September 10, 2004

Fakes, forgeries, and CBS's Bush memos

I have no particular expertise on typewriters and type faces, but the ongoing debate over the authenticity of the 60 Minutes memos has been a fascinating exercise in second-hand connoisseurship. Digging through the various arguments is very similar to what players in the art market routinely do: weighing conflicting opinions, trying not to be led astray by a desire for a given result, and -- perhaps most relevant here -- not confusing the possible with the probable.

For after having given a listen to the memos' defenders (Kos thread here) and dismissers (Instapundit's list of links here), the picture that emerges is that while the memos might have been able to have been typed on an early-'70s typewriter, their overall appearance is both anomalous for the era and disturbingly consistent with the norms of our own.

This is, of course, a classic red flag for art historians on the lookout for fakes: not just the anachronistic detail, but that more fundamental anachronism arising from the forger's inability to recognize (and suppress) the impress of his own time. And when I read attempts to explain how the memos could be genuine, they sound just like a tenaciously deluded owner of a painting, purportedly the work of some great old master, who points to one feature after another that can be paralleled in the master's oeuvre, while failing to see how they add up to a whole that is entirely modern in conception.

Some may object that genuine artworks are sometimes mistakenly dismissed as copies or fakes (and vice versa). Yet does this really call into question the commonsense wisdom of demanding a higher standard of proof when there is good reason for suspicion?

ADDENDUM: I've lost the reference, but at least one commentator has now nicely pointed out that while one must examine an item in person before declaring it genuine, the same standard does not apply when recognizing a fake. When something is there that doesn't belong, it is as apparent in a photo as in one's hands. One more thing art world types have known for a long, long time. . . .

AND DON'T MISS Evan Kirschhoff's acerbic riff on the whole affair.

UPDATE: What are these people thinking? It's bad enough reading such irrationality in our comments, but this is from the BBC:

Correspondents say the row over the authenticity of the documents has distracted attention from their contents.

NOTE: Comments are now closed.

AND what does the whole episode so clearly show us? In the words of Virginia Postrel, "how quickly we forget how much the everyday world has changed". For those who remembered how typewritten documents looked back in the '70s, the CBS memos stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. But clearly, many could/can no longer see the past without assimilating it to the present.

Posted by David on September 10, 2004 10:02 PM


Cool! I'm an art historian! And here I thought I was just an old soldier recycled as a computer geek, a combination that gives me the right bsackground to evaluate the controversy surrounding the documents.

From 1970 to 1973, the relevant time period for the memos, I was in the Army. My MOS was 72F, communications center specialist. I know how the military prepares documents and I know the technology available in the early '70s.

I got my first personal computer in 1978. I got my computer science degree in 1986. I have worked on factory automation software since then. I wrote a lot of code and I wrote a lot of decumentation - on word processing software across a variety of platforms for sixteen years. I have therefore, direct experience of the development of word processing software.

I won't rehash everything done all over the internet. To summarize: The content errors of the document, i.e. incorrect abbreviation for lieutenant colonel, entirely inappropriate subject line, etc. all point to a non military forger as the author. The technical features of the document are entirely consistent with a modern Microsoft Word document that could not have been produced in 1973. There is no feature consistent with the technology of the early '70s.

I conclude all four documents are forgeries.

Posted by: Fred Boness on September 11, 2004 2:35 AM

I second Fred. I was an Army company clerk in 1970-71, on a manual typewriter (Olivetti, I think). In 1979, long out of the Army, I worked on the clunky IBM Composer that could justify and do proportional fonts. Even its Times font looked nothing like the Times New Roman in the forged memos. The Composer's Times font was more like an inferior CG Times.

Posted by: Joel on September 11, 2004 4:08 AM

I am *not* ex-military,although my wife worked as a civilian secretary at both Army and Air Force installations. She cannot imagine a lieutenant colonel typing his own memos, let alone on the Composer, which tried to produce camera-ready copy.
I struggled with those and similar machinery doing university literary magazines, etc., and thought they were a big pain.

David's comment seems right to me: "their overall appearance is both anomalous for the era and disturbingly consistent with the norms of our own."

I watched CBS news tonight (9/11/04), and they stubbornly stood by their story.

Perhaps because I'm a professor now, sensitive to plagiarism, etc., this whole incident disturbs me than more than the usual run of campaign dirty tricks and ad hominem attacks.

Posted by: Chas S. Clifton on September 11, 2004 7:55 PM

Wait a minute, Fred and Joel -0 I'm Army too, and the AF abbreviates differently than we on titles, despite the bulk of our commonality.

Believe me, as someone who recently almost bothed a bunch of name card titles at a Joint event, I know. It is Lt Col, not LTC.

However... You're right in one aspect, I too immediately noticed the botched signature block as the civilian forger give-away.

Joe Smith,
Lt Colonel

Really, Colonel Smith? Lietenant Colonel of what? No service, no title. I mean, c'mon, an 0-5? The guy would've had to have 12-15 years in by that point, and he doesn't know how to type a correct signature block? Please.

Posted by: Tom Foster on September 12, 2004 10:35 PM

I am not ex-military nor a font or typewriter expert (although I have a decent technical knowledge of computer typesetting). My special expertise is simpler: I'm old enough to remember what office memos looked like before desktop publishing, and these do not look anything like office memos from that period.

What astonishes me is that CBS could have accepted these documents as being from the era they're purported to be from, without any further data explaining the discrepancy (such as, for example, evidence that Col. Killian was the type of obsessive person who would have had memos typeset, etc.). They have people there who remember the 70s, surely.

Posted by: jaed on September 12, 2004 11:14 PM

I don't know if this was what you were referring to in your ADDENDUM precisely, but the handwriting expert Marcel Matley said: "The Problem with Copies: Do not passively accept a copy as the sole basis of a case. Every copy, intentionally or unintentionally, is in some way false to the original. In fact, modern copiers and computer printers are so good that they permit easy fabrication of quality forgeries."

I re-found that comment here:

The comment is not only true, but very ironic. He's the expert that has judged the signature to be authentic... from the copy.

Posted by: Al on September 13, 2004 3:43 AM

You might want to take a peek at this:

For what it's worth, I'm starting to think there's a reason CBS has dug in on this...the memos are rumored to come off of microfilm that's been archived, undisturbed for decades. So, what gives? This is all getting too bizarre for me.

Posted by: Anonymous on September 13, 2004 7:24 PM

The whole "gestalt" of the documents is wrong for 1973 but typical of office documents of mid 1990s to today. Of course that's not a scientifically sound position but I find it still extremely suggestive. It's a truly bizarre story. It's sad that it's overshadowing more substantive election issues, but at the same time I have to admit I'm dying of curiositiy: it will be fascinating to find out the whole story if and when someone gets to the bottom of it.

Posted by: Pete on September 13, 2004 9:46 PM

As more of these documents (similar to the CBS memos) come to light, from different sources and appearing in various news journals, a very strange thing becomes apparant. As odd as it may seem, given all of the opposing evidence that's been given, it looks increasingly as though the documents are genuine, all of them. They all point to things that are generally known about Bush's checkered career and the White House has more or less conceded their viability through its silence on the issue.

I, for one, was absolutely convinced that we were looking at forgeries, and given all that I've read in the past week, I wasn't alone. My question now is- how did we get it so wrong? How is it that we were so certain that CBS was either willfully going after market share or was peopled by complete idiots? I don't know about you but I feel more than a little shaken and, well, stunned.

OK, chums, where do we go from here? I don't know what to believe anymore.

Posted by: Thom on September 14, 2004 5:47 PM

How about a reference, Thom?
If you are going to pretend that you were a true believer who has changed his mind after seeing compelling new evidence, please share that evidence with us.

From all I read, the evidence coming out is going the other direction: many documents out of that same office, all looking very unlike the disputed memos.
And now Killian's secretary has been interviewed, and says the memos are fake (though to what extent they might reflect other, genuine documents remains an open question).

Posted by: David on September 14, 2004 6:07 PM


I read the interview with Killian's secretary and what I took away from it was that the content of the memo's is consistent with her memory of the subject. I can't speak to the psychology that's at work when she says they aren't her work, or Killian's wife claiming her late husband wouldn't write memos like that or his son claiming that his father didn't use words as displayed in the documents. These are relatively old memories that are perhaps being distorted in many ways for many reasons. Since we can't count on the perceptions of the people involved (no one's memory is 100% perfect), we're stuck with the documents themselves.

The White House has released hundreds of Bush's National Guard documents (under duress) and the memos in question are not only consistent with those documents, the WH has been very careful not to call the memos forgeries, (which I have no doubt that they would've). This "non-denial" was the first crack in the "forgery " facade for me. I had seen dozens of extremely compelling points made about the memos, and having no expertise in this area myself, I found them absolutely convincing (why would you assume I would pretend about such a thing?).

As time went on (practically hour by hour) each one of these "pro-forgery" arguments was addressed, often by people who were demonstrably *expert* as opposed to *enthusiasts*, and they showed where we had been wrong. Some of this was easily done, such as the claims about superscript, the age of typefaces, justification and such. Mind you, I was still a believer at this point, convinced that someone was playing fast and loose with the truth, and that we were being gamed with these papers.

Technical magazines started weighing in, and again, my assumptions about this were shaken (for example:,1759,1644869,00.asp ). Ultimately, I ran into compilations of expert opinion ( ) ( ). All of this points, rather strongly, to the conclusion that the documents are genuine.

As I've said, this subject is one that I have very little knowledge of, so I'm forced to try and make sense of all of this contrasting opinion, to the best of my abilities. At the end of the day it seems to me that forging these memos makes little sense, they could've been far more damning (if that had been the point) and they fit, very neatly, into the documents released by the Bush administration. One would have to be blind not to recognize that they've been curiously reluctant to be open about this issue, which suggests that they're trying to hide something. This, coupled with their mute reaction to these memos, along with new memos that have appeared (and are again, consistant) lead me to the realization that my anger at CBS was probably misplaced, and that there are nearly limitless numbers of pseudo-xperts online that are far more concerned with their own agenda than the truth.

I don't know if there will be (or can be) any definitive judgement about the veracity of these documents, but I feel like I've been pulled along in a way that I find very disturbing. If you can examine the information I've provided without ending up as depressed as I am, then more power to you! One thing's certain- I'll never look at this kind of thing the same again, and I'll be naturally more cynical and suspicious of any and all claims from either side from now on.

Posted by: Thom on September 14, 2004 10:51 PM

Killian's secretary is now openly hostile to Bush, which may well be coloring her take on what was going on in Killian's head back in the early '70s. In any event, it also counts all the more when she states the CBS documents as presented are forgeries.

And the sources you cite above are well behind the curve -- each one of their supposed objections has been thoroughly addressed and debunked.

A few such debunkings:
On ones and lower case Ls.
Joseph Newcomer's comprehensive analysis.

Sorry, but I don't believe for a minute you ever thought the memos were forged. If you are trying to sow doubt behind what you perceive as enemy lines, give it up: my interest here is nonpartisan, which may be why I can see what you apparently cannot: it is only a matter of time before these memos join the Hitler diaries in the gallery of "how could anyone have believed them" fakery; they are going down, and they'll take their defenders' credibility down with them.

Posted by: David on September 15, 2004 9:33 AM

"Sorry, but I don't believe for a minute you ever thought the memos were forged." How am I supposed to react to this? Am I only authentic when I agree with you? This is just another example of how demoralizing and bewildering this whole thing has become, and from my standpoint makes your own claim of being "nonpartisan" completely ridiculous. What should I have done, worn some kind of meter that logged the number of hours I spent arguing that these documents were forgeries?

My rapidly increasing cynicism comes from my frustration of dealing with both sides on this issue. Neither seems to be capable of envisioning anyone sincerely trying to ascertain the truth in this matter, and that says a hell of a lot. Your own examples of debunking have themselves been debunked so who's behind the curve? Bush avoided any mention of these memos when he spoke to the NG yesterday, and that says *nothing* to you? Given the non-stop cycle of "debunking", it's unlikely that we'll ever get a satisfactory assessment of these documents, so the default issue becomes the content of them. Killian's secretary indicates it being consistant with her memories. If this were an equation, the "=" would be followed by "Bush deserted". If that isn't plain to you, you probably ought to surrender your "non-partisan" badge.

Posted by: Thom on September 15, 2004 5:22 PM

The examples I cited above have not, to my knowledge, been in any way debunked. Once again, where are your references?

That the Bush administration has not jumped into the fray tells me nothing whatsoever. When it's clear how a fight will turn out, why not stand back and let events take their course?

I have my biases here -- above all, a preference for critical thinking and a strict application of logic. And it makes no sense whatsoever that a small group of memos typed in the early 1970s should somehow have been formatted exactly according to the default layout of Word 30 years later, formatting nothing like that seen in any other documents of that time and place. It's as if someone was trying to pass off a "medieval" document written in copperplate. The medieval scribe might have had all the necessary tools, but that's just not the way anyone wrote back then.

You might also want to review your reasoning when you argue that if the authenticity of the memos cannot be established with certainty, what matters is their content. If a document is doubtful, its contents must be equally so.

Posted by: David on September 15, 2004 10:02 PM

Still here, are we? My references are in my prior posting, which, it seems, you haven't deigned to glance at.

The Bush administration would be the first to call these memos fraudulent if they thought they were....their silence is the most damning evidence yet. Thanks for applying critical thinking and logic in your "copperplate" analogy. Now go to the sites I posted and see where you went wrong.

Re: authenticity. I think you've misunderstood (maybe willfully?) what I said. I see them as authentic, and perhaps you'll reject that conclusion despite any and all evidence (like a good nonpartisan, eh?) to that effect. I suggested that, in the furtherance of the search for truth that we then default to questions concerning the contents. It seems to have been lost in the tempest that Rather noted at the onset that these memos were only a very small , yet supportive, part of the story, that documents released by the WH and a chain of interviews made up a far greater part of the story. Given your "nonpartisan" facade, might I ask if you believe the assertion that Bush disobeyed a direct order from his superior? Or whether you agree that, no matter how you position the records or parse the rules, that Bush never actually completed hisNG contract, and was therefore ineligible for an honorable discharge?

Posted by: Thom on September 16, 2004 10:47 PM


You accuse me of not deigning to glance at your references, but it is you who have failed to do your homework.

Of the three references you have provided to date, one -- Kos -- was in fact the very first citation in my original post (and yes, unlike some people, I read what I reference). The other two are explicitly answered immediately after your citation in the two references I supplied in response. Do you really think I would cite a response without having read what prompted it?

As for authenticity and truth, it may be that the CBS documents accurately reflect other, genuine documents. But as fakes, they have no probative value in establishing the existence of those other, hypothesized documents -- however strongly you or anyone else may believe them to exist.

I remain open about Bush's National Guard service. I wouldn't be surprised if he or his family pulled strings here or there, or if he simply got favored treatment without asking for it, just because of who he was. And though I'd rather everyone got treated the same, as long as the exercise of influence wasn't flagrantly abusive, I'm not about to get myself in a lather about it. So far, all the more serious accusations remain unsubstantiated -- which is precisely why CBS and others put such stock in the (fake) memos.

One thing I am certain of: Guard service was hardly shirking danger. Those interceptors Bush was flying were nasty beasts; the risk to their pilots just flying exercises was fully as great as that faced by the average Vietnam combat vet. And whatever happened at the tail end of his stint, the records do show that Bush put in several times more time than required during his first few years of his Guard duty.

PS The Clintons never explicitly denied having killed Vince Foster. Are they therefore guilty? Your use of argumentum ex silentio regarding the Bush administration's stance on the memos is no less problematical.

Since there is little to be gained by further disputation along these lines, I am now closing comments on this post.

Posted by: David on September 17, 2004 11:39 AM