The Killian Documents and 60 Minutes
by David Noon
Among the issues which shaped the 2004 election, the Vietnam-era military service of both George W. Bush and John Kerry ranked among the most important. As the war in Iraq sank into a quagmire, the contest for the presidency turned in part on the question of which candidate had the military and defense credentials to resolve the conflict. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign sought to undermine John Kerry’s Vietnam record. Opponents of George W. Bush attempted to do the same by suggesting that he had dodged the war altogether, that he had been a substandard pilot, or that he had received preferential treatment in his selection for the Texas Air National Guard (TXANG).
On September 8, 2004, the CBS news show 60 Minutes Wednesday aired a segment purporting to verify those criticisms. The report relied on a handful of documents allegedly written by Bush’s commanding officer, the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. Those documents, which CBS producers and reporters insisted were authentic, were subjected to withering scrutiny online and in the mainstream media. In the wake of the controversy, a formal investigation revealed that CBS News had committed numerous errors during the production of the segment and had failed to adequately address those errors in the weeks after the segment aired. The episode embarrassed the network, ended the career of famed journalist Dan Rather, and became one of the bigger stories in the 2004 election.
Stories about George W. Bush’s misdeeds in the Texas Air National Guard had circulated for years. A former National Guard Lieutenant Colonel named Bill Burkett had publicly questioned Bush’s record in 2000 and again in early 2004. In the late summer of 2004 Burkett offered CBS producer Mary Mapes six documents that he claimed to have obtained from Killian’s personal files. One memo (dated 4 May 1972) seemed to indicate that Killian had ordered Bush to take his annual flying physical; a second memo (19 May 1972) described a conversation between Killian and Bush about transferring Bush to Alabama so he could work on Winton Blount’s Senate campaign; a third memo (1 August 1972) referenced an order suspending Bush from flight status because he had not taken his physical; and a fourth (18 August 1973) contained Killian’s complaints that he was receiving pressure to “sugar coat” Bush’s evaluation.1 Mapes sought out a handful of experts to assess the authenticity of the documents, including forensic analysts and several former officers and administrators from TXANG. Several of those experts expressed reservations about the memos, but Mapes and other CBS News officials ignored those doubts.2
CBS aired the segment on September 8, highlighting the memos and reporting that document experts believed them to be authentic. The report included interview clips with Lt. Robert Strong (described as a “friend and colleague” of Killian’s) who claimed that the documents were “compatible with the way that business was done at the time” and that he did not see “anything in the documents that are discordant with what were the times, what were the situations, and what were the people that were involved.”3
Within hours after the segment aired, participants in online conservative forums like Free Republic, Powerline, and Little Green Footballs had raised questions about the documents, which CBS had made available on its website. Initial doubts focused on typographic anachronisms, including curved apostrophes, superscripted abbreviations (such as “th”) that appeared throughout the memos, and the use of proportionally-spaced fonts, all of which were uncommon for typewriters at the time. Other conservative online news sources such as the Drudge Report quickly followed suit, and mainstream news outlets such as ABC, Fox News, and the Associated Press mentioned the controversy in their own coverage on September 9.4
CBS, however, stood by its story. Rather insisted that “this story is true” and that the news team would not have aired the segment if the memos had not been authentic. The network insisted that the documents had been “thoroughly examined and their authenticity vouched for by independent experts,” adding that they had come by way of “unimpeachable sources.”5 Over the next few weeks, however, CBS’s position collapsed. Some of the experts consulted for the story came forward to explain that Mapes and others had ignored their concerns. Killian’s assistant told CBS that she had no recollection of typing the memos and speculated that while the information contained within them may have accurately reflected problems with Bush’s service, the documents themselves did not seem authentic. Finally, nearly two weeks after the report, Bill Burkett—whom Rather described as an “unimpeachable” source—admitted that he had misled CBS about how the documents had come into his possession. On September 20, CBS News President Andrew Heyward stated that the Killian documents should never have been used; the following day, Dan Rather conceded the same point.6
In the wake of the fiasco, CBS asked Dick Thornburgh, former Pennsylvania Governor and Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, and Louis Boccardi, former CEO and president of the Associated Press, to evaluate the affair and determine where mistakes had been made. In January 2005, the review panel issued its final report, concluding that CBS had failed to authenticate the documents properly; had exaggerated the views of experts it had consulted on the documents; had failed to seek out and interview others who might have offered different perspectives on the memos; and had compounded the damage by stubbornly defending its reporting. The report also criticized Mary Mapes for contacting Kerry campaign adviser Joe Lockhart—at Bill Burkett’s request—about the documents. (Burkett was interested in speaking to the Kerry camp about responding to the Swift Boat campaign, and Mapes believed she would get additional documents from Burkett by acting as a liaison between him and the Kerry campaign.)7
The fallout from the Killian documents controversy was substantial. CBS fired Mapes and demanded the resignations of several other top producers. Dan Rather stepped down as anchor of CBS Evening News a year earlier than he had planned. Many conservatives argued that the faulty report underscored the presence of liberal bias in the media, though the review panel did not find adequate basis to substantiate those concerns.8
1Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, “Report of the Independent Review Panel,” 5 January 2005, 1-2. <http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/complete_report/CBS_Report.pdf>.
2The documents themselves are available at http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-09-09bushdocs.pdf.
3Dick Thornburgh Where the Evidence Leads: An Autobiography, revised and updated (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 373.
4 Thornburgh and Boccardi, 153-159.
6Chris Hawke, “A Look Back at the Controversy,” CBS News (10 January 2005), accessed 15 May 2014 <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-look-back-at-the-controversy/>.
7Thornburgh and Boccardi, 209.
8Thornburgh and Boccardi, 211.