CBS can't vouch for Bush Guard memos
White House asks if Kerry campaign involved
NEW YORK (CNN) -- CBS News said Monday it cannot vouch for the authenticity of documents that cast doubt on President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service, and the White House suggested Democrats might have been involved.
"CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report," CBS News President Andrew Heyward said in a statement issued by the network.
"We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret."
The documents were attributed to Texas Air National Guard Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's squadron commander in 1972 and 1973.
They appeared to suggest that Bush refused a direct order to take a flight physical, something required for him to do to remain in good standing.
Further, CBS said the documents showed Killian believed he was being pressured to "sugarcoat" the performance of Bush, whose father was then a congressman from Texas. Killian died in 1984.
CBS broadcast the documents on the newsmagazine "60 Minutes" September 8, reporting that experts had vouched for their authenticity.
The authenticity of the documents was questioned almost immediately. Other experts said the documents may not have been real and may have been typed on equipment not available in the early 1970s.
Anchor Dan Rather, who was the principal reporter for the story, apologized for the report on Monday's "CBS Evening News."
In an earlier interview on WCBS, the network's flagship New York station, Rather said, "I didn't dig hard enough, long enough, didn't ask enough of the right questions. And I trusted a source who changed his story."
But he added, "There are no excuses. This is not a day for excuses. I made a mistake, we made a mistake, and I am sorry for it."
The CBS report also included an interview with former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes in which he said he helped get Bush a slot in the Texas Air National Guard.
In the interview, Barnes described his awarding of a slot to Bush as "preferential treatment."
CBS did not retract that part of its report.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said CBS' admission "raises a number of serious questions, and those questions need to be looked into fully."
"Those are questions that need to be answered in terms of who is responsible for being the source of the documents -- the original source of the documents," McClellan said.
"The one thing that is not in question is the timing of these recent attacks on the president. It is clear that there's been an orchestrated effort by Democrats and the Kerry campaign to tear down the president and use old, recycled attacks."
Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe has denied that anyone in the party or in Sen. John Kerry's campaign was involved with the CBS report.
Killian's former secretary, 86-year-old Marian Carr Knox, said she never typed the documents, which would have been her responsibility.
"These are not real. They're not what I typed, and I would have typed them for him," Knox told The Dallas Morning News.
Knox did tell the newspaper and CBS News that the documents echoed Killian's views on Bush.
She said Killian retained memos for a personal "cover his back" file he kept in a locked drawer of his desk, but she was not sure what happened to them after he died.
The White House distributed copies of the Killian memos to reporters after the "60 Minutes" segment aired and did not directly challenge their authenticity, saying only that other organizations were raising questions about them.
The man who gave CBS the documents, retired Texas Air National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, denied Monday that he forged the documents but admitted he lied to the network about who provided them.
In an interview with Rather on Monday's CBS newscast, Burkett said he "insisted that they be authenticated." Rather said CBS approached Burkett: "He did not come to us."
Rather said Burkett initially told the network his source was a member of the Guard, but "he now says he got them from a different source -- one we cannot verify."
Burkett claimed in the past that when Bush was governor of Texas his aides urged Guard officers to remove anything embarrassing from his service records. The White House vigorously denied the allegation.
Burkett has complained that his battle over medical care with the Guard led to his being hospitalized for depression.
McClellan called Burkett "a discredited source from the past, someone's who's been very involved with Democrats."
Rather said in the WCBS interview that CBS News investigated whether Burkett had ties to Democratic operatives and found none.
When asked for evidence that Democrats were behind the documents, McClellan cited only the timing of a "coordinated effort" by party leaders to seize on the allegations contained in the documents.
Democrats launched a two-minute video within days of the CBS report that highlighted questions about Bush's Guard service.
Bush trained as a fighter pilot after he joined the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 following his graduation from Yale University.
That was at the height of the Vietnam War, a time when the Guard was considered a haven from the military draft.
Bush was grounded in August 1972 after he failed to take a flight physical, and other news organizations have reported that analyses of Bush's military records raise questions about whether he completed his required service.
The White House points to Bush's honorable discharge as evidence that he completed his military obligations.
Heyward said an independent review of how the reports were prepared and broadcast will be commissioned by CBS News and the findings of that review will be made public.