact with Mapes at this stage, because if the story were true, his involvement might undermine its credibility, and if it were false, "he did not want to be associated with it. Lockhart called Burkett on September 6 at the number provided by Mapes, and both men stated they discussed Burkett's view of Kerry's Presidential campaign strategy, not the existence of the documents or the related story.
USA Today also received copies of the four documents used by CBS, reporting this and publishing them the morning after the CBS segment, along with two additional memos. Burkett was assured by USA Today that they would keep the source confidential.
On September 5, CBS interviewed Killian's friend Robert Strong, who ran the Texas Air National Guard administrative office. Among other issues covered in his interview with Rather and Mapes, Strong was asked if he thought the documents were genuine. Strong stated, "they are compatible with the way business was done at the time. They are compatible with the man that I remember Jerry Killian being. Strong had first seen the documents twenty minutes earlier and also said he had no personal knowledge of their content; he later claimed he had been told to assume the content of the documents was accurate.
On September 6, CBS interviewed General Robert "Bobby" Hodges, a former officer at the Texas Air National Guard and Killian's immediate superior at the time. Hodges declined CBS' request for an on-camera interview, and Mapes read the documents to him over the telephone. According to Mapes, Hodges agreed with CBS's assessment that the documents were real, and CBS reported that Hodges stated that these were "the things that Killian had expressed to me at the time. However, according to Hodges, when Mapes read portions of the memos to him he simply stated, "well if he wrote them, that's what he felt," and he claims he never confirmed the validity of the content of the documents. General Hodges later asserted to the investigatory panel that he told Mapes that Killian had never, to his knowledge, ordered anyone to take a physical and that he had never been pressured regarding Lieutenant Bush, as the documents alleged. Hodges also claims that when CBS interviewed him, he thought the memos were handwritten, not typed, and following the September 8 broadcast, when Hodges had seen the documents and heard of claims of forgery by Killian's wife and son, he was "convinced they were not authentic" and told Rather and Mapes on September 10.
Prior to airing, all four of the examiners responded to Mapes' request for document analysis, though only two to Mapes directly:
The segment introduced Lieutenant Robert Strong's interview, describing him as a "friend of Killian" (without noting he had not worked in the same location and without mentioning he had left the TexANG prior to the dates on the memos). The segment used the sound bite of Strong saying the documents were compatible with how business was done but did not include a disclaimer that Strong was told to assume the documents were authentic.
In Rather's narration about one of the memos, he referred to pressure being applied on Bush's behalf by General Buck Staudt, and described Staudt as "the man in charge of the Texas National Guard." Staudt had retired from the guard a year and a half prior to the dates of the memos.
Interview clips with Ben Barnes, former Speaker of the Texas House, created the impression "that there was no question but that President Bush had received Barnes' help to get into the TexANG," because Barnes had made a telephone call on Bush's behalf, when Barnes himself had acknowledged that there was no proof his call was the reason, and that "sometimes a call to General Rose did not work." Barnes' disclaimer was not included in the Segment.
By the following day, questions about the authenticity of the documents were being publicized by the Drudge Report, which linked to the analysis at the Powerline blog in the mid-afternoon, and the story was covered on the website of the magazine The Weekly Standard and broke into mass media outlets, including the Associated Press and the major television news networks. It also was receiving serious attention from conservative writers such as National Review Online's Jim Geraghty. By the afternoon of September 9, Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs had posted his attempt to recreate one of the documents using Microsoft Word with the default settings. The September 9 edition of ABC's Nightline made mention of the controversy, along with an article on the ABC News website. Although the CBS story is front-page news in the New York Times and Washington Post on September 9, and on two-thirds of a full page within USA Today's news section (which notes the newspaper has also obtained copies of the documents), "There is no discussion in the major news media about whether the memos are authentic." CBS published the reaction of Killian's son, Gary, to the documents, reporting that Gary Killian questioned one of the memos but stated that others "appeared legitimate" and characterized the collection as "a mixture of truth and fiction". In an interview with Fox News, Gary Killian expressed doubts about the documents' authenticity on the basis of his father's positive view of Bush.
The first newspaper articles questioning the documents appeared on September 10 in The Washington Post, The New York Times and in USA Today via the Associated Press. The Associated Press reported, "Document examiner Sandra Ramsey Lines...said she was 'virtually certain' [the documents] were generated by computer. Lines said that meant she could testify in court that, beyond a reasonable doubt, her opinion was that the memos were written on a computer."
Also on September 10, the Dallas Morning News reported "that the officer named in one memo as exerting pressure to "sugarcoat" Bush's military record was discharged a year and a half before the memo was written. The paper cited a military record showing that Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt was honorably discharged on March 1, 1972, while the memo cited by CBS as showing that Staudt was interfering with evaluations of Bush was dated August 18, 1973.
In response to the media attention, a CBS memo said the documents were "backed up not only by independent handwriting and forensic document experts but by sources familiar with their content" and insisted that no internal investigation would take place. On the CBS Evening News, on September 10, Rather defended the story and noted that its critics included "partisan political operatives."
In an appearance on CNN that day, Rather asserted "I know that this story is true. I believe that the witnesses and the documents are authentic. We wouldn't have gone to air if they would not have been."
However, within CBS, Josh Howard spoke at length on the telephone with typewriter expert Peter Tytell. Howard later told the Panel that the discussion was, "an 'unsettling event' that shook his belief in the authenticity of the documents." Producer Mapes dismissed Tytell's concerns.
A former Vice President of CBS News, Jonathan Klein, dismissed the allegations of bloggers, suggesting that the "checks and balances" of a professional news organization were superior to individuals sitting at their home computers "in their pajamas. In response, some conservative bloggers started to refer to themselves as Pajamahadeen.
By September 13, CBS' position had shifted slightly, as Rather acknowledged "some of these questions come from people who are not active political partisans," and stated that CBS "talked to handwriting and document analysts and other experts who strongly insist the documents could have been created in the 70s,"(emphasis added) The analysts and experts cited by Rather did not include the original four experts consulted by CBS. Rather instead presented the views of Bill Glennon and Richard Katz. Glennon, a former typewriter repairman with no specific credentials in typesetting beyond that job, was found by CBS after posting several defenses of the memos on blogs including Daily Kos and Kevin Drum's blog hosted at Washington Monthly. However, in the actual broadcast, neither interviewee asserted that the memos were genuine.
As a result, some CBS critics begin to accuse CBS of expert shopping.
In response, 60 Minutes Wednesday released a statement suggesting that Will and James had "misrepresented" their role in the authentication of the documents and had played only a small part in the process. CBS News concurrently amended their previous claim that Matley had authenticated the documents, saying instead he had only authenticated the signatures. On CNN, Matley stated he had only verified that the signatures were "from the same source," not that they were authentically Killian's: "When I saw the documents, I could not verify the documents were authentic or inauthentic. I could only verify that the signatures came from the same source," Matley said. "I could not authenticate the documents themselves. But at the same time, there was nothing to tell me that they were not authentic."
CBS interviewed Marian Carr Knox, a secretary at Ellington Air Force from 1956–1979 and Killian's assistant on the dates of the memos. Although Knox felt the memos reflected the truth about Bush's alleged service failures, she also stated she did not type the memos, they were not written by Killian, and that she had no firsthand knowledge of Bush's time in the Guard. Knox said, "The information in here was correct, but it was picked up from the real ones," she said. "I probably typed the information and somebody picked up the information some way or another. The New York Times' headline, including the phrase "Fake but Accurate," became a widely-used derisive comment from right-leaning critics of CBS.
At this time, Dan Rather first acknowledged there were problems in establishing the validity of the documents used in the report, stating: "If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story.
CBS also hired a private investigator to look into the matter after the story aired and the controversy began.
Copies of the documents were first released to the public by the White House. Press Secretary Scott McClellan stated that the memos had been provided to them by CBS in the days prior to the report and that, "We had every reason to believe that they were authentic at that time.
The Washington Post reported that at least one of the documents obtained by CBS had a fax header indicating it had been faxed from a Kinko's copy center in Abilene, Texas, leading some to trace the documents back to Burkett.
As a growing number of independent document examiners and competing news outlets reported their findings about the documents, CBS News stopped defending the documents and began to report on the problems with their story. On September 20 they reported that their source, Bill Burkett, "admits that he deliberately misled the CBS News producer working on the report, giving her a false account of the documents' origins to protect a promise of confidentiality to the actual source. While the network did not state that the memos were forgeries, CBS News President Andrew Heyward said,
Dan Rather stated, "if I knew then what I know now — I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question."
In an interview with Dan Rather, Burkett admitted that he misled CBS about the source of the documents, and then claimed that the documents came to him from "Lucy Ramirez", whom CBS was unable to contact or identify as an actual person. Burkett said he then made copies at the local Kinko's and burned the original documents.
On September 21, CBS News addressed the contact with the Kerry campaign in its statement: "It is obviously against CBS News standards and those of every other reputable news organization to be associated with any political agenda." The next day the network announced it was forming an independent review panel to perform an internal investigation.
The purpose of the panel was to examine the process by which the September 8 Segment was prepared and broadcast, to examine the circumstances surrounding the subsequent public statements and news reports by CBS News defending the segment, and to make any recommendations it deemed appropriate. Among the Panel's conclusions were the following:
The Panel did not undertake a thorough examination of the authenticity of the Killian documents, but consulted Peter Tytell, a New York City-based forensic document examiner and typewriter and typography expert. Tytell had been contacted by 60 Minutes producers prior to the broadcast, and had informed associate producer Yvonne Miller and executive producer Josh Howard on September 10 that he believed the documents were forgeries. The Panel report stated, "The Panel met with Peter Tytell, and found his analysis sound in terms of why he thought the documents were not authentic...The Panel reaches no conclusion as to whether Tytell was correct in all respects.
Dan Rather also resigned as anchorman in 2005. It is unclear whether or not Rather's retirement was directly caused by this incident, although many believe that he had to step down a year earlier than planned. Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, stated "Dan Rather has already apologized for the segment and taken responsibility for his part in the broadcast. He voluntarily moved to set a date to step down from the 'CBS Evening News' in March of 2005." He added, "We believe any further action would not be appropriate.
CBS was originally planning to show a '60 Minutes' report critical of the Bush administration justification for going to war in Iraq. This segment was replaced with the Killian documents segment. CBS further postponed airing the Iraq segment until after the election due to the controversy over the Killian documents. "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election," CBS spokesman Kelli Edwards said in a statement.
After the Killian documents controversy, the show was renamed 60 Minutes Wednesday to differentiate it from the original 60 Minutes Sunday edition, and reverted to its original title on July 8, 2005, when it was moved to the 8 p.m. Friday timeslot. It was cancelled in 2005 due to low ratings.
On November 7, 2006, Rather defended the report in a radio interview, and rejected the CBS investigation's findings. In response, CBS spokesman Kevin Tedesco told the Associated Press, "CBS News stands by the report the independent panel issued on this matter and to this day, no one has been able to authenticate the documents in question."
Dan Rather continues to stand by the story, and in subsequent interviews has articulated that he believes that the documents have never conclusively been proven to be forgeries — and that even if the documents are false, that the underlying story is true.
In January, 2008, the legal teams for Dan Rather and CBS reached an agreement to produce for Rather's attorneys "virtually all of the materials" related to the case, including the findings of Erik T. Rigler's report to CBS about the documents and the story.
No generally recognized document experts have positively authenticated the memos. Since CBS used only faxed and photocopied duplicates, authentication to professional standards is impossible, regardless of the provenance of the originals.
Document experts have challenged the authenticity of the documents as photocopies of valid originals on a variety of grounds ranging from anachronisms of their typography, their quick reproducibility using modern technology, and to errors in their content and style.
Other commentators disagreed. Dr. David Hailey, director of the Interactive Media Research Labs in the English Department of Utah State University has argued that the Killian documents were produced on an unspecified typewriter, though he does not assert their authenticity.
The CBS independent panel report did not specifically take up the question of whether the documents were forgeries, but retained a document expert, Peter Tytell, who concluded the documents used by CBS were most likely produced using modern technology.
Some liberals and Democratic critics of the President suggested that the memos were produced by the Bush campaign to discredit the media's reporting on Bush's National Guard service: the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, suggested that the memos might have originated with long-time Bush strategist, Karl Rove. McAuliffe told reporters on September 10, "I can tell you that nobody at the Democratic National Committee or groups associated with us were involved in any way with these documents," he said. "I'm just saying that I would ask Karl Rove the same question. Two weeks later, McAuliffe suggested that GOP consultant Roger Stone and Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie were involved, saying in a press release, "Will Ed Gillespie or the White House admit today what they know about Mr. Stone's relationship with these forged documents? Will they unequivocally rule out Mr. Stone's involvement? Or for that matter, others with a known history of dirty tricks, such as Karl Rove or Ralph Reed? At a community forum in Utica, New York in 2005, U.S. representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) repeated the claim that the documents originated with Karl Rove. No evidence was offered that the memos originated with the Bush campaign. Rove and Stone have denied any involvement. In a 2008 interview in The New Yorker, Stone said "It was nuts to think I had anything to do with those documents...[t]hose papers were potentially devastating to George Bush. You couldn’t put them out there assuming that they would be discredited. You couldn’t have assumed that this would redound to Bush’s benefit. I believe in bank shots, but that one was too big a risk.