Searching for answers in the Killian memo controversy.

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
Sept. 10 2004 7:52 PM

Rather Suspicious

Searching for answers in the Killian memo controversy.

On Wednesday night, CBS News released four memos it claimed were written in 1972 and 1973 by George W. Bush's commander in the Texas Air National Guard. In one of the documents, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian writes that a Guard official was "pushing to sugar coat" Bush's training evaluation; in another, Killian suspects that Bush is "talking to someone upstairs" about getting transferred. Within a few hours of the CBS report, bloggers were questioning the authenticity of the documents. By today, the doubts were on the front page of the Washington Post.

ABC News' "The Note" has the best blow-by-blow on how the speculation spread from blogs to the mainstream media. (Scroll down to the second bold header, "President Bush and the National Guard," to see its timeline.) First, a post on the Free Republic Web site questioned whether 1970s-era typewriters were capable of producing a "proportionally spaced font." Soon after, the blogs Power Line and Little Green Footballs started picking apart the typography, suggesting that the curly apostrophes and a superscript "th" indicated that the memos originated in a modern word processing program like Microsoft Word.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

The typography experts quoted by major media organizations are nearly unanimous in their doubts that the Killian memos are genuine. ABC News says it talked to "more than a half dozen document experts" who doubt the veracity of the documents. A typewriter expert tells the New York Times that the IBM Selectric Composer could have made the documents, but it "would be unusual for Mr. Bush's commanding officer to have had the IBM machine because of its large size." The Weekly Standard's font gurus see an uncanny resemblance to a Microsoft Word file typed in Times New Roman.

Charles Johnson, the blogger behind Little Green Footballs, typed one of the memos in Word, superimposed it over the original, and found that they matched. Daily Kos disagrees with Johnson's detective work. The blog has a point-by-point guide that refutes the Word superimposition and many of the other typographical doubts about the Killian memos.

The National Review questions the authenticity of the documents based on content rather than appearance. A piece notes that the less-than-glowing assessments of Bush in these newly discovered memos contradict a document signed by Killian and previously released by the White House that reads, "Lt. Bush is an exceptional fighter interceptor pilot and officer."

For what it's worth, Killian's family doesn't think the documents are real. His widow told ABC News that Killian didn't write things down, but rather "carried everything in his mind." Killian's son has said that his father didn't know how to type and didn't have a secret stash of files .

So where did the documents come from? In a story filled with rumor and innuendo from unnamed sources, the American Spectator claims a "retired military officer" gave them to an opposition researcher at the Democratic National Committee six weeks ago. An anonymous DNC staffer also says he "heard that they ended up with the Kerry campaign."

The WP quotes an unnamed senior CBS official who says one of the network's sources was Killian's superior officer, Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges. The CBS official says a reporter "read the documents to Hodges over the phone" and that he agreed that the tone and content were consistent with what "Killian had expressed to me at the time."

Dan Rather defended the documents in an interview on CNN Friday morning. "I know that this story is true. I believe that the witnesses and the documents are authentic. We wouldn't have gone to air if they would not have been," he said. Bloggers are having a lot of fun at Rather's expense. Spacetown USA imagines him as the Iraqi information minister, while ScrappleFace says the veteran newsman is set to reveal a 1972 e-mail that "has been confirmed by several Nigerian officials who specialize in electronic funds transfer by email."

CBS has now tacked an editor's note onto its original report that says the authenticity of the Killian memos was "backed up not only by independent handwriting and forensic document experts but by sources familiar with their content." The network says it stands by its story and denies rumors, like this one posted by Matt Drudge, that they are conducting an internal investigation of the documents.

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