Mapes, Rather and the Bush-TANG Documents

Journalist Dan Rather speaks during A Conversation With Dan Rather on Day 3 of the 23rd Annual Hamptons International Film Festival on October 10, 2015 in East Hampton, New York.
Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Hamptons International Film Festival

Former CBS “journalists” Mary Mapes and Dan Rather must be disappointed to see their film “Truth” failing in theaters.

There’s good reason: It’s a self-serving cinematic attempt to rewrite history and rekindle the honor Rather once enjoyed – the honor he lost when he produced a story so flawed it ended his career.

Ironically, I was accused of planting forged Texas Air National Guard (TANG) documents at the center of “Truth” in a 2004 gambit designed to both clear George W. Bush of accusations of dereliction of duty and destroy the careers of Rather and Mapes. In fact, then-Democratic National Chairman Terry McAullife publicly accused me of executing the plot in a press release.

As the Rather/Mapes story broke and then burst into flames, former Texas Lt. Governor Ben Barnes piped up claiming George H.W. Bush had asked him in the early 1970s to wedge his son W into the Texas Air National Guard to avoid Vietnam. I had to remind people that Barnes, an LBJ protege, had been driven from public office in the Sharpestown scandal, a crooked real estate deal that rocked Texas politics in the 1970s. LBJ always said Ben was going to be President someday. Instead, he narrowly avoided prison.

The way Mapes tells it in her 2005 book “Truth: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power,” the Bush White House forged documents that made Bush out as a slacker as a National Guard pilot, leaked them, then exposed flaws hidden in the documents to prove them forgeries. By all measures, that’s a high-risk tactic to protect their candidate. Those of us adept at the political dark arts call that a triple bank shot – a dirty trick that demands a steady hand and careful execution.

It sounds complex, but the right person could do it.

Rumors had been swirling since his days as governor of Texas that Junior, a notorious party boy, had been derelict in his duties as a young TANG pilot. Through his gubernatorial races and his first campaign for president, nothing much came of the stories. But in the years leading to his 2004 reelection as president, reporters were chasing down nasty tales of Bush being away without leave (AWOL).

It’s no secret that, in the run up to the reelection, W’s team was preparing to deflect questions of his military record. When the Democrats settled on Sen. John Kerry as their candidate, I can attest to senior Republican hand wringing. “Swift Boat” attacks on the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts – where his military record and patriotism were run down in television ads – were a defensive as well as offensive move.

As the DailyKos blog told the story in a series of posts in 2004 and 2005, the Bush White House devised TANG documents with hidden fatal flaws. They called me in to get the documents into the hands of the Kerry campaign, hoping they would run with the accusation. Then, a pre-planned counter attack would expose the flaws; an intense effort to get the “forgery” story into the press would follow. This would embarrass the Kerry team and inoculate Bush from further discussion of his military service.

This would require an adept and experienced dirty trickster.

In 2004, a West Texas rancher and TANG veteran named Bill Burkett was widely known to be feeding hungry reporters a steady diet of information about Bush skipping out of his National Guard commitment. Worse, Burkett told reporters Bush was AWOL for months – the kind of bombshell that could do real damage to the President’s reelection. He was a yahoo, a conspiracy theorist who spoke of his own mental illness. But reporters like Mapes and others were in touch with him regularly, hoping he might be telling the truth. (I think he was.)

I stand accused by DailyKos and other progressive bloggers of targeting Burkett in March 2004. Specifically, they claim I had my Cuban-American wife, Nydia, call Burkett and offer him a set of White House-forged TANG memos that proved Bush was AWOL. The handoff took place at the annual Houston Livestock and Rodeo, amidst a million cowboys crowded into NRG Stadium. There, the fictitious “Olga Ramirez” and I gave Burkett an envelope containing the damning documents. Allegedly.

If Burkett got his hands on a set of incriminating TANG memos, it was a safe bet they would end up in the hands of a journalist, or even the Kerry campaign. He tried for weeks to peddle them directly to the campaign, to no avail. It wasn’t just dumb luck that they ended up in the hands of the egregious Dan Rather. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy – and his producer, Mapes, was based in Texas.

Rather was a notorious agenda-driven reporter. One of few journalists shown the famous Zapruder film right after the JFK assassination, he reported that Kennedy’s head snapped forward, in the film, consistent with a gunshot from behind. We now know the film shows Kennedy’s head propelled back and to the left. I knew since then he’s no unbiased journalist.

It took five months, but Rather and Mapes got the documents, didn’t properly vet them – as could be expected – and ran a story on “60 Minutes II” on September 8, 2004. Their careers ended not long after; in her book, Mapes blames everyone but herself. In fact, the triple bank shot would only succeed if the documents were handed to a hyper-partisan operative with such a deep hatred for George W. Bush that they would get sloppy. They were meant for the Kerry campaign, but Mapes and Rather were as craven as any Democrat staffer. They ran with a false story because they wanted to kill Bush’s chances at re-election.

In this case, the pin was pulled and the desired result was attained – with a double bonus.

I’ve always denied forging the TANG memos, and I do to this day. Any number of document specialists could handle that. But handing final documents off to Burkett, guiding him toward passing them to CBS News and then advancing the forgery story – that’s something very few could do.

Roger Stone is a political consultant who has played a key role in the election of Republican presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.