Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld deny cover-up in Tillman case

Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007, before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to discuss the death of former football star and soldier Pat Tillman. Dennis Cook, The Associated Press


Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007, before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to discuss the death of former football star and soldier Pat Tillman. Dennis Cook, The Associated Press

By Erica Werner

WASHINGTON – Ex-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other former Pentagon brass denied a cover-up and rejected personal blame Wednesday in the public deceptions that followed Army Ranger Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death in Afghanistan in 2004.

During four hours of questioning by a House committee, Rumsfeld and former generals expressed regret at the Pentagon’s five-week delay in telling the truth about how Tillman died. He was cut down by bullets fired by his fellow soldiers, not in a firefight with the enemy as the military initially claimed.

Yet none of the witnesses, among the very highest-ranking military officers at the time, said they could or should have done anything differently to prevent the mistakes that kept the truth from Tillman’s family and the public.

Several of the officials could barely recall how they themselves came to learn the circumstances of Tillman’s death, which attracted worldwide attention because he had walked away from a huge contract with the National Football League’s Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I don’t recall when I was told and I don’t recall who told me,” said Rumsfeld, who was making his first public appearance on Capitol Hill since President Bush replaced him with Robert Gates late last year. He was greeted by protesters denouncing him as a “war criminal,” but he ignored them.

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    “I know that I would not engage in a cover-up. I know that no one in the White House suggested such a thing to me. I know that the gentlemen sitting next to me are men of enormous integrity and would not participate in something like that,” Rumsfeld said, adding he didn’t recall discussing the Tillman matter with the White House until the fratricide became public knowledge.

    Retired Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he learned of the likelihood of friendly fire toward the end of April 2004 – not long after Tillman’s death on April 22 – but that it wasn’t his responsibility to inform the White House or the Tillman family. Doing so would have been a breach of protocol, said Myers. He blamed the Army.

    “This is the responsibility of the United States Army, not of the office of the chairman, so I regret that the Army did not do their duty here and follow their own policy,” said Myers, a retired Air Force general.

    “I think it would have been absolutely irresponsible of me to interfere with Army procedures, frankly,” he said.

    It wasn’t until May 29, 2004, that the Pentagon disclosed the conclusion that Tillman’s death was by friendly fire. Officials have called it a well-meaning but misguided plan of waiting until the end of their investigation to release the results.

    Tillman’s mother, Mary Tillman, his brother Kevin and other family members watched silently from the back row of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing room. They’ve long maintained that Rumsfeld and others must have known more, sooner than they’ve acknowledged, and have alleged a cover-up leading to the White House.

    Mary Tillman occasionally shook her head at Rumsfeld’s testimony, but after the hearing the family left without commenting.

    At the White House, presidential spokesman Tony Snow said the Bush administration stands by Rumsfeld’s statement that there was no cover-up.

    “I’m certainly not going to contradict Secretary Rumsfeld,” Snow said.

    “It is deeply regrettable that this sort of thing happened, and you try to make sure that it doesn’t happen at anytime,” he added.

    Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., aired his frustration at the repeated denials of responsibility from Rumsfeld, Myers, retired Gen. John P. Abizaid, the former commander of the U.S. Central Command, and retired Gen. Bryan Douglas Brown, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

    “You’ve all admitted that the system failed. The public should have known, the family should have known earlier,” Waxman said as the hearing ended. “None of you feel you personally were responsible, but the system itself didn’t work.”

    “‘The system didn’t work, errors were made’ – that’s too passive. Somebody should be responsible,” Waxman said.

    After the hearing the activists who’d confronted Rumsfeld on the way in renewed their chants, shouting, “Donald Rumsfeld, you’re a war criminal!” Again, Rumsfeld didn’t acknowledge them.

    Rumsfeld was mostly measured in his testimony. On occasion there were flashes of the cocky, combative Rumsfeld known to the public from Pentagon briefings.

    Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, demanded to know whether there was a White House and Defense Department strategy to manage press portrayals of the war and other events.

    “Well, if there was, it wasn’t very good,” Rumsfeld remarked.

    “Well, you know, maybe it was very good,” Kucinich objected loudly. “Because you actually covered up the Tillman case for a while, you covered up the Jessica Lynch case, you covered up Abu Ghraib, so something was working for you. Was there a strategy to do it, Mr. Rumsfeld?”

    “Congressman, the implication that ‘you covered up’ – that’s just false, you have nothing to base that on, you have not a scrap of evidence or a piece of paper or a witness that would attest to that,” Rumsfeld replied hotly. “I have not been involved in any cover-up whatsoever.”

    Abizaid came closest to taking partial responsibility, blaming unspecified problems at his Tampa, Fla., office for the fact that an April 29, 2004, memo by Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal warning of the possibility of friendly fire in Tillman’s death did not reach him for 10 to 20 days.

    “From that a lot of other bad things may have flowed,” Abizaid said.

    “It’s very difficult to come to grips with how we screwed this thing up, but we screwed this thing up,” Abizaid said.

    McChrystal’s memo made clear that his warning should be conveyed to the president, but President Bush made no reference to the reality of how Tillman died in a speech delivered two days after the memo was written. None of the witnesses who testified Wednesday was in a position to stop that from happening, they said.

    The congressional inquiry came a day after the Army, in the seventh investigation of the Tillman affair, laid most of the blame for the response to Tillman’s death on Philip Kensinger, a retired three-star general who led Army special operations forces after the Sept. 11 attacks.

    The Army censured Kensinger for “a failure of leadership” and accused him of lying to investigators and failing to properly notify the Tillman family. A review panel of four-star generals will decide whether Kensinger should have his rank reduced.

    Waxman’s committee issued a subpoena for Kensinger’s testimony, but Kensinger wasn’t home when U.S. marshals tried three times to serve it, and his attorney wouldn’t accept it, said committee spokeswoman Karen Lightfoot. Kensinger’s attorney, Charles W. Gittins, told The Associated Press that Kensinger was on business travel and had declined to “participate in a hearing that is all about show and no substance.”