Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 19, 2004
POLITICS: The Forgery Trap
This hypothetical scenario, which I linked to earlier, suggests (among other things) that the White House, while having no role in their creation, basically entrapped CBS into putting forged documents on the air:
An hour later two high-power experts are pouring over the documents. Within fifteen minutes they're telling Bush and Rove that the memos are not only fakes, they are really, really bad fakes. Rove: 'How easy would it be for other experts to see that?' Expert: 'Anyone can see it. I can't believe that CBS found a legitimate expert to authenticate these. No professional is going to risk his reputation by saying that these are genuine, especially if he only has copies to go by.'
But what's the White House going to do? Rove expects 60 Minutes to show a small picture on the TV screen with a blow-up highlighted overlay of a couple of critical sentences from each memo. It won't be enough for experts to analyze. The general public will believe it, and White House denials will be brushed aside.
Now Rove comes up with a counter-ploy: Re-fax the documents to the rest of the news media. That way they'll have the evidence available for their own experts to analyze and knock down. Don't say much of anything; just reiterate the usual boilerplate that the President fulfilled his National Guard obligation and was honorably discharged.
The 60 Minutes crew is a bit surprised by the White House tactic, but immediately concludes that Rove is trying a pre-emptive strike, to minimize the significance of the memos. In a way it's even better than an angry response. It shows that the White House is shell-shocked! The White House reaction proves that the memos are genuine, despite the doubts which have been raised during the pro forma review by CBS' outside experts, and despite the denials of Killian's son.
The Washington Post's account seems to support this general theory, if not its specifics:
Half an hour later, Roberts called "60 Minutes" producer Mary Mapes with word that Bartlett was not challenging the authenticity of the documents. Mapes told her bosses, who were so relieved that they cut from Rather's story an interview with a handwriting expert who had examined the memos.
At that point, said "60 Minutes" executive Josh Howard, "we completely abandoned the process of authenticating the documents. Obviously, looking back on it, that was a mistake. We stopped questioning ourselves. I suppose you could say we let our guard down."
(No word on whether pun intended).
Howard was struck by the fact that Bartlett, in his interview, kept referring to the Killian memos to support his argument that the president had fulfilled his military obligations.
"This gave us such a sense of security at that moment that we had the story," Howard said. "We gave the documents to the White House to say, 'Wave us off this if we're wrong.' " But Bartlett said CBS never asked him to verify the memos and that he had neither the time nor the resources to do so.
I note with amusement CBS' defense, in stark contrast to its sneers at the one-man-band nature of the bloggers criticizing it: