Henry Waxman looks like your accountant, but he acts more like a dog with a bone—the hard bone of truth. This short, bald, mustached California congressman is digging up what really happened inside the U.S. government during the early years of the new century. Last week, for instance, Waxman's House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard startling testimony about how the Army lied repeatedly to protect its image, covered up those lies, then lied again. Instead of depressing me, the hearings left me strangely exhilarated. Historians will likely see the 2006 midterm election returns as indispensable to their work. Without a change in party control, we would never have a chance to get to the bottom of what has happened to this country.
Remember Cpl. Pat Tillman, the patriotic former Arizona Cardinals defensive back who walked away from a fat NFL contract to join the Army Rangers in Afghanistan? After Tillman was killed in action in 2004, the Army told his family and the country that he had died in a heroic struggle with the enemy. In fact, Tillman was accidentally killed by friendly fire from American forces. Within hours of his death, the Army went into damage-control overdrive, posting guards to keep eyewitnesses from talking, cutting off phone and Internet service to the base and even burning Tillman's uniform before awarding him the Silver Star. His brother Kevin, who was serving as a soldier in the same unit, was kept in the dark. One fellow Ranger testified he was directly ordered to lie to Kevin about what occurred. At Waxman's hearing, Kevin accused the military of "intentional falsehoods" and "fraud." An internal Army probe showed that when Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger (now retired) said at a public memorial service that Pat was killed by Taliban forces, he knew otherwise.
Kevin Tillman attributes the pack of lies to a desperate need within the Army to avoid more bad publicity after the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal. But that implies this was an isolated case. It wasn't. I did a story last year about a California mother named Nadia McCaffrey who was told that her son, a California National Guardsman, had died in an enemy ambush. It took the Army two years to admit that in fact he was shot in the back by the very Iraqi troops he was training. Such stories have not caused more outrage because of widespread reluctance to denigrate the Army. But the instinct to "support the troops" and avoid Vietnam-era disrespect for the military has left us blind to many abuses.
The details of the Pfc. Jessica Lynch case are also still fuzzy. Lynch testified that the "story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting" was untrue. The Army insists that pressure from politicians and the hero-hungry news media led to the phony narrative. Whatever happened, at least Waxman and his committee are on the case. And they're determined to shed more light on the larger question of how the United States was misled into war in the first place.
We now see that getting to the bottom of this critically important bit of history will require a few subpoenas, including one issued for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The result was a predictable but nonetheless comic display of hypocrisy by GOP committee members opposed to the Rice subpoena who had no problem when their chairman, Rep. Dan Burton, issued more than 1,000 subpoenas to Clinton-era officials during the 1990s. Those subpoenas, of course, were mostly about old "scandals" that did not result in 3,300 combat deaths, $1 trillion in lost treasure and a world-shaking fiasco with no end in sight. Last month, after President Bush falsely claimed that White House cooperation with Waxman's request for information was "unprecedented" and that Karl Rove and other aides need not testify before Congress under oath, Waxman offered chapter and verse of more than a dozen Clinton White House aides testifying under oath about internal deliberations.
Truth has always been the first casualty in war, as the great reporter and author David Halberstam, who was killed in a car crash last week, reminded us. And the press—even at its most aggressive—cannot always get the real story. During the Vietnam War, Halberstam and his colleagues could only take their reporting so far. It required the efforts of people like Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright to sharpen the debate by holding important hearings. That was in the days when congressmen provided oversight of administrations from the same party. From 2001 until 2007, such oversight disappeared. Now truth and accountability are making a comeback, and not a moment too soon.