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"Indeed, the rage of theorists to make constitutions a vehicle for the conveyance of their own crude, and visionary aphorisms of government, requires to be guarded against with the most unceasing vigilance."
     -- Joseph Story
     Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States
     Book III, § 1857.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

My input, for what it's worth, on the Dan Rather forgery flap.

In the early and mid-Eighties, I worked Summers and Christmases as a computer programmer in the ADP department at Sigonella, Sicily. For those that don't know, Sigonella is a Naval Air Station. The office considered itself more or less high-tech, but, being a military base overseas, this must be taken with a grain of salt. Fully ten years after the supposed date of composition of Rather's forged memos, what did the military have available to it in its data processing center? Our office had two IBM DisplayWriters, sharing a single daisy-wheel printer. The DisplayWriter, and the printer, were barely capable of primitive proportional-font printing; the wheel for this stayed locked up in the department secretary's desk drawer, partly because it was more expensive, but mostly because it was so much trouble to use that no one (including the secretary) wanted to haul it out. The problem had nothing to do with printing; instead, it was, that the monospaced DisplayWriter screen made it more difficult to judge the result one would get once it were sent to the printer. The proportional wheel, after the secretary's few experiments in trying it out, wound up not getting used at all: It just wasn't worth the bother. And the quality of print, using that proportional wheel, wasn't anything wonderful; any laser printer these days can produce much better output.

Keep in mind, this is what was available to the Navy. The National Guard would not have been as well equipped. I find the idea that a National Guard unit, ten years earlier, would have had even better equipment, very difficult to believe.

In the same time period, I was also production editor for a college newspaper, which meant, I created the layout, and then typeset all the stories to fit the layout. So I'm also familiar with what it took, ten years after the supposed time of composition, to produce output such as we see in these "memos." In our case, it took a Linotron 200 H&J typesetter sitting in the basement of the university Admin building, which produced its copy by rolling photosensitive paper past a high-quality cathode-ray tube, which paper must then be run through developing fluid, allowed to dry, then cut, waxed, and pasted onto the flats for the day's paper.

Since I could make that Linotron sing for its supper, I also wound up typesetting resumés for graduating Journalism majors. Here's what it involved: I would typeset the text; the production department would then run it through the Linotron, develop the paper, and dry it; the result would be cut, waxed, and pasted on an ordinary 8½-by-11 sheet of paper, and the whole finally Xeroxed onto good stock. This is what it took to get high-quality print in the mid-Eighties. Even assuming such things were possible in the early Seventies (and that a National Guard installation would have all the necessary equipment), the idea that anyone would go to such bother for a simple file memorandum is ludicrous. Also, I can assert with full confidence: Any military personnel that did go to all that bother (and expense!) for a simple memorandum would be risking court-martial for fraud, waste, and abuse.

It is obvious that these documents are forgeries. It is also obvious, the forger is either young enough, or self-centered enough, that the idea that the cheap-and-easy desktop publishing capabilities we have today are of recent vintage didn't even register. It is impossible to defend these documents from a position of knowledge; they can only be defended by the deliberate cultivation of a studied ignorance.

-- posted by Clayton 9/14/2004 02:01:00 AM

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