WASHINGTON – Retirement has been hard on Donald Rumsfeld.
The former secretary of defense, famous for his attention to detail, returned to testify Wednesday about the friendly-fire death of football star Pat Tillman and an alleged coverup. But Rumsfeld displayed an alarming decline in his mental faculties and couldn’t remember a thing about the incident.
“How and when did you learn that Corporal Tillman had been killed?” asked Tom Davis of Virginia, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“I don’t recall precisely,” Rumsfeld replied.
“Do you remember when you learned that this was a possible fratricide?”
“Well, I don’t remember,” Rumsfeld answered. “What I have been told subsequently is that there was a person in the room when I was who says I was told.”
“Did you decide you needed to tell somebody else about this?”
Rumsfeld raised his palms in a shrug. “I don’t recall when I was told, and I don’t recall who told me.”
No fewer than 82 times during the three-hour hearing, Rumsfeld and his former military colleagues were heard to utter “I can’t recall,” “I don’t remember,” “I don’t know” or a variation of these. So forgetful was Rumsfeld that he repeatedly neglected to turn on his microphone before speaking.
Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, handled the questions about Tillman much as they did the questions about the Iraq war: no mistakes, no regrets and no blame for what went wrong.
Rumsfeld, tanned and fit, slouched in his chair as he endured the proceedings. He glanced several times at a clock on the wall and was overheard saying he had a lunch at the Mayflower. He made no overt effort to speak with Tillman’s family, who sat a few rows behind him; as the room cleared at the end, Rumsfeld came within three feet of the late soldier’s father but said only, “Can we slip by?”
The forcibly retired secretary treated lawmakers to his legendary disdain. He cut off a question by John Tierney, D-Mass., with a sharp “Just a second, please” and treated John Yarmuth, D-Ky., to a trademark, “Oh, goodness.” Rummy complained about one of the committee’s charts (“I couldn’t read any of it”) and chopped the air as he told Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, “You have not a scrap of evidence” to prove a cover-up.
Actually, the committee found that an eyewitness account of fratricide was altered, but Myers joined his old boss in concluding otherwise. “I would agree totally with Secretary Rumsfeld,” he said.
The pair dropped excuses like cluster bombs. Rumsfeld pointed out that “it’s not possible for someone to know all the things that are going on” in the Pentagon. Myers asserted that “this is the responsibility of the United States Army, not the office of the chairman.”
A few of the Republican lawmakers helped with the defense of Rumsfeld. John Mica of Florida called Rumsfeld a “hero” – prompting Tillman’s brother, Kevin, to crack his neck and look at the ceiling – and likened Tillman’s death to the traffic accident involving New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine.
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