WASHINGTON -- The saying that the cover-up is worse than the crime surely cannot be applied to war crimes.
The U.S. military is investigating whether Marines on patrol in the Iraqi town of Haditha committed an atrocity last November, killing up to 24 people, including women and small children, in house-to-house raids. Part of the inquiry is meant to determine who among the higher-ups in charge of such things concocted the apparently false public account that civilians had been killed in the blast of a roadside bomb.
The alleged cover-up is to be one focus of Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, its chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., says. Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat and ranking House Armed Services Committee member who has withdrawn his earlier support for this war, is particularly incensed. "Who covered it up?" he asked on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "Why did they cover it up?"
But, it is fair to ask, why such surprise? The American endeavor in Iraq always has been a deception built upon a foundation of fraud.
In the beginning were the false claims that Saddam Hussein possessed potent weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons program that could lead to the fearsome "mushroom cloud." When Joseph Wilson wrote in The New York Times that his own CIA-sponsored trip to Africa essentially disproved evidence of an advancing nuclear program, the former ambassador and his wife, Valerie Plame, became targets of a leak-and-smear campaign orchestrated by Vice President Dick Cheney's office. The criminal probe into the Plame leak centers on whether high-level administration officials lied to the grand jury about it.
The lie that Saddam had some unspecified connection to the Sept. 11 attacks, promoted indirectly in the president's own speeches and more directly by the vice president, was for a time so potent that a huge majority of Americans believed it.
More recently exposed falsehoods include President Bush's public claim on May 29, 2003. "We have found the weapons of mass destruction," he declared, after two small trailers purported to be mobile biological weapons labs turned up. In truth, according to The Washington Post, a secret Pentagon fact-finding mission to Iraq had already concluded that the trailers weren't weapons labs at all, and had reported this to Washington.
With the commander in chief apparently incapable of telling the truth about Iraq, who can be stunned at duplicity in the ranks? This, too, started early on.
The early, iconic image of Saddam's statue being toppled in a Baghdad square was not a spontaneous act by joyous Iraqis. It was an Army psychological warfare operation that began when a Marine colonel chose the statue for its symbolism and the psychological team encouraged Iraqis to participate. In the end, a Marine vehicle dragged down the statue with a chain, but the evocative image was indelible — because the military team filled the vehicle with cheering Iraqi children.
Soon after came the fable of Jessica Lynch, the Army private who was captured after her Humvee crashed — but who supposedly was taken prisoner only after her own heroics, which officials said included emptying her weapon at her attackers. A fuller fairy tale promoted Lynch's rescue from an Iraqi hospital, helpfully illustrated by the Pentagon with a dramatic night-vision video. In truth, Lynch says she never fired her weapon and that the hospital already was in friendly hands when American soldiers retrieved her.
We still do not know the whole truth about Pat Tillman, for dead men tell no tales. The former pro football player starred in a fictitious press release the Army put out after he was killed in action in Afghanistan. The stirring script of Tillman's death had him storming a hill to take out the enemy when he was hit, a fabrication that the Pentagon let stand through a nationally televised memorial service that drew 3,500 people. Though military officials knew early on that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, it did not tell his family, or the public, this tale of negligence and official concealment.
The president himself is responsible for setting this standard. The Marines at Haditha, and those who shielded them, may well have suffered a "total breakdown in morality and leadership," as one official told the Los Angeles Times. But that is because our country is suffering the very same breakdown.
© 2006 The Daily Camera