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 spoke before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.
It had dawned on me that when House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton
(D-Mo.) 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 be enough to get me thrown
out of the hearing.
I had experienced a flashback to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in early
2006, when Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) 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 10-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 Republican representatives 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-Calif.) began what amounted to a SWAT-team
attack on the credibility of those who dared 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 any potential doubters, insisting that Petraeus' "capability,
integrity, intelligence … are without question." And Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
(R-Fla.), 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.
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-Mich.) on
June 16, 2005. Should generals be immune? Or did Petraeus' masters wish to give
him a little more assurance that he could play fast and loose with the truth
without the consequences encountered by Scooter 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 thanks
the committees for the opportunity to "discuss the recommendations I recently
provided to my chain of command for the way forward." Then he stretches
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-Mo.) would have said, "Does he think we were born yesterday?"