THE collective amnesia of top White House and Pentagon leaders as to the true cause of Army Ranger Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan is beyond contemptible. It suggests a continuing high-level cover-up and the purposeful manipulation of a notable military casualty to counter an onslaught of damaging reports from Iraq.
Frustrated congressional investigators examining the aftermath of Mr. Tillman's death at the hands of members of his own unit found "near universal lack of recall" on the part of senior military and administration officials about when they learned the former football star was killed by friendly rather than enemy fire on April 22, 2004.
The question of who knew what and when is key to determining why the military and the White House waited so long before disclosing how Mr. Tillman actually died in a treacherous Afghanistan ravine.
Investigators did find that there was intense interest in the Tillman story by the White House and Army brass, who wasted little time in trumpeting his loss on the battlefield as a laudable sacrifice for his country.
The White House sent or received 200 e-mails about him the day after his death. And it wasn't long before a poignant tale of selfless patriotism began to inundate the media about this heroic former professional football star, who left a lucrative career with the Arizona Cardinals to fight and die for his country. President Bush worked the account into a speech he gave at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner a week later.
But two days before Mr. Bush made his remarks, the investigators found, officers had informed their superiors that friendly fire was the likely cause of Mr. Tillman's death and warned that the President and others should be careful in commenting.
Nevertheless, the administration continued to mislead the public and the Tillman family even after he was awarded the Silver Star posthumously at a nationally televised memorial service on May 3.
An internal memo from the Army Chief of Staff's office noted that the Tillman story was "extremely positive in all media" and had generated the most favorable interest in the Army in more than a year.
Too bad it was all a lie.
It took more than a month for the facts to come out, that Pat Tillman was shot by a group of U.S. soldiers who did not identify their target, despite his yells and a smoke signal to show that he was on their side.
Conveniently, none of the White House and Pentagon leaders questioned could recall when they learned the truth about the incident or what they did in response.
This unforgiveable incident is one more reason why, when historians write the story of United States military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan in this era, profiles in leadership courage will be in shamefully short supply.