C’mon! The Pentagon’s inspector general concludes that nine top officers were involved in the cover-up of NFL football star Cpl. Pat Tillman’s “friendly fire” death, yet insists that this apparent conspiracy to conceal the truth does not rise to the level of criminality? Rather, it was “missteps” that led four generals and five officers of lower rank to conceal from his family and the American public the truth known instantly in the field: Tillman died not, as the Pentagon first claimed, in a firefight with the enemy in Afghanistan but rather at the hands of his fellow Rangers.

That family includes Tillman’s brother Kevin, who fought alongside Pat in Iraq and Afghanistan after ending his own sports career as a professional baseball player and enlisting with Pat in response to the 9/11 attacks. Yet this family, which sent two of its sons to fight in President Bush’s wars, was rewarded for its sacrifice with officially inspired fabrications enshrined in a Silver Star commendation.

For five weeks of mourning, from Tillman’s death on April 22, 2004, through his nationally televised memorial on May 3, the U.S. government — from the president on down — used the tale of Tillman’s heroism to deflect the nation’s attention from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the escalating American casualties in Iraq. Four generals were cited by the inspector general as sacrificing the truth in Tillman’s death. But another Central Command chief, Gen. John Abizaid, who knew about the friendly fire death a week after it occurred, was noticeably absent in the report released Monday.

The one officer who did pursue the truth was then-Capt. Richard Scott, now a major, who had been assigned within 24 hours of Tillman’s death to investigate the fratricide. His report, submitted May 10, 2004, concluded that possible criminal actions occurred. It was never officially accepted. He later testified that witnesses had been allowed, in subsequent Pentagon investigations, to change their testimony as to key details in the shooting.

As the Tillman family put it in a statement Monday: “The Army continues to deny the family and the public … access to the original investigation and the sworn statements from that [Scott] investigation. … His investigation contained the unaltered statements, taken when memories were still fresh, by witnesses to the events surrounding Pat’s death. We know … that more than one of the original statements was altered, after Capt. Scott’s investigation ‘disappeared.’ This is not a misstep. It is evidence tampering.”

The family scorned the inspector general’s conclusion of “missteps.” “The characterization of criminal negligence, professional misconduct, battlefield incompetence, concealment and destruction of evidence, deliberate deception, and conspiracy to deceive, are not ‘missteps.’ These actions are malfeasance.”

The Tillmans noted the buck stops artificially with one of the generals cited, Lt. Gen. General Philip Kensinger, now retired: “While he is not blameless, we believe he is the pawn being sacrificed to protect the king … [former] Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.”

The family points out that Rumsfeld was very familiar with the case. He had written Tillman a personal letter thanking him for enlisting. Rumsfeld was obviously aware that this was the most high-profile death in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The family noted it is inconceivable that the Pentagon would have been able to coordinate a carefully orchestrated campaign of lies converting Tillman’s death as a result of friendly fire into a Rambo-like assault on Taliban guerrillas, while keeping the secretary of defense and the White House in the dark.

Pat was a hero, saving the life of a fellow soldier who also was being fired upon. He sacrificed not only a lucrative career but also an extraordinary passion for life that included his marriage to a wonderful woman, his years of education in which he was distinguished as a scholar as well as an athlete, and the enormous love of his family and community.

He deserved the Silver Star granted him posthumously, but not for the phony reasons cited in the declaration. As the Tillman family put it, “the award of the Silver Star appears more than anything to be part of a cynical design to conceal the real events from the family and the public, while exploiting the death of our beloved Pat as a recruitment poster.”

They are right. As the family stated, “In three years of struggling with the Pentagon’s public affairs apparatus, we have never been dealt with honestly. We will now shift our efforts into Congress, to which we appeal for investigation.” A congressional investigation into the administration’s cynical exploitation of Tillman’s sacrifice is long overdue.

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