WASHINGTON – Ex-Defense Secretary Donald 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.
Tillman’s death 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 know that I would not engage in a cover-up,” 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.
“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.
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, Myers said. He blamed the Army.
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.