We Should Have Known

The warning bells were ringing over 60 Minutes’ Bush documents. We just didn’t hear them.

The documents CBS News’ 60 Minutes released last week concerning George W. Bush’s National Guard service—to view them, click here—ought to have aroused suspicion from the start. The giveaway was not some obscure typographical anomaly that only an expert could spot. Put fonts, superscripts, and proportional spacing out of your mind. What should have set klaxons ringing in the minds of every non-expert TV viewer was the following sentence: “But 60 Minutes has obtained a number of documents we are told were taken from Col. [Jerry] Killian’s personal file.”

We still don’t know whether the documents are forgeries. But in the universe I inhabit, “we are told were taken from Col. Killian’s personal file” does not constitute responsible verification of a document in any situation in which somebody might have a motive to forge said document. Say, for instance … a closely contested presidential election.

CBS’s subsequent assertion that the documents were provided by “unimpeachable sources,” which is meant to quiet doubts, only increases them. Sources, plural? More than one person has access to Col. Killian’s personal file? That’s surprising, given that Col. Killian passed away in 1984. Wouldn’t his personal file be the property of his family—who, far from stepping forward to say they gave CBS the documents, are casting doubt on their authenticity? Indeed, USA Today reports that Killian’s family “had no knowledge of any files Killian kept.” And what were these memos doing in a “personal file” to begin with? If they were government documents, shouldn’t CBS be able to establish that they are, or at least once were, in the government’s possession? Doesn’t the fact that CBS had Killian’s signature checked by a “handwriting expert” demonstrate that even CBS worried that somebody was trying to pull a fast one?

I can say with confidence that I never would have relied on the documents that 60 Minutes relied on, based on how they were described in its broadcast, had they landed in my lap. But before you pat me on the back and say “well done,” you should know that I did make the error of racing to comment on the documents before actually reading the 60 Minutes transcript. (I missed the broadcast itself.) The fact that the White House had sent the documents to me and to thousands of other reporters seemed to eliminate any possibility that they were fakes. (It turned out the White House was just passing along docs that it had received from … 60 Minutes.) The only statement I can make in my defense is that the White House didn’t seem to doubt their authenticity, either.

Which brings us to a larger point. The documents were entirely consistent with everything that’s already been established about President Bush’s National Guard service. We know strings were pulled on his behalf to get in. We know that, for whatever reason, he wouldn’t take a required physical. We know that Bush agitated for a transfer to Alabama, and that for a period of six months there exists no evidence that he ever showed up. None of this makes Bush a bad person—except insofar as he feels free to question, or permits others on his campaign to question, the manhood and patriotism of his opponent, John Kerry. 60 Minutes may have inadvertently framed the president, but in doing so it framed an already guilty man.