An Army Ranger who was with former NFL star Pat Tillman when he died by friendly fire in Afghanistan testified Tuesday that he was told by a higher-up to conceal that information from Tillman’s family.
"I was ordered not to tell them," Army Spc. Bryan O’Neal told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which was also looking at how the military portrayed the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
He said he was given the order by then-Lt. Col. Jeff Bailey, the battalion commander who oversaw Tillman’s platoon.
Pat Tillman’s brother Kevin was in a convoy behind his brother when he was killed, but didn’t see it. O’Neal said Bailey told him specifically not to tell Kevin Tillman that the death was friendly fire rather than heroic engagement with the enemy.
"He basically just said, 'Do not let Kevin know, he’s probably in a bad place knowing that his brother’s dead,'" O’Neal said. He added that Bailey made clear he would "get in trouble" if he told.
Earlier, Kevin Tillman accused the military of "intentional falsehoods" and "deliberate and careful misrepresentations" in initially portraying his brother's death as the result of heroic engagement with the enemy instead of friendly fire.
"We believe this narrative was intended to deceive the family but more importantly the American public," Tillman testified.
"Revealing that Pat's death was a (friendly fire) fratricide would have been yet another political disaster in a month of political disasters ... so the truth needed to be suppressed," said Tillman.
"We have now concluded that our efforts are being actively thwarted by powers that are more interested in protecting a narrative than getting at the truth and seeing justice is served," he said.
Pat Tillman was killed on April 22, 2004, 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 mistakenly fired on him.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., questioned how high up the chain of command the information about Tillman’s friendly fire death went, and whether anyone in the White House knew before Tillman’s family.
Pat Tillman’s mother, Mary Tillman, said she believed then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld must have known. “The fact that he would have died by friendly fire and no one told Rumsfeld is ludicrous,” she said.
Though dozens of soldiers knew quickly that Tillman had been killed by his fellow troops, the Army said initially that he was killed by enemy gunfire when he led his team to help another group of ambushed soldiers. It was five weeks before his family was told the truth, a delay the Army has blamed on procedural mistakes.
Did Bush know?
Cummings cited a memo written by a top general seven days after Tillman’s death warning it was "highly possible" the Army Ranger was killed by friendly fire and making clear his warning should be conveyed to the president. President Bush made no reference to the way Tillman died in a speech delivered two days after the memo was written.
A White House spokesman has said there’s no indication Bush received the warning in the memo written April 29, 2004, by then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command.
"It’s a little disingenuous to think the administration didn’t know," Kevin Tillman told the committee. "That’s kind of what we hoped you guys would get involved with and take a look."
Mary Tillman said family members were "absolutely appalled" upon realizing the extent to which they were misled. "We’ve all been betrayed. ... We never thought they would use him the way they did."
The Tillman family has made similar accusations against the administration and the military before, but has generally shied away from news media attention. The family had never previously appeared together and summarized their criticism and questions in such a public, comprehensive way.
Last month the military concluded in a pair of reports that nine high-ranking Army officers, including four generals, made critical errors in reporting Tillman’s death but that there was no criminal wrongdoing in his shooting.
Democrat: Truth wasn't told
Committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., contended that the federal government invented "sensational details and stories" about the death of Pat Tillman and the rescue of Lynch in Iraq.
"The government violated its most basic responsibility," said Waxman.
"The bare minimum we owe our soldiers and their families is the truth," Waxman added in his opening statement. "That didn’t happen for the two most famous soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars."
The committee's senior Republican, Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, argued in his opening statement that the Lynch rescue was exaggerated by the media, not the military.
He did, however, question how Tillman's death was handled by the military, saying it was a "disservice" to have let "a myth outrun the facts" about his death.
Still hampered by her injuries, Lynch walked slowly to the witness table and took a seat alongside Tillman’s family members.
Lynch was badly injured when her convoy was ambushed in Iraq in 2003. She was subsequently rescued by American troops from an Iraqi hospital but the tale of her ambush was changed into a story of heroism on her part.
“The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes and they don’t need to be told elaborate tales,” Lynch told the committee in prepared testimony.
Did Predator film shooting?
Lawmakers planned to press the Pentagon with questions still hovering over the shooting of Tillman, a one-time National Football League star: Was a Predator drone flying overhead when Tillman was killed? Did it videotape the incident?
The military says no such videotape exists, but members of Congress hoped to elicit the new information at the hearing.
Investigations have concluded that the Army new quickly that Tillman’s death in Afghanistan three years ago was the result of friendly fire but withheld the news from his family, instead offering up a story of a heroic Tillman facing down the enemy.
For the hearing, the committee issued its first subpoena since Democrats took power and Waxman assumed the chairmanship in January. The target of the subpoena was Dr. Gene Bolles, the neurosurgeon who treated Lynch in Germany after she was rescued in Iraq.
Acting Defense Department Inspector General Thomas Gimble and Gen. Rodney Johnson, the head of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command — who both completed investigations last month on Tillman’s death — also were set to appear.
The most recent investigation by the Army, released last month, documented a monthslong search for the video. The undertaking "suggests the distinct possibility that a Predator drone overflew the battle scene, and, if it did, may have captured yet-unrevealed material information," said Daniel Kohns, a spokesman for Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat who represents the San Jose, Calif., area where Tillman grew up.
The drone, equipped with a video camera in its nose, had been flown by the CIA over Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden for several years. After Sept. 11, 2001, the little plane also was outfitted with missiles and used to kill al-Qaida leaders.
An Air Force commando attached to Tillman's Army Ranger platoon testified that as the incident unfolded, he heard the unmanned reconnaissance plane's distinctive propeller buzz overhead.
His belief was later confirmed by a comrade at their tactical operations center, he said. "I was told it was over us during the ambush," this airman testified. His name was blacked out of documents the Army released last month.
Moments after hearing that attack on his fellow Army Rangers, the airman radioed a command center and requested air cover. No attack aircraft arrived to help.
His recollection of the Predator was enough to spark a search for any video the drone might have gathered. That search spanned six months, took investigators close to the highest reaches of the Pentagon and touched upon some of the most sensitive technology the United States possesses.
In September, Army security officials directed that investigators' memos seeking Predator footage be classified "SECRET/NOFORN," meaning no foreigners would be permitted to see the memos.
Search for footage
Special agents for the Army Criminal Investigation Command and the Defense Department inspector general's office spent much of last summer trying to track down the video — or determine whether it existed. Among other agencies, the agents reached out to "Psychological Operations, the Pentagon ... regarding the Predator footage which was taken during the Tillman incident."
A former U.S. commander in Afghanistan told investigators that "the chances of footage being taken at the incident location during that time frame is minimal."
Still, the investigators met with Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the Pentagon's deputy undersecretary for intelligence, who said "he would coordinate with the Central Intelligence Agency and ensure a review for the requested imagery is conducted."
In October, however, the conclusive results came back from Navy Vice Admiral Eric Olson, deputy commander of the Special Operations Command: No video of the friendly fire episode was "known or suspected to exist."
Tillman's death received worldwide attention because he had walked away from a huge contract with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.