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Probe Of CBS Memo Story

GENERIC George W. Bush, Military Service, Texas National Guard
CBS
Within the next few days, CBS News expects to name an independent panel of experts to scrutinize its reporting of President Bush's National Guard service after its defenses for airing the explosive story crumbled.

Eleven days after questions surfaced about CBS News Anchor Dan Rather's 60 Minutes report, the network apologized Monday and said it could not vouch for the authenticity of documents impugning the president's Guard service.

"I want to say, personally and directly, I'm sorry," a subdued Rather said Monday on the CBS Evening News.

CBS' original Sept. 8 report featured an interview with former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, a Democrat who claimed that in 1968 he pulled strings to get young Mr. Bush into the Guard, a popular option for men hoping to avoid the draft and possible service in Vietnam.

The piece also featured four documents purported to be memos written by one of Mr. Bush's Guard commanders, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian.

The purported memos appeared to answer longstanding questions about a period of Mr. Bush's service in 1972, during which he missed a physical and did not drill for months after he joined an Alabama unit to work on a campaign there.

The questioned documents indicated that Mr. Bush had disobeyed a direct order to appear for his physical, and that friends of the Bush family tried to "sugar coat" any probe of the young lieutenant's lapses.

Questions about the documents surfaced on the Internet soon after the piece aired. CBS stood by its story until last Wednesday, when it said there were some doubts about them and it merited further investigation.

The source of the documents, Bill Burkett, admitted this weekend to CBS that he lied about obtaining the documents from another former National Guard member, the network said. CBS hasn't been able to conclusively tell how he got them or even definitely tell whether they're fakes. But the network has given up trying to defend them.

In an

with Reporter Marcia Kramer of New York station WCBS, Rather said he "made a mistake" and "didn't dig hard enough, long enough."

"I didn't ask enough of the right questions, and I trusted a source who changed his story," Rather said. "It turns out he misled us, lied to us about one thing. But there are no excuses. This is not a day for excuses. I made a mistake, we made a mistake, and I'm sorry for it."

Now CBS opens its doors to an outside panel that will assign blame.

"I think it will be helpful, given the attention this story has received, for cool, collected, independent voices of unchallenged integrity to examine the process," CBS News President Andrew Heyward said.

The White House said the affair raises questions about the connection between Burkett and the Kerry campaign.

Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart said he had spoken to Burkett at the request of Mary Mapes, producer for the story. But Lockhart said he did not recall speaking about the National Guard to Burkett, and ended the call after taking a few minutes of campaign advice.

Burkett, who did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press, told USA Today that he had agreed to turn over the documents to CBS if the network would help arrange a conversation with the Kerry campaign. CBS admitted giving Burkett's number to the campaign, but said it was not part of any deal.

"Based on what we now know, CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report," Heyward said. "We should not have used them."

CBS said it approached Burkett initially about the memos purportedly written by Mr. Bush's late squadron leader, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. Several experts have dismissed the documents as fakes. Rather said Burkett was well known in National Guard circles for several years for trying to discredit Mr. Bush's military record.

Burkett had earlier claimed that as a Guard official, he had in 1997 seen allies of then-Gov. Bush discuss destroying military files that might embarrass the governor, who was mulling a presidential run. The allegation has never been proved.

Burkett, in an interview with Rather aired on the CBS Evening News, said he was pressured by CBS to reveal his source for the documents, and "I simply threw out a name that was basically, I guess, to get a little pressure off for the moment."

He said he did not fake or forge any documents.

"I didn't totally mislead you," he said. "I did mislead you about one individual."

Burkett said he also insisted CBS authenticate the documents on its own. Two document experts consulted by CBS later said they raised red flags that network officials apparently disregarded. Rather acknowledged CBS failed to properly determine whether the documents were genuine.

Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said it appeared to be an honest mistake by CBS. But he said the network was too slow to respond.

"I think that their delaying and obvious resistance to acknowledge the evident realities has kept the story alive a lot longer than it needed to be and was a lot more damaging to CBS than it needed to be," he said.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the White House appreciated CBS's expression of regret, but there were still serious questions about Burkett.

"Bill Burkett, who CBS now says is their source, in fact is not an unimpeachable source as was previously claimed," McClellan said. "Bill Burkett is a source who has been discredited and so this raises a lot of questions. There were media reports about Mr. Burkett having senior level contacts with the Kerry campaign."

The Kerry campaign has said it had nothing to do with the story.

In the interview with Kramer, Rather said he welcomed the independent review. "When the results are in, I'll take them seriously."