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Army Spun Tale Around Ill-Fated Mission

When she first learned that friendly fire had taken her son's life, "I was upset about it, but I thought, 'Well, accidents happen,' " Mary Tillman said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Then when I found out that it was because of huge negligence at places along the way -- you have time to process that and you really get annoyed."

Army Cites Probable Friendly Fire

As memorials and news releases shaped public perceptions in May, Army commanders privately pursued military justice investigations of several low-ranking Rangers who had fired on Tillman's position and officers who issued the ill-fated mission's orders, records show.

Sen. John McCain said he would have liked to have known about officers' suspicions before he spoke publicly about Pat Tillman's death. (Pool Photo Gene Lower)

Steve Coll MSNBC Video: Post's Steve Coll on the investigation into Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan

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Interactive Graphic: View the sequence of events and a map of the terrain where Pat Tillman was killed.
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U.S. Army officials waited for weeks before informing Pat Tillman's family that he was accidentally killed by fellow Army rangers.
_____More From Series_____
In the Kill Zone: Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades (By Steve Coll, The Washington Post, December 5, 2004)
In the Kill Zone: Army Spun Tale Around Ill-Fated Mission (By Steve Coll, The Washington Post, December 6, 2004)

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Army records show that Col. James C. Nixon, the 75th Ranger Regiment's commander, accepted his chief investigator's findings on the same day, May 8, that he was officially appointed to run the case. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, which is legally responsible for the investigation, declined to respond to a question about the short time frame between the appointment and the findings.

The Army acknowledged only that friendly fire "probably" killed Tillman when Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr. made a terse announcement on May 29 at Fort Bragg, N.C. Kensinger declined to answer further questions and offered no details about the investigation, its conclusions or who might be held accountable.

Army spokesmen said last week that they followed standard policy in delaying and limiting disclosure of fratricide evidence. "All the services do not prematurely disclose any investigation findings until the investigation is complete," said Lt. Col. Hans Bush, chief of public affairs for the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg. The Silver Star narrative released on April 30 came from information provided by Ranger commanders in the field, Bush said.

Kensinger's May 29 announcement that fratricide was probable came from an executive summary supplied by Central Command only the night before, he said. Because Kensinger was unfamiliar with the underlying evidence, he felt he could not answer questions, Bush said.

For its part, Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, handled the disclosures "in accordance with [Department of Defense] policies," Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a command spokesman, said in an e-mail on Saturday responding to questions. Asked specifically why Central Command withheld any suggestion of fratricide when Army investigators by April 26 had collected at least 14 witness statements describing the incident, Balice wrote in an e-mail: "The specific details of this incident were not known until the completion of the investigation."

Few Guidelines for Cases

The U.S. military has confronted a series of prominent friendly-fire cases in recent years, in part because hair-trigger technology and increasingly lethal remote-fire weapons can quickly turn relatively small mistakes into deadly tragedies. Yet the military's justice system has few consistent guidelines for such cases, according to specialists in Army law. Decision-making about how to mete out justice rests with individual unit commanders who often work in secret, acting as both investigators and judges. Their judgments can vary widely from case to case.

"You can have tremendously divergent outcomes at a very low level of visibility," said Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice and a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law School. "That does not necessarily contribute to public confidence in the administration of justice in the military. Other countries have been moving away" from systems that put field commanders in charge of their own fratricide investigations, he said.

In the Tillman case, those factors were compounded by the victim's extraordinary public profile. Also, Tillman's April 22 death was announced just days before the shocking disclosure of photographs of abuse by U.S. soldiers working as guards in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. The photos ignited an international furor and generated widespread questions about discipline and accountability in the Army.

Commemorations of Tillman's courage and sacrifice offered contrasting images of honorable service, undisturbed by questions about possible command or battlefield mistakes.

Whatever the cause, McCain said, "you may have at least a subconscious desire here to portray the situation in the best light, which may not have been totally justified."

A Disaster Unfolds

Working in private last spring, the 75th Ranger Regiment moved quickly to investigate and wrap up the case, Army records show.

Immediately after the incident, platoon members generated after-action statements, and investigators working in Afghanistan gathered logs, documents and e-mails. The investigators interviewed platoon members and senior officers to reconstruct the chain of events. By early May, the evidence made clear in precise detail how the disaster unfolded.

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