By Frank Rich
The New York Times
Sunday 06 November 2005
It would be a compelling story," Patrick Fitzgerald said of the
narrative Scooter Libby used to allegedly mislead investigators in the
Valerie Wilson leak case, "if only it were true."
"Compelling" is higher praise than any Mr. Libby received for his
one work of published fiction, a 1996 novel of "murder, passion and
heart-stopping chases through the snow" called "The Apprentice." If you
read the indictment, you'll see why he merits the critical upgrade. The
intricate tale he told the F.B.I. and the grand jury - with its
endlessly clever contradictions of his White House colleagues' testimony
- is compelling even without the sex and the snow.
The medium is the message. This administration just loves to beguile
us with a rollicking good story, truth be damned. The propagandistic
fable exposed by the leak case - the apocalyptic imminence of Saddam's
mushroom clouds - was only the first of its genre. Given that
potboiler's huge success at selling the war, its authors couldn't resist
providing sequels once we were in Iraq. As the American casualty toll
surges past 2,000 and Veterans Day approaches, we need to remember and
unmask those scenarios as well. Our troops and their families have too
often made the ultimate sacrifice for the official fictions that have
corrupted every stage of this war.
If there's a tragic example that can serve as representative of the
rest, it is surely that of Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals defensive
back who famously volunteered for the Army in the spring after 9/11,
giving up a $3.6 million N.F.L. contract extension. Tillman wanted to
pay something back to his country by pursuing the enemy that actually
attacked it, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Instead he was sent to fight
a war in Iraq that he didn't see coming when he enlisted because the
administration was still hatching it in secret. Only on a second tour of
duty was he finally sent into Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, where,
on April 22, 2004, he was killed. On April 30, an official Army press
release announcing his Silver Star citation filled in vivid details of
his last battle. Tillman, it said, was storming a hill to take out the
enemy, even as he "personally provided suppressive fire with an M-249
Squad Automatic Weapon machine gun."
It would be a compelling story, if only it were true. Five weeks
after Tillman's death, the Army acknowledged abruptly, without providing
details, that he had "probably" died from friendly fire. Many months
after that, investigative journalists at The Washington Post and The Los
Angeles Times reported that the Army's initial portrayal of his death
had been not only bogus but also possibly a cover-up of something
darker. "The records show that Tillman fought bravely and honorably
until his last breath," Steve Coll wrote in The Post in December 2004.
"They also show that his superiors exaggerated his actions and invented
details as they burnished his legend in public, at the same time
suppressing details that might tarnish Tillman's commanders."
This fall The San Francisco Chronicle uncovered still more details
with the help of Tillman's divorced parents, who have each reluctantly
gone public after receiving conflicting and heavily censored official
reports on three Army investigations that only added to the mysteries
surrounding their son's death. (Yet another inquiry is under way.) "The
administration clearly was using this case for its own political
reasons," said Patrick Tillman, Pat Tillman's father, who discovered
that crucial evidence in the case, including his son's uniform and gear,
had been destroyed almost immediately. "This cover-up started within
minutes of Pat's death, and it started at high levels."
His accusations are far from wild. The Chronicle found that Gen.
John Abizaid, the top American officer in Iraq, and others in his
command had learned by April 29, 2004, that friendly fire had killed
their star recruit. That was the day before the Army released its
fictitious press release of Tillman's hillside firefight and four days
before a nationally televised memorial service back home enshrined the
fake account of his death. Yet Tillman's parents, his widow, his brother
(who served in the same platoon) and politicians like John McCain (who
spoke at Tillman's memorial) were not told the truth for another month.
Why? It's here where we find a repeat of the same pattern that drove
the Valerie Wilson leak a year earlier. Faced with unwelcome news - from
the front, from whistle-blowers, from scandal - this administration will
always push back with change-the-subject stunts (like specious terror
alerts), fake news or, as with Joseph Wilson, smear campaigns. Much as
the White House was out to bring down Mr. Wilson because he threatened
to expose its prewar hype of Saddam's supposed nuclear prowess, so the
Pentagon might have been out to delay or rewrite a story that could be
trouble when public opinion on the war itself was just starting to plummet.
It was an election year besides. Tillman's death came after a month
of solid bad news for America and the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign
alike: the publication of Richard Clarke's book about pre-9/11
administration counterterrorism fecklessness, the savage stringing up of
the remains of American contractors in Falluja, the eruption of Sunni
and Shiite insurgencies in six Iraqi cities, the first publication of
illicit photos of flag-draped coffins. In the days just after Tillman's
death, "60 Minutes II" first broadcast the Abu Ghraib photos, Ted Koppel
read the names of the war's fallen on "Nightline," and the Pentagon's
No. 2, the Iraqi war architect Paul Wolfowitz, understated by more than
200 the number of American casualties to date (722) in an embarrassing
televised appearance before Congress.
Against this backdrop, it would not do to have it known that the
most famous volunteer of the war might have been a victim of gross
negligence or fratricide. Though Tillman himself was so idealistic that
he refused publicity of any kind when in the Army, he was exploited by
the war's cheerleaders as a recruitment lure and was needed to continue
in that role after his death. (Even though he was adamantly against the
Iraq war, according to friends and relatives interviewed by The Chronicle.)
"They blew up their poster boy," Patrick Tillman told The Post; he
is convinced that "all the people in positions of authority went out of
their way to script" the fake narrative (or, as he puts it, "outright
lies") that followed. Pat Tillman's mother, Mary Tillman, was offended
to discover that even President Bush wanted a cameo role in this
screenplay: she told The Post that he had offered to tape a memorial to
her son for a Cardinals game that would be televised shortly before
Election Day. (She said no.)
In an interview with The Arizona Republic, Mary Tillman added: "They
could have told us upfront that they were suspicious that it was a
fratricide but they didn't. They wanted to use him for their purposes.
It was good for the administration. It was before the elections. It was
during the prison scandal. They needed something that looked good, and
it was appalling that they would use him like that."
Appalling but consistent. The Pentagon has often failed to give the
troops what they need to fight the war in Iraq, from proper support in
manpower and planning at the invasion's outset to effective armor for
battle to adequately financed health care for those who make it home.
But when it comes to using troops in the duplicitous manner that Mary
Tillman describes, the sky's the limit.
Pat Tillman's case is itself a replay of the fake "Rambo" escapades
ascribed to Pfc. Jessica Lynch a year earlier, just when Operation Iraqi
Freedom showed the first tentative signs of trouble and the Pentagon
needed a feel-good distraction. As if to echo Mary Tillman, Ms. Lynch
told Time magazine this year, "I was used as a symbol." But the troops
aren't just used as symbols for the commander in chief's political
purposes. They are also drafted to serve as photo-op props and extras,
whether in an extravaganza like "Mission Accomplished" or a throwaway
dog-and-pony show like the recent teleconference in which the president
held a "conversation" with soldiers who sounded as spontaneous as the
brainwashed G.I.'s in "The Manchurian Candidate."
As Mr. Bush's approval rating crashes into the 30's, he and the vice
president are so desperate to wrap themselves in khaki that on the day
of the Libby indictment, they took separate day trips to mouth the usual
stay-the-course platitudes before military audiences. If this was a ploy
to split the focus of cable news networks and the public, it failed.
Perhaps Scooter Libby is hoping that a so-called faulty-memory defense
will save him from jail, but too many other Americans are now refreshing
their memories of what went down in the plotting and execution of the
war in Iraq. What they find are harsh truths and buried secrets that
even the most compelling administration scenarios can no longer disguise.