Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Bill Burkett - Lieing Then or Lieing Now? (Also, Salon's Factchecking Failure)

A bunch of people have noted that CBS's "unimpeachable" source, Bill Burkett, is now threatening to sue CBS. (See, e.g., Ace, Say Anything, INDC, Unpopulist, Malkin). However, as much as I hate to defend CBS, I don't think Burkett has a leg to stand on. In the Salon story, Burkett is now blatantly lieing about what he told CBS - Burkett's latest story, that he merely failed to contradict CBS producer Mary Mapes when she suggested that his friend George Conn was the documents' source - is flatly contradicted by his own statements his interview with Dan Rather. (In addition, while I was reviewing the transcript of the CBS interview, I noticed yet another change in Burkett's story.) Finally, as Ratherbiased notes Burkett's story about where he obtained the documents has now changed multiple times.

On the brighter side for the VRWC, however, I note that the moonbats are now doing their best to drum up a theory that Karl Rove planted the Burkett documents. I note in passing that (1) this theory depends on believing Burkett's latest story about where he got the documents and (2) Burkett's constantly-changing stories do not inspire confidence in this weakest link of an awfully weak chain of evidence binding Rove.

Full details after the jump.

Short background: Bill Burkett is one of the more colorful characters in the Rathergate story. A former Texas Guardsman, Burkett first made news a couple years ago, when he claimed that his friend George Conn led him to a garbage can on the base, in which Burkett found documents that had apparently been purged from George Bush's guard file. However, Burkett's story was suspect for a number of reasons. Burkett next turned up, of course, when he was revealed to be the man who CBS had described as an unimpeachable source for the Rathergate documents, and who Dan Rather had personally described as a "strong" source.

Burkett's Changing Story Part 1 - Who Named George Conn?

According to CBS, Burkett turned over the documents to them, then, when asked to identify their source, told CBS that he had obtained the documents from the same guy that he relied on in the garbage can story, George Conn, but that they shouldn't call Conn, because Conn would deny being the source of the documents. (See the CBS Thornburg report, at pages 15-16 (pages 25-26 of the pdf)).

Now, Burkett is threatening to sue CBS, and claims that he never named Conn at all. Instead, according to Burkett, CBS producer Mary Mapes suggested Conn's name, and Burkett didn't affirmatively say no. Specifically, Salon author Eric Boehlert writes:

According to Burkett, as soon as he handed over the memos, Mapes began needling him for information about his source, focusing on George Conn, a former Texas Air National Guard colleague of Burkett's. She "began playing an old media trick of baiting questions to get me to deny their origin. I simply did not play," Burkett wrote. "Mary Mapes did specifically ask me if George Conn was the source. My failure was to not answer that question emphatically -- NO -- though the question was a continued entrapment trick that she used after receiving the documents. Instead, when Mary Mapes specifically asked me if the documents came from George Conn, I did not definitively answer the question, believing it was not germane to any subject since we had reached an agreement that the documents would be authenticated and become 'stand alone' material."

Burkett isn't providing much basis for a lawsuit, given that he's almost certainly lieing about what he told CBS. First, as Salon notes, USA Today also reported that Burkett told them that George Conn was the source.

Second, in a detail that Salon apparently missed, Burkett specifically told Dan Rather that he personally volunteered Conn's name. According to the transcript of Burkett's full interview with Rather, they had the following exchange:

Rather: Okay. Now, you take a breath now. 'Cause there are several things here that I wanna clean up and get this straight off. That when we ask you originally where -- from whom you got the documents, who handed documents to you-- you said a man now living overseas, and you named him.

Burkett: Yes, sir.


Rather: ... Why did you mislead us?

Burkett: Well, I didn't totally mislead you. I did mislead you on the one individual. You know, your staff pressured me to a point to reveal that source.


Burkett: And-- I simply threw out a name and I told you this. And your staff and-- and all of your people this week, I gave you a name that was-- that was basically-- it was a-- I guess to get a little pressure off for a moment.

Rather: You gave us the name of a real person.

Burkett: Yes sir.

(From the CBS transcript of Burkett's interview, at pages 141-144 of the pdf.)

Now, during this interview, Burkett and Rather agree not to reveal the name of the "individual" who Burkett fingered as the source of the documents, but it's clearly Conn. (The alternative is that Burkett named some other guy as the source, and neither he nor CBS have revealed it).

I don't see how Burkett can possibly argue now that he didn't affirmatively name Conn as his source - USA Today got Conn's name, and Burkett told Rather, on tape, that "I simply threw out a name . . . to get a little pressure off."

I remind you, this is the guy who CBS called "unimpeachable," and on whose testimony the latest Rove controversy depends.

Burkett's Changing Story Part 2 - What Was in the Garbage Can?

While reading the full Rather-Burkett transcript, I noticed one other piece of Burkett's story that has changed. Specifically, in February 2004, when the garbage can story first came out, Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum interviewed Burkett, and asked him what was in the alleged garbage can:

Instead I looked down into the trashcan. Underneath most of the trash — the trash level was within two inches of the top — I saw that the trash on the bottom was basically packing cartons, I do remember that there were a couple of elastic type straps and that sort of thing, and on top there was a little bit of paper. And on top of that pile of paper, approximately five-eighths of an inch thick, and Jim wanted me to estimate the number of pages and I said probably between 20 and 40 pages of documents that were clearly originals and photocopies. And it wasn't any big deal, I looked at it, it was a glance situation, and it made no sense to me at all except at the top of that top page was Bush, George W., 1LT.

And I look back at it now and I know I was troubled that those documents were in the trashcan. I did ruffle through the top six to eight pages.

And what were they?

Those documents were performance, what I term performance documents, which would include retirement points, [unintelligible] type documents, which would be a record of drill performance or nonperformance, and there was at least one pay document copy within the top six to eight pages of that stack that was in the trash….

At about that same time, Burkett talked to Chris Matthews on Hardball, and recalled the same thing that he told Drum:

BURKETT: No. And that‘s what‘s so important here, Mr. Matthews. This thing needs to be put in context. And it takes a lot longer than most people are willing to listen.

We walked into a facility. There was a standard folding table there with a large trashcan. Old style. Metal trashcan, roughly 15 gallon, tabletop high. I was standing next to that trashcan, right next to that trashcan. These files were there.

And of course, in the course of a very informal conversation about the files, I looked down. And the top piece of paper was—had the header on it in handwritten, on a standard form in handwritten letters, “Bush, George W.,” his initial, “1LT.”

As those individuals did walk away I did something that I‘m not terribly proud of. But I did look at the first five or six or seven or eight pages, and they were all Mr. Bush‘s files.

MATTHEWS: Why were they drawn to your attention?

BURKETT: Because of the first occurrence in which I had listened, I had head that call, and because I had also witnessed the second conveyance of the directive. And here I was actually seeing something that I considered to be an effort to shape an image.

MATTHEWS: As you went through those, you sorted through those six pages, you found in the trashcan with Bush‘s—President Bush‘s name on it, at the time a lieutenant, did you notice anything that was written on those pages?

BURKETT: I noticed a type of document more than anything else. These were performance type...

MATTHEWS: What was it?

BURKETT: These were performance type documents. Performance certificates. Either you did or did not attend drill. And in a couple of cases, there were photocopies of pay documents.

However, when he talked to Rather, Burkett had suddenly developed a much more specific recollection of the documents:

Rather: So, you reached into the gabage can?

Burkett: Yes, sir.

Rather: And you pulled out-- one paper, two papers--

Burkett: Six to eight, I would say.

Rather: And one of 'em, the one you say--

Burkett: The one that was on top.

Rather: Looked like to you something counselling-- what did it say?

Burkett: Well, (SIGH) it explained why Lieutenant Bush had been grounded from flying. And it basically said that it was a failure to meet-- standards-- and a failure to do a physical.

Rather: Did it use the phrase "failure to follow an order," or just failure to use a physical--

Burkett: No. Failure to complete mandatory physical, I believe is more correct.

Rather: Would you say you read a coupla lines, a coupla paragraphs?

Burkett: I would say I closely read two paragraphs probably, and skimmed the balance, including the second page.

Rather: Did this have a name on it?

Burkett: It was signed by Lieutenant Colonel Killian.
(CBS Exhibit 9c, at pages 111-112 of the pdf).

So let me get this straight. When talking to Rather, Burkett says that one of the documents was a Killian memo stopping Bush from flying due to failure to take a physical and that all the others were "basically pay documents-- administrative documents," but when he talked to Drum and Matthews earlier that year, he told both of them that there were several documents about "failure to show up for drills," but didn't mention the stop flight order at all.

Unfortunately for the left's conspiracy theorists, Burkett has now told so many different stories about so many different things that it is impossible to tell which one, if any, is true. I'd like to know as much as anyone, but at this point, the only value of Burkett's latest stories is for chuckles and grins.