Wednesday, September 15, 2004

CBS presents plausible explanation for forged documents

The New York Times is reporting that CBS is finally conceding the controversial Bush memos are forgeries, and is presenting a plausible explanation. CBS has shown an interview with Kilian's secretary, 86, saying she remembers typing memos very similar to the forged documents in CBS' possession, albeit on a fixed-space typewriter typical of this period.

The key to understanding this story, as we have reported all along (and which CBS News still has yet to admit) is that the forgeries are of an extremely poor quality.

They are a dead-on match for Microsoft Word using the default settings, strongly suggesting that the forger intended to make it obvious that the documents were produced using Microsoft Word, rather than a Vietnam typewriter. The fact that the documents were produced using Microsoft Word should have been obvious from the proportion spacing, the unique spacing of the Times New Roman 'f' that is characteristic of MS Word, as well as the exact centering, which was extremely difficult using a IBM Selectric Composer of the era. (The text also does not match an IBM Selectric's output. Only two IBM model lines produced proportional spacing, and it does not match either. It is an exact match to MS Word using the default settings, but even tiny changes to MS Word settings would alter the match, especially the exact centering, strongly suggesting the forger intended to make the forgery obvious in hindsight.)

CBS News made the mistake of claiming document experts had vetting the documents, when, in hindsight, this appears to have not been true. Crack journalists have typically spent significant fractions of their lives staring at output from Microsoft Word (and IBM Selectrics in earlier days), so there really is no excuse for CBS' vigorous attempts earlier in the week to insist they were authentic.

It would have been trivial to change MS Word settings to produce a much more convincing forgery, such as changing the font to a fixed-spacing font. Techniques to simulate typewriter output are widely known, as they are a widely-used convention in certain technical publications. The use of the fixed-spaced font typographic conventions are also widely known to web designers, such as bloggers.

Given the extremely poor quality of the forgeries, DFW concluded that the most logical explanation was that the forger was a right-wing operative attempting to discredit similar, legitimate documents somewhere in existence.

Further evidence of this comes from the White House reaction to the documents, which was initially very low key despite the explosive nature of the revelations had the documents been true. Republicans have attributed this to the "strong leadership" qualities of Brave Leader Bush, who was unfazed by the existence of documents, reported by a major news organization, that appeared to incriminate him (even if they were forgeries). Most strong leaders would have issued a statement, questioning the validity of the documents based on their own recollection of events. (This was not possible in this case for Strong Leader Bush, as the documents, although forged, were close to the true events.) Instead, Bush ignored them, confident that they would soon be revealed as forgeries, because his own operatives had designed the forgeries that way.

It is unfortunate that CBS chose to defend the authenticity of the documents, and thereby fell in to the trap set by the right-wing forger. Had CBS been more cautious, they would have eventually discovered the poor quality of forgeries, and realized an effort was likely afoot to discredit their news organization and any similar authentic documents that still might exist.

Although CBS News now acknowledges serious questions about the document's authenticity exist, CBS News has yet to acknowledge that the forgeries were (likely deliberately) of a very obvious nature, a key to understanding the forger's intentions.

DFW speculated as early as Friday that the forgeries were a sophisticated attempt to discredit similar but authentic documents that DFW speculated likely exist. CBS News is now reporting a story similar to this, citing Kilian's secretary, 86, as a witness to the existence of similar, yet authentic, documents.

It is surprising and unfortunate that DFW's coverage of this important news story has been orders of magnitude better than that of legendary journalist Dan Rather and a highly-respected news organization, CBS News.