Latest Congressional hearing only adds to Tillman family frustration

Updated: August 2, 2007, 3:12 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mary Tillman bore signs of frustration on her now-familiar face Wednesday. Her eyes were bleary and tired, as if she had trekked across the country (which she had, from San Jose, Calif.) or spent endless hours cramming for a test (also true). She sat, shoe-horned into a back-row seat of a Congressional hearing room, joined by her son Pat's widow, Marie, and his younger brother and best friend, Kevin. A row closer to the action sat her ex-husband, Pat Tillman Sr., in a dark suit and a red-and-black checked tie, looking no less weary.

The Tillman family's faces weren't happy, and you wouldn't expect them to be. Not at the start, when they solemnly entered the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing. And certainly not nearly four hours later, when they made a hasty retreat from the room.

This was terribly serious stuff. For more than three years now, the Tillman family -- Mary, most vocally -- has contended that the Bush administration and military officers covered up the cause of death of Pat Tillman, a former NFL Arizona Cardinals safety. The Tillmans suspect the government was trying to avoid more bad publicity in 2004, when the war effort was being bruised by reports about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. The Tillmans believe the truth about Pat's death was fudged to further enhance his war-hero persona and perhaps to foster the war effort.

The Army's version of Tillman's death on April 22, 2004, in southeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border had him dying valiantly at the hands of the enemy. That version was told on May 3 at a nationally televised memorial in Tillman's hometown of San Jose, and it was re-told in the wording of the Silver Star posthumously awarded to him. It never suggested friendly fire, that Tillman had been mistakenly killed by members of his own unit.

The Army didn't tell the family the truth until May 28 -- five weeks later -- even though Army regulations require that families be notified immediately when fratricide is suspected. Dozens of soldiers on the ground knew within hours or days that friendly fire was suspected. And at Wednesday's hearing in Washington, it came out that at least nine Pentagon officials, including three generals, knew or had been informed of the suspected fratricide within 72 hours of Tillman's death.

So the Tillman family came across the country, at their own expense, with hopes of seeing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other former top Pentagon brass finally challenged to answer the tough questions and follow-ups.

I think Rumsfeld came across fairly well, actually. He was very evasive. But the questions were so poorly posed in some cases that I would expect his answers to be rather evasive. I still believe Rumsfeld knew more than he is saying, but in this particular hearing, he conducted himself well. But I don't believe him.
Mary Tillman, Pat Tillman's mother
Instead, they sat powerless at the back of the room, unable to enter the fray, as one by one the officials denied any cover-up and rejected personal responsibility. The Tillman family's frustration built -- Kevin leaned farther and farther back against the wood-paneled wall, a yellow legal pad on his lap -- with each passing refrain of "I can't remember."

Yet, the witnesses weren't the only participants who frustrated Mary Tillman. At times, the questioners themselves didn't measure up to her hopes, either.

"I think Rumsfeld came across fairly well, actually," she said later, away from the hearing room. "He was very evasive. But the questions were so poorly posed in some cases that I would expect his answers to be rather evasive. I still believe Rumsfeld knew more than he is saying, but in this particular hearing, he conducted himself well. But I don't believe him."

In his first Capitol Hill appearance since stepping down late last year, Rumsfeld told the committee he couldn't recall when he learned of Tillman's death by friendly fire. Nor could he remember who told him about it. As best he could tell, he said, it was sometime after May 20, 2004. He drew that conclusion because an Army officer told Rumsfeld's staff that it had come up in a meeting they both attended, and the officer didn't return to Washington until May 20.

Rumsfeld apologized to the Tillman family, as did the Army officers on the witness panel. Rumsfeld later was asked about a comment Mrs. Tillman made at an earlier hearing in April of this year, when she said that based on wide characterizations of Rumsfeld as a micro-manager, she found it hard to believe he didn't have earlier knowledge of her son's death by friendly fire.

"First, I read the testimony of your previous hearing," Rumsfeld said. "I agree, it was a heart-wrenching hearing. And the words that you have cited from his mother obviously were the words of a grieving mother. As I recall the testimony, she did go on to say that she has no facts, no paper, no information to confirm her belief. Which I thought was gracious of her because I know of no facts. And I know of no one else that has any facts or paper to confirm it.

"I don't know how many investigations [there have been]. Some people have said five, some six, some seven. But every single one of them has suggested it was badly handled and errors were made. But in no instance has any evidence of a cover-up been presented or put forward. I know of nothing to suggest that. I know that I would not engage in a cover-up. I know that no one in the White House suggested such a thing. I know that the gentlemen sitting next to me are men of enormous integrity and would not participate in something like that."

But early in Tillman's career as an enlisted soldier, Rumsfeld at least had him on his radar. The committee made public Wednesday copies of correspondence from 2002 depicting Rumsfeld's special interest in the former football star. The first, dated June 28, 2002, was a brief letter congratulating Tillman on his decision to leave the NFL and become an Army Ranger. Another, three days later, was to someone in the Defense Department, advising that Tillman sounded "like he is world-class. We might want to keep our eye on him."

That resonated with the family Wednesday, as it has for some time.

"Here he writes and talks about, 'We got to keep an eye this guy.' Well, what does that mean?" Mary Tillman wondered. "If he does think he is so important and what he did was so valuable, why doesn't he ask one person, 'Well, what happened out there? How did this happen? This is pretty awful -- one of the most high-profile soldiers gets killed by our own guys. What ... are you doing out there that this is happening?' "

Those kinds of questions rarely were asked Wednesday on Capitol Hill. At times, the approach and tone from the members of the committee split down party lines. Committee members periodically left their seats to tend to other business. Or, allotted only five minutes for their questions, they used much of their time rambling before getting to a point. On occasion, it was clear they hadn't done their homework, as they bungled key names or misconstrued facts. Often, they seemed ill-equipped to follow up on sketchy witness statements.

Gen. John Abizaid, former head of the U.S. Central Command overseeing the Middle East and Central Asia, told the committee that the possibility of friendly fire initially didn't register with him, in part, because it wasn't raised by Tillman's platoon leader, Lt. David Uthlaut, when he visited the lietenant April 28, 2004, in Afghanistan -- six days after the incident. Uthlaut, who also was shot by his own men, told ESPN.com last year that he'd been airlifted almost immediately from the scene and that it was a considerable amount of time later that he learned of the friendly fire.

Abizaid took the hardest hits Wednesday. Among the documents presented at the hearing was an April 29, 2004, high-priority "P4" [Personal For] cable addressed to Abizaid from the military's special operations chief, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, suggesting that Abizaid contact "POTUS'' [the President of the United States] and the Secretary of the Army "in order to preclude any embarrassing public statements" from them in light of the possibility of fratricide.

Abizaid testified he didn't receive the memo until May 6 -- and never notified President Bush  because of an unspecified mix-up at headquarters.

Gen. Richard Myers, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was contacted about the memo by Abizaid, although he said Wednesday he already knew friendly fire was suspected. Another recipient of the memo, Lt. Gen. Phillip Kensinger, was a no-show Wednesday after he couldn't be found to be served a subpoena to appear.

The family on the back row wasn't amused by all of the memo business or anything else they heard Wednesday.

"The whole experience here today was frustrating," Mary Tillman said. "But just the mere fact that P4 message says 'if this should become public' -- to me, that implies they're covering it up. They already know it is a fratricide. So they should be saying, 'When this becomes public,' at least. Not 'if.' "

Perhaps fortunately for Rumsfeld and the others, Pat Tillman's mother wasn't the one asking the questions inside the crowded hearing room.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.