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The Tillman Scandal

In the week after Newsweek's retraction, where is the comparable outrage over the military's cover-up of the 'friendly fire' death of Pat Tillman? And where is a Scott McClellan lecture on ethics and credibility?
 
 
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Where, in the week after the Great Newsweek Error , is the comparable outrage in the press, in the blogosphere, and at the White House over the military's outright lying in the coverup of the death of former NFL star Pat Tillman? Where are the calls for apologies to the public and the firing of those responsible? Who is demanding that the Pentagon's word should never be trusted unless backed up by numerous named and credible sources?

Where is a Scott McClellan lecture on ethics and credibility?

The Tillman scandal is back in the news thanks not to the military coming clean but because of a newspaper account. Ironically, the newspaper in question, The Washington Post -- which has taken the lead on this story since last December -- is corporate big brother to Newsweek.

The Post's Josh White reported this week that Tillman's parents are now ripping the Army, saying that the military's investigations into their son's 2004 "friendly fire" death in Afghanistan was a sham based on "lies" and that the Army cover-up made it harder for them to deal with their loss. They are speaking out now because they have finally had a chance to look at the full records of the military probe.

"Tillman's mother and father said in interviews that they believe the military and the government created a heroic tale about how their son died to foster a patriotic response across the country," White reported.

While military officials' lying to the parents have gained wide publicity in the past two days, hardly anyone has mentioned that they also lied to the public and to the press, which dutifully carried one report after another based on the Pentagon's spin. It had happened many times before, as in the Jessica Lynch incident.

Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire from his own men, mistaken for the enemy on a hillside near the Pakistan border. "Immediately," the Post reported, "the Army kept the soldiers on the ground quiet and told Tillman's family and the public that he was killed by enemy fire while storming a hill, barking orders to his fellow Rangers." Tillman posthumously received the Silver Star for his "actions."

The latest military investigation, exposed by the Post earlier this month, "showed that soldiers in Afghanistan knew almost immediately that they had killed Tillman by mistake in what they believed was a firefight with enemies on a tight canyon road. The investigation also revealed that soldiers later burned Tillman's uniform and body armor."

Patrick Tillman Sr., the father -- a lawyer, as it happens -- said he blames high-ranking Army officers for presenting "outright lies" to the family and to the public. "After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this," he told the Post. "They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy."

"Maybe lying's not a big deal anymore," he said. "Pat's dead, and this isn't going to bring him back. But these guys should have been held up to scrutiny, right up the chain of command, and no one has."

Mary Tillman, the mother, complained to the Post that the government used her son for weeks after his death. She said she was particularly offended when President Bush offered a taped memorial message to Tillman at a Cardinals football game shortly before the presidential election last fall.

Newsweek made a bad mistake in its recent report on Koran abuse at Guantanamo. But it was a mistake, not outright lying. Yet the same critics who blasted the magazine -- and the media in general -- are not demanding that same contrition or penalties for anyone in the military.

One Newsweek critic after another has asked in the past week that the media come up with just one case where they erred on the side of making the military look good, not bad. One hopes the Tillman example takes care of that request, though there are, of course, many others.

It is worth looking back at how Steve Coll of the Washington Post last December described the early weeks of the Pentagon spin on Tillman:

"Just days after Pat Tillman died from friendly fire on a desolate ridge in southeastern Afghanistan," Coll wrote, "the U.S. Army Special Operations Command released a brief account of his last moments.

"The April 30, 2004, statement awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for combat valor and described how a section of his Ranger platoon came under attack.

"'He ordered his team to dismount and then maneuvered the Rangers up a hill near the enemy's location,' the release said. 'As they crested the hill, Tillman directed his team into firing positions and personally provided suppressive fire. ... Tillman's voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy forces.'

"It was a stirring tale and fitting eulogy for the Army's most famous volunteer in the war on terrorism, a charismatic former pro football star whose reticence, courage and handsome beret-draped face captured for many Americans the best aspects of the country's post-Sept. 11 character.

"It was also a distorted and incomplete narrative, according to dozens of internal Army documents obtained by The Washington Post that describe Tillman's death by fratricide after a chain of botched communications, a misguided order to divide his platoon over the objection of its leader and undisciplined firing by fellow Rangers.

"The Army's public release made no mention of friendly fire, even though at the time it was issued, investigators in Afghanistan had already taken at least 14 sworn statements from Tillman's platoon members that made clear the true causes of his death.

"But the Army's published account not only withheld all evidence of fratricide, but also exaggerated Tillman's role and stripped his actions of their context. ... The Army's April 30 news release was just one episode in a broader Army effort to manage the uncomfortable facts of Pat Tillman's death, according to internal records and interviews."

Greg Mitchell ( gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is the editor of E&P and the author of seven books on history and politics.