Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is one of the many administration officials benefiting from the "I do not recall" defense. On Wednesday, as Congress rushed to finish the summer session before the August break, the House Oversight Committee gathered to question Rumsfeld and three high-level generals about Corporal Patrick Tillman's death.
After more than three years and six separate investigations (the most recent of which concluded Tuesday) within the Army and the Department of Defense, the story that Tillman died as the result of valor against the enemy changed to a story that he was the victim of fratricide. Now, no one is quite sure about the circumstances surrounding Tillman's death. His mother, Mary Tillman, said in an interview with National Public Radio, "They could have told us the truth. And if they didn't want to tell us the truth, they could have said that we don't know, we're doing an investigation. But what they did is they made up a story."
In the latest investigation report released this week, that there's some evidence suggesting that Tillman's death in Afghanistan may not have even been accidental. Army medical examiners said the three bullet holes in his forehead appear to have been fired from an M-16 about 10 feet away. At that distance, it would be nearly impossible to mistake Tillman for anything other than a fellow officer. His fellow soldier, Spc. Bryan O'Neal, is reported to have testified that he heard Tillman say, "Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat fucking Tillman, damn it!" many times during the conflict.
O'Neal recently filed his report of what happened on the ground, but said in a later interview that he didn't recognize several passages upon re-reading it. Someone changed it after he filed the report, he said. Who made the changes, though, has yet to be determined.
And an even bigger question looms: if Pat Tillman's death wasn't in fact accidental, why would anyone want him dead? A San Francisco Chronicle investigation found that "Interviews ... show a side of Pat Tillman not widely known -- a fiercely independent thinker who enlisted, fought, and died in service to his country, yet was critical of President Bush and opposed the war in Iraq, where he served a tour of duty." Josh Swiller, in an article for the Huffington Post, wrote that "Tillman was, contrary to the Republican portrayal of him as a reflexive patriot, deeply troubled by the war." Swiller and others suspect that Tillman's not-quite pro-war stance is what lead to his death.
Retired Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., former commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command who now sits on the advisory board for defense contractor ICx Technologies, has borne the brunt of official blame in the Tillman case. An Army board recommended Tuesday that he lose a star for making false statements about the case. Kensinger was subpoenaed to appear before the House Oversight Committee yesterday, along with the other generals, but he could not be located for the subpoena to be delivered.
The official timeline of who knew what and when is fuzzy. Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said Army Major General Stanley McChrystal sent something called a P4 (personal for -- something like "for your eyes only") memo to three generals: former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Richard Myers (retired), former Commander of the U.S. Central Command General John P. Abizaid (also retired), and the absent Kensinger. The memo notified the generals that there was a possibility that Tillman's death was not the result of enemy fire, but rather fratricide, an incident of friendly fire.
Abizaid said that due to an intra-office mix-up, he received the memo about a week after it was sent, and that he "assumed" that by that time the others had notified the proper people, including the family, of these new developments. Myers said it would "logically" be his place to notify Rumsfeld, but claimed he "does not recall" if, when, or how he told Rumsfeld about the investigation.
Rumsfeld himself couldn't say whether he was informed of Tillman's death or the investigation from someone at the Defense Department or if he learned of it from the press. The implications of this are devastating. If, in fact, Rumsfeld (the highest-ranking civilian next to the president) is saying that he learned of these events from the media rather from internal government communications, he (or his staff) is either tremendously incompetent -- or he's lying through his teeth.
Rumsfeld was fairly invested in Tillman as a soldier. When he heard that he had enlisted in the Army Rangers, Rumsfeld sent a letter to Tillman himself that said, "I heard you were leaving the National Football League to become an Army Ranger. It is a proud and patriotic thing you are doing." He also sent a memo to Army Secretary Tom White that said, "Here is an article [from the Chicago Tribune] on a fellow who is apparently joining the Rangers. He sound [sic] like he is world-class. We might want to keep our eye on him."
Waxman said that at the minimum, everyone that testified at least knew that there were doubts surrounding the "enemy fire" portion of Tillman's death. They also knew that there was an investigation underway prior to the memorial service on May 3, 2006, where Tillman was awarded the Silver Star for his valor under "enemy fire." The award process was rushed in order to present the Silver Star in time for the service.
An Army regulation adopted in 2003 says that if there is an investigation into the death of a soldier, the family should be notified as soon as possible, in no more than 30 days. Some of the generals that testified pointed out that the Marines have the opposite policy (none of the generals served in the Marines): families of Marine casualties are not informed of an investigation until it is complete. The generals all agreed that the Army had a better policy and suggested making it uniform across all of the armed forces branches. Tillman's family did not find out he was killed by friendly fire until five weeks after his death.
Rumsfeld defended himself by referring to his own Principles of Information, adopted in September 2000, which say, "Information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the Government from criticism or embarrassment." Because of this policy, he said, he would never engage in a conspiracy to hide details of Tillman's death. He instead stuffested gross incompetence on the part of lower-level officials was to blame.
There is a great deal of conflicting information surrounding Tillman's death. First the military said the shots were enemy fire, and then changed the story to say his death was fratricide. First the vehicle was moving, and then medical reports indicated the shots came from a still weapon at close range. First the generals said they did not receive the information, and now they can they cannot recall if and when they got the memo. The truth is we may never know exactly what happened on April 22, 2004, the day that Tillman died.
Despite all this, Tillman's family, in a way, is lucky. He's a former football star and darling of the press, so the American people care about the details surrounding his death. There are thousands of troops who are not so advantaged, and if one of those soldiers died under questionable circumstances, the likelihood of a major public inquiry is nonexistent. Hopefully Patrick Tillman's death -- and the subsequent investigation -- will teach Congress and the American people to hold the armed forces accountable when there is conflicting information about the details of war.