Baseball Crank
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:

They [CBS] come up with a clever idea: They'll get a reaction out of the White House. They decide to fax the memos to the White House and ask for a comment. It will place Bush in a terrible bind. After all, Bush could have no way of knowing that copies of the memos still existed or what other memos CBS might have. He'll have to come out with a mealy-mouthed statement about how it doesn't matter and he fulfilled his Guard obligation and this is dirty politics. Then CBS can move forward with the broadcast, having Bush's tacit admission that they are genuine. . . .

[snip]

Karl Rove gets the faxed documents and goes running to Bush with the bad news. Bush: 'This can't be right. I never got any orders from Jerry Killian to report for a medical exam.' Rove: 'Well Dan Rather is going to be putting these on his 60 Minutes broadcast. He's got to have people lined up who will vouch for them.' Bush: 'Karl, Jerry would never write down anything like this. Somebody's feeding bulls**t to CBS.' Rove: 'Okay, let's start by calling in the FBI and checking if these memos are real.'

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:

White House communications director Dan Bartlett had agreed to talk to "60 Minutes," but only on condition that the CBS program provide copies of what were being billed as newly unearthed memos indicating that President Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard. The papers were hand-delivered at 7:45 a.m. CBS correspondent John Roberts, filling in for Rather, sat down with Bartlett at 11:15.

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).

As CBS pushed to finish its report, it was Bartlett who contacted the network -- rather than the other way around -- at 5:30 the evening before to ask whether the White House could respond to the widely rumored story.

And more:

Bartlett said he caught the president leaving for a campaign trip that morning and showed him the memos. Bush had "no recollection of having seen them," Bartlett said, and would not necessarily have seen papers from a commander's personal file.

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:

Mapes, an associate producer and a researcher were carrying the journalistic load. "The show is not so lavishly budgeted that we have tons of people doing this," said Harry Moses, a "60 Minutes" producer not connected to the story. "You do the pre-interviews yourself and then bring in the correspondent."

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:38 PM | Politics 2004 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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