The Truth About Dan Rather’s Deceptive Reporting on George W. Bush

So you’re an art connoisseur who likes the works of Gilbert Stuart, the early American artist famous for his portraits of George Washington. Someone wants to sell you an original Stuart portrait of Washington he claims he found in someone’s attic. It looks good enough—old canvas, faded oils, facial resemblance—but there is one little problem.

Washington is wearing a digital wristwatch.

Do you buy it? If you’re Mary Mapes or Dan Rather, late of CBS News, you probably do, because you’ve done it before. Sure, you have someone check it, such as your brother-in-law and your drinking buddy, Ralph. They say it looks good to them, so you buy it.

In the early summer of 2004, months before Dan Rather’s day of infamy in September, I stumbled onto a website called “The AWOL Project,” a bloviated screed against President George W. Bush and his Air National Guard service. It got my attention because, from 1970 to 1974, I was a pilot in the same Texas Air Guard unit as Bush. Even had the same squadron commander, the famous Jerry Killian. So I read it. With 33 years of service in the Air Guard, I think I knew a little bit about its workings.

The blogger who created the website, a Democrat activist from Philadelphia named Paul Lukasiak, did a yeoman’s job in assembling released Bush Air Force records and relevant Air Force regulations, but then he distorted and dissembled them to reach egregiously wrong conclusions to incriminate Bush.

It was like examining the Old Testament in great detail and then concluding that Moses was an Egyptian who helped the Pharaoh cast the Jews into barren lands in some ancient holocaust.

Then, in perusing Lukasiak’s work that summer, I found George Washington’s wristwatch.

I came across a chapter he labeled “The OETR Scam.” What the heck is an OETR? I thought. We had “OERs” (Officer Effectiveness Reports), and as a commander I wrote scores of them every year. But an OETR?

Maybe I had missed something, so I did an exhaustive search for that acronym. It simply did not exist. Those letters were the code for the Turiaf Airport in Saudi Arabia. Maybe this involves a baggage tag, but officer effectiveness reports? Never.

So I did a little more research on the webpage and found that one Bush record was labeled “Notice of Missing or Correction Of Officer Effectiveness / Training Report,” a multi-use sheet for both OERs and training reports. But Lukasiak did not notice that a hole punch at the top had punched out the “/” (slash). Hence, he mistook it for “Officer Effectiveness Training Report” and created the acronym “OETR.” At the time, I dismissed it as one of many Lukasiak errors and misrepresentations in that blog and put it out of my mind.

It seemed like old news about a simple typo. Nothing to see here.

But the point is that, until it was accidently created by Lukasiak in July 2004, the acronym never existed.

There was no way the acronym OETR could appear in a 1973 Killian memo when that acronym was not created until July 2004.

And there was no way it could be in the famous Lucy Ramirez Cattle Show documents in March 2004.

It was a silver bullet. When I saw that acronym again late in the September night of the CBS “60 Minutes” show, I knew the memos could not be any more real than George Washington’s digital wristwatch. And I knew immediately where Lukasiak got his information to create the documents.

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In a barely coherent ramble on an Aug. 25, 2004, blog post, Bill Burkett described how he had just discovered the Lukasiak website and had new “files which we have reassembled,” which propagated the OETR error into the Killian memos. Every item in Burkett’s memos can be traced to a reference on that website.

In those early hours after the Rather “60 Minutes” exposé, the national focus was rightly and understandably on anachronistic typographic oddities in the documents. But those typos did not corroborate or determine the accuracy or authenticity of the documents or the content therein. This is why even today, so many think the memos were real.

Brian Stelter, left, from CNN’s “Reliable Sources” speaks with former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and “Truth” director James Vanderbilt following the movie’s screening in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 14. (Photo: Kris Connor/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Eleven years later, a new movie, “Truth,” recreates the moment, and the debate continues to be focused on typos. It is why the Ratherphiles now claim that “[t]he [Thornburgh] Panel has not been able to conclude with absolute certainty whether the Killian documents are authentic or forgeries.” It is why Mapes can say, “There is nothing in the official Bush records that would rule out the authenticity of the Killian documents.”

The following night, Sept. 10, I was on “Fox News Special Report” pointing out the OETR and other damning content errors. But the media focus was on the typo stuff, with a cohort of pundits debating a topic of which they knew little.

Those of us who actually were in the Texas Air Guard quickly pointed out other discrepancies and impossibilities in the memos exclusive of the typos and fonts—a long retired Gen. Staudt; wrong dates for exams; orders to report on a date the base was closed; use of outdated serial numbers; and our personal knowledge of Jerry Killian, his actions, and his behaviors, which conclusively flagged these memos as sick frauds.

On Nov. 15, 2004, two months after the Rather-Mapes conspiracy aired, I got a call from a lawyer, Larry Lanpher, with the law firm of Kirkpatrick Lockhart, LLP. He said he was carrying out the investigation for the Thornburg-Boccardi panel into the “60 Minutes” fiasco. He claimed they were focusing on the processes that allowed this to happen and that they were independent of CBS in this investigation.

I asked him bluntly if CBS News was paying them and if there was an attorney-client relationship between the company and his investigative team. He squirmed around that, but it seemed to me that there was. In my view, the panel’s additional, perhaps primary, purpose was to protect CBS News from legal and criminal liability.

Lanpher and team were two months along in the investigation, but I was not impressed by the research done and the knowledge gained by these high-priced investigators. They were still trying to identify the players and the procedures in place in 1972-73.

When I gave him some names who worked daily with Killian back then, he was totally unaware of them, even though these names and mine had been in the news since February. Nor was he aware of the Air Force style manual on correspondence, forms, and formats. These law firms live by billable hours. This investigation must have been a cash cow.

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An undated file photo shows George W. Bush as a National Guardsman with his father George H. W. Bush. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard between 1968 and 1973. (Photo: KRT/Newscom)

A friend said that since I was doing so much of the research for them, I should offer my services at their billable rate ($400 to $500 per hour). In jest, I offered my services in an email but never heard back from them. After seeing the final report, they should have taken me up on it.

I had told Lanpher that the memos were frauds and explained why in great and extensive detail. I went into the fatal OETR issue, the use of Air Force serial numbers years after they had been replaced by Social Security numbers, the invalidity of an order demanding Bush take a physical, and others. I even gave him the names of seven other Guardsmen who worked with Killian every day.

From my follow-up conversations with them and from the report, only one was contacted. Only eight Guardsmen total were interviewed by this panel, and four of them were subjects quoted in the “60 Minutes” show. At that point, Lanpher had enough information to determine the memos to be frauds and implicate CBS.

Nope. The final report was condescendingly dismissive of our testimony, stating, “… the concerns raised by these former Guardsmen in the end may be simply different views of events[.]” No, they were indisputable facts backed up by evidence.

The Thornburgh panel wrote one small paragraph on the OETR fatal flaw and said it merely “represented a deviation from standard language then in use in the TexANG.”  As I had explained to Lanpher, the OETR item alone was a silver bullet for proving these memos as frauds. If it were a “Columbo” episode, it would be the point where the police take Rather away in handcuffs.

But that also would refute the conclusion the panel had not been able to conclude “with absolute certainty”—whether the Killian documents were authentic. Admitting that would expose CBS to prosecutors and lawsuits.

In her book “Truth and Duty,” Mapes revealed Lanpher’s apathy or willful disregard for the evidence I gave him in her panel interrogation:

Larry Lanpher pointed out the abbreviation ‘O.E.T.R’ on one of the Killian memos. I explained to him it was shorthand for the Officer Effectiveness Training Report. He came at me like Perry Mason, … Isn’t it true, Mary, that the phrase ‘Officer Effectiveness Training Report’ doesn’t actually appear anywhere on any of the official documents?  That the phrase is something you created to explain this incorrect abbreviation on your memos?” … I asked him to look at the top of the document where it said: ‘Officer Effectiveness Training Report’ (the one with the punch hole I described earlier).

“Oh”, Lanpher allowed. “I see that. I’m sorry. That was a foolish question. My mistake.”

I actually had to agree with Mapes’ reaction to this exchange: “Despite their months of study and the money that CBS paid them for their keen judgment, the panel members were not as prepared or analytical as they might have been.”

Dan Rather apologized for the role CBS played in promoting an inaccurate report about President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service in September 2004. (Photo: Richard B. Levine/Newscom)


So now we have a movie titled “Truth,” produced by a company fittingly named Mythology Entertainment. It portrays Rather and Mapes as journalistic heroes battling the dragons of CBS executives, the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel, the Bush White House, pajama-clad bloggers, and real witnesses.

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The OETR clue was but one fatal flaw in the Killian memo saga. There were many more scattered throughout those memos, and they didn’t have anything to do with typeface and superscripts that the movie and most of the commentaries have obsessed over.  They will have to await a future posting.

Dan Rather’s “60 Minutes” fraud will be a permanent stain on the self-exalting yet frequently failing profession of journalism. But the blame for it even happening, and its continuing longevity, does not fall only to Rather and Mapes.

CBS News management’s lack of oversight was extensively revealed in the panel report.

The Thornburgh-Boccardi panel also was culpable because it excluded or devalued witnesses who could have resolved the doubts quickly and accurately. Had the investigators followed up on the glaring errors pointed out to them, they would have killed the continuing fable that the documents’ authenticity can’t be proven or disproven. But doing so would turn their investigating lawyers into defense lawyers for CBS.

Then there’s the White House. The night before the “60 Minutes” airing, officials there got wind of an upcoming CBS News exposé on Bush’s National Guard service. Dan Bartlett, his communications director, agreed to a review of the documents with CBS News reporter John Roberts the next morning.

Two former members of the Texas Air Guard were called and asked to be available for input on the issues to be discussed. Either of these two Guardsmen would have been able to refute the memos upon sight. Had Bartlett, et al. followed up on their initial calls to real Texas Air Guard veterans, CBS News never would have aired the segment. But Bartlett decided to wing it himself the next morning.

It was a disaster. All because Bartlett refused to ask for help. Bartlett, who was in diapers in 1972, was clueless and could not refute a single item. Bartlett’s reaction begat confirmation that the documents were real. Roberts so reported, and CBS ran with it that night.

The “architect” Karl Rove apparently had no plan and no role for this situation. Years later, I asked him by letter what was happening at the White House those days and got a form letter unrelated to the topic. So it is with great humor one hears about the Rove-ian plot to get CBS and Rather. Rove was clueless and absent.

Had the media and pundits actually done real investigating, rather than exchange notes within the tribe, they would have exposed the hoax rather than leave lingering this nonsense that the documents might be authentic. Ironically, it was amateur bloggers who first uncovered problems with the memos. And, though he’s never gotten credit for it, it was a little-known writer at “The American Thinker” named Steve Gilbert who first uncovered the link between the memos supplied by Bill Burkett and their origins in the writings of Bush-hating blogger Lukasiak.

The giants of journalism with all their resources, investigative acumen, presumptuous intellects, high salaries, and undeserved celebrity should be ashamed.

They were beaten at their game by truth-seeking amateurs.

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