Deception & Misdirection

Anti-deception and collective intelligence: Dan Rather, George W. Bush, and how the Internet makes deception more difficult (part 1)

Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.


Anti-deception and collective intelligence: Dan Rather, George W. Bush, and how the Internet makes deception more difficult (part 1)

By Dr. Steven J. Allen (JD, PhD)

Normally, in this series, we look at how deception is used by politicians, bureaucrats, academics, the media, and the allies in order to advance their agendas. This time, though, let’s take a look at how the Internet and related IT (Information Technology) can be used to expose deception.

Also, let’s consider how America’s intelligence agencies process information, and how they might do so more effectively.

The Marathon bombers, JFK, and Turing

The hunt for the Boston Marathon terrorists marked the beginning of a new age in the use of Information Technology.

First, law enforcement officials asked people to provide them with copies of videos and still photographs taken at or near the scene of the bombings. The pictures were used to create a four-dimensional virtual image—that is, one that recorded the three dimensions of physical space plus the fourth dimension of time. In this metarama, the relatively calm bombers stood out from the panicked innocents who surrounded them in the aftermath of the explosions, and their movements could be backtracked to the placement of the bombs. This would have been impossible 20 years ago, prior to the development and widespread use of smartphone technology. It was, the Washington Post noted, like “thousand individual Zapruder films,” referring to the home movie that captured the assassination of President Kennedy.

Then the authorities posted the pictures of the alleged bombers on the Internet. It was a new version of an old technique that goes back to Post Office wanted posters and the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, but it was conducted with a rapidity that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago, before the Internet became part of everyday life. Within a few hours after the pictures went online, the bombers’ faces were known to millions of people.

“Crowdsourcing” is the practice of obtaining services, ideas, and “content” such as photos and video from a broad slice of the general public. Again, the concept isn’t new. The Oxford English Dictionary was built with six million submissions over a 70-year period. The LDS Church (Mormons) collected the family trees back three (later four) generations of many of its members, weaving these together to build one of the world’s most important collection of genealogical records.

But it’s the rise of IT (Information Technology)—mainly, computers and the Internet—that makes crowdsourcing fast and efficient.

How much have things changed? Consider the case of the aforementioned Zapruder film. It is believed that only four moving-picture cameras recorded the fatal head shot to JFK, Abraham Zapruder’s camera and three others. In such a situation (a parade-like motorcade featuring the president in a city where presidential visits are rare), there might be hundreds of such recordings in today’s world of iPhones and similar devices. Remember that, when Tea Party activists, protesting Obamacare in 2010, were falsely accused of shouting racial epithets at African-American members, there was enough video footage of the event to prove their innocence. Recently, Apple began touting the iPhone as “the world’s most popular camera”—a claim that appears to be accurate.

Or consider the system, known as “reCAPTCHA,” which has help digitize countless old books and newspapers. You know those little boxes that pop up on the Internet as you browse, asking you to identify a word that appears as text that is squiggly or otherwise hard to make out? That test, called a CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, developed at Carnegie Mellon University), is designed to check whether you’re a human being.  (A computer is said to be truly intelligent, to “think,” if it can interact with people—say, in an online conversation—in a manner indistinguishable from that of a human being. Such a challenge is known as a Turing test, after Alan Turing, the computer scientist who proposed it.) In “reCAPTCHA,” a known word is paired with an unknown word, so that an Internet visitor is “tricked” into deciphering the unknown word, a hard-to-read word that appears in an old book or newspaper. Using reCAPTCHA, the translation of nearly illegible text from, say, the New York Times archive or the books in the online library Google Books is broken up into little units and distributed to millions of people online. It’s the kind of job that would be almost impossible to accomplish using traditional methods.

One event, more than another, showed the value of collective intelligence—of, in effect, linking the brains of thousands or millions of people into a giant superbrain that can penetrate and expose deception. It involved CBS News anchor Dan Rather, the 2004 presidential campaign, and some fake documents. It was a case in which a little bit of detective work, made possible by the Internet, may have changed the outcome of a presidential election.


Bloggers get a scalp

On September 8, 2004, the CBS News program “60 Minutes II” broadcast a story with the potential to deny reelection to President George W. Bush. As produced by Mary Mapes and narrated by CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, the story told of memoranda dated 1972 and 1973 that seemed to prove Bush had received special treatment as a member of the National Guard.

The memos were attributed to Lt. Col. Jerry Killian of the Texas Air National Guard. One purportedly showed that Bush had refused an order to submit to a physical examination. According to another memo, Killian grounded Bush and requested that a flight inquiry board be convened to examine the reasons for Bush’s loss of flight status. And Killian, it was claimed, wrote a memo to himself labeled “CYA” (“cover your ass”) complaining that he was being pressured to “sugarcoat” Bush’s record and that “I’m having trouble running interference [for Bush] and doing my job.”

The unspoken implication was that Bush, known to be a partier in his youth, refused the physical because it would reveal evidence of illegal drug use, and that Bush, the son of the national chairman of the Republican Party, used his political connections to avoid fulfilling his military obligation.

This story had the potential to deny reelection to President Bush. The election was almost universally expected to be close, and the National Guard memos story put Bush in stark contrast to his campaign opponent, John Kerry, who claimed a record of great military heroism during roughly the same period.  Four years earlier, political experts believed, a last-minute revelation of an old charge of drunk driving had cost Bush a significant lead in his first presidential campaign and nearly cost him the election.

The story aired on the “60 Minutes II” broadcast at 8 p.m. ET. CBS News posted copies of the documents on its Web site.

By8:19, doubts about the documents were raised on the website FreeRepublic: “WE NEED TO SEE THOSE MEMOS AGAIN! They are not in the style that we used when I came in to the USAF. They looked like the style and format we started using about 12 years ago (1992). Our signature blocks were left justified, now they are right of center…like the ones they just showed.  Can we get a copy of those memos?” wrote a Freeper (FreeRepublicparticipant) and member of the U.S. Air Force calling himself TankerKC.

A minute before midnight, an Atlanta lawyer calling himself Buckhead added: “[E]very single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman. In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts. The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late [1990s]. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn’t used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid [1980s] used monospaced fonts. I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old. This should be pursued aggressively.”

The concerns of Buckhead and others spread rapidly across a network of specialized Web sites called blogs.  The next morning, a Minneapolis lawyer reprinted Buckhead’s comments on a blog he shared called Power Line.  Another blog, Little Green Footballs, run by a Web designer in California, created an exact copy of one of the memos using the default settings in MS Word; he also created an animation, fading back and forth between the memo and the MS Word copy, to show the match between the two. The Drudge Report, the Web site that broke the story of the Monica Lewinsky scandal (after Newsweek refused to publish the work of its own reporter), quickly linked to the Power Line story, and the various Web sites investigating the story linked to each other.

Suddenly, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were analyzing the documents, looking for flaws, researching the history of typewriters, word-processors, typefaces and computer fonts. They contacted document experts and typewriter collectors, and dug out real memos from the early ’70s for comparison.

Within 20 hours of the “60 Minutes II” report, the National Guard documents were proven to be fakes. Within 72 hours, most of the blogs that initially supported Rather acknowledged the memos’ inauthenticity.  Among the problems with the documents:

  • The font (style of type) used in the documents appears to be Times New Roman, which was available for newspapers in 1931 but not available for individual use until the early 1980s.
  • The type itself was spaced proportionately, with a wide letter such as an “m” getting much more horizontal space than a thin letter such as an “l.”  With extremely rare exceptions, typewriters gave each letter the same amount of space regardless of the letter’s width.
  • The memos included letter combinations such as “th” and “nd” that were raised above the surrounding type like this: 132nd, 24th. Although a few typewriters had special “th” characters, none were capable of raising the top of the “th” above the top of the surrounding letters, as in the memos. This feature apparently originated with the Microsoft Word word-processing program, which was introduced 12-13 years after the dates on the memos.
  • In a few instances, the numbers in the memos had non-superscript “th”s and “nd”s.  But, in those instances, there was a space between the number itself and the “th” or “nd,” consistent with someone trying to defeat the feature of the Microsoft Word word-processing program that automatically makes those characters superscript when they immediately follow a number.
  • Apostrophes in the memos were left- or right-curved, not straight up-and-down as in foot and inch marks.  Few typewriters had this feature.
  • Addresses at the tops of the memos were perfectly centered, which, with a typewriter, is extremely difficult—sometimes impossible—and thus very rarely done.
  • The memos have perfect line breaks—that is, the breaks at the end of each line appear not one character earlier than is absolutely necessary to accommodate the next word in the paragraph.  This is something we expect from computers and word processors, which print only after the writing is done, and from memory typewriters, which re-type the document after the first typing to create perfect line breaks, justification, etc.  It is nearly impossible to create perfect line breaks on a (non-memory) typewriter, because that requires that the typist know exactly where the margin is, relative to the number of spaces or width of the characters in the next word he is typing, so he knows when to hit the carriage return.  The typewriter itself can’t do this, because it doesn’t know what the next word is going to be when it places the text. [This point, regarding perfect line breaks, was my personal contribution to the analysis.]

Other points were soon raised regarding the terminology used in the memos (“Army” vs. “Texas Air National Guard” lingo), formatting and punctuation (military vs. civilian style), the dimensions of the paper, and the memos’ factual context (a citation of a regulation was wrong, and it turned out that a superior officer described as putting pressure on Killian had retired the year before).

The National Guard memos affair “was like throwing a match on kerosene-soaked wood,” wrote Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post. “The ensuing blaze ripped through the media establishment as previously obscure bloggers managed to put the network of Murrow and Cronkite firmly on the defensive.”

At first, CBS News and Rather blamed the controversy on partisans and said that the memos were “backed up by independent handwriting and forensic document experts”—which the cited experts promptly denied.  The claimed “reliable source” for the memos turned out to be Bill Burkett, an activist with a history of mental problems and a longstanding grudge against President Bush.  Burkett said that an unidentified man handed him the documents at a livestock show.

Then it was revealed that the producer, Mary Mapes, had facilitated contact between Burkett and former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, a top aide to John Kerry.  In the eyes of many people, the connection between Burkett and Lockhart explained how the Kerry campaign was able to put together, in the days prior to CBS News’s broadcast of its purported expose, a “theme week” highlighting allegations about Bush’s National Guard record.

Two weeks after the story aired, Rather apologized on the air for using the memos without properly authenticating them, although he continued to insist that the memos might be real and that the story itself was true.  Among longtime observers of the news media, Rather’s comments elicited memories of a Newsweek editor in 1983 who shrugged off the charge, later proven correct, that the “Hitler diaries” the magazine was publishing might be fake: “Genuine or not,” he wrote, “it almost doesn’t matter in the end.”  (This lackadaisical attitude toward the truth is one reason Newsweek, as a print publication, no longer exists.)

As the memo controversy turned into scandal for CBS, the network selected former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, a Republican, and former Associated Press chief executive Louis Boccardi to look into the matter and issue a report. On November 23, as Thornburgh and Boccardi reportedly neared the completion of their assignment, Rather announced that he would step down as CBS News anchor next March.

By the way, Rather was not the bloggers’ first scalp. Most political observers credit them with stirring up the controversy over Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott’s suggestion that the country would have been better off if segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.  Lott was forced to quit his leadership post just as Republicans took control of the Senate, which would have made Lott the Majority Leader again.  The Rather case, though, is the first time the bloggers took on the major media directly and won a major victory.

YWOT and the CIA

The Dan Rather scandal teaches us that hundreds or thousands of heads are better than one or two or ten. By creating a virtual army of reporters working simultaneously, the blogosphere was able to discredit the memos far more rapidly than any outlet of the traditional media. Absent the blogs, the memos might have been exposed as frauds sometime during the first Kerry Administration.

Like the so-called Mainstream Media, the intelligence community is too in-bred, too likely to fall into groupthink.

Consider the failure of CIA and other U.S. analysts to understand the Soviet economy. CIA experts at the time came largely from the Ivy League (especially Harvard, Yale, and Princeton), the University of Virginia, or West Point.  Foremost among these was Yale; the Yale version of the “Whiffenpoof Song” became a sort of anthem for U.S. and British intelligence officers in some places. So the top brains at the CIA were not very diverse in their backgrounds and ways of thought. They had learned in college that centralized, command economies are superior to anarchic, free-market ones. They had been, well, schooled in the caste system of the academic world and in the YWOT (Yale Way of Thought) or its counterpart at their own schools.

So the National Intelligence Estimate put the Soviet economy at 59% of the size of theU.S.economy when it was really something like 33%, and a presidential commission in 1957 projected that the Soviet economy would be larger than theU.S.economy by 1993.

And it seems that no one in theU.S.government picked up the obvious signs of Soviet collapse in the early 1980s, from ethnic strife to the world’s first male life expectancy decline in an industrialized country.

Perhaps it is the nature of the beast. Intelligence analysis by supposed experts, based on classified information and therefore not available to the public, cannot be reviewed by large numbers of people; it cannot be subjected to the sort of process that points out errors of fact and of judgment. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1990 that “The national security state developed a vast secrecy system which basically hid from us our own miscalculations.  The mistakes, you see, were secret, so they were not open to correction.”  Moynihan was not a fan of secrecy.

Robert David Steele Vivas, an advocate for the use of Open Source intelligence, has complained that intelligence analysts “have labored for too long under a system that spends today roughly $70 billion a year to collect 10% of what we need to know, and then fails to process 80% of that, with the result that our ‘all source’ analysts are actually working with 2% of the relevant information.” When Rob Simmons (R-Connecticut) was a member of Congress, he and Steele pushed for the creation of an Open Source agency to concentrate on OSINT.  The 9/11 Commission endorsed the idea.

But what I suggest goes beyond Open Source.  You might call it Interactive Open Source—using the Internet blogosphere as the basic architecture for, in essence, a collective mind.

[Next: The Internet, blogs, and the wisdom of crowds]



Dr. Steven J. Allen (JD, PhD) is editor of the Capital Research Center publications Green Watch and Labor Watch. In the 1990s, he was editor of the Internet Political Report, the first publication on the relationship between politics and the Internet.

Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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