There was no "coverup"

Rumsfeld and the generals defend themselves over the misreported friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman.

Published August 1, 2007 5:24PM (EDT)

It has been more than three years since former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed while serving in Afghanistan. At first, the Army said he'd died on April 22, 2004, during a firefight with the Taliban. But by the end of May, Tillman's family and the public learned the truth: Tillman had been killed by U.S. soldiers.

This morning, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing called "The Tillman Fratricide: What Defense Department Officials Knew." Retired Gens. John P. Abizaid, Bryan D. Brown and Richard B. Myers were on the panel, but the star of the event was former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who apparently rearranged his schedule at the last minute in order to appear.

The hearing came on the heels of the seventh investigation into Tillman's death, and focused on when the men first learned that the Army was investigating Tillman's death as a possible fratricide and why they did not alert the family, the White House or the media of this possibility. At issue was a so-called P4 letter sent seven days after Tillman's death by Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. In the letter, McChrystal informed Gen. Brown and Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger that he was concerned that President Bush might speak of Tillman's "heroic" death in upcoming speeches. He was concerned, he wrote, because the Army suspected that Tillman had not died as reported but, rather, had been killed by friendly fire.

The letter concluded: "I felt it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order to preclude any unknowing statements by the country's leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman's death become public."

Despite this letter, it was a full month before Tillman's family was informed of the correct circumstances of his death, even though the generals admitted that it was Army policy to inform the family if a death was under investigation.

All four men expressed regret over the handling of Tillman's death notification, but each insisted that there was no intentional coverup.

"I know I would not engage in a coverup," said Rumsfeld. "I know no one in the White House suggested that to me."

Gen. Abizaid echoed his sentiment, saying, "I think people tried to do the right thing, and the right thing didn't happen."

Notably absent at the hearing was Lt. Gen. Kensinger. Kensinger was subpoenaed to appear, but committee chairman Henry Waxman said that U.S. marshals were unable to find him to serve the subpoena on him. Yesterday, it was reported that Kensinger would be censured and possibly stripped of his third star for his role in the Tillman case.

There was quite a bit of rancor at the hearing, with women from Code Pink shouting "war criminal" and "tell the truth" as Rumsfeld entered and emitting heckles and snorts when the former secretary gave what they considered unsatisfactory answers. Members of the Tillman family, in contrast, sat quietly in their reserved seats along the back row.

By Julia Dahl

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