By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Members of a congressional oversight panel vowed yesterday to investigate whether the White House and top Pentagon officials played a role in deceiving the public about the 2004 "friendly fire" death of a former NFL player, Cpl. Pat Tillman, and argued that five investigations have failed to answer critical questions about the case.
During a dramatic hearing on Capitol Hill, Tillman's brother, Kevin, spoke publicly for the first time about the shooting and how members of the Army Ranger unit they both were with kept him in the dark about how Pat died on an eastern Afghanistan hillside. Kevin Tillman spoke about the "deliberate and calculated lies" the military told his family and the public, and how he believes military officials "hijacked" Pat's legacy by transforming his tragic death into "an inspirational message."
"The least this country can do for him in return is to uncover who was responsible for his death, who lied and covered it up, and who instigated those lies and benefited from them; then ensure that justice is meted out to the culpable," Kevin Tillman said, adding: "Anything less than the truth is a betrayal of those values that all soldiers who have fought for this nation have sought to uphold."
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing came three years after Pat Tillman was gunned down on April 22, 2004, by members of his own unit while on a bungled mission near the Pakistani border. It marked the first time the full Tillman family had gathered in public to decry the problems that have plagued the case. Mary Tillman, who has called for high-level investigations since 2004, continued to accuse the government of "using" her son's death to divert attention from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and high casualties in the Iraq war.
Investigators found that the military destroyed evidence such as Tillman's clothes, manipulated the story by saying he was engaged with the enemy when he died and drew up a misleading Silver Star citation. Tillman's death gained worldwide attention in part because he gave up a lucrative pro football contract to enlist in the Army. The committee also heard testimony yesterday from Jessica Lynch, a former soldier whose ordeal in Iraq in 2003 was inaccurately portrayed in the media as a heroic fight against insurgents, when in fact Lynch never fired a shot.
"The American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don't need to be told elaborate lies," Lynch said.
Kevin Tillman -- who was in the convoy with his brother the day he died but was too far away to see what had happened -- testified that he was whisked from the area shortly after Pat's death and was sent home with his body in an attempt to keep him from the truth. Spec. Bryan O'Neal, who was with Tillman when other U.S. soldiers began firing on them, testified yesterday that he was ordered not to speak to the Tillman family or to mention that it was a friendly-fire case, with the implication that he would get in trouble if he did.
"I was 100 percent positive it was friendly fire," O'Neal said. He said he reported the incident that day.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee's chairman, said the government violates its most basic duty when it fails to tell soldiers and their families the truth. He said he is awaiting the Army's top-level review of how to assign responsibility for the lies about Tillman's death but said he will continue investigating.
"We still don't know how far up this went," Waxman said. "We don't know what the secretary of defense knew. We don't know what the White House knew. These are questions the committee seeks answers to."
Acting Defense Department Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble, whose recent report blamed several senior officers for misinforming the public about Tillman's death, said his probe did not look into senior administration officials, and that Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote in a letter on his last day as defense secretary that he did not know about the friendly-fire aspect of the case until shortly before the family learned of it in late May.
Republican lawmakers also criticized the military. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) called the military's actions "a disservice to the memory of Corporal Tillman, to his family, his unit and this nation."