Mary Mapes: Still Defending Her Assassin

Mary Mapes still isn’t coming clean.


The latest issue of Vanity Fair features an excerpt from Mape’s forthcoming book Truth and Duty, in which she provides her account of how the infamously flawed “60 Minutes II” segment about President Bush’s National Guard service made it onto the air.


But Mapes directly contradicts the official report to CBS by investigators Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi on one critical point, and the excerpt deals not at all with the critical question of Mapes’ pre-broadcast contact with a staffer from the Kerry campaign.


Recounting her efforts to authenticate the documents purporting to be from the private files of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, Mapes writes, “We had a senior document analyst named Marcel Matley fly to New York to look at all the documents we had, the official records that had been previously released by the White House as well as the ‘new’ ones [given to Mapes by former Colonel Lieutenant Bill Burkett]. After examining them for hours, blowing up signatures and comparing curves, strokes and dots, he said he saw nothing to indicate that the memos had been doctored or had not been produced in the early 1970s. A second analyst, James Pierce, agreed.”


Mapes — who dismisses most of the criticism of the segment as nothing more than a political witch-hunt by right-wing bloggers — appears to be intentionally misleading her readers. On page 10 of their report (286K PDF) on the segment, Thornburgh and Boccardi write this:


One of the examiners, Marcel Matley, informed Miller on September 5 that based on his initial review, he believed that the signatures from the June 24, 1973 memorandum and those from the official Bush records were from the same person since he noticed “consistent inconsistencies.” … [Emphasis in original.]


When Matley arrived in New York, he was shown the four other documents provided by Lieutenant Colonel Burkett on the previous day. Matley told the Panel that he informed Mapes and Miller at the time that he could not authenticate the documents, and Matley’s contemporaneous notes from September 6 support this recollection.


While Mapes is actively misleading on the issue of Matley’s opinion, she (or perhaps her editor at Vanity Fair) also ends up distorting by omission. The excerpt as published makes no mention of one of the most troubling aspects of the entire affair: Mapes’ contact with officials from the Kerry campaign.


Page 26 of the Thornburgh/Boccardi report has this to say:


Mapes told the Panel that before Lieutenant Colonel Burkett turned over any of the documents, he had pressed her to arrange for him to be in touch with someone from the Kerry presidential campaign so that he could provide the campaign with strategic advice on how to rebut the attacks by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” group. Mapes told the panel that she did not know anyone from the Kerry campaign, but got [senior Kerry staffer Joe] Lockhart’s telephone number from Chad Clanton, a Kerry campaign official who had been quoted by Mapes’ husband, a newspaper reporter, in an article on an unrelated matter. …


Lockhart informed the panel that Mapes called him on the evening of Saturday, September 4. Lockhart said that she told him that she had lined up an interview with Ben Barnes and had obtained documents that had been authenticated by some number of experts. Lockhart stated that Mapes said that there may be more documents and Mapes asked him to call Lieutenant Colonel Burkett, whom she described as a source for the story. Lockhart said that it was his impression that a call to Lieutenant Colonel Burkett could be helpful in obtaining the additional documents. [Mapes denies that she discussed Burkett with Lockhart.]


That — whether Mapes tried, at Burkett’s behest, to get Lockhart to call Burkett — seems to us an issue worth addressing even in something as compressed as an excerpt. We can see why Mapes might want to dodge this issue; after all, Lockhart had no dog in this hunt, so it hardly seems likely he would invent a story. But we can’t see why her editor (or editors) would let her get away with it.


Finally, Mapes is surprisingly defensive about her source, Burkett, who lied to her at least once about how he obtained the purported Killian documents. “I didn’t grill Burkett on where he had gotten them,” she writes. “I knew him well enough to worry that, if I gave him time to take the documents back, he was full capable of doing just that.”


Not the most reassuring of observations — I knew my source was an unstable loon, so I didn’t press him.


“Burkett’s version of the truth could get pretty convoluted,” Mapes writes. “It could be hard to see clearly. It could be self-serving. However, I don’t think for a moment that Burkett was capable of doing anything like forging documents, faking old memos, or giving anyone in the media something he knew had been faked.” Later, she writes, “The panel wanted to know if I had questioned Burkett that day in Clyde, Texas, on the ‘provenance’ of the documents. I hadn’t done that. I just wanted to get the papers and get out of there and start working to see if the documents were real. It seemed to me that the panel felt I should have single-handedly put Burkett under oath and then grilled him on the details of his story.”


Of course, had she grilled Burkett on the details, the rest of us might have never been subjected to this whole mess, and Mapes might still have a job — for the unchallenged tale that Burkett did tell Mapes turned out to be a fiction, one he later contradicted after the “60 Minutes II” piece had been broadcast.


One wonders why, at this late date, Mapes is still so flippant about a source who lied to her and who led to her professional ruin.


If Mapes’ book is as cavalier with facts as the Vanity Fair excerpt is, we’d just as soon wait for the movie.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.