President Bush said in an interview published Saturday that there were serious questions about the authenticity of documents featured in a CBS News report that he received preferential treatment in the Texas National Guard three decades ago.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the documents, Bush told the Manchester (N.H.) Union-Leader, "There are a lot of questions and they need to be answered."
He said, "I think what needs to happen is people need to take a look at the documents, how they were created, and let the truth come out."
Bush stopped short of calling the documents forgeries, but said: "I met my requirements and was honorably discharged. I'm proud of my service in the Guard."
In the early morning hours of Sept. 8, CBS anchor Dan Rather was preparing to fly to Washington for a crucial interview in the Old Executive Office Building, but torrential rain kept him in New York.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett had agreed to talk to 60 Minutes, but only on the condition that the CBS program provide copies of what were being billed as newly unearthed memos indicating that President Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard. The papers were hand-delivered at 7:45 a.m. CBS correspondent John Roberts, filling in for Rather, sat down with Bartlett at 11:15.
Half an hour later, Roberts called 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes with word that Bartlett was not challenging the documents' authenticity. Mapes told her bosses, who were so relieved that they cut from Rather's story an interview with a handwriting expert who had examined the memos.
At that point, said 60 Minutes executive Josh Howard, "we completely abandoned the process of authenticating the documents. Obviously, looking back on it, that was a mistake. We stopped questioning ourselves. I suppose you could say we let our guard down."
CBS aired the story eight hours later, triggering an onslaught of criticism that has left Rather and top network officials struggling to explain why they relied on a handful of papers that even some of Rather's colleagues now believe to be fake.
When CBS News presented the materials to White House officials, aides to Bush said, they had no reason to doubt their authenticity, in part because of CBS's reputation as a news organization.
But over the past week, officials _ who said that Bush had inspected the documents personally _ have become openly skeptical amid mounting evidence that suggests the papers are fake. The president's comments were an indication of increasing confidence at the White House that the documents will be proved false.
The papers are purported to be from the personal files of one of Bush's guard commanders, Lt. Col. Larry B. Killian, who died 20 years ago. The memorandums say that Killian was under pressure to "sugar coat" the record of the young Lt. Bush and that Bush had disobeyed a direct order to take a physical.
Apprised of the president's comments Saturday, Andrew Heyward, the CBS News president, said: "We're in total agreement. We're working very hard to resolve these questions about the documents, so I agree with the president."
With its credibility on the line, the news division says it has redoubled its efforts to figure out whether it fell prey to a hoax, and if so, who was behind it. Underscoring the importance of the task, Betsy West, a top news executive, has taken over the investigation and increased the number of journalists working on it to 12 from about six, several people at the network said Saturday.
The New York Times reports, quoting several unnamed people involved in the reporting process, that Rather and West flew Saturday to Texas, where they were to meet with at least one man who has been identified as a source for the report, a former Texas Air National Guard officer named Bill Burkett.
An executive involved in the investigation said the network was leaning on its initial sources to come forward and help resolve the questions, preferably by speaking publicly about how they got their hands on the documents.
The network, however, is playing catchup. While several other news organizations began pursuing the accusations that the documents were fraudulent 10 days ago, the 60 Minutes team did not seem to take the questions seriously until last week, when Killian's secretary stepped forward to say they appeared to be fakes, though they accurately reflected other memorandums the commander had asked her to type.
Now, as it pursues new reporting, the network is going back over the chain of events that led to the broadcast, and network officials are indicating that the report came together much more quickly than they previously said.
When questions first arose, CBS News officials said they were confident about the documents in part because the lead producer of the report, Mary Mapes, had been working on the Guard story for years. But an official said Saturday that the actual documents _ six in total, four of which were used in the report _ did not fall into CBS News' hands until Sept. 3, less than a week before the report ran.
Officials say they did not begin trying to authenticate the documents in earnest until the next day. Two of its experts, whom CBS News refused to name as questions about the memos began to mount, said last week that they had actually told the network they had some doubts about the records.
A CBS News spokeswoman denied last week that there had been questions about the documents' authenticity at least two days before the report was broadcast. But officials acknowledged Saturday that questions lingered up to the day the report was shown.
Asked about a report in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday that network officials were questioning the documents' authenticity at a meeting several hours before the start of the broadcast, Howard said: "We were sitting there with the lawyers, asking ourselves a million questions: "Are we sure we got it right?' And the answers were all "We got it right, yes.' "
For now, Burkett seems to be a focus of the network's efforts to get to the bottom of the documents' validity, which it hopes it can do as early as Monday.
Burkett's lawyer, David Van Os, issued a statement last week saying Burkett "no longer trusts any possible outcome of speaking to the press on any issue regarding George W. Bush."
Information from the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.