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"Swear Him In"

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That’s all I said in the unusual silence on Monday afternoon as first aid was being administered to Gen. David Petraeus’ microphone before he could make himself heard before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.

It had dawned on me that when House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Missouri) invited Gen. Petraeus to make his presentation, Skelton forgot to ask him to take the customary oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  I had no idea that my suggestion would get me thrown out of he hearing.

I had experienced a flashback to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in early 2006, when Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) reminded chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) that Specter had forgotten to swear in the witness, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; and how Specter insisted that that would not be necessary.

Now that may, or may not, be an invidious comparison.  But Petraeus and Gonzales work for the same boss, who has a rather unusual relationship with the truth.  How many of his senior staff could readily be convicted, as was the hapless-and-now-commuted Scooter Libby, of perjury?

So I didn’t think twice about it.  I really thought that Skelton perhaps forgot, and that the ten-minute interlude of silence while they fixed the microphone was a good chance to raise this seemingly innocent question.

The more so since the ranking Republicans had been protesting too much.  Practicing the obverse of “killing the messenger,” they had been canonizing the messenger with protective fire.  Ranking Armed Services Committee member Duncan Hunter (R-CA) began what amounted to a SWAT-team attack on the credibility of those who dare question the truthfulness of the sainted Petraeus, and issued a special press release decrying a full-page ad in today’s
New York Times equating Petraeus with “Betray-us.”

Hunter served notice on potential doubters, insisting that Petraeus’ “capability, integrity, intelligence...are without question.”  And Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rang changes on the same theme, unwittingly choosing another infelicitous almost-homonym for the charges against Petraeus—“outrageous.”

Indeed, Hunter’s prepared statement, which he circulated before the hearing, amounted to little more than a full-scale “duty-honor-country” panegyric for the general.  On the chance we did not hear him the first time, Hunter kept repeating how “independent” Petraeus is, how candid and full of integrity, and compared him to famous generals who testified to Congress in the past—Eisenhower, Macarthur, and Schwarzkopf.  Hunter was smart enough to avoid any mention of Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, who fell tragically short on those traits. (See “Is Petraeus Today’s Westmoreland?” )

If memory serves, the aforementioned generals and Westmoreland were required to testify under oath.  And this was one of the more embarrassing sticking points when CBS aired a program showing that Westmoreland had deliberately dissembled on the strength of Communist forces and U.S. “progress” in the war.  When Westmoreland sued CBS for libel, several of his subordinates came clean, and Westmoreland quickly dropped the suit.  The analogy with Westmoreland—justifying a White House death wish to persist in an unwinnable war—is the apt one here.

If Petraeus is so honest and full of integrity, what possible objection could he have to being sworn in?  I had not the slightest hesitation being sworn in when testifying before the committee assembled by John Conyers (D-Michigan) on June 16, 2005.  Should generals be immune?  Or did Petraeus’ masters wish to give him extra assurance that he could play fast and loose with the truth without having to fear the consequences suffered by Libby.

With the microphone finally fixed, much became quickly clear.  Petraeus tried to square a circle in his very first two paragraphs.  In the first, he thanked the committees for the opportunity to “discuss the recommendations I recently provided to my chain of command for the way forward.”  Then he stretched credulity well beyond the breaking point—at least for me:

“At the outset, I would like to note that this is my testimony.  Although I have briefed my assessment and recommendations to my chain of command, I wrote this testimony myself.  It has not been cleared by, nor shared with, anyone in the Pentagon, the White House, or Congress.”

Is not the commander in chief in Petraeus’ chain of command?

As Harry Truman (D-Missouri) would have said, “Does he think we were born yesterday?”
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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
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