THE BLOG
09/20/2007 02:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Role in Rathergate

Okay, I'm tired of talking about this. But it needs clarification one more time.

When I was doing research on George W. Bush's close encounter with the Texas Air National Guard, I kept getting directed to a former guard officer named Bill Burkett. According to numerous people in the Texas Guard, Burkett had a story that needed to be told and also he was credible. I called him and he related the now infamous tale of witnessing a Guard employee scrubbing the president's service record files to hide his poor performance and possible grounding as a pilot. Burkett also claimed to have overhead a speakerphone conversation with the commander of the Texas Guard and Joe Allbaugh, Bush's gubernatorial chief of staff, as they discussed "cleaning up Bush's files."

I began looking into Bush's Guard history in 1994 after I asked him a question about it as a panelist during a live televised gubernatorial debate he had with Ann Richards. The question of how he got into the Guard seemed relevant to me because it spoke to questions of privilege. A lot of young men in my generation were trying to sign up for the Guard to avoid combat in Vietnam and we were consistently told of waiting lists 2-5 years in length. Bush, however, seemingly walked up and got a coveted slot as a pilot. Taxpayers spent almost a million dollars training him to fly jets even though there were hundreds of pilots home from Southeast Asia who would have jumped at the chance to fill the slot and keep their certificates current.

I received 161 pages of FOIA documents on Bush's service from a third party. None of them offered much detail regarding his service. Sources kept referring me to Burkett. His story needed witnesses. He gave me the name of a colleague he said was with him at the time he witnessed the scrubbing at Camp Mabry in Austin and I contacted him via email. The man (his name has been widely-reported by me and others and I see no reason to further complicate his life here) did not directly confirm Burkett's details of the scrubbing but said the Texas officer was "an honorable and honest man" and that when he spoke he "told the truth." This individual was at that time a civilian employee of the U.S. military in Europe. He later changed his story, and there are any number of obvious causes for that decision.

During the course of several conversations with Bill Burkett, on the telephone and in person, the retired Guardsmen seemed credible and not likely to make up a fanciful story. I checked with several people about his reputation, and even the commander of the Texas Guard, Gen. Danny James, spoke glowingly of Burkett. However, Burkett clearly despised the president and leaders of the Texas National Guard because of a dispute over his health care benefits. Burkett said he had fallen ill when assigned to Panama to help the U.S. Army close down a fort and had been denied health care when he was no longer able to work. Guard and Army officials disputed his story.

The central piece missing from the Bush Guard file was a document that might show he had been grounded for drug or alcohol abuse. The records make clear he stopped flying but there is no evidence as to why. If he had been grounded for disciplinary reasons, there would have been an investigatory board to hear evidence and file a report. That either never happened or the document has been removed from the file.

The other reporter as intensely interested in Bush and his Guard time as I have been was Mary Mapes, Dan Rather's producer. For a number of years, Mary had been trying to get former Texas Lt. Governor Ben Barnes to talk about how he helped Bush get his coveted pilot's spot in the Guard. Barnes demurred until Bush's reelection campaign and by then his confession sounded like political expediency. Mary understood, however, as did Bill Burkett and any other investigator looking at Bush and the Guard that anything Barnes might say was going to be considered largely political without supporting documentation. Mary called me and asked me what I thought of Burkett as a source and I told her I thought he was credible and I was inclined to believe what he told me but I wanted documentation.

Eventually, Burkett told me what sounded like a fanciful story of an unnamed man delivering an envelope to him while he was at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. This envelope supposedly included incriminating documents related to the president's Guard record. Whether these are the same documents he provided Mary Mapes, I cannot say. I do know that Burkett and several of his confidantes were as determined as I was to get at the truth about the president's service in the Texas Air National Guard. I don't know whether they were willing to go so far as to create false documents that they were confident existed at one time but no longer did, but I doubt that. Nonetheless, Burkett provided Mary Mapes with incriminating memos that were supposedly written by the president's commander during his days in the Guard.

One of the characteristics of the memos, which were immediately jumped on by right wing bloggers, was the appearance of superscript. This is the lower case abbreviation that often follows numerical designations like 5th or 3rd. According to the critics of the memos, superscript did not exist on IBM typewriters at the time the memos were supposedly written. Several researchers reported otherwise, however, that at least one model, the IBM Executive II was moving into the marketplace and had superscript available by using the "shift" key.

As the controversy over the Guard increased during the 2004 campaign, the White House began a series of Friday night document dumps, claiming they had discovered new material related to the president's Guard service. Although I was originally told there were only 161 pages, the final number was more than 300. The last document dump occurred about a week after Dan Rather's apologia on his former network's newscast. This was a single page memo promoting 2nd Lt. George W. Bush to 1st Lt. and it used superscript. The media took no notice that this piece of evidence completely contradicted the most powerful criticism of the Rathergate memos.

If Dan Rather and Mary Mapes made a mistake, it was to take Bill Burkett at his word. He told them his source for the memos they had in their possession was in the Texas National Guard. Although from the outside it looks as if Mapes was unable to confirm that claim, the memos became the central evidence to Rather's on-air report that Bush had gotten into a bit of trouble while serving. When forensic experts said the memos looked fake, Rather went back and confronted Burkett on camera and the former Guardsman acknowledged that he had not told the truth about the source of the memos because he was trying to protect someone. From that point forward, Mapes' tenure as an award-winning producer was fated to end and Rather, in spite of his long and successful career, was placed in an untenable situation. CBS was under huge economic and political pressure for being perceived as a "liberal" institution and there seemed little doubt management had been given an opportunity to move Rather out of the way, bring in a new face, and curry favor with the White House.

Unfortunately, for those of us interested in the truth, the Bush-Guard story has taken on the cultural manifestations of the Kennedy assassination. The facts, even if spoken now by those directly involved, will be disputed. Political disinformation entered the process along with too much zeal to break the big story. Rather and Mapes, however, seem unfairly condemned to me. The report by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh's investigative committee seemed cursory and inconclusive. I was among a number of people directly involved who were never contacted, which leads to the inevitable suggestion other pieces of evidence were ignored to fit a preferred conclusion.

Ultimately, though, we have to rely on perception of this matter because we'll never get the facts from the Bush administration. They do, however, exist. Every document relevant to the Bush time in the Guard should be included on a microfiche filed at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Any historian, journalist, or amateur researcher could have access to the truth if the president simply signed a release allowing those pages to be printed and distributed. It's what John McCain did in 2000 when Karl Rove started circulating rumors that the senator suffered from mental problems after being held for years as a prisoner of war. Why won't the president offer a similar release of his records? The answer, of course, is too obvious to bother stating.

And it is not hard to believe, after six years of lying and spying and withholding evidence from Congress, that the Bush team is taking the same approach to hiding the truth about the young Lt. George W. Bush.