Just seven days after Pat Tillman's death, a top general warned there were strong indications that the NFL star-turned-soldier did not die in an ambush in Afghanistan, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press. But it was not until a month afterward that the Pentagon told the public and grieving family members the truth — that Tillman was mistakenly killed in Afghanistan by his comrades.
The memo reinforces suspicions that the Pentagon was more concerned with sparing officials from embarrassment than with leveling with Tillman's family.
In a memo sent to a four-star general a week after Tillman's April 22, 2004, death, then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned that it was "highly possible" the Army Ranger was killed by friendly fire. McChrystal made it clear his warning should be conveyed to President Bush.
"I felt that it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country's leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Cpl. Tillman's death become public," McChrystal wrote on April 29, 2004, to Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command.
White House spokesman Blain Rethmeier said Friday that a review of records turned up no indication that the president had received McChrystal's warning. Bush made no reference to the way Tillman died in a speech delivered two days after the memo was written. But Rethmeier emphasized that the president often pays tribute to fallen soldiers without mentioning the exact circumstances of their deaths.
The family was not told until May 29, 2004, what really happened. In the intervening weeks, the military continued to say Tillman died under enemy fire, and even awarded him the Silver Star, which is given for heroic battlefield action.
The Tillman family has charged that the military and the Bush administration deliberately deceived his relatives and the nation to avoid turning public opinion against the war.
Tillman's mother, Mary, had no immediate comment Friday on the newly disclosed memo.
The memo was provided to the AP by a government official who requested anonymity because the document was not released as part of the Pentagon's official report into the way the Army brass withheld the truth. McChrystal was the highest-ranking officer accused of wrongdoing in the report, issued earlier this week.
In the memo, McChrystal expressed concern that Bush and acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee might give speeches in which they misstated the facts about Tillman's death.
A former spokesman for Abizaid did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages.
As for Brownlee, he told investigators he did not recall learning Tillman was killed by his fellow Rangers until several weeks after the fact. He did not discuss the matter with the White House, he told investigators.
A spokesman for McChrystal said he had no comment.
McChrystal was, and still is, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, head of "black ops" forces. He has since been promoted to lieutenant general. Abizaid was in charge of American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia.
In his memo, McChrystal said he had heard Bush and Brownlee "might include comments about Cpl. Tillman's heroism and his approved Silver Star medal in speeches currently being prepared, not knowing the specifics surrounding his death."
McChrystal said he expected an investigation under way "will find that it is highly possible Cpl. Tillman was killed by friendly fire."
At the same time, McChrystal said: "The potential that he might have been killed by friendly fire in no way detracts from his witnessed heroism or the recommended personal decoration for valor in the face of the enemy."
Investigation into possible cover-up
On Monday, the Pentagon released the findings of an investigation into the circumstances of Tillman's death, and into whether the military covered them up.
The investigators recommended that nine Army officers, including McChrystal, be held accountable for errors in reporting the friendly fire death to their superiors and to Tillman's family. McChrystal was found "accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions" contained in papers recommending Tillman get the Silver Star.
Some of the officers involved said they wanted to wait until the investigations were complete before informing the Tillman family.
The latest document obtained by the AP suggests that officials at least as high as Abizaid knew the truth weeks before the family.
Tillman was killed after his Army Ranger comrades were ambushed in eastern Afghanistan. Rangers in a convoy trailing Tillman's group had just emerged from a canyon where they had been fired upon. They saw Tillman and mistaken fired on him.
White House avoided reference to how he died
The White House has been careful not to wade into the circumstances of Tillman's death. The day after Tillman died, a spokesman said Tillman "was an inspiration on and off the football field," but made no reference to the specifics of the episode.
In a speech given two days after McChrystal's memo, Bush made no mention of how Tillman died.
"The loss of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman last week in Afghanistan brought home the sorrow that comes with every loss, and reminds us of the character of the men and women who serve on our behalf," Bush said at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.