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Rumsfeld Says He Was Not Involved in Cover-Up of Tillman Death

August 1, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Army Ranger Pat Tillman died in April 2004 in Afghanistan. Initially, the Army said the former NFL star was killed by hostile fire. But five weeks later, after a widely publicized memorial service and the posthumous awarding to Tillman of the Silver Star for Bravery, it was revealed that Tillman’s fellow soldiers shot him to death during a chaotic nighttime firefight in the Afghan mountains.

Ultimately, there were six military investigations into Tillman’s death, raising questions as to whether the military deliberately withheld the truth. And at a congressional hearing in April, Tillman’s brother, Kevin, a fellow Army Ranger, blasted the initial misreporting about his brother and asked for further inquiry.

KEVIN TILLMAN, Brother of Pat Tillman: It’s a bit disingenuous to think that the administration did not know about what was going on, something so politically sensitive. So that’s kind of what we were hoping you guys could get involved with and take a look.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, the same House Government Reform and Oversight Committees called in the top military leaders at the time for answers.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D), California: We will be examining the actions of the senior leadership at the Department of Defense.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, testifying for the first time since resigning from the Pentagon last year, was joined by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers, General John Abizaid, the former combatant commander in Afghanistan and Iraq, and General Bryan Brown, who was head of Special Operations Command.

The committee tried unsuccessfully to subpoena Lieutenant General Philip Kensinger, who headed Army Special Operations Command and oversaw Tillman’s Ranger unit.

Yesterday, the Army formally reprimanded Kensinger for deceiving officials investigating the Tillman case. He could be demoted and may have his pension reduced.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman focused on a memo from Army General Stanley McChrystal sent a week after Tillman’s death in April 2004, advising Abizaid, Kensinger and Brown that Tillman may have been killed by his own troops.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: When did you receive this memo?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID (Ret.), U.S. Army: I believe that the earliest I received it was on the 6th of May. The existence of the message came to my attention, but it was known within my staff that something was out there, and we found it. I called the chairman; I told the chairman about it. And it was my impression from having talked to the chairman at the time that he knew about it.

REP. TOM DAVIS (R), Virginia: The tragic truth can only fall somewhere between screw-up and cover-up, between rampant incompetence and elaborate conspiracy.

Consulting with the president

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee's top Republican, Tom Davis of Virginia, asked Rumsfeld and Myers about their recollections.

REP. TOM DAVIS: How and when did you learn that Corporal Tillman had been killed?

DONALD RUMSFELD, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense: I don't recall precisely how I learned that he was killed. It could have been internally or it could have been through the press. It was something that obviously received a great deal of attention.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Were you aware that President Bush was going to reference Corporal Tillman in a correspondents' dinner speech on May 1st?

DONALD RUMSFELD: No.

REP. TOM DAVIS: So to your knowledge or recollection, you never had any conversations with the president or anybody at the White House about that possibility?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I have no recollection of discussing it with the White House until towards the -- when it became a matter of public record about the fratricide. At that point, and when the family was notified, I'm sure there were discussions with the White House. But prior to that, I don't have any recollection of it. Possibly Dick does. Dick Myers and I met with the White House frequently, but I don't recall bringing the subject up.

REP. TOM DAVIS: General Myers, do you recall?

RICHARD MYERS, Former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: And I don't recall either ever having a discussion with anybody in the White House about the Tillman case one way or another.

REP. TOM DAVIS: You were aware of the extensive media coverage being given to this event?

DONALD RUMSFELD: When he was killed, absolutely.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Did you instruct your staff at any point to try to influence in any way the coverage?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Absolutely not.

"No direct responsibility"

KWAME HOLMAN: All of the former military officials expressed regret the Tillman family was not told the truth earlier but said they had no direct responsibility for the series of actions that led to the Army's misreporting of the killing. Still, retired General Abizaid had this to say.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: It's very difficult to come to grips with how we screwed this thing up, but we screwed this thing up.

KWAME HOLMAN: Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings asked a blunt question.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), Maryland: I ask all of you, do you think there was a cover-up by DOD?

DONALD RUMSFELD: In no instance has any evidence of a cover-up, to use the phrase you used, been presented or put forward.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chairman Waxman continued the line of questioning.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Do any of you think there was a cover-up of the errors or actions below?

RICHARD MYERS: There was no, never any attempt to cover up anything. I don't have all the information...

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: General Abizaid, yes or no on this question, do you have any comments?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No, sir, I don't think there was a cover-up. I think people tried to do the right thing, and the right thing didn't happen.

RICHARD MYERS: I agree with General Abizaid. I don't think there was a cover-up.

Dealing with "other issues"

KWAME HOLMAN: Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays said the hearing should not have been called at all.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), Connecticut: I am hard-pressed to know how this is going to save one American life. I am hard-pressed to know how this is going to help us achieve the results that we need to achieve in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I think this was a huge screw-up, bordering on the lines of malfeasance, and I think we all agree with that. So I'm not belittling the issue. I am just simply saying this committee should be spending time dealing with some other issues that we clearly have to wrestle with.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tillman's mother, Mary, and his wife sat through the three-hour-plus proceeding and left without speaking to reporters.