White House Backs Interviews on Tillman

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 2, 2007; 8:51 PM

WASHINGTON -- The White House has offered to let congressional investigators interview three former officials in an inquiry into what the administration knew about the friendly-fire death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman.

The aides are Dan Bartlett, former White House counselor; Scott McClellan, former press secretary; and Michael Gerson, former speechwriter. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee agreed to White House demands that initial interviews be conducted without a transcript and with White House attorneys present.

If investigators determine the aides have relevant information, they would be asked to return for transcribed interviews. The White House has reserved the right to oppose that by claiming executive privilege, according to a letter Thursday from the committee's chairman and top Republican to White House counsel Fred Fielding.

A White House official confirmed the offer late Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity because a final agreement has not yet been reached formally. "The White House made a proposal to the committee that would permit them to talk to the individuals they've identified in connection with the Tillman matter," the official said.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has been aiming to determine when and how the White House learned that Tillman's April 22, 2004, death was by friendly fire, not at the hands of the enemy as the military claimed for five weeks.

A hearing Waxman presided over Wednesday shed little light as former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and several of his top generals denied any cover-up, rejected personal responsibility and could recall little about how and when they learned of Tillman's death. Tillman family members say they believe officials at the highest levels of government hid facts to limit public-relations damage.

Waxman is continuing to press the White House for drafts of a speech President Bush delivered at the White House Correspondents Dinner on May 1, 2004. In the speech, Bush lamented Tillman's death but made no reference to the real circumstances of it.

Two days earlier, a top general had written a memo to Gen. John Abizaid, then head of Central Command, warning that it was "highly possible" that Tillman was killed by friendly fire and making clear that the information should be conveyed to the president. The White House has said there is no indication that Bush received the warning.

In deference to White House concerns, Waxman and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., had already dropped requests for drafts of Bush's speech that the president had personally reviewed. They asked Fielding Thursday to hand over other drafts by Aug. 10 "and avoid the need for the committee to subpoena these documents."

Waxman and Davis also asked for transcribed interviews with two lower-ranking former White House aides: John Currin, a former fact-checker, and Taylor Gross, a former spokesman. If the two don't voluntarily appear for transcribed interviews they will be subpoenaed, the lawmakers wrote.

In an earlier letter to Fielding, Waxman and Davis wrote that it might have been an inquiry from Currin that led to the writing of the memo to Abizaid warning of the likelihood of friendly fire in Tillman's death.

Tillman's death attracted international attention because the pro football player had turned down a big NFL contract to join the Army after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Abizaid was among those testifying Wednesday. He said that due to unspecified problems at his Tampa, Fla., office while he was traveling overseas, he didn't see the memo warning of friendly fire until days after Bush gave his speech.

© 2007 The Associated Press