Behind The 60 Minutes Story – The Early Years

[Note – What follows in an attempt to string together in a narrative, bits and pieces of information reported by a wide variety of sources. Several of the major sources are listed in the extended entry of this article.]

In the spring of 2000, 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes was working on the story of George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service that she had been tracking since the previous year. With Bush having sewn up the Republican nomination she knew that this was exactly the kind of blockbuster story that CBS would want in the fall.

Mapes quickly distilled the various rumors and innuendos about Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard (TANG) down to three major areas of interest:

  1. Bush got into the Guard via the influence of his family.

  2. Several liberal websites had invested a lot of time an energy in trying to document that Bush went AWOL in 1972.

  3. Despite his honorary discharge, Bush had somehow failed to fulfill his service commitment.

In the course of her research Mapes contacted former Texas Air National Guard administrative officer Robert Strong, former Texan Lt. Governor Ben Barnes, and former Army Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett, Iowa farmer Martin Heldt, and several other people who served with or knew Bush in his National Guard days.

Lt. Col. Bill Burkett was medically retired from the US Army National Guard in 1998 after 28 years of service. Burkett suffered from meningoencephalitis on return from an assignment in Panama. From 1995 until his illness, Burkett served as State Plans Officer for the Texas Army National Guard and Governor George W. Bush. Ace of Spades HQ has a definitive look at Burkett’s involvement in the 60 Minutes story.

Burkett maintains that President Bush’s record as a member of the Guard was purged of potentially embarrassing material at the behest of high-ranking Bush aides laying the groundwork for Bush’s 2000 run for the presidency. Burkett says he even heard one high-ranking officer issue a 1997 order to sanitize the Bush file, and later saw another officer poring over the records and discovered that some had been discarded. The problem for Mapes and lead reporter Dan Rather was that all of the other key witnesses to the events Burkett describes maintain his story is false.

In the year before the 2000 election Martin Heldt was also very interested in George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service. The Iowa farmer made contact with Burkett sometime after Burkett first made his charges about the Bush record scrubbing operation and decided to do some gumshoe work of his own on the Bush military records. Heldt’s thesis was that Bush was AWOL, or alternatively that Bush had deserted his post when he was in Alabama. I detailed Heldt’s potential involvement as an unnamed source for the 60 Minutes story earlier this week.

After examining the existing records released during prior Bush campaigns (for the governorship in Texas), Heldt noticed that while the released documents aligned with the honorable discharge Bush had received, there was a large void of information about Bush from 1972 until his discharge in 1974.

Heldt filed Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Department of Defense to obtain the full set of records on Bush. He got an initial delivery in early August 2000 and another larger delivery the last week in August. Heldt spent massive amounts of time sifting through the documents trying to re-create the narrative of Bush’s service from 1972 until his separation.

In his writings in late 2000 Heldt thought that he had enough evidence to make a case that Bush was AWOL. He contacted several Democratic organizations offering to sell his documents, but even the Democratic National Committee wasn’t convinced that Heldt actually had the goods on Bush. There were indications at the time that some of Heldt’s documents might have been forgeries.

Mapes (and possibly other 60 Minutes producers) looked over the documents Heldt had compiled in the fall of 2000, and while they were impressed, they noted that Heldt hadn’t completed his document set and there was no smoking gun. Clearly the Heldt documents wouldn’t be the centerpiece of Mapes’ story.

Mapes conducted interviews with all of the sources except for Barnes. Mapes and Dan Rather had concluded that the story depended on Barnes’ cooperation. With Barnes uncooperative; Burkett’s document shredding story unsubstantiated; and Heldt’s documents incomplete; they were left with several tantalizing leads but no corroborated story. The story never aired because as Strong recently said, ” [T]hey couldn’t get [Ben] Barnes to talk. There were just too many holes and they never aired it.

Mapes and Rather put the story on the back burner, but as you now know they didn’t give up on it.

Be sure to catch the next installment – Behind The 60 Minutes Story – Campaign 2004

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