Sunday, September 12, 2004

As I Was Saying...

Yesterday I suggested that Howard Kurtz's Washington Post column about the "documents" used in Dan Rather's attack on Bush's National Guard service "signals other serious journalists that they can dump on old Dan, at will." So, today's carries a piece with the headline "An Ex-Officer Now Believes Guard Memo Isn't Genuine." Fancy that! Given the source, the article is strikingly balanced:
A former National Guard commander who CBS News said had helped convince it of the authenticity of documents raising new questions about President Bush's military service said on Saturday that he did not believe they were genuine.

The commander, Bobby Hodges, said in a telephone interview that network producers had never showed him the documents but had only read them to him over the phone days before they were featured Wednesday in a "60 Minutes" broadcast. After seeing the documents on Friday, Mr. Hodges said, he concluded that they were falsified.

Mr. Hodges, a former general who spoke to several news organizations this weekend, was just the latest person to challenge the authenticity of the documents, which CBS reported came from the personal files of Mr. Bush's former squadron commander at the Texas Air National Guard, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, who died 20 years ago.

The memos indicated that Mr. Bush had failed to take a physical "as ordered" and that Mr. Killian was being pressured to "sugarcoat" Mr. Bush's performance rating because Mr. Bush, whose father was then a Texas congressman, was "talking to somebody upstairs."

But they have been the subject of an intense debate, with some forensic document specialists saying they appear to be the work of a modern word processor and others saying they could indeed have been produced by certain types of Vietnam-era typewriters. Some of Mr. Killian's family members have stepped forward to question their legitimacy.

CBS News has stood by its reporting, saying that it obtained the documents through a reliable source and that a host of experts and former Guard officials, including Mr. Hodges, helped convince it of their authenticity. It broadcast an interview on Friday night with one of those experts, a handwriting specialist named Marcel B. Matley, who said the signatures on the documents were consistent with those of Colonel Killian on records the White House had given reporters.

Mr. Hodges, 74, who was group commander of Mr. Bush's squadron in the 147th Fighter Group at Ellington Field in Houston in the early 1970's, said that when someone from CBS called him on Monday night and read him documents, "I thought they were handwritten notes."

He said he had not authenticated the documents for CBS News but had confirmed that they reflected issues he and Colonel Killian had discussed - namely Mr. Bush's failure to appear for a physical, which military records released previously by the White House show, led to a suspension from flying.

A CBS News spokeswoman, Sandy Genelius, indicated that Mr. Hodges had changed his account.

"We believed General Hodges the first time we spoke to him," Ms. Genelius said. Acknowledging that document authentification is often not an iron-clad process, she said, "We believe the documents to be genuine, we stand by our story and we will continue to report."

A spokeswoman for the CBS anchor Dan Rather, Kim Akhtar, said that Mr. Hodges had declined to appear on camera. As a result, Ms. Akhtar said, he was read the memos and responded that "he was familiar with the contents of the documents and that it sounded just like Killian." He made it clear, she added, that he was a supporter of Mr. Bush.

Mr. Hodges said that he had not spoken with anyone from the Bush administration or campaign about his views and that he was basing his belief now that the records are fakes on "inconsistencies" he had noticed.

He specifically pointed to a memo theorizing that the Texas Guard's chief of staff, Col. Walter B. Staudt, was pressing Mr. Hodges to give Mr. Bush favorable treatment. Mr. Hodges said that was not the case and that Mr. Staudt had actually retired more than a year earlier, though he acknowledged that Mr. Staudt might have remained in the Guard in some capacity after that. Mr. Staudt has not answered his phone for several days.

Mr. Hodges said he had also begun taking a dim view of the memos after hearing disavowals of them from Colonel Killian's wife and son.

The son, Gary Killian, said Saturday that he initially believed the documents might be real, if only because the signature looked like his father's. He said he had since been persuaded by the skepticism of some document experts.