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Are the Bush Documents Fakes?

by Richard Polt
Author of The Typewriter Revolution

For a few weeks in September 2004, it looked like the outcome of the U.S. presidential election might depend on of all things typewriters.

The question was whether the documents used by "60 Minutes" to support the allegation that George W. Bush did not properly perform his National Guard duties, documents supposedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian in 1972 and 1973, could really have been typed at that time. Eventually, "60 Minutes" was unable to verify the authenticity of the documents, and famous newsman Dan Rather resigned. The story is dramatized in the 2015 film "Truth."

Here is my nonpartisan, nonpolitical explanation of why the documents are, beyond all reasonable doubt, fakes.

First, let's look at the four documents:


The images above are JPEG versions of these documents originally supplied by CBS in PDF format:

Dated 04 May 1972
Dated 19 May 1972
Dated 01 August 1972
Dated 18 August 1973

Now for some analysis:

The documents were obviously not produced by a commonly used typewriter of the period, and obviously could easily have been produced by a word processing program on a type of personal computer that did not yet exist in 1972-73. Here are the features that make me (and so many others) say this:

The points above already make it implausible that the documents were typed on a typewriter.

In my view, the point that settles the question beyond reasonable doubt is the fact that the ends of all the lines line up exactly as if typed in the Times New Roman font. For example, consider these two lines from the document dated 01 August 1972. The text of the document is followed by two lines I have typed on a computer using Times New Roman. Notice that the period at the end of the first line is just above the left edge of the s at the end of the second line.

This is significant because it means that the document was typed on a device that used exactly the same differential-spacing system as the Times New Roman font. Another way to state this point is that the ragged right margins of the documents have exactly the same contours that are produced by the differential-spacing system of Times New Roman.

By typing the following characters in Times New Roman, you can easily verify that the font uses at least ten different character widths. (I have typed each character five times because this makes the difference in widths more immediately visible to the naked eye.)

I am unaware of any differential-spacing typewriter ever made that uses as many as ten distinct character widths. Thus, a typewritten version of the text in the documents would inevitably create lines of different lengths from those shown in the documents.

Unless a real typewriter turns up with a Times New Roman-like typeface and ten separate character widths, which furthermore assigns just the same widths to all or nearly all characters as Times New Roman does, there can be no reasonable doubt that the documents were produced with a computer.

Some further discussion of the question of differential-spacing typewriters and the "60 Minutes" documents is provided by Fred Woodworth, an Arizona printer who lays out several periodicals using Varitypers. His 2004 letter to me on this topic, written on an IBM Selectric Composer, is provided here as a PDF with his permission. In response to an objection about his typing of the text on one of the memos, Woodworth has written a followup letter in 2012 that is available here.

I am presenting this information solely as a matter of technical interest, not as a political statement (for the record, I'm a Democrat, and Woodworth describes himself as an ethical anarchist). I take no position on who produced these documents and on whether the allegations against George W. Bush are true. However, the following observations can safely be made. If these are fakes intended to look as if they were were produced in 1972 and 1973, they are remarkably inept; minimal historical and technical knowledge would have led the faker to type the documents on one of the typical monospaced typewriters of the era, which are easily available. Another possibility is that these documents were intended to be exposed as fakes, in order to discredit the accusations against President Bush; if so, the faker probably did not anticipate the technical nuances raised by the existence of 1970s differential-spacing typewriters. What is obvious in either case is that the "60 Minutes" team was remarkably gullible, and that it was irresponsible to present these documents as newsworthy evidence. In fact, even if these had been original documents that had clearly been produced with a 1970s typewriter, that in itself would not constitute any evidence that they were actually typed by Lt. Col. Killian in 1972-73.