Forgery feeding frenzy: Media falling afoul of the facts

››› ››› GABE WILDAU & JEREMY CLUCHEY

In an effort to obscure overwhelming evidence that President George W. Bush failed to fulfill his duty in the Air National Guard, conservatives have initiated the claim -- now echoed widely by the media -- that memos revealed by CBS News' 60 Minutes on September 8 -- and purportedly written by one of Bush's commanders in 1972 and 1973 -- are fake. The memos, if authentic, provide additional evidence that Bush was given preferential treatment and ignored a direct order. The case for their authenticity is strong.

Forgery evidence dubious

On September 9, Conservative media sources including L. Brent Bozell III's Cybercast News Service, Internet gossip Matt Drudge, The Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes and FOX News Channel's Special Report with Brit Hume followed right-wing bloggers in detailing evidence to support the claim that the documents were forged. On September 10, The Washington Post, ABC News, and The New York Times outlined elements of the documents that raised questions about their authenticity.

But these questions do not withstand scrutiny; there is solid evidence to support the authenticity of the documents, and reporters have often failed to note plausible explanations for the apparent anomalies. For example, Salon.com's Eric Boehlert noted in a September 10 article that a close examination of the documents reveals characteristics not found in word processing documents. Marty Heldt, an independent researcher Boehlert cited, "notes that when [Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B.] Killian's [alleged author of the documents] Aug. 14, 1973, memo is enlarged and the word 'interference' is examined, it's clear the two middle e's rest higher on the page than the other two e's; that is not something a modern-day word processor would likely do."

Meanwhile, in response to questions raised about the veracity of the memos, CBS News released a statement on September 9 defending their authenticity. According to the statement, the documents were "backed up not only by independent handwriting and forensic document experts but by sources familiar with their content." One senior CBS official told The Washington Post that CBS reporters confirmed the memos authenticity with Major General Bobby Hodges, whose name appears in one of the memos:

A senior CBS official, who asked not to be named because CBS managers did not want to go beyond their official statement, named one of the network's sources as retired Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges, the immediate superior of the documents' alleged author, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. He said a CBS reporter read the documents to Hodges over the phone, and Hodges replied that "these are the things that Killian had expressed to me at the time."

"These documents represent what Killian not only was putting in memoranda, but was telling other people," the CBS News official said. "Journalistically, we've gone several extra miles."

EXHIBIT A: Superscript was available

Many news outlets and conservative publications have falsely reported that the documents' "use of the superscripted letters 'th' in phrases such as 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron" raise suspicion because 1970s-era typewriters were incapable of producing such letters. In fact, journalist and weblogger Joshua Micah Marshall has pointed out that superscripted letters appear on other documents in Bush's military file that are known to be authentic. Moreover, IBM released a typewriter in the 1960s, the Selectric II, which was capable of producing superscript type.

• The Washington Post: Other anomalies in the documents include the use of the superscripted letters "th" in phrases such as 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Bush's unit. [9/9/04]

• ABC News: The memos include superscript, i.e. the "th" in "187th" appears above the line in a smaller font. Superscript was not available on typewriters. [9/9/04]

• Cybercast News Service: But the use of the superscript "th" in one document -- "111th F.I.S" -- gave each expert pause. They said that is an automatic feature found in current versions of Microsoft Word, and it's not something that was even possible more than 30 years ago. [9/9/04]

• The New York Times: Farrell C. Shiver, a forensic document examiner based in Georgia who said he was a Republican, said the superscript "th's" throughout the memos were "something you would expect to find being done with a computer" and were "not consistent with something that you would expect to find from someone typing a document; they used typewriters in that particular time." [9/10/04]

• National Review White House correspondent Byron York: And they used -- the t-h in it is in a smaller script and it's raised. ... And this is something that everyone says was just not done on typewriters. [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 9/9/04]

• Weekly Standard staff writer and author Stephen F. Hayes: [I]n some references to Bush's unit -- the 111thFighter Interceptor Squadron -- the "th" is a superscript in a smaller size than the other type. Again, this is typical (and often done automatically) in modern word processing programs. Although several experts allow that such a rendering might have been theoretically possible in the early 1970s, it would have been highly unlikely. Superscripts produced on typewriters--the numbers preceding footnotes in term papers, for example--were almost always in the same size as the regular type. [The Weekly Standard, 9/9/04]

• FOX News Channel host Steve Doocy: Also after 111, the number, there is a little "th," that's something that Microsoft Word does automatically. It would have been impossible to do back in the '70s. [FOX News Channel, FOX & Friends, 9/10/04]

• John Podhoretz (author, New York Post columnist, and FOX News Channel contributor): The documents contain such features as superscript lettering, which is done automatically by Microsoft Word. [Podhoretz column, New York Post, 9/10/04]

EXHIBIT B: Proportional spacing was available

Another widely reported claim against the authenticity of the 60 Minutes documents is that their use of so-called proportional spacing -- a typesetting method in which varying letters occupy varying widths on the line, such as an "i" occupying less space than a "w." Press accounts have cited many so-called "experts" claiming that typewriters with this feature was rare and would not have been in wide use in the Guard in the 1970s. But in fact, typewriters with proportional spacing had been available since 1941, when IBM introduced the first model. Typewriter advertisements from 1953 and 1954 suggest the feature was widely available. President Richard Nixon's official letter of resignation from 1974 used proportional spacing, as do many White House documents from the 1960s available on an online archive.

• ABC News: The memos were written using a proportional typeface, where letters take up variable space according to their size, rather than fixed-pitch typeface used on typewriters, where each letter is allotted the same space. Proportional typefaces are available only on computers or on very high-end typewriters that were unlikely to be used by the National Guard. [9/10/04]

• Byron York: This is -- you can just see the typescript here. And there have been questions about whether this is proportional fonting, as opposed -- which is something that most typewriters didn't do in the early 1970s. Although some did. [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 9/9/04]

• Cybercast News Service: Three independent typography experts told CNSNews.com they were suspicious of the documents from 1972 and 1973 because they were typed using a proportional font, not common at that time, and they used a superscript font feature found in today's Microsoft Word program. [9/9/04]

• The Washington Post: William Flynn, a forensic document specialist with 35 years of experience in police crime labs and private practice, said the CBS documents raise suspicions because of their use of proportional spacing techniques. ... While IBM had introduced an electric typewriter that used proportional spacing by the early 1970s, it was not widely used in government. [9/10/04]

• Stephen F. Hayes: There are several reasons these experts are skeptical of the authenticity of the Killian memos. First the typographic spacing is proportional, as is routine with professional typesetting and computer typography, not monospace, as was common in typewriters in the 1970s. [The Weekly Standard, 9/9/04]

• FOX News Channel host Steve Doocy: [A]pparently, that document, according to number of experts, looks as if it was generated by a Microsoft Word software program. Of course there was no Microsoft Word back in 1970. Some of the different things: the way that every letter is proportional -- back in the day. For instance, back in the '70, as typewriter the letter I would take up the same amount of space as the letter M. In this particular document it's all -- it is nice and neat the way Microsoft does it. [FOX News Channel, FOX & Friends, 9/10]

EXHIBIT C: Apostrophe was available

Several media outlets and conservative pundits have suggested that the apostrophes used in the CBS memos add credibility to the charge that the documents are forged. However, print advertisements for the IBM Executive Electric typewriter from as early as 1953 reveal that this typewriter featured a curlicue-type apostrophe similar to the type used in the CBS memos.

• Stephen F. Hayes: [T]he apostrophes are curlicues of the sort produced by word processors on personal computers, not the straight vertical hashmarks typical of typewriters. [The Weekly Standard, 9/9/04]

• New York Post: The apostrophe in words like "he's" look curly but most typewriters had blunt apostrophes with straight edges. [9/10/04]

• FOX News Channel host Juliet Huddy: [T]here's an apostrophe, and it's kind of the curled apostrophe, most typewriters back then had these straight edges. [FOX News Channel, FOX & Friends, 9/10/04]

• John Podhoretz: The documents contain such features as superscript lettering, which is done automatically by Microsoft Word, and curly quotation marks. A brief glance at a Web site called selectric.org, run by an amateur typewriter fanatic, reveals dozens of IBM electric typefaces -- and none of them has curly quotation marks. [column, New York Post, 9/10/04]

EXHIBIT D: Font was available

Press reports have also emphasized that the documents appear to be written in either Times Roman or Times New Roman font, suggesting that they were produced on a modern computer word processor, not a typewriter. In fact, Times Roman font dates back at least to 1945, as this short history explains. According to another account, Times New Roman dates to 1931, and IBM specifically hired its designer, Stanley Morison, to adapt the font to the Selectric typewriter. In fact, the Selectric Composer typewriter, introduced in 1966, not only could insert superscript but also featured proportional type and a font called Aldine Roman, a font similar to Times New Roman that appears to match the font in the memos (hat tip: Daily Kos).

• The New York Times: Philip Bouffard, a forensic document specialist from Ohio who created a commonly used database of at least 3,000 old type fonts, said he had suspicions as well. "I found nothing like this in any of my typewriter specimens," said Dr. Bouffard, a Democrat. He also said the fonts were "certainly consistent with what I see in Times Roman," the commonly used Microsoft Word font. [9/10/04]

• The Washington Post (graphic): Numeral 4's have no bases, suggesting they are in the Times Roman computer font. [9/10/04]

• Stephen F. Hayes: [T]he font appears to be identical to the Times New Roman font that is the default typeface in Microsoft Word and other modern word processing programs. According to [document forensics expert William] Flynn, the font is not listed in the Haas Atlas -- the definitive encyclopedia of typewriter type fonts. [9/9/04]

BONUS EXHIBIT: Amateur forensics

On FOX News Channel, several pundits freely indulged in amateur document forensics. On the September 9 Special Report, host Brit Hume reported an experiment he had undertaken with the help of a producer:

HUME: I'm going to tell you also that a producer here at FOX News today sat down with Microsoft Word on a word processing software on a computer and typed out one of these memos just sort of the way it would -- might look today. And the line spacing came out exactly the same. There were no words carried over or hyphenated in any of these documents. And it came out so you could put the document one on top of the other and they perfectly traced, which seems peculiar.

Weekly Standard executive editor and FOX News contributor Fred Barnes also insisted, "I was in the military, and it didn't look like any of the documents I got," ignoring the fact that these documents were apparently not the sort of documents that were sent to guardsmen but came from Killian's personal file.

Roll Call executive editor and FOX News contributor Morton M. Kondracke pointed out that "the key document" that CBS News discovered does not actually use the controversial superscript, but Barnes and Hume agreed that this document suggests the blank space between the number and the "th" suggests the alleged forger was trying to circumvent Microsoft Word's automatic superscript feature:

KONDRACKE: Now look, the key document in this series, the one where he or -- Killian allegedly says that he ordered Lieutenant Bush to be suspended from flight status because of a failure to meet his physical exam; there are no superscripts in it. So I -- you know, you can't tell whether this is a forgery or not. ...

BARNES: But they leave a blank space in there. Why would you leave a blank space between the number and the t-h?

BARNES: You would do that so the t-h wouldn't be that little...

HUME: So the word processing software wouldn't automatically create that if that's what they were doing. We don't know that.

BARNES: We don't. But it's unusual that the space would be there.

"The Note:" WHO is behind the documents?

The September 10 edition of The Note, ABC News Political Unit's online newsletter, pointed out that four hours after the 60 Minutes broadcast was over, "Buckhead" on the right-wing website Free Republic* was claiming that the documents were forgeries and raising detailed questions about the availability of the typeface used in the memos in the early 1970s. Other right-wing sites soon followed. As The Note suggested, the speed and technical detail with which these websites attacked the CBS documents raised questions about where these documents originated and whether these websites had been given advance access to them. The Note also pointed to speculation by Democrats that Republicans may be behind the documents:

We always favor looking at the content and substance over WHO is offering up the information, but in the war that will ensue about WHO gave CBS the potentially phony documents, it is interesting to Note that the right (Drudge, Fox, right-leaning blogs, others) led the way in pointing out the questions we have all been asking - and they were onto the questions, with remarkable detail, relatively soon after the documents were made public.

[...]

at 11:59 pm ET (8:59 pm PT), the documents come into question via a poster named Buckhead on the Free Republic Web site**: LINK

Buckhead seems well-read on his forensic document examination skills.

[...]

ABC News' George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" that "a lot of Democrats think this might have been a set-up" by Republicans - a sentiment we are likely to hear more of in the days to come.

The Democrats' suggestion that the Republicans may be behind the documents is not outlandish when considering that Karl Rove, chief political aide to Bush, was suspected of bugging his own office during the 1986 Texas gubernatorial race in an effort to smear Democratic Governor Mark White (the opponent of the candidate for whom he was working, Bill Clements).

*Correction: This sentence originally read, "The September 10 edition of The Note, ABC News Political Unit's online newsletter, pointed out that even before 60 Minutes was over, right-wing websites were claiming that the documents were forgeries...." Our assertion was based on The Note's erroneous report that at 8:59 ET on the Free Republic Web site -- before the completion of the 60 Minutes broadcast -- a poster named Buckhead challenged the authenticity of the documents. The Note has since corrected its site, reporting that the Free Republic post went up at 11:59 ET (8:59 PT). [return to article]

**Correction: This sentence, quoting The Note, originally read: "at 8:59 ET - before the broadcast is finished!!! - the documents come into question via a poster named Buckhead on the Free Republic Web site:" [return to article]

Stories/Interests
Bush Military Service, 2004 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.