CBS News retracted yesterday much of a report on President Bush's military service, saying it had been deceived by a retired Texas National Guard officer who presented documents purporting to show that Bush had received preferential treatment to avoid fulfilling his Vietnam War-era obligations.
The network and its chief anchor, Dan Rather, the on-air correspondent for the original Sept. 8 report, expressed "deep regret" and took responsibility for lapses in judgment that led to reliance on the documents now disavowed by CBS.
"There's no excuse," Rather said in an interview. "I made a mistake. We made a mistake. We clearly established the documents could have been authentic. But we did not prove they were authentic."
Rather said he was unaware before his story aired that at least two of the four experts asked by CBS to authenticate the memos had expressed reservations. But he said he took responsibility for those lapses, along with his colleagues.
The network announced yesterday that it would launch an independent investigation of the breakdown of journalistic standards that allowed the documents said to be from Bush's squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, to form the basis of the recanted 60 Minutes report. CBS News President Andrew Heyward said he intended to name at least two people outside CBS to review its news-gathering process and to release a public report.
"This is something that's raised questions about our credibility," Heyward said in an interview. "The answer is that you're transparent about what you know and what you don't know. You look very candidly at your own institution. You take steps to shore up what mistakes you may have made. And you continue, day in and day out, to do good reporting."
Within hours of the Sept. 8 prime-time broadcast, Web loggers questioned the documents, skeptically reviewing features considered more common to modern word processors than typewriters in use in the early 1970s. By Sept. 10, mainstream news organizations interviewed professional document examiners who pointed out a series of warning signs. But the network stood by its story, calling the source of the memos "unimpeachable." On the CBS Evening News on Sept. 10 and Sept. 13, Rather summarized the growing objections but offered a pointed defense.
Last night reflected a near-total collapse of that stance.
Many conservative critics have long alleged that CBS has an ideological bias against Republicans - a contention the network vehemently rejects. But White House spokesman Scott McClellan linked the discredited CBS report to a series of Democratic assaults on Bush.
Bill Burkett, the retired National Guard officer who provided the documents to CBS, said yesterday in an e-mail circulated to reporters that his contacts with Kerry allies were limited to deflecting attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's combat service in Vietnam.
CBS News had gained momentum this year with a series of hard-hitting stories, including broadcast of pictures revealing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and a recent report about a possible transfer of classified information from the Pentagon to the Israeli government.
CBS' missteps on the Bush National Guard story have damaged the network's credibility in the public eye, other journalists say. In previous debacles at NBC, The New York Times and USA Today, senior figures lost their jobs.
"It's really a horror," said Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS. "I feel sorry for these guys, but it is a betrayal of people's trust in many ways.
"Someone's going to have to fall for it," he said.
Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel, said last night on CBS that he had misled producers when he said a former Air Guard official gave him copies of the documents.
"You know, your staff pressed me to a point to reveal that source," Burkett told Rather. "I simply threw out a name that was, basically, I guess, to take a little pressure off for a moment."
But Burkett said he did not fake the documents and pointed to another source. CBS said it could not verify the identity of the second person.
Rather took pains yesterday to express his personal regret. In remarks to The Sun, Rather said he first became convinced on Thursday that the network had erred. That's when the former national guard officer acknowledged lying to CBS about how he obtained the papers. Rather flew to Dallas to tape the interview with Burkett on Saturday.
Even before the original broadcast, Rather said, the story drew the active participation of much of the network's senior leadership, including Josh Howard, the executive producer of the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes, CBS Senior Vice President Betsy West and Heyward, the news president. Through a spokeswoman, the story's chief producer, Mary Mapes, declined to comment. West and Howard could not be reached yesterday.
The Sept. 8 report included an interview with former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes, an influential Democrat who said he helped Bush enter the National Guard in 1968 at the bidding of a friend of Bush's father, who was then a congressman. Other former National Guard figures spoke of the climate of favoritism that they said enabled Bush to avoid required duties. Significant gaps in the record make it difficult to flesh out details of Bush's military service, especially in 1972 and 1973, when he was no longer flying. (White House aides point to Bush's honorable discharge to show he met his responsibilities.)
CBS has not retracted that part of the story.
However, it has disavowed the memos, supposedly from Killian, which described a disciplining of Bush for failure to comply with direct orders. In the memos, Killian, who died in 1984, also appeared to have complained of pressure from superior officers to go easy on Bush. While covering Hurricane Frances in Florida over Labor Day weekend, Rather said, he asked Heyward to step in to help review papers brought forward by Burkett.
Heyward would not offer specifics yesterday, deferring to the inquiry he plans. "Throughout the reporting process and vetting process, obviously there were senior editors and executives involved," he said. "This story received a lot of attention."
But recent interviews suggest several key moments at which CBS News failed to save itself.
CBS asked four document examiners to scrutinize the memos, which it did not initially reveal to its viewers were copies, not originals. In defending the Sept. 8 story, the network said that "several" experts had vouched for their authenticity. But in interviews with The Sun, examiners Linda James and Emily Will said they had expressed doubts. CBS responded by disputing how vehemently they had objected, but said they were nonetheless "peripheral" to the review process. The network now acknowledges that it relied largely on one examiner, Marcel Matley, who has since then said publicly that he vouched merely for parts of the documents.
CBS failed to interview key figures such as Marian Knox, Killian's former secretary, who later declared the memos to be forgeries but consistent with his thinking. Neither did CBS interview retired Air Guard Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt, who was mentioned in a memo as interfering to protect Bush in 1973 but who was subsequently shown by The Dallas Morning News to have left the Guard more than a year earlier.
CBS also took the failure of the White House to object to the documents as a sign that they were genuine.
In circular fashion, the network's journalists took the information they had already gathered about Bush's record - from Barnes and Killian's former colleagues - to validate their belief the documents were real, and then used those papers to back their larger story.
"We shouldn't have done it," Rather said yesterday, "but we offered the documents in support of what we knew to be true information."