In The Age Of Trump, Remember The Killian Documents

For media consumers, the lesson is, be suspicious of everything, especially if it confirms your biases.

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As news organizations and the public struggle to come to grips with salacious new information about Donald Trump contained in a 35-page dossier released this wee by Buzzfeed, it’s a good time to think back to the 2004 campaign between John Kerry and George W. Bush.

Early in that year, The Memphis Flyer’s Jackson Baker broke a story alleging that then-President George W. Bush had, back in the 1970s, taken unauthorized leave of an Alabama Air National Guard unit that he had sought a transfer to from his regular Texas Guard unit in order to spend time working on a political campaign.

This information was an open secret among the former Alabama Air Guard members that Baker used as his sources. Indeed, several of them had heard of the forthcoming transfer to their unit of Bush, son of the prominent political figure and future President George H.W. Bush, and a Guard pilot whose well-deserved reputation as a hell-raiser had traveled far and wide in Guard circles.

These pilots had actively awaited his coming. But, three of them told Baker categorically and for the record, Lt. George W. Bush had never turned up at any point for the entire year of his supposed assignment to their
Guard base. Meanwhile, there was no dearth of Bush-sightings during the ongoing (and ultimately losing) U.S. Senate campaign, elsewhere in Alabama, of Bush-family friend Winton “Red” Blount.

Though rumors of Bush’s year-long no-show at the Alabama air base had been floating about the Internet, Baker’s Flyer story first put the concept, and the concrete first-person evidence for it, firmly into the public record, and thus set the stage for the remarkable series of events that followed.

As the 2004 campaign ground on, neither Bush nor Kerry was able to gain a clear advantage. Then, in September, Democrats got a gift: CBS TV’s 60 Minutes 2 obtained letters from Texas Air Guard commander Col. Jerry B. Killian that seemingly provided further documentary evidence of the allegations against Bush.

Democrats trumpeted the new evidence, presented by Dan Rather himself, as proof that the Commander-In-Chief was unfit for office. But within days, the story began to unravel. Commenters on internet message boards attached to conservative blogs Little Green Footballs and Powerline quickly produced convincing evidence that the Killian Documents were forgeries.

For weeks, the internet and news media were consumed with discussions of the minutiae of the command structure of 1970’s air units and the capabilities of vintage typewriters. Eventually, CBS acknowledged that the Killian Document were likely forged. Dan Rather lost his job, and George W. Bush was reelected.

After the election, not much thought was given to the provenance of the Killian Documents or what effect they had on the course of history. The source of the apparent forgery was never uncovered. But who would produce a forgery like this, and why? And how did semi-anonymous internet commenters know exactly where to look for proof of a forgery when experts CBS hired thought they were authentic?

Surely,Republicans argued, the forgery was done by political opponents of President Bush to discredit him during a tight election. But there was another interpretation of the story. What if the Killian Documents were forged by someone in the Bush campaign — a couple of famous (or infamous) Dirty Tricksters come to mind — and selectively leaked to Rather’s producers at 60 Minutes?

Then, when Rather took the bait, the debunking information was leaked to Bush’s supporters, who amplified it across their numerous media channels., eventually discrediting the campaign’s most hostile media source on television. Regardless, the reveal of the Killian Documents was to shift public debate away from Bush’s character — and the first-evidence evidence of his dereliction from Alabama Air Guard pilots — and onto the truth or untruth of the documents themselves

The publication by Buzzfeed of the new intelligence dossier filled with shocking accusations about Donald Trump’s financial ties to Russia and the possibility that Putin’s intelligence agency the FSB has sexually explicit blackmail material on the Republican has thrown the country into an uproar. But there are enough parallels to the Killian Documents incident to raise red flags for the news consumer and publisher alike.

First, the Killian documents and the Trump dossier both told Democrats and other critics exactly what they wanted to hear at a time when they were most desperate to hear it. Accusations that Trump paid Russian prostitutes to pee on the bed President Obama had once slept in were like catnip to Democrats and the left. Left-leaning social media has been a golden shower of pee jokes for going on 48 hours now.

Second, claims that the dossier was forged popped up on the anonymous message board 4chan within hours of Buzzfeed’s publication. Third, as the story gets bogged down in minutiae and side avenues, the central topic of discussion—is Trump fatally compromised by Russian intelligence?—is being pushed aside in favor of profiles of Christopher Steele, the MI6 agent who allegedly compiled the dossier, amid speculation about the authenticity of the most malicious claims.

The dossier had been passed around to major media outlets for months, all of whom — perhaps having learned the lessons of the Killian Documents — decided not to publish before the issue of authenticity could be verified. After the existence of the dossier was mentioned in a footnote to the CIA/FBI/NSA briefing to Obama, Trump, and Congress on Russian interference in the election, CNN reported on the existence of the docs and Buzzfeed jumped at the chance for a scoop, thus opening the media floodgates.

If the dossier is indeed a black propaganda operation designed to take the heat off Trump, it’s well designed, as were the Killian “letters.” Col. Killian’s son described the contents and form of the apparently forged letters from his father as askillful mixture of truth and fiction.

Associating the really important information about Trump — that, inadvertently or otherwise, he’s a possible Russian intelligence asset about to assume the office of the Presidency — with false information appealing to the preconceptions of his political opponents could have the net effect of neutralizing the issue of potential treasonous behavior with his supporters and the media at large.

Even more dangerously, sewing doubt as to the authenticity of the mainstream news outlets reporting on the story opens up new lines of attack for the Trump team. Already, the President-elect has used the story to accuse CNN of being “fake news”, a term originally coined to describe amateur propaganda designed as Facebook clickbait

Strategic uses of forgeries is nothing new to the world’s intelligence agencies. The Protocols Of The Elders of Zion was a widely circulated fake manuscript produced by Tsarist Russia’s secret police to justify the prosecution of Jews at the turn of the 20th century, for example. In 2002, the Niger Uranium documents were proved to be forgeries designed to help push the US into invading Iraq.

Yet the media and the left remain in deep denial about the nature of CIA and KGB-derived gambits they are facing. The 2015 film Truth, based on an account by Dan Rather’s producer Marla Mapes, showed that the victims of the Killian scam still believe the letters to be authentic.

This article may sound like a paranoid liberal conspiracy theory, but this whole election cycle has exceeded the wildest dreams of even the most crazed of the tin-foil-hat brigade. The Killian Documents gambit is just one arrow in the quiver of the sophisticated and unscrupulous media operators who seek to control the national conversation in these dangerous times. For media consumers, the lesson is, be suspicious of everything, especially if it confirms your biases.

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