Tillman Investigation Hampered by 'Near Universal Lack of Recall'

Investigators sought to find out who at the WH knew it was friendly fire.

January 8, 2009, 1:10 AM

July 14, 2008— -- White House officials interviewed as part of an investigation into the misleading information given to the public and the Tillman family in the weeks after the death of Corporal Pat Tillman have said they do not recall when they first learned that Tillman was killed as a result of friendly fire, according to a proposed report released today by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The committee set out to determine when top officials at the White House and Defense Department learned that Tillman had been killed in a friendly fire incident. Tillman, a former NFL star and perhaps the most famous soldier to die in Afghanistan, was killed on April 22, 2004. His death was widely covered by the media and Tillman was posthumously awarded a Silver Star just days after his death.

It was not until over a month later, on May 29, 2004, that the public and Tillman's family were officially informed that his death was very likely due to friendly fire.

The committee says that in their quest to find out when officials first knew about the possibility that Tillman's death was not due to enemy fire, they were "frustrated by a near universal lack of recall," according to the report.

The committee interviewed several senior White House officials including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, communications director Dan Bartlett, former Press Secretary Scott McClellan, and chief speech writer Michael Gerson.

"Not a single one could recall when he learned about the fratricide or what he did in response," says the report.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers told the committee that he learned by the end of April that Tillman's death was possibly due to friendly fire, but that he could not remember whether or not he passed that information to Rumsfeld.

Members of Tillman's platoon, however, knew "almost immediately" that Tillman had been killed accidentally by fellow Rangers, according to the report. Within days of his death, Colonel Craig Nixon, a top officer in Tillman's battalion, passed on that information to the commander of the joint task force in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChyrstal, who in turn sent a message to top generals, including General John Abizaid, commander of CENTCOM.

McChrystal wrote that "it is anticipated that a 15-6 investigation nearing completion will find that it is highly possible that Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire," the report quoted. McChrystal also noted that officials, including the President, might be commenting on Tillman's death "not knowing the specifics surrounding his death."

"I felt that it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country's leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman's death become public," McChrystal wrote on April 29th, 2004.

A deputy commander of SOCOM told the committee that as soon as McChrystal's message was received, Tillman's family should have been notified.

Yet on the same day that McChrystal sent his memo warning that officials may be making erroneous statements, Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star medal for "gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States".

Two days after the memo was sent, on May 1st, 2004, President Bush mentioned Tillman in his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner. While no White House official could confirm to the committee whether or not McChrystal's message has reached the White House, the President did not discuss how Tillman died in his speech.

The committee also examined the circumstances surrounding the misinformation that was released following the capture and rescue of Private Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003. Sensational media reports attributed to military officials erroneously said that Private Lynch had engaged insurgents before her capture, firing until she ran out of ammunition. But as in the Tillman investigation, the committee said that it was hampered due to a "pervasive lack of recollection" about how that misleading information got released.

The full House committee will meet later this week to approve the report.

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