Mary Mapes for Dummies

The last thing you’ll have to read.

Not the sharpest tool in the shed? Click image to expand.
Not the sharpest tool in the shed?

Mary Mapes: fall girl, con artist, or dupe? The arguments over Mapes’ firing for producing a September 2004 CBS News report about President Bush’s National Guard duty have an eye-glazing quality that can defeat even the most disinterested seeker of truth. But have no fear, dear reader. I have selflessly dived into Mary Mapes’ new book, Truth and Duty, as well as CBS’s report by an “independent review panel” headed by Dick Thornburgh (who served under Bush père as attorney general), and an April 2005 New York Review of Books article by James C. Goodale, a former New York Times general counsel who represented the Times in the Pentagon Papers case, challenging the Thornburgh panel’s findings. Here, then, is the Mapes Controversy for Dummies.

At issue, you may recall, was whether some “cover your ass” memos purportedly typed for the file by George W. Bush’s superior, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian—files expressing dissatisfaction with Dubya’s special treatment in the Guard—were genuine. Immediately after the 60 Minutes story aired, multiple bloggers produced evidence “showing” that the documents couldn’t have been genuine, for technical reasons. This was accepted as gospel truth by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and other mainstream reporters. In the end, however, the evidence was found to be specious. We still don’t know whether the documents were genuine.

Did CBS say they were genuine? Yes. Previewing the 60 Minutes report on the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather referred to “four government documents from the personal files of the late Col. Jerry Killian, Bush’s squadron commander.” Not four documents “we believe to be from” Killian’s files. On 60 Minutes itself, the documents’ provenance was hedged a bit to “we are told were taken from Col. Killian’s personal file.” (To see the documents, click here, here, here, and here.)

Was the substance of the report correct? Yes. An interview on the 60 Minutes broadcast with Ben Barnes, former lieutenant governor of Texas, established that he helped Bush get a coveted Air National Guard spot, at the explicit request of a Bush family friend. (Click here for the raw transcript.) A phone interview with Killian’s superior—Killian himself is dead—established that Killian was indeed irked by Bush’s special treatment. A reference to this corroboration was, stupidly, cut from the 60 Minutes broadcast.

Was there reason to be wary about the documents’ provenance? Yes. Mapes acknowledges that the person who gave her the documents, Bill Burkett, was an odd duck and points out that whistle-blowers often are. But Burkett had been accused beforespecifically of making up stories about Bush’s National Guard service documents. Yet she didn’t press Burkett, initially, about where he got these documents. The reason, Mapes says, is that she didn’t want to scare Burkett off. “I knew him well enough to worry that if I gave him time to take the documents back, he was fully capable of doing just that,” Mapes writes in her book.

A couple of days after she received Burkett’s documents, Mapes writes, she got Burkett to say that he’d gotten them from a man named George Conn, who divided his time between Dallas and Germany. Weirdly, though, Mapes didn’t pursue this lead very hard. She left a message on Conn’s phone machine in Dallas, then called someone who knew both Burkett and Conn and “begged for the phone number in Germany, but to no avail.”

Had she pressed on, she might have found out that Burkett was lying. Later, Burkett told a colleague of Mapes’ that the Conn story wasn’t true; he’d made it up to throw Mapes off the scent. The real story, Burkett told a gathering of CBS News brass after the piece ran on 60 Minutes, was that he’d gotten a phone call from an unidentified man who told him to call one Lucy Ramirez, who told him she had a package for him. She had said she would give it to him provided he photocopied the documents inside and then burned the originals, which, inexplicably, he did. The drop was made at the Houston Livestock Show, Burkett said, and the papers were subsequently stored in his venison locker.

Mapes tries to argue in her book that a bunch of CBS News suits in New York were ill-equipped to believe a story like this because they didn’t live in Texas (as she did) and therefore couldn’t appreciate that “in Texas, anything could happen.” But the salient point isn’t that the details of Burkett’s second story were colorful; it’s that this colorful tale was being told by someone who’d already admitted once to lying on this very point.

Was it enough simply to rely on handwriting and typography experts and on checking the facts in the new documents against the facts in other, already released National Guard documents and what Killian’s superior said in an interview? No. Goodale points out in the New York Review that the Times never tried to authenticate the Pentagon Papers by calling the Pentagon. How is that different from what Mapes did? Well, I’d say it was different because the New York Times knew that Ellsberg, a Pentagon consultant at the RAND Institute, had direct access to the papers. The indirect verification procedures that the Times used to authenticate the Pentagon Papers were buttressed by that knowledge. Mapes, on the other hand, didn’t know that Burkett had access to Killian’s private files; Burkett didn’t claim he did.

Did Mapes try to tip off the Kerry campaign? No. Mapes did agree to put Burkett in touch with the Kerry campaign, apparently to leverage more documents out of him. Burkett wanted to advise a Kerry aide on how to handle attacks on Kerry’s Vietnam record. What Mapes doesn’t consider in her book is that this put her scoop in peril, because nothing would have prevented Burkett from going on to blab about the documents he’d given Mapes. The Thornburgh report quotes Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart saying that Mapes herself told him, via an aide, that she was working on a National Guard story, presumably by way of explaining how she’d come into contact with Burkett.

Was Mapes trying to help the Kerry campaign? Apparently not. She was just being clumsy.