House calls out government in Tillman friendly fire death

Updated: July 14, 2008, 8:02 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

After a 16-month investigation into the friendly fire death of former NFL player Pat Tillman, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a report Monday that is critical of what it termed a "near universal lack of recall" by top White House and Defense Department officials about events surrounding the fratricide.

The 49-page report made the case that top Bush administration officials, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had effectively stonewalled the investigation. But it failed to issue any recommendations and effectively washed its hands of the issue. The full committee is expected to review and vote on the report Thursday, with the possibility that committee Republicans could offer a minority view.

"It disappoints me that there is no recommendation and they are not trying to take this further," Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, told ESPN.com. "What's particularly troubling is these top officials all have convenient amnesia. That is absurd. Everybody in the White House can't remember?"

The Tillman family has long believed that Tillman's celebrity was used to prop up the war effort and was a factor in the five-week delay between his death and the Army's acknowledgement that he had been killed by his own men. Immediately after Tillman died on April 22, 2004, the family was told he'd been killed at the hands of the enemy in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.

According to a report produced by the Army Chief of Staff's Office of Public Affairs on April 25, 2004, news of Tillman's death had helped generate the most media interest in the U.S. Army "since the end of active combat last year." The report also noted that "The Ranger Tillman story had been extremely positive in all the media."

The Army didn't go public with news that Tillman had been killed by his own men until May 29, 2004, even though top Army officials knew that fratricide had been suspected almost immediately.

The House report depicts committee investigators as stymied at nearly every turn in their efforts to get answers from key White House and administration officials concerning who knew what about the fratricide. According to a person close to the investigation, "Nobody remembers anything. That is what we walked away with."

Investigators revealed in the report that White House officials sent out nearly 200 e-mails concerning Tillman on April 23, 2004 -- the day after his death. Several came from staff members of President George Bush's re-election campaign, urging the president to respond publicly to Tillman's death.

The White House made an immediate statement, despite a Department of Defense policy intended to provide a 24-hour period for private grieving before publicly discussing a casualty.

But in contrast to the earlier flurry of e-mail, not a single discussion of the fratricide was found by investigators in approximately 1,500 pages of e-mails between senior White House officials, as well as in other documents turned over by the White House.

"[T]he complete absence of any communications about his fratricide is hard to understand," the report noted. "Not a single written communication about the personal reactions or the substantive, political, and public relations implications of the new information was provided to the Committee."

Tillman was on the radar of Washington leaders soon after he left a lucrative deal with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army Rangers. Secretary Rumsfeld sent him a personal note commending him for his "proud and patriotic" decision after his enlistment in 2002. Rumsfeld also dispatched a memo to the Secretary of the Army, noting that Tillman "sound[s] like he is world-class" and saying, "We might want to keep our eye on him."

As for when he learned that the Army's prize soldier had been killed by his own men, Rumsfeld testified at the second of two committee hearings, "I don't recall when I was told and I don't recall who told me."

Investigators found that Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue a day after Tillman's death to alert him of the incident. But Myers told the committee he couldn't recall whether he informed Rumsfeld or the president about the possible fratricide.

The report said that investigators interviewed seven key White House officials about the response to Tillman's death, noting: "Universally, these officials said they could not recall when they learned about the fratricide or when the President learned."

"That is not believable to me that in every situation with regards to this administration and all of them, everybody has collective amnesia," Mary Tillman said. "There is something suspicious about that. It is ridiculous and very suspicious."

In that context, the report of the committee, chaired by Henry Waxman, D-Calif., isn't far out of step with the Tillman family, concluding: "If the testimony the Committee received is accurate and if the documents submitted are complete, then the intense interest that initially characterized the White House's and Defense Department's reaction to Corporal Tillman's death was followed by a stunning lack of curiosity about emerging reports of fratricide and an incomprehensible carelessness and incompetence in handling this sensitive information."

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