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Lady Liberty

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Rathergate Fallout: For Kerry, a Small Sin But a Major Embarrassment
posted by Bathus

By tomorrow this post could all be old news, or worse yet, flat-out-wrong.

But the weekend's slight lull in hard-news stories on the Dan Rather memos scandal leaves me unable to resist the temptation to indulge myself with idle speculation on the following question:

What role, if any, did the Kerry campaign
play in the publication of the fake memos?

It seems pretty clear that a disgruntled former National Guard officer, Bill Burkett, was CBS's immediate source for the Killian memos.

Intense scrutiny has centered on the role of William Burkett, a former National Guard official who charged last February that he saw Bush Guard documents in a trash can in 1997, an allegation that Guard officials strongly denied. A source who worked with CBS on the story said Burkett was identified by a producer as a conduit for the documents. Three days before the broadcast, Burkett e-mailed a friend that there was "a real heavy situation regarding Bush's records" about to break. "He was having a lot of fun with this," said the friend, Dennis Adams. Burkett told a visitor that after the story ran, Rather phoned him and expressed his and the network's "full support." CBS has declined to comment on the sourcing of the network's story.
So my question now is:

How did CBS first learn that Burkett had these memos?

Back in February of this year, CBS News had used Burkett as a source for an earlier report on Bush's National Guard service. And, as is now well known, Burkett already had an established history of publicly rabble-rousing against Bush. Therefore, it is certainly possible that, without the assistance of the Kerry campaign, CBS first learned of the memos because Burkett contacted CBS or CBS happened to re-contact him to look for more dirt to shovel into the same old anti-Bush story it had been pursuing for so many months.

So it is certainly possible that the Kerry camp played no role in this scandal.

But the timing of Burkett's contacts with CBS and the Kerry campaign do seem suspicious.

Around the same time that Burkett was first in touch with CBS about the memos, Burkett was also in touch with Kerry campaign, via Max Cleland:

A retired Texas National Guard official mentioned as a possible source for disputed documents about President Bush's service in the Guard said he passed along information to a former senator working with John F. Kerry's campaign.

In an Aug. 21 e-mail to a list of Texas Democrats, Bill Burkett said that after getting through "seven layers of bureaucratic kids" in the Democrat's campaign, he talked with former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland about information that would counter criticism of Kerry's war service. Associated Press obtained a copy of the e-mail Saturday.

Burkett, who lives near Abilene, wrote that no one at the Kerry campaign called him back.
Several sources are reporting that Cleland has confirmed that Burkett had indeed contacted him and that he had instructed Burkett to take his information to the Kerry campaign. For its part, the Kerry campaign has now issued a quasi-denial (i.e., a non-denial) of any communication with Burkett:

Former Democratic senator Max Cleland confirmed that he got a call from Burkett in mid-August offering "valuable" information about Bush. He told Burkett to contact the Kerry campaign. A Kerry campaign official said the campaign could find no record of any contacts with Burkett.
According to The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, it was in this same mid-August time frame that "60 Minutes" producer Mary Mapes learned of the existence of a person claiming access to incriminating memos about Bush:

In mid-August, Mapes told her bosses that she had finally tracked down a source who claimed to have access to memos written in 1972 and 1973 by the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush's squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard.
My speculation is that someone in the Kerry campaign, perhaps without ever seeing the memos himself and perhaps without ever getting back in touch with Burkett, tipped off Mapes about Burkett and his memos: "Hey, Mary, we've just heard from a guy who claims to have some Bush National Guard documents that we really think you might want to see. We're not going to do anything with this ourselves, but we might be able to give you the guy's name, if you promise never to reveal publicly that we put you onto him. He's somebody you folks have talked to before, so there's no reason for anyone to suspect that we've had a hand in this." (And if the documents had not turned out to be such blantant forgeries, nobody would have suspected, or cared, that the Kerry campaign had helped CBS track down the memos.)

To sum up, my (rather unexciting) speculation is that the Kerry campaign probably did not directly provide the fake memos to CBS, but instead played the role of a middleman, bringing Bill Burkett and Mary Mapes together.

If that's the case, then judged by the contemporary campaign standards of no-holds barred opposition research, the Kerry campaign's culpability in this fiasco would amount to a miniscule sin. Unfortunately for Kerry, in politics as in life, the magnitude of a sin does not always equal the magnitude of the embarrassment its exposure entails.

While I'm at it, here's a little more in the way of speculation:

The suggestion, floated by Terry McAuliffe, that Karl Rove manufactured these memos is, of course, utter nonsense. On the other hand, it is conceivable that, before "60 Minutes" publicized the memos, the White House had already ascertained that they were fakes. (It is also possible, but less likely, that Buckhead was tipped off by someone in the White House before or very shortly after the infamous "60 Minutes" episode went off the air.) But even if the Bush team did know in advance that the memos were fakes, who could blame them for concluding that they had no obligation to prevent Dan Rather from committing professional suicide?

posted by Bathus | 9/19/2004 05:30:00 PM
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