By ERICA WERNER
The Associated Press
Thursday, August 9, 2007; 12:47 PM
WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Thursday he can't recall when he learned that Army Ranger Pat Tillman died by friendly fire, not at the hands of the enemy in Afghanistan, as the Pentagon originally claimed.
"I can't give you the precise moment, but obviously the minute I heard that the facts that most people believed were true were not true, that I expected there to be a full investigation and get to the bottom of it," Bush said in response to a question at a news conference.
His comments came as congressional Democrats press an investigation to determine what the White House and top Defense Department officials knew about the circumstances of Tillman's death in 2004, and when. Though Tillman's direct superiors knew almost immediately that his death was friendly fire, the truth was kept from the public and Tillman's family for five weeks.
Tillman's death attracted attention because he had turned down an NFL contract to join the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"I can understand why Pat Tillman's family has got significant emotions. A man they loved and respected was killed while he was serving his country," Bush said.
"I always admired the fact that a person who was relatively comfortable in life would be willing to take off one uniform and put on another to defend America, and the best way to honor that commitment of his is to find out the truth, and I'm confident the Defense Department wants to find out the truth too and will lay it out for the Tillman family," Bush said.
House Democrats and Tillman's family contend that even after seven investigations, the truth remains obscured.
At a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week, 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.
Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is pressing the White House for drafts of a speech that 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.