IN THIS WHITE HOUSE, YOU WATCH YOUR BACK

In the game of dodgeball, you try to avoid being hit from the front. But you don’t expect to be hit from behind.

The longer we live with the Bush administration, the bigger the pile of bodies on the sidelines, stunned by the hit from its own team.

In the last few weeks, we saw Pat Tillman, once a poster boy for the war on terror, laid low as a victim of both friendly fire and unfriendly deceit. His own brother assailed the Bush administration’s military as liars and the story about Tillman’s death as “fiction.” Once a member of the team – now used and spit out.

Jessica Lynch, the soldier once manipulated by politicians as a glory girl, seethed at a hearing that the tale about “little girl Rambo” was not true and never true. Too late now.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales twisted in the wind at hearings, no doubt wondering why some of his bosses weren’t getting similarly grilled. Meanwhile, eight U.S. attorneys appointed by the president – and then suddenly ousted – were saying, “Wha’ happened?”

Never mind. Off to the sidelines.

And tonight, on “60 Minutes,” George Tenet, the former director of the CIA, is scheduled to claim that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others were hell-bent on a war with Iraq, with or without weapons of mass destruction or ties to Al Qaeda. But afterward, they planted media stories suggesting it was the CIA – and Tenet specifically – who provided erroneous intelligence.

Ouch! The ball smacks him in the back.

The list of troublemakers?

“Rather than acknowledge responsibility, the administration’s message was: Don’t blame us. George Tenet and the CIA got us into the mess.” Tenet writes this in his upcoming memoir, according to the New York Times.

Now it would be easy to dismiss Tenet as another disgruntled ex-public servant, were it not for 1) we’re talking about the former head of the CIA here! and 2) the list is so darn long.

How many military, bureaucratic or adviser types have now done books, op-ed pieces or TV programs saying the administration – for which they once worked – has not been honest with America?

There was Colin Powell, marginalized when he was secretary of state, later admitting the buildup to Iraq was hyped and disagreeing with the treatment of “enemy combatants.” By that point, he was out of the club.

The former treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, said the Bush team planned to invade Iraq even before Sept. 11. He was pooh-poohed. The former counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke, was hugely critical of the president’s policies. He was cast as disgruntled.

Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame – who, remember, worked for this administration – were outed, ousted and besmirched. Certain military personnel in the Abu Ghraib scandal claimed they were thrown under the bus to protect higher-ups. Who listened?

What about Michael Brown, the former head of FEMA, who once received the “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” back pat from Bush? He later pointed fingers at the administration, saying he was set up as the fall guy for Hurricane Katrina.

How many more people must say they were misled, lied to, used as a shield and discarded before people accept that this is not just a pattern with this administration, it’s a plague?

The voices from inside

Now before you dismiss this as Bush-bashing, remember this: He’s my president, too. I don’t care which party he comes from, I care if he does a good job. I care that since he has been in office, I’ve seen an incredible list of people leave the building grumbling, many telling horrible and disturbing stories. And they know something you and I don’t.

They know what it’s like inside.

So you can dismiss Tenet as a whiner – even paint him a traitor – as people have done to Brown, Wilson, Powell, the Tillmans and others. But how long can this traitor line grow?

Being loyal to a party is one thing. But last I looked, being Republican or conservative didn’t mean you supported lying or scapegoating.

So consider the growing list. A head of the CIA. A head of FEMA. A secretary of state. A treasury secretary. Generals. Soldiers.

It makes you wonder how often this administration can throw the same ball at so many people before it finally bounces back on it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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