Read an Excerpt
Rather Outspoken My Life in the News
By Rather, Dan
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2012 Rather, Dan
All right reserved.
Come to the edge, he said.
They said: We are afraid.
Come to the edge, he said.
He pushed them… and they flew.
It’s a Friday evening in New York in the early spring of 2006. I’m in my combined 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II office at 555 West 57th, across the street from the old renovated milk barn that has been CBS News world headquarters for many years. Out the window is a glorious view of the Hudson River, the view stretching across the river and into the trees and rocks of New Jersey.
There’s nobody else around. It is quiet as a tomb, and my mind begins to wander: a kaleidoscope of thoughts. There are smiles, worries and concerns, and flashes of the past. I’ve been a professional journalist, a reporter, for 60 years, 44 of them at CBS News, 24 of them as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News—the network’s flagship broadcast. They called it “being the face and the voice” of CBS’s storied News Division. With the exception of Britain’s BBC, it was the best known and most honored broadcast news operation in the world.
But that’s all in the past. As “the face and voice of CBS News,” Edward R. Murrow is long gone. So is Walter Cronkite. And so am I. This was supposed to be a new beginning for me, but it is feeling very much like the beginning of the end. At least at CBS.
I almost desperately don’t want it to be. I am still hoping against hope that somehow, someway, things will work out and I can stay. In denial? Well, I don’t think so. But time and the tides are running in that direction.
An old friend who, like me, grew up working in the oilfields and refineries of the Texas Gulf Coast as the son of an oilfield hand had called a short while earlier. He’s been retired for a few years and called just to touch base, tell a few jokes and in general be supportive and encouraging.
“Rags,” he finally said, using my father’s nickname that had been passed on to me in my youth. “You don’t want to face it, I know. But you’re finished there. They have decided to scapegoat you, throw you to the wolves and be rid of you. They’re doing it to save themselves. It ain’t fair or right, but it’s what is. And the sooner you recognize it and deal with it, the better off you’re going to be.”
He went on to say some overcomplimentary things about “what a great reporter you’ve been… best of your time and one of the best ever… who’s given CBS News some of the best years they’ve ever had,” and so on. That kind of thing. But by this time, I had tuned him pretty much out. My mind was racing and wandering.
To hell with this, I was thinking. He’s a friend, naturally he’s going to say those things. He means well, and I appreciate it. More than he can know. He’s trying to be helpful. But I know my weaknesses and strengths. This includes knowing, really knowing down deep, that I had wanted since childhood to do extended great reporting, work that might stand with the best of my time, if not the best ever. And I had not achieved that. Not nearly. Not yet. This is not false humility. It’s not humility of any kind. It’s how I genuinely feel.
What I felt at this moment was that in the dream of doing the kind of reporting that I like best and believe I do best—big breaking news, international stories including covering war zones and deep-digging investigative journalism—CBS News was the best place to be. By far. I loved the place, loved the people and loved what CBS represented: an institution—not just a great corporation, but an institution important to the country and to the cause of press freedom everywhere.
That last part may strike some people as overstated. It never struck me that way. About that, I was a true believer.
I also loved the history and tradition of the place, which I knew well. There may well have been (probably have been) better, much better CBS News correspondents than I over the years, but there’s never been one who knew the history of the place better. I also loved the lore, the mythology and high sense of mission exuded by the CBS I had known. I loved it all when I was a young reporter just breaking in with the network. And I loved it even more now that I was an older man. I was now 74, and age had given me an even greater appreciation of how lucky I was to have spent most of my career at CBS.
But age also had given me perspective. Try as I had, and I had tried hard—I gave it everything I knew how—I knew within myself that the dream of doing sustained great work, work that would be recognized as truly important and a service to my country, was not completed.
Sure, I’ve had my good days—big interviews, world-class exclusive stories, breaking news and long, good reporting runs on big stories and the like. But I also know how often I’ve failed, haven’t been as good as I could have, should have been. And a body, a lifetime, of great journalistic work? No, not yet. I’m working on it though, still striving, still trying, still determined, still chasing the childhood dream. And I want to do it here at CBS News—my home for most of my professional life.
“Never, never, ever give up,” I was thinking as my old Texas friend’s voice tailed off. (My father had quoted Winston Churchill’s famous line so often that it had become rote to me long ago.)
And besides, I was thinking, I know this business and I know these people, the people of CBS News. And the people at the top of CBS corporate. We have, almost literally, been to hell and back together over the years, through good times and bad, through sunshine and storms. I trust them and they trust me. This trust has been tested time and again. It’s been forged to strong steel in hot fires, past and present, over nearly half a century. We’ll find a way to work it out. If nothing else, we will just will it to happen.
Was it hubris? Naïveté? Did I have my head in the sand? Looking back on it, maybe some or all of that. But I didn’t think so at the time.
What I did think, what I knew, was that I was feeling deeply troubled. Among the things troubling me most (and there were a lot of things) was that some longtime colleagues at CBS had turned against me. Some of these people I had considered to be friends. Some were people whom I had hired, mentored, promoted and/or helped in various ways professionally. Fair to say that some of them had helped me along the way, too. Helped a lot. Couldn’t have, wouldn’t have done it without their help.
On the other hand, some good friends were standing tall and standing by me. And there were other people whom I didn’t know well who did the same. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s an old story: When the heat’s on and you need someone to stand with you, those who you most expect will don’t, and those who you least expect do. But surprised I was, by those who did and by those who didn’t.
The worst were those who, after pretending to be friends for all those years, stealthily snuck around giving anonymous newspaper quotes and otherwise scheming to put the dirk in deep when I was down and hurting.
One of them, a veteran news executive who was one of the most publicly lauded men in the craft and for whom I had worked since first coming to CBS, made a series of secret telephone calls to newspaper writers lambasting me personally and professionally—all under the cover of “don’t use my name,” of course.
But, hey, I said to myself, this is the big time; you’ve been privileged to play the game at the top for a long while. These are the major leagues: Envy, cowardice and betrayal are part of life. Stuff happens, and people will always surprise you; take it for what you can learn from it and take it like a man, like a pro. And just keep on keeping on. Which is what I was trying to do.
They pushed me out, but before I knew it, I was flying again.
Why was I out at CBS? Because I reported a true story. The story I reported in September 2004 of President George W. Bush’s dereliction of duty during Vietnam is true, and neither Bush himself nor anyone close to him—no family member, no confidante, no political ally—has ever denied it. I remain proud of reporting that truth, and proud of the many people who were part of that report.
Looking back and reflecting on it, if shining a light on Bush’s unexplained absence during his stint in the Texas Air National Guard was the story that got me pushed out of CBS, the first strong indication of trouble had come four months earlier, over a story I reported on 60 Minutes II in April 2004. As a journalist, my core principle—my duty—has always been to get to the truth. This, however, was a story nobody wanted to be true: the story of how some American military personnel were humiliating, abusing and torturing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.
The duties of a journalist, however, do not stop with uncovering the truth. Absent compelling reasons of national security—which is very different from political embarrassment (at least it should be)—journalists also have a responsibility to inform the public about the truths they discover. And my determination to fulfill this obligation about Abu Ghraib became a very big problem (and, I suspect, a political embarrassment) for the management of CBS and for its corporate parent, Viacom.
At the height of the Iraq war, I was a frequent flyer to Baghdad. From the war’s beginning in March 2003 to March 2004, I’d been there at least four times. On one of the early visits, I learned that the prison known as Abu Ghraib had been taken over by the U.S. Army. Refurbished and redubbed the Baghdad Central Correctional Facility, by the fall of 2003 it was being used to house those we had taken prisoner. The inmates were a mixed lot—some common criminals, some folks who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time and some considered to be “high value” prisoners suspected of leading the insurgency or participating in terrorist activities.
The name change didn’t alter its reputation. Whatever you called it, Abu Ghraib was notorious. Under Saddam Hussein, it had been feared by all as a chamber of horrors, a gulag, if you will. Prisoners were maimed, raped and tortured. Many were also murdered, or at least presumed murdered. After being incarcerated there, they had vanished without a trace. The prison was trashed and looted by the Iraqis themselves during our invasion; Americans who had seen the interior immediately after our soldiers took Baghdad reported gruesome scenes of bodies mauled by dogs and electrodes coming out of the walls. Eventually, we would recover videotape shot by U.S. troops on the day they entered the prison. The tape showed squalor, filth and an incredibly unsafe area for American soldiers to be living, but this is where they were housed while they worked to rebuild and reclaim the facility for use by the U.S. military.
I had a more personal connection to Abu Ghraib as well. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Saddam’s forces had captured one of our CBS correspondents, an outstanding journalist named Bob Simon. Bob and I have been friends and colleagues for more than 35 years. He is one of the best, most experienced foreign correspondents of his generation. A graduate of Brandeis University, he is brilliant, analytical and a swift, sure writer. And he has guts. His bravery is legendary among his peers. He could have held his own with the Murrow Boys of World War II. Bob and I had been in many of the same bad datelines and tight places—often at the same time—over the years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, Baghdad and others. He is, as many of the best foreign correspondents are, a bit of a loner, but every inch a gentleman and a scholar. He’s generous, compassionate and friendly, loyal and protective of those who work with him and for him (especially camera crews, technicians and producers in the field). But he leans toward being taciturn, doesn’t always talk a lot and stays to himself and within himself—more than most people in television news.
Bob was held prisoner for 40 days, and for part of that time he was in Abu Ghraib. We feared greatly for his safety. All of us at CBS worked every contact we had around the world to get him released. I was one of several who spoke with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, asking him to intercede. Whatever else you may think of Kissinger, his involvement finally set Bob free.
On several of my trips to Baghdad, I had asked about the “new, improved” Abu Ghraib, and it always seemed curious to me that everyone made an extraordinary effort to be unresponsive, if not downright evasive. It was as if they wanted to keep what was going on there a secret. I found this odd, since it was being touted as a showplace of a modern correctional facility as part of its image makeover. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who oversaw Abu Ghraib (as well as 14 other prisons and detention centers in Iraq), had given Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a photo-op tour of the facility in September 2003, pointing out the newly installed ceiling fans, toilets, showers and medical center. In October, she assured 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft that those interned in Abu Ghraib were receiving “the best care available.” At about the same time, President Bush trumpeted to supporters at a Republican Party gala that Iraq was now “free of rape rooms and torture chambers.” Two months later, General Karpinski told the St. Petersburg Times that “living conditions now are better in prison than at home. At one point we were concerned they [the prisoners] wouldn’t want to leave.”
Given all the hoopla, I found it peculiar that when I asked to visit the prison, I was told in no uncertain terms to forget about it. I made a mental note but wasn’t able to follow up at the time. Then, in late 2003, an Iraqi I had known for more than a decade approached me. “Mr. Rather,” he said, “you really ought to do something about Abu Ghraib. Bad things are going on there.” I made another mental note, but time pressures forced me to put the matter aside.
There is a time-honored saying in management: “When you start an enterprise, pick eagles. Then teach them to fly in formation.” At 60 Minutes II, Mary Mapes was one of our very best eagles. She was head of the unit under me and was ever so capable in multiple roles—lead reporter, writer, investigator, producer. She had a great nose for a story and was outstanding under the pressure of writing against deadline. Working with her was another eagle, an associate producer named Dana Roberson. At CBS then and at HDNet now, one of Dana’s jobs when she’s not on deadline is to make phone calls to develop and cultivate long-term sources. That means staying in touch with people who have helped you in the past, just in case they come across something again. Anyone who’s worked with me will tell you that I’m a telephone person (as contrasted with an e-mail person, which I surely am not). It may be old-fashioned, but I’m a believer in working your Rolodex and getting in touch with people by phone. “Hi, Dan Rather here. Just checking in. Anything going on I should know about?”
Over the years, I had cultivated a network of contacts about Iraq, both here in the States and in the Middle East. Dana and Mary had, of course, developed their own. One of Dana’s contacts was a well-connected source in the U.S.-led Iraq operation with whom she had built up an excellent rapport.
Early in 2004 he called to tell her he had something that could become “the mother of all stories.” He laid out the story of a number of U.S. soldiers who had been arrested and charged with prisoner abuse. That past January there had been a bland press release from Central Command (CENTCOM) announcing that an official investigation was under way, but Dana’s source suggested that it had mushroomed into something much larger. After hearing what he had to say, Mary, Dana and I all realized it was likely that there was an even more explosive story behind these allegations. There was strong evidence that the acts of abuse that these enlisted men and noncommissioned officers were accused of committing had been undertaken in response to orders from higher up the chain of command. In other words, the U.S. Department of Defense was encouraging the mistreatment and perhaps torturing of prisoners.
Dana’s persistence with her sources had led to a tip on a major story. This is the way good reporters work, and Dana was good. She had just proven it once again. Mary and Dana flew out to meet with our source, who confirmed what he had said on the phone. Not only was there widespread prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, but there were photographs. Lots of photographs. He couldn’t actually give them the pictures, nor could he specifically name names. What he did do, however, was give Mary and Dana a nugget of information that led to some clues about how to dig deeper into the story. He hinted that they should look into the rotation of units that had been assigned to Abu Ghraib. He indicated that the soldiers who had been arrested all belonged to the same unit. Their unit had now been rotated stateside, but the soldiers facing charges had been left behind in Baghdad.
After Dana and Mary brought this new information to me, we started pursuing it relentlessly. Mary began contacting her own sources. Dana started reaching out to more of her contacts. I spread out with mine. Early in March 2004, I actually went to Abu Ghraib, at least to the exterior. It was an incredible scene at the gate—hundreds, maybe thousands of people were outside, desperately holding up photos and clamoring for information about loved ones who had been incarcerated. I spoke with some of them, but my request for an interview with General Karpinski was stonewalled by her office, and no, I couldn’t get a tour of the prison, either. Now my journalistic antennae were really starting to twitch.
The clues from the source were helpful, which didn’t mean it was easy. Roger Charles, our military consultant, was involved in the investigation from the beginning. As a retired U.S. Marine colonel, Roger knew the ins and outs of tracking unit movement in any branch of the armed forces. In the beginning it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but by tracking the assignments of various units that had recently served at the prison, we were able to start eliminating some units and targeting others.
We started with a huge circle of possibilities and began to draw the circle tighter and tighter. Mary, Dana and Roger stalked the Internet; if a given unit was within the time frame and area of assignment, they looked up everybody whose name they could find, tracked them down and asked them about arrests or abuse or any soldiers from the unit who had not come home with the rest of their team.
At first, progress was agonizingly slow. There were many dead ends, but we were able to glean just enough bits of information to keep us going. We were a long way from having the whole story, but we were getting more and more signs that there was a story, and a big one.
In addition to knowing how to track particular units, Roger Charles had great ideas about how to reach out to their individual members. Almost every unit that had come home from Iraq had its own website, a place where friends could post comments—a place where we could troll for names to contact about possible arrests, etc. Eventually this technique allowed Roger, Mary and Dana to narrow the search down to a single unit. The times and dates all matched up—it absolutely had to be the one. And they kept getting a sort of backhanded confirmation that they were right—whenever they called to various members of the unit, they were hung up on, led astray, lied to or cussed out. For a reporter, that’s always a sign that you’re on the right track. A few people fessed up that some soldiers had not come home with the rest of the unit because there had been a “problem.”
As Mary reported in her excellent book Truth and Duty, our first big break came in late March after she put the word out on a website called Soldiers for the Truth (which has now become Stand for the Troops, sftt.org), looking for anyone willing to come forward with more information. Established by Colonel David Hackworth, Soldiers for the Truth was a resource for men and women on active duty in the armed services. Still is. Its primary mission is to ensure that troops get high-quality combat gear, such as body armor and helmets, but it also functions as a powerful, instantaneous information exchange.
Roger Charles had suggested this approach as a way to reach out to family members of soldiers in the unit. We were looking for someone—anyone—willing to speak with us. At the time, we had no names of individuals, only the name of the unit. What we did know is that we couldn’t go through official military channels. That would only alert them that we were working on the story, which would cause them to choke off any further access to information.
Within a day, a man named Bill Lawson responded to Mary’s query. His nephew, Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick, an Army reservist, had been a guard at Abu Ghraib. In January 2004, he’d been one of the first to be interrogated as part of the Army’s official investigation. In March, the rest of his unit had returned to the States, but Frederick was still in Baghdad, pretty much under house arrest, awaiting court martial on multiple counts of prisoner abuse. Lawson was afraid that the Army was gearing up to let the little guys at Abu Ghraib—the enlisted men and noncoms who served as MPs—take the fall for abuse that the higher-ups had not only condoned but encouraged or even requested… soldiers like his nephew Chip.
Lawson had found his way to Hackworth’s website because he’d been casting an ever-wider net in his effort to reach out to anyone he thought might help. He had been trying desperately to publicize Chip’s plight by getting someone’s attention in government, both in the military and in Congress. He wrote to countless congressmen and Army officials. He had even contacted Bill O’Reilly and the Red Cross, but apparently no one had responded.
Mary, Dana and I went into overdrive. There wasn’t a moment to lose. Through Lawson, a telephone interview with Chip Frederick was quickly arranged. Although he was being detained in Baghdad, he still was afforded the privilege of speaking with family at home. Family, of course, did not include CBS News. If the military got wind that he was talking to us, he’d be put in lockdown.
To help maintain the cover, we set up the call from Chip Frederick not to New York, but to my home in Austin, Texas. Cameras were arranged. Mary and I juggled our schedules to get there; I spoke with Frederick by phone on March 25. He admitted his participation in the abuse. Perhaps more important, he also laid out a shocking and chaotic scenario of conditions within the prison. Security was lax; he’d been shot at within the confines of Abu Ghraib, and the rounds had come from inside a cell. The prison was overcrowded and understaffed. There were too many prisoners, too few guards. Perhaps worst of all, there was little if any direction from the top. “We had no support, no training whatsoever,” Frederick told me. “I kept asking my chain of command for certain things, like rules and regulations, and it just wasn’t happening.” He indicated that he had not seen a copy of the Geneva Convention until after he’d been charged with prisoner abuse.
Frederick volunteered that the Army was not the only American presence in Abu Ghraib. Representatives of OGAs (other governmental agencies), as well as civilian defense contractors were present, and these individuals, not soldiers, had taken the lead in prisoner interrogation. “We had military intelligence, we had all kinds of other governmental agencies, FBI, CIA… that I didn’t even know or recognize,” he said. Frederick also told me that he and others had been explicitly encouraged, particularly by those in the OGAs, to go beyond what was customarily expected of prison guards and had even been commended by military intelligence for their help in “softening up” prisoners in advance of their interrogation. “We’ve had a very high rate with our style of getting them to break,” he told me with a hint of pride.
Frederick indicated that at least one prisoner had died during questioning. He believed that the man had been beaten while under interrogation by men from an OGA—CIA operatives, Frederick thought. Fearing a riot, guards had smuggled the corpse out of Abu Ghraib on a gurney, an IV placed in the lifeless arm, to mislead other prisoners into believing he was still alive. For an extra dose of “reality,” they had administered heart compressions—CPR—to the dead man until they were out of the compound.
When he said this, the horrified look on Mary’s face said it all. The look on my face said nothing whatsoever. It couldn’t—I was on camera, and I had to rein in my dismay. It was by no means easy, but I had to maintain my poker face. Because this would likely be his last chance to speak publicly about what had happened without military censorship, I had to continue to draw information out of Chip Frederick—without letting on that this was huge.
But huge it was, and once the interview was concluded, Mary and I retreated to a nearby restaurant to talk it over. Rosie’s Tamale House, on the outskirts of Austin, is one of my favorite haunts. Before getting a table, we headed down Highway 71 to the closest gas-and-shop for some beer—after that interview, both of us wanted something a little stronger than our usual iced sun tea and Diet Dr Pepper. (Rosie’s doesn’t serve alcohol, but you’re allowed to bring your own—at least, if you know her well.)
Once inside the family-friendly retreat that is Rosie’s, both of us exhaled deeply. We were a bit shell-shocked by Frederick’s revelations. Over a cold beer—or two—and a hot tamale—or two—we tried to make sense of it.
“So it’s true,” I said. “I wish it were not, but it is. And it’s a lot worse than we thought. This is one helluva story.”
Mary stared into the bubbles in her beer. “Yeah.”
“This one will be trouble with a capital ‘T,’ ” I continued. “A lot of people are not going to believe this, and many of them who do won’t really want to hear it.”
“Soooo…” Mary left the word hanging in the air, putting it on me to finish the sentence. She was trying to gauge whether I was willing to go forward, knowing the major blowback that was sure to follow if we did.
“So… So this is what we in journalism are supposed to do,” I said simply.
Mary just nodded. I doubt whether my response surprised her in the slightest. “If it were easy,” I continued, “everyone would be doing it. You and I both know that none of us do it often enough.”
“Gut check,” she replied softly.
Gut check indeed. We both knew that nobody handles a story like this and comes out unscathed. The gut check comes in when you ask yourself whether you’re willing to pay the price for uncovering the truth. I heard the refrain in my brain: “Do this kind of work and there’s always a price to be paid. Except you can’t know—until the story is out there—what the price will be.”
I’d had any number of conversations like this over the years, going all the way back to my days as a reporter just starting out in Huntsville, Texas. Sometimes these conversations were with myself; most times they were with colleagues. They were always over stories that mattered, stories where the choices I made changed the outcome and also changed me, both as a journalist and as a human being. The first was a racially charged high-profile murder case. The second was coverage of Martin Luther King and the early stages of the civil rights movement. And, much later, there was Watergate.
All of these gut check debates had ended the same way: What mattered was getting to the truth, or as close to the truth as humanly possible. The public’s right to know—our right to know—what was being done in our name, in our country’s name, was paramount.
Despite the fallout that was bound to come from running the story, we knew we had to go forward. It was just too important. There was surely a terrifying risk that going public might mean that Americans captured or kidnapped would be treated differently. There was the same risk in not going forward with the story. Hostile forces aware of the ongoing abuse would feel justified in using the same techniques on Americans they took as prisoners.
Going public was the only way to make the abuses stop. It was time for us to sit down again with Jeff Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes II. Jeff had been kept informed on what we were finding out as we were going along, but now we were facing some weighty issues with major implications.
Fager is a Colgate graduate and the son of a Boston physician. He had started out in radio and worked his way up into network television. He is of medium height and weight with dark hair, sturdy of build—typical of the college skier he had been. His sense of humor and easy, regular laugh gives the impression that he might have been as interested in fraternity parties as he was class during college. Whether that’s true or not, I knew him to be a good guy with whom to have a beer, a guy who knew how to have a good time. He can be, often is, a charmer. I also knew Jeff to be quick-smart and a very good producer of news stories. He’s not the best writer—often the mark of a really good producer—but whatever he lacked as a writer, he made up for in his nose for a good story, his drive to get it and his knowledge of how to put it together.
Jeff was a friend and protégé of CBS News president Andrew Heyward. The two had worked together at WCBS, our New York O&O. (An O&O is a local television station that is owned and operated by the network, as opposed to an affiliate, which is independently owned.) I had given Heyward his first opening in the News Division, bringing him in as a producer shortly after I became anchor of the CBS Evening News. Heyward then brought Jeff on board. Heyward helped and looked after Fager, but Fager was not dependent on him. Jeff made and earned most of his own breaks. Having Heyward in his corner certainly didn’t hurt, but that alone would not have gotten Jeff to 60 Minutes as a producer, which he eventually became. And he was a good one, in a very competitive environment.
Andrew Heyward became a star producer at Evening News and eventually was nominated to become executive producer. At the time I had, by contract, consultation and veto power over who would hold that position. Regarding Andrew, I was in complete agreement. I was totally comfortable with him. By this time I had worked with him for a number of years, both when he was a producer for the Evening News and later when he became the first executive producer of 48 Hours (which I had helped to create). He had done outstanding work (which didn’t exactly make me look bad, since I had hired him); I thought he deserved the spot.
Not everyone shared my high opinion of him. There were those within the company who considered Andrew a classic overambitious climber, a “too much, too fast” Harvard man with an Ivy League entitlement complex who somehow believed he deserved to move ahead quickly, whatever his personal merits. They also said he was a child of television—which was not intended as a compliment. Andrew had come into television right out of college, with no experience as a reporter in print or anywhere else. Several others had expressed the opinion that he had no real loyalties except to himself.
But I was having none of that. I had hired him, he had proved himself repeatedly and I believed in him, not only as a professional, but as a person. Not only had I no reason to doubt him in any way, professionally or personally, I had every reason to trust him and believe in him. Heyward was unquestionably bright, if not brilliant. He was experienced, and I thought he had proved himself to be loyal—always a prime requisite with me. I had no qualms about Andrew.
Was I influenced by the fact that he often praised me, my talent and my work ethic to others? In retrospect, maybe. It’s no secret that news anchors like to hear these things perhaps more than most people, television anchoring being an egocentric line of work, to say the least. But I believed then and believe now that Heyward meant those things when he said them. I also thought, then and now, that he was appreciative of the break I gave him in first getting him to CBS News.
He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard. Sometimes graduates of places like Sam Houston State Teachers College (as I am) don’t mesh with the top graduates of schools such as Harvard. When this happens, it probably has as much to do with feelings of inferiority on the part of the little school graduate as it does with any feelings of superiority that are sometimes harbored by Ivy Leaguers. But there was none of that between us. Heyward and I meshed well. We always had. I had no doubts about him and, as far as I knew, he had none about me. We were about 20 years apart in age, but in my view we were two pros with respect for each other and a job to do.
And Andrew did his new job, as executive producer of the Evening News, well from the beginning. There was one surprise: He wanted to bring in his old compadre Jeff Fager, who was then at 60 Minutes, as his second-in-command—our senior producer. This meant, in effect, vaulting Fager over several hardworking people already on the Evening News team—qualified, diligent producers who had stood in line for a long time, waiting their turn. I had nothing against Fager; I didn’t know him well at the time. I did know that he got high marks from his peers at 60 Minutes, but the leapfrogging factor concerned me.
Andrew argued hard for him, pointing out that fresh talent from outside Evening News could be a good—even necessary—thing, and that he would work especially diligently to have the rest of the staff understand. I was not completely convinced. I was by no means confident that Jeff would be good for the program, or that the remainder of the staff would “understand.” But Andrew leaned hard on our personal relationship to persuade me. “You’re looking to me to deliver for you, Dan, and to do that I need someone who I can count on to deliver for me—and us,” he argued. “And Jeff Fager is that person. Give him a chance. You’ll like him and what he does.”
And I did. I liked Jeff, and I liked his work. He and Andrew were a good fit; they worked together hand-in-glove fashion. It turned out to be good for them, good for me and good for the newscast. We three worked together well as a team.
Then Heyward was moved up to become president of CBS News, a sudden promotion that was a triumph of the old school tie. A Harvard pal of his was a member of the top management team brought in to run CBS when the network was sold to a new corporation (Westinghouse), and he gave a boost to his old friend. When that happened, Heyward wanted Fager to succeed him as executive producer of the Evening News.
He did. For Jeff, however, the Evening News was a stepping-stone. When 60 Minutes II was created in 2000, he wanted to become its executive producer. Badly. With Heyward and me both in his corner, Fager got the 60 Minutes II top job. He did it well. I was the lead correspondent for the weekly program, in addition to continuing my daily duties as the longtime anchor of the Evening News. And we were now—Mary Mapes and I—in Fager’s office. It was time to have a real honesty hour about Abu Ghraib.
“We know it’s terrible,” I said. “Mary, Dana and I don’t know the full extent of it yet, but we have almost enough to go with.”
The major issue was the photographs. We all wanted them and talked about how we might get them. As I recall, Fager said that we needed the images to be able to air the piece. Chip Frederick said he did not have them, but he knew they existed and he knew what they contained, because they were the basis of the abuse charges against him. CENTCOM’s official investigation, led by Major General Antonio Taguba, had been ordered after one of Frederick’s fellow MPs had turned in a disc containing the photos to the Army’s CID.
Within the Army, CID had responsibility for investigating potential criminal activity; its Iraq headquarters were actually at Abu Ghraib. Thanks to digital technology, however, multiple copies of the photos were already in circulation far beyond the CID. Guards in the prison had passed them around among themselves and had even uploaded them to send home.
Mary and Dana worked the phones trying to get the photographs. Eventually their sources passed them on to other sources. On April 9, we received about a dozen images. It took a real act of will to open the envelope. The photos were as graphic as they were heartbreaking. We looked them over in stunned silence. A hooded detainee stood on a box, electrical wires attached to his hands. There was an additional wire snaking up under his gown, which apparently had been hooked to his penis. Some had been piled, naked, into a human pyramid and photographed from the rear. Others had been posed in simulated sex acts as guards pointed to their private parts and grinned at the camera.
We showed Jeff Fager the photos, expecting to get the green light to air the piece, but apparently he still needed more. Fager seemed edgy, testy and out of sorts. He seemed aggressive and challenging. He expressed no appreciation for what we’d done, which we all found to be out of character. It was my belief that he was reacting to pressure from Andrew Heyward. There was now no doubt whatsoever that we had everything necessary to put the story on the air. We had hard evidence: eyewitness testimony, secondhand testimony and photographs we knew to be authentic. We had a world-class all-media scoop; as far as I knew, no one else even had a sniff of it.
And management treated us as if we had just dragged a dead rat into the newsroom.
At CBS News, time was when getting the worldwide exclusive on an explosive story like Abu Ghraib would have been occasion for congratulations and great praise from top executives, both of the News Division and the network itself. Those times were long gone. From the days of Edward R. Murrow through civil rights, through Vietnam, through Watergate and into the 1980s, reporting the truth, regardless of who was trying to cover it up—or perhaps because of who was trying to cover it up—was a virtue unto itself and needed no further justification.
This fundamental doctrine was handed down from CBS patriarch William S. Paley himself. At Paley’s memorial service in 1990, it was said of him that “as caring as Bill was of his friends, he did not allow that commitment to infringe on his love affair with CBS. While I knew him, he was impervious to the many appeals that reached him to intervene with CBS News. Bill took the position that the CBS News team was beyond his reach, because it was simply the best and the most dedicated group of journalists that had ever been assembled.”
The eulogist was Henry Kissinger. Bill Paley simply believed that the news was the news and that reporting it was a public service—even during the early 1960s, when we started kicking up a lot of dust with our coverage of the civil rights movement. We were called “outside agitators”; we were called the “Colored Broadcasting System.” Even some of our own southern affiliates tried to avoid carrying the national newscast, because what we were showing was too inflammatory and too controversial—and it made white people look bad.
Paley, however, wasn’t having any of it. To him it smacked of politicization of the news. The fact that our southern stations were squeamish (or worse) about airing footage of blacks being attacked with fire hoses and billy clubs was no reason for self-censorship. At the time, Paley was CBS, and he ran the network as a benevolent dictatorship. When these affiliates started pushing, he pushed back, despite his awareness that powerful forces in Washington were applying pressure as well. Southern senators who were upset with our coverage were threatening to go for our jugular—which for a media enterprise is almost always accessed through the wallet.
Now, however, instead of kudos from corporate, I got the very strong sense from both Fager and Heyward that they really didn’t want to run the story. The excuses were essentially a retread of the same old argument: The story was too inflammatory, too controversial—and it made Viacom/CBS look bad. I also got the feeling they were responding to heavy outside pressure, pressure that came from inside Black Rock (CBS corporate headquarters) and possibly from inside the Beltway.
The relationship between government and the media—and the large corporations that own the media—will always be complex, in part because media giants will always need something from government: license renewals, permission to expand, etc. For a very long time, national networks such as CBS were allowed to own and operate a maximum of six stations—own and operate them, as opposed to being affiliated by contract with local stations. The limit on O&Os was the Federal Communications Commission’s way of ensuring that no individual corporation could monopolize the country’s airwaves. Naturally, the networks claimed their six in the nation’s biggest markets—New York, LA, Chicago, etc.—but the networks always wanted more, much more.
And beginning in the 1980s, they got it. Through campaign contributions and heavy lobbying, big media corporations succeeded in getting the FCC to loosen the restraints. The FCC is made up of political appointees, who generally do whatever the party in power wants them to do. First the maximum rose from six into the teens. Then, as corporations got bigger and their political influence grew, that was expanded to 20 and more, and then revised upward from there. Once the floodgates opened, these changes resulted in enormous new profits for the networks, not just for CBS/Viacom, but for the others as well.
Big media is big business. Virtually all major networks are now owned by large conglomerates whose reach extends beyond communications into many other industries as well. General Electric, which owns NBC, MSNBC and CNBC (among many other news and entertainment properties), is in addition a big defense contractor and a major provider of commercial lending, both of which are heavily dependent on positive relationships in Washington. Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN, also owns amusement parks, resorts and a variety of other businesses, both at home and abroad, that can be hindered—or stimulated—by action in Washington, either through legislation or government regulation.
Government needs media as well. They use us to publicize some activities; by the same token, they would much prefer it if we ignore others. This symbiotic relationship between media and government does not serve the public well. When I say that big business is in bed with big government, it is for their mutual benefit, not for the benefit of the public interest. At the time Abu Ghraib was breaking, CBS and its parent company Viacom were already in hot water with the FCC for Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show. From a corporate standpoint, we were vulnerable.
And corporate, apparently, was now running the show. I was never told outright not to run the piece. Instead, the News Division executives kept moving the goalposts, as it were, adding more prerequisites before they would permit it to air. There had already been any number of obstacles placed in our way, and we had overcome each and every one of them. Now Mary and I were told that we needed to get the Army’s reaction. Jeff Fager delivered the message, but I believed that on a story of this magnitude, the order would have originated with Andrew Heyward. We couldn’t run the piece without offering the Army the opportunity to give its version of the story.
I had learned from hard experience that this was a bad idea. It would give both the Pentagon and the executive branch the opportunity to throw up delay after delay, sprinkle disinformation, send us on wild goose chases and prepare a massive pushback on our sources in order to get them to change their stories. In my opinion, the Department of Defense had already been deliberately stonewalling and hiding this story for a long while. Cooling our heels while waiting for a response from the Army would provide the people most responsible for this nightmarish abuse a way to conceal the truth before we got the chance to tell it.
It looked—and smelled—like the red herring that it was. Somewhere, I suspected, Edward R. Murrow was shaking his head in sorrow and dismay.
I was angry, and I let management know it. “This is CBS News, and this is what makes us CBS News,” I declared. “You asked us for pictures. We got them. You asked us for proof. We have it,” I continued emphatically. “There is no ‘Army version.’ This IS what happened! Yes, it’s going to cause controversy. Yes, there will be hell to pay. But we should be proud of that. We are CBS News. This is what we do.”
None of that seemed to get through. Nevertheless, Mary Mapes dutifully contacted the military once again, asking them to give us someone to comment on the story, which we’d tentatively scheduled for the April 14 broadcast. The first thing they wanted to know in the Pentagon Public Affairs Office was whether we had the pictures, and they were so very sorry to hear that we did. Despite the volatile potential of the revelations, however, Public Affairs didn’t think they could dig up a VIP to comment in time for the April 14 airdate.
Much to my consternation, Jeff Fager made the judgment call to hold the piece for another week. He insisted that we needed someone from the Pentagon to answer questions about Abu Ghraib, on air and on the record. I had the feeling that Fager was again following a directive from above, one that came from at least the Heyward level, if not higher.
If I was angry before, I was livid now. Mary says I was angrier than she had ever heard me, or as she put it, “snarling, foot-stomping mad.” And rightly so, I believe. I was convinced that CBS would never run the story. Mary did her best to scrape me off the ceiling and started jumping through the required hoops to get a comment from the Pentagon.
She and Dana also got hold of information from the Taguba report, the official Army investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib. General Antonio Taguba’s findings corroborated what Chip Frederick had told us—that MPs had been “actively requested” to “set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses.” Although that firmed up our story even further, things were now starting to get squirrelly. Our original sources were becoming restive, and rightly so. They’d stuck their necks out, and as far as they could tell, we’d done exactly nothing with their information. What were we waiting for? People like Bill Lawson accused us of having cold feet.
How could I argue when I felt the same way? It seemed more and more like management just wanted to get our dead rat out of the newsroom and bury it in an unmarked grave. I had never seen so much meddling by upper-echelon management in a particular story. Both News Div president Andrew Heyward and senior VP Betsy West were uncharacteristically involved in the process. To her credit, West had favored running the story as soon as she first reviewed fully what we had.
Poor Jeff Fager was caught in the middle. It seemed that one side of him was a real newsman, but the other side felt compelled to play the corporate game. His initial instincts had been much in line with ours: that we should get the story, run the story, take the heat and keep going. That said, Jeff was very ambitious about climbing the ladder in the News Division. I’m certain he was already eyeing his next rung, and he was aiming high. Fager hoped to take over as producer of 60 Minutes—the post Don Hewitt had held since the show’s inception in 1968. Hewitt obviously wasn’t going to be there forever, and Jeff saw an opportunity to put himself at the front of the line whenever the time came for Hewitt to step down. Heyward saw it the same way. (Hewitt never really liked Heyward, and the feeling was mutual.) For that to happen, however, Jeff had to play ball with corporate. As a result, he seemed to me to be hopelessly conflicted, almost schizophrenic. For Jeff Fager, run it or not run it, Abu Ghraib could become a lose-lose situation.
It was about this time that I got a phone call at home, one that gave me a huge clue about why News Division executives were micromanaging the story and dragging their feet. The caller was Richard Myers, as in four-star general Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To me, the call from Myers was a sign that major players both in Washington and within CBS were involved. I knew him to be every inch an officer and a gentleman. He was unusually knowledgeable and supportive of the role of the press in a democratic society. He appreciated what we did, and unlike many of his top brass counterparts, he was at ease around journalists. We were not particularly close, but occasionally, when he was in New York, we lunched. I liked and admired him, and still do.
At the time, Myers said, our forces in Iraq were having it particularly tough in Fallujah. The town could go either way; American lives on the front lines were hanging in the balance. Consequently, he told me, running the story would be a disservice to the country.
Over the years I have spent a lot of time with American servicemen and -women in areas of conflict all over the world. I have the utmost respect for them and would never knowingly make their job any harder than it already is, let alone deliberately put them in harm’s way. I had been to Fallujah several times and knew that fierce battles were indeed taking place there, but what Myers was saying struck me as odd. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and believed him to be sincere. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that what was happening in Fallujah had nothing whatsoever to do with the incendiary and, frankly, un-American behavior we had uncovered at Abu Ghraib.
Myers did not ask me to flat out kill the story; he asked instead for a lengthy delay—three months—long enough to give the Pentagon time to figure out how to deal with it. I told General Myers the truth—that I was compassionate about the situation, but that I was first and foremost a journalist.
As soon as I rang off, Mary and I talked about my conversation with Myers. She did not share my opinion of the general’s honorable intentions.
“You don’t think it has anything to do with troop safety?” I asked.
“Just the opposite,” she said. “Dan, if you need convincing, go have a conversation with Roger Charles. As a retired Marine officer, he believes deeply that running the story is profoundly important in keeping our troops safe. He does not want our own troops treated this way—or worse—if they are captured.
“The Pentagon seems to think they can keep this a secret. They can’t,” Mary continued. “We’ve been told by veterans and current military alike that the word about this kind of abuse always gets out. And in the case of Abu Ghraib, it’s already out. Since we’ve been working on this story, Roger, Dana and I have spoken with many people, both inside and outside the military, who know this has been going on. The people of Iraq know it’s been going on. The only people without a clue are our American citizens at home. And they deserve to know. They have a right to know.”
Even though Myers had asked me to hold the story, he knew enough about the news business to be aware that the choice to air or not air the piece was not my call. The decision to take a story to air must first come from the executive producer, in this case the oh-so-conflicted Jeff Fager, after which it must be approved by the head of the News Division, Andrew Heyward. I suspected that Myers had called Andrew Heyward before he’d called me.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Pentagon Public Affairs Office still hadn’t come forth with anyone we could speak with for the piece. Especially after the phone call from Myers, it certainly seemed possible if not likely that they were stalling so they could go public with the story themselves. Fager deferred the story once more, while Mary and Dana begged their sources to hang in there for yet another week. They were unhappy, and they gave us an ultimatum: Run the piece or we’re taking our pictures elsewhere.
In this case, “elsewhere” had a formidable name and a formidable reputation: Seymour Hersh.
When I took this to Fager and Heyward, their jaws dropped—in unison. Somehow they hadn’t reckoned with the possibility that another journalist might eventually catch wind of our story, and of course Hersh was far more than just another journalist. Sy Hersh is one of the greatest investigative reporters of our time. With Hersh onto the story, our dead rat had just become radioactive.
Shortly thereafter, Jeff Fager took an irate call from an apoplectic Department of Defense public affairs officer named Lawrence Di Rita. At the top of his lungs, Di Rita angrily accused us of giving our pictures to Sy Hersh.
This was, I thought, as dimwitted as it was rash. Why would we give away our scoop to another journalist? By April 2004, we were already well into the age of digital cameras and cell phones that could take pictures. There are a lot of smart people in the Pentagon. Did it not occur to anyone at DOD that other copies of the photos were out there?
As far as CBS was concerned, however, this had suddenly become a powder keg, a calamity in the making whose implications went far beyond the embarrassment of getting beaten to our own scoop. Not only did Sy Hersh have our story, he also knew that we’d had the story and that we’d been sitting on it for three weeks, in cahoots with the Pentagon. If he came out first, it would be a major black eye for the integrity and credibility of CBS News. Worst of all, the claim that CBS had sat on the story would, as our legendary producer Lane Venardos used to say, have the added advantage of being true.
You should have seen Andrew Heyward squirm—he understood at once that whatever the bigwigs at the network, at corporate and in DC might have wanted, they weren’t getting it now. Spiking the piece was off the table entirely. We had no choice but to air the story, and to air it before Sy Hersh humiliated CBS News in print in the New Yorker.
Once the Army realized that it was all going to hit the fan, and that the fan was already spinning, they arranged for me to interview Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of coalition operations in Baghdad. Having delayed the story at the behest of the Pentagon while waiting for someone in the military to comment, we felt it was important to come clean about having done so, especially with Sy Hersh breathing down our necks. Kimmitt acquitted himself quite well on camera, but he stuck closely to the official explanation, chalking up the abuse to a few bad apples.
Management had been backed into running the story, but that didn’t mean they were happy about it. After committing to run the piece, they made every effort to make sure nobody paid any attention to it. They eliminated any advance on-air promotion. This was highly irregular—the normal lead-up for an important story like this was to beat the drums and get the word out. There would be rounds of press interviews; we would have anchors talking about it on the morning and midday news programs; there would be promos for the affiliates. For the Abu Ghraib story, however, it was made clear that there was to be almost none of that.
We ran it on April 28 in as watered-down a version as possible. Orders from Andrew Heyward were to run it once, period. I do not believe he made that decision in a vacuum. I think he was reacting to what he believed Viacom head Sumner Redstone and CBS CEO Les Moonves wanted. Whether they had expressly directed that or not, I do not know.
Although the story was obviously still unfolding, we were forbidden by Heyward to do any significant follow-up, which is virtually unheard-of for a story of this magnitude. If the New York Times had broken the story, there would have been follow-ups for weeks. Sy Hersh’s piece ran in the May 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Although the cover is dated May 10, the magazine became publicly available on April 30, two days after we aired.) Hersh then wrote a follow-up for each of the next two issues. Sadly, he wrote a third in 2007, detailing the scapegoating of General Taguba by Rumsfeld and the Pentagon.
Bill Lawson, Mary Mapes’s original source, had talked with us because he was afraid that the Army was going to stick it to the little guys and leave them with the blame. His fear has proven to be well founded. The only individuals found guilty on charges in connection with Abu Ghraib were enlisted personnel and noncoms, none above the rank of sergeant. Those convicted included Lawson’s nephew Chip, who served three years in Leavenworth for his part in the abuse.
Then as now, one must conclude that shielding the higher-ups was deliberate. When he was given the assignment to investigate abuse at Abu Ghraib, General Taguba was ordered to limit his inquiry to the MPs alone, even though he quickly realized that responsibility for the problem went much farther up the chain of command. “Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority,” he told Sy Hersh in 2007. “I was limited to a box.”
In May 2004, as the scandal made headlines, the top echelons of the White House and the Defense Department struggled to maintain “plausible deniability.” On May 2, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard Myers told the CBS program Face the Nation that he had not yet read General Taguba’s report. I know Myers to be a truth teller, so I cut him a lot of slack. Nevertheless, that statement defied logic. If he hadn’t already read Taguba’s report, he’d surely been told of its contents. Otherwise, on what basis would he have asked me in April to delay running the piece? Taguba had submitted his report on February 26, more than two months earlier. He had ensured that it was widely distributed; more than a dozen copies were transmitted to various recipients at the Pentagon and at CENTCOM in Florida.
Even before the report was complete, however, information about the photographs had been forwarded to the Pentagon, and Myers admitted having been briefed on the problem. In sworn testimony on May 7 before Congress, Myers said, “I’ve been receiving regular updates since the situation developed in January, and have been involved in corrective actions and personally recommended specific steps.” He confirmed that descriptions of simulated sex acts and abuse depicted in the photos had been given “to me and the Secretary [Rumsfeld] up through the chain of command” in January, within days of the original complaint. He testified to this just five days after telling Face the Nation that he had not yet read General Taguba’s report. I had to admit that Mary’s skepticism about Myers had some basis. He also said, “When I spoke to Dan Rather, with whom I already had a professional association, concerning the 60 Minutes story, I did so after talking to General Abizaid [then head of CENTCOM]. And I did so out of concern for the lives of our troops.”
That same day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I wish we had known more sooner and been able to tell you more sooner, but we didn’t,” he testified. Myers, of course, had testified that Rumsfeld had been in the loop since January. For his part, Rumsfeld seemed at least as upset that the photos had found their way to CBS as anything else. He railed against “people running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and passing them off against the law to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.”
In the same hearing, Rumsfeld also outed Sergeant Joseph Darby, the man who had originally turned in the disk of photos to CID and who had been promised anonymity in return for coming forward. As Justine Sharrock reported for Mother Jones, Darby was sitting in the Abu Ghraib mess hall and the TV was tuned to Senate hearings on CNN when Rumsfeld dropped his name. Darby was rushed home; officers met his plane and whisked him and his family into the military equivalent of the witness protection program, where they remained with 24/7 security for six months. Darby says that he was never formally thanked by the Army, but he did get a personal letter from Rumsfeld—asking him to stop talking about how he’d been unveiled as the whistleblower.
Perhaps not surprisingly, on May 24 Rumsfeld banned the personal use of cameras by the U.S. military in Iraq.
Brigadier General Janis Karpinski had been relieved of command at Abu Ghraib shortly before our piece aired. She was replaced by Major General Geoffrey Miller. General Miller had previously been responsible for running military detention facilities Camp X-Ray, Camp Delta and Camp Echo at Guantánamo Bay. Before assuming command of Abu Ghraib, Miller had made a prior visit to the facility in August 2003. His mission on that trip was to outline procedures for extracting more intel out of Iraqi detainees. In September he submitted a report that recommended what was later termed “Gitmo-izing” interrogation procedures at Abu Ghraib. Specific proposals included allowing military intelligence officials to have command over prisons and prison guards, as well as having guards be “actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.”
Chip Frederick had told us in dreadful detail how that directive was carried out. The term “enhanced interrogation” was about to enter the American lexicon.
Like Myers and Rumsfeld, General Miller testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2004. (He did, however, refuse to testify at the trials of some of the enlistees charged with abuse, invoking the military equivalent of the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination.) During his Senate testimony, he indicated that although he’d filed a report about his visit to Abu Ghraib in 2003, he had not briefed Secretary Rumsfeld or his aides about the trip. In a statement to attorneys three months later, however, Miller said something very different. He indicated that upon his return to the United States from Baghdad, he had indeed given a briefing to DOD deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz and undersecretary of defense for intelligence Steve Cambone about his visit to the prison, together with his recommendations.
You’d like to think that the first prerequisite of plausible deniability would be plausibility, but then again, 2004 was an election year.
Looking back, the only ones who really paid for Abu Ghraib were the enlisted personnel, who were following orders, and General Taguba, who brought the problem to light.
Several other officers were demoted, pushed out of the military and/or reprimanded, but none of them did time. General Ricardo Sanchez, who oversaw ground troops in Iraq, was among those asked to resign. This struck me as curious, since he appeared to have had little if anything to do with the actions of the OGA operatives, or with the private contractors who bullied with impunity at Abu Ghraib. Indeed, Sanchez maintained that he and others in the military had argued vociferously against the use of any kind of torture, and that those arguments fell on deaf ears at the top of the highly political Pentagon leadership.
Brigadier General Janis Karpinski had been busted down to colonel before being forced to resign from the Army. It’s not difficult to believe that she might have been scapegoated, but officially her disciplinary action was unrelated to Abu Ghraib. She had allegedly been arrested in 2002 at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base for shoplifting cosmetics, a charge Karpinski has repeatedly denied—both the shoplifting and the arrest.
In 2004, she said that she had seen a letter from Rumsfeld green-lighting Guantánamo-style interrogation techniques for Abu Ghraib, then under her command. In 2009 she appeared on CBS’s Early Show to talk about who paid the price for Abu Ghraib and why. “These soldiers didn’t design these techniques on their own,” she told Harry Smith. “We were following orders. We were bringing this to our chain of command, and they were saying whatever the military intelligence tells you to do out there, you are authorized to do.
“The line is clear,” she continued. “It went from Washington, DC, from the very top of the administration with their legal opinions, through Bagram to Guantánamo Bay and then to Iraq via the commander from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.” She did not name him in that interview, but this would be Major General Geoffrey Miller.
Karpinski confirmed what Bill Lawson, Chip Frederick’s uncle, had feared at the outset—that lower-level personnel were being scapegoated by those in the Pentagon and in the administration. “ ‘Scapegoat’ is the perfect word, and it’s an understatement,” she said.
It is a disgrace that those truly responsible for Abu Ghraib have never been held accountable. The whole episode left a bad taste in my mouth, not only because it was clear that people at the top got off scot-free, but also because of how the story had been handled at CBS. Although we did wind up breaking an all-world exclusive on an important story, I had the uneasy sense that CBS News was no longer CBS News as I had known it.
It was troubling to me that there had been a decided absence of executive backbone throughout our investigation. It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that, but for the looming specter of Seymour Hersh, the story of Abu Ghraib would never have seen the light of day at CBS. Sy Hersh got onto it because of our reticence. One of our sources, in frustration and fear that CBS News didn’t have the courage to break the story, had revealed to him that we were working on it, and then gave him the proof that he needed to go with it.
The possibility that the financial and political interests of CBS corporate almost buried a story as compelling as Abu Ghraib was most unsettling. Little did I know that it was only going to get worse from there. Much worse.
George Bush and the Texas Air National Guard
It was long said of me that I had the CBS Eye tattooed somewhere on my ass. And there was more than a shred of truth behind the jest. I did indeed think of myself as a team player, loyal to CBS News, and loyal above all to its long and honorable tradition of honest reporting. The Bush/Guard episode confirmed the suspicion I had developed in the wake of the struggle to air our story on Abu Ghraib—that CBS News had abandoned the principles on which it was founded. It showed that I was loyal to something that no longer existed, at least not at CBS.
The person most responsible was Viacom owner Sumner Redstone, with his personal political bias and his need for Washington help to feed his insatiable lust for profit. Redstone’s CBS corporate headman, president and chief executive officer Les Moonves, and CBS News Division president Andrew Heyward worked to fulfill Redstone’s desires—whether those desires were directly expressed or not. They, I believe, at least some of the time, did so against what they knew to be their own better instincts and judgment. They may have done it unhappily, but they did it. I believe they did it as part of their determination to survive and move up in the corporate world.
I realize that revisiting this painful period may be seen as dangerously close to the category of “So What?” It’s old news. Who cares what an ex-president did 40 years ago?
For a journalist, the truth always matters, and that should be reason enough. The arrogant hypocrisy of it makes this story much more disturbing. A young man born of privilege whose family secured him a spot in the National Guard to avoid military service in Vietnam, and who then walked away for more than a year from even that safe level of obligation, eventually became the commander in chief who ordered tens of thousands of our young men and women, including those in the National Guard, into harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan. This same young man who gamed the system to evade going to Vietnam became a president who did nothing to prevent, halt or disavow the distorted character assassination of his opponent, John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, by his own supporters.
There is an additional and very important reason as well: The legacy of what happened to our story on George Bush and his career in the Texas Air National Guard lives on to contaminate both our politics and our journalism today. There is a through-line, a long and slimy filament that connects the “murder” of Vince Foster to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to the discrediting of the Killian memos. That same dirty thread stretches all the way to the selectively edited ACORN “documentary” and the birther movement.
The Internet has played a larger and larger role in all of these incidents. Efforts by fringe groups to smear and discredit via innuendo and outright falsehood generate their own counterfeit credibility by endless online repetition, creating a digital echo chamber that reverberates through the partisan grapevine until someone in the legitimate media is foolish enough to pay attention. The ginned-up controversy over President Obama’s birth certificate followed this pattern. Birthers stated and restated their accusations online with a frequency bordering on obsession, if not outright perseveration. Their charges were picked up and repeated by anti-Obama media outlets until the story became not just the birth certificate itself, but how much attention it was getting in the press. It was the faux news story that refused to die. Even after President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, there remain websites with “irrefutable proof” that it is a forgery. These same websites continuing their assault on President Obama’s birth certificate were in the vanguard of the efforts to invalidate our reporting on President Bush’s disappearance from the Texas Air National Guard. The “proof” they offer about the birth certificate is based on typeface and proportional spacing and has a great deal in common with their attacks on our report.
Ironically enough, it’s probably fair to say that 60 Minutes II was still on the air in September 2004 because of our story on Abu Ghraib four months earlier. We’d been bounced around the schedule from one weekday to another; once they start messing with the time slot, it’s a sign that the show is on the bubble. CBS president Les Moonves is first and foremost an entertainment guy. For him, news is an also-ran, especially in prime time. It all had to do with ratings, the bottom line and his personal ambitions. In his view, having a news program in prime time took a coveted slot away from a sitcom or reality show that could generate more revenue. There already had been talk of dropping 60 Minutes II that spring, when the fall schedule was rolled out. It didn’t happen because News Division head Andrew Heyward convinced Moonves and other network executives that it would be a publicity black eye for CBS if they canceled us so soon after reporting the Abu Ghraib story. It would look too much like cause and effect. We made the cut and we became 60 Minutes Wednesday, but our position on the schedule was tenuous.
The prospect of doing a piece on George W. Bush’s highly irregular military career was something that producer Mary Mapes had first mentioned to me in 2000. It was always more than just a story about how a congressman’s son had leapfrogged over hundreds of other young men to land a commission in the “champagne unit” of the Texas Air National Guard and avoid serving in Vietnam. It was also a story about the mystery surrounding what Bush did and did not do while serving his country, and where and how long he had done it. And it was a story about whether his service record had been selectively expunged to remove portions that could prove embarrassing to someone running for public office. It was a story about whether the man who wanted to and ultimately did become the commander in chief of our forces served his country honorably when it was his turn to stand and deliver.
Other news organizations, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and the Guardian in the UK, had looked into it before Bush became president, but the story never got much traction anywhere else. Inexplicably, it got far less media attention than Al Gore’s “invention” of the Internet. I didn’t follow up then—to my discredit—but in the middle of 2004, with George Bush running for reelection, serious questions about whether he had fulfilled his service obligations came to the forefront once more. These questions were magnified by the campaign mounted by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to impugn the service record of John Kerry, Bush’s opponent. The Swift Boaters alleged that one or more of Kerry’s medals, including three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star, were undeserved.
Their assault on Kerry’s wartime heroism continued to gather steam throughout the summer as Mary dug into Bush’s National Guard records. In her book Truth and Duty, she has written a comprehensive and meticulous account of how she gathered information for the segment that aired on 60 Minutes Wednesday on September 8, 2004. My purpose here is not to reexamine this episode in the degree of detail that she took many chapters to provide. What I will do is reaffirm and reinforce the essential veracity of our reporting and describe the craven manner in which CBS pulled the rug out from under all of us, as well as the reasoning behind their actions.
I am very aware that reopening this old wound may be met with wide skepticism and even some snorts of derision. In what has become the prevailing public view, I lost this round, big time. I have little expectation that I can win over those who are absolutely certain that CBS—and specifically Mary Mapes and I—screwed up royally. We stand accused and convicted of sloppy and irresponsible journalism—or worse. Many believe we deliberately broadcast a story knowing it was based on phony documents. Some allege that we falsified these documents ourselves.
All I ask is a chance to set the record straight and to present what I hope is a convincing argument that a lot of what you know, or think you know, is wrong.
Excerpted from Rather Outspoken by Rather, Dan Copyright © 2012 by Rather, Dan. Excerpted by permission.
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