The Mysterious Death of Pat Tillman

By FRANK RICH

New York Times

November 6, 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.