William M. Arkin on National and Homeland Security
Pat Tillman and the Coming Witch Hunt on Iraq
Interrupting his retirement and in need of a haircut, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld showed up on Capitol Hill yesterday for the first time since leaving the Pentagon. He had been called to testify not about Iraq, Iran, Pakistan or al-Qaeda, but about the death of former NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman.
Rumsfeld said he was sorry for whatever mistakes had been made, but he wasn't responsible for any of them, and the three current or former generals who testified alongside him echoed his remarks. The news media lapped all this up, even as it became clear that the hearing would come to naught. Is this a preview of the post-Iraq witch hunt we will experience after the 2008 elections?
Motivated by a desire for national service, Tillman quit a promising and lucrative job as a safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL to join the U.S. Army Rangers after 9/11. On April 22, 2004, he was killed in a friendly fire incident while operating in the mountain of eastern Afghanistan. His family and the nation were told he was killed by enemy fire. On May 1, 2004, President Bush mentioned Tillman in a speech to the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner. America had a hero, and just in time: Iraq was descending into anarchy. On May 29, the Army announced that Tillman was shot by fellow Rangers in a friendly fire incident.
The case has received national media attention ever since, with the Tillman family heroically and doggedly pushing the Army and the Pentagon to properly investigate the circumstances of the death and the sorry aftermath of exaggeration, misstatement and coverup. Yesterday's hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee included not just Rumsfeld but also former Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers, former Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. John P. Abizaid and former Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. Bryan Douglas Brown.
Rumsfeld firmly denied any coverup and said that he did not learn that Tillman was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire until nearly a month after the incident. He said he did not recall ever discussing the death with anyone in the White House. The three blind mice who accompanied the former secretary also said that they learned how Tillman died well after the event and never talked to or coordinated a public relations campaign with the White House.
Badly handled, errors were made, deeply regrettable: We heard it all yesterday. In the end, committee chair Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) admitted a certain defeat: "You've all admitted that the system failed," he said, yet "none of you feel personally responsible."
By now we know that the Army failed to follow its own rules on informing the family of a possible fratricide within 30 days, and we know from documents and Inspector General reports that officers lied and obfuscated and that the Army mishandled the investigation, destroying evidence and fabricating events. The chronology now shows that when Pentagon leaders were told that Tillman might have been killed by fellow troops, they gossiped about the case among themselves but made no particular move to correct the public record.
Anyone who knows anything about Washington and government knows that "the system failed" is the ultimate coverup. The way the system works, of course, is to ensure that government officials -- particularly high-level government officials -- are always insulated from incriminating evidence. Lower-level flunkies know what to tell their bosses and how to use the chain of command to insulate themselves from higher-up decisions. If each person at each level behaves as mandated, decisions can be made without any real responsibility and accountability. After the fact, everyone can marvel that the decision was made by someone else of which they have no personal knowledge.
After all, key decisions about the Iraq war remain enigmas: to limit the number of U.S. troops involved in the assault, to pay less attention to the aftermath, to carry out a de-Ba'athification program in the Iraqi Army, etc., etc. The very description of the events is so passive because we are describing a system that in fact is working. It remains unclear who made the key decisions and why -- because that is how the participants want it.
My bet is that we'll never really find out. The Tillman episode is just a mini-version of what the nation will experience when and if we finally investigate how things went wrong in Iraq.