Wednesday, September 22, 2004

First, Find the Forger

The New York Times
September 22, 2004

First, Find the Forger

Whoever, having devised any scheme or artifice to defraud transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. " U.S. Criminal Code, Chapter 63, Section 1343.

WASHINGTON — At the root of what is today treated as an embarrassing blunder by duped CBS journalists may turn out to be a felony by its faithless sources.

Some person or persons conceived a scheme to create a series of false Texas Air National Guard documents and append a photocopied signature to one of them. The perpetrator then helped cause the fraudulent file to be transmitted by means of television communication to millions of voters for the purpose of influencing a federal election.

That was no mere "dirty trick"; it could be a violation of the U.S. criminal code. If the artifice had not been revealed by sharp-eyed bloggers, a national election could have been swung by a blatant falsehood.

Who was the forger? Did others conspire with him or her to present a seeming government document - with knowledge of its falsity and with intent to defraud, which is a felony in Texas? Who was to benefit and how?

CBS News belatedly apologized and agreed to appoint independent examiners. That's a start.

The government and the courts have no business forcing journalists to reveal sources. But no ethic requires a journalist to protect a source who lied. Accordingly, Dan Rather went to the Texas ranch of his source and telecast Bill Burkett's admission of having falsely "thrown out the name" of someone who gave him the false evidence. Burkett now claims his real source was some hard-to-find mystery woman.

What benefit did the Bush-hating Burkett gain from CBS in return for his fake documents? One plausible answer: he got coveted access to someone high up in the Kerry campaign.

We learned last week that Burkett had reached Kerry's convention introducer, former Senator Max Cleland, to plead for access to higher-ups so as to launch a "counterattack." Cleland confirms getting the call and says he told him to try the D.N.C., (where Terry McAuliffe, as former prosecutor Joseph DiGenova noted on MSNBC, carefully denied a role only in the preparation of the documents).

When his call to headquarters was not returned, Burkett then asked Mary Mapes, the CBS producer, to help him gain the top-level Kerry access he so highly valued.

Only days before the telecast, Mapes or some other "60 Minutes" staff member delivered the goods: their "unimpeachable" source was paid off with a call from Joe Lockhart, the Clinton press aide newly hired to strip nuance out of Kerry's message. With the number supplied by CBS, Lockhart called Burkett. We don't know what was said, but the call from on high was payoff in itself.

What should CBS do now? First, release Rather's interview with Burkett in its entirety; viewers are entitled to the outtakes now. Next, let Mary Mapes, at the center of all this, speak to reporters. Third, expend some Viacom resources to track down the possible original sources, including the man whose name Burkett says he "threw out" to mislead CBS.

Appointing independent reviewers should not be a device to duck all others' questions; that's Kofi Annan's trick to stonewall his oil-for-food scandal. But lacking the power of a grand jury's subpoena or testimony under oath, victimized CBS cannot put real heat on the perpetrator or conspirators. We have hard evidence of crimes by low-level operatives here - from wire fraud to forgery - as well as the potential of high-level political involvement. Is no prosecutor prepared to enforce the law?

Conservatives should stop slavering over Dan Rather's scalp, and liberals should stop pretending that noble ends justify fake-evidence means. Both should focus on the lesson of the early 70's: from third-rate burglaries to fourth-rate forgeries, nobody gets away with trying to corrupt American elections.