There is no shame in telling the truth, particularly when, by doing so, you acknowledge your accountability and accept responsibility. Last week, General John Kelly, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, had the perfect opportunity to be the exemplar of truth, accountability, and responsibility. That he chose to turn away from that opportunity, degraded him in my eyes, and, I think, probably will haunt him for a long time.
It saddens me to say that about Kelly—his service to the country, his deeply personal loss of a son in combat in Afghanistan, and his leadership as a Marine cannot be disputed. Until last week, I held him in the highest regard. Now, I have my doubts, and am reminded, once again, that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I have yet to understand why such a man would have taken on the Stygian duties of White House Chief of Staff.
Here, right in front of the world press, was the perfect moment for General Kelly to stand up for the young soldiers who died in Niger under still-incompletely-understood circumstance, and talk about accountability and responsibility. His opening statement went right down that road, and it was brilliant and touching.
But then, Kelly, no doubt directed by the president, chose to take on Frederica Wilson (D-FL), a Member of Congress who had, as it turned out, not committed any heinous act against the truth, but who had, as a 2015 video clearly proves, honored fallen FBI heroes and taken credit only for her successful actions to enshrine their names on a federal building. Kelly inaccurately described Wilson’s actions as an “empty drum” making noise for her efforts to fund the FBI building in question, a process in which she played no part, and took no credit. The fact checking started immediately, and the results were not good for Kelly.
Allow me to digress for a moment, and recount another man’s actions in the wake of a terrible loss of America’s warfighters during the Cold War. I wrote about this in my HuffPost column of December 14, 2016, when I expressed my worry that Trump’s hubris would do harm to the men and women of the CIA. Bear with me for a brief reprise.
I grew up with a man who, in a clandestine role I learned of only many years after the fact, commanded other men to take on the thankless jobs of spying on our enemies. Seventeen of those men were murdered by the Russians—at that time the Soviets—on September 2, 1958.
Here are the facts:
“On September 2, 1958, a Lockheed C-130A-II-LM (s/n 56-0528), from the 7406th Support Squadron, departed Incirlik Airbase in Turkey on a reconnaissance mission along the Turkish-Armenian border. It was to fly a course parallel to the Soviet frontier, but not approach the border closer than 100 miles.
The crew reported passing over Trabzon in Turkey at 25,500 feet and then acknowledged a weather report from Trabzon, but that was the last communication received from the flight. It was later intercepted and shot down by four Soviet MiG-17s 34 miles north-west of Yerevan.
The six flight-crew were confirmed dead when their remains were repatriated to the United States, but the 11 intelligence-gathering personnel on board have never been acknowledged by Soviet / Russian authorities.”
Listen to the recording of the attack and follow along with a portion of the transcript of the conversations among the Soviet pilots:
“I am attacking the target!”
“The target is burning.”
“There’s a hit!”
“The target is burning.”
“Yes, yes, I [am attacking]”
“The target is burning.”
“The tail assembly is falling off the target.”
“Look at him, he will not get away, he is already falling.”
“All the aircrew are on board, aren’t they?” [17 Americans]
“Yes, he is falling. I will finish him off. I will finish him on the run.”
“The target has lost control, it is going down.”
“Aha, you see it. It is falling.”
“Yes, form up, leave for the base.”
Those 17 men—pilots, aircrew, and the eleven intelligence personnel, were my father’s men, his officers, his NCOs, and his enlisted personnel. My dad, Colonel Clifford James Moore, Jr., commander of the 7499th Support Group, under the auspices of which the C-130 operated, was accountable for their lives, even if he wasn’t flying the plane. He was called to Washington within days of the incident.
He stood in front of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and when asked who was responsible, my father said, “I am.”
My father was a West Pointer (January ’43), and the Academy’s motto “Duty, Honor, Country,” meant everything to him, as did the motto of the 7499th Support Group: “Veritatem Suppeditare” (“To Supply the Truth”). When my father said, “I am,” he was taking on the full burden of his command, and the full horror of what had happened to his men. In later years he told me he was never in doubt about his response. He would tell me many times that we have only one opportunity to tell the truth the first time. If you can’t do that, he said, you will lose the trust of all those around you. Most of all, you will have to live with it inside yourself.
When General John Kelly stood before the White House press corps on Oct. 19, and erred badly and baldly about what Congresswoman Wilson had said about her role in naming an FBI building after two FBI agents who had given their lives in service to the country, he had an opportunity, within hours, to recant his account, apologize to the congresswoman, and accept the responsibility for his mistake.
He did none of those things. Rather, he allowed the president’s press secretary to compound his error with additional layers of circumlocutory untruths. And Kelly remained silent.
The truth died a bit more that day, in the arms of a good man gone wrong.