NBC News anchor Brian Williams conceded on Wednesday that a story he had told about being under fire while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was false.
Williams said he was not aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and forced down — a story he retold as recently as last week during a televised tribute to a retired soldier during a New York Rangers hockey game.
On “NBC Nightly News” Wednesday evening, Williams read a 50-second statement apologizing for his characterization of the episode.
“After a groundfire incident in the desert during the Iraq war invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” he said. “It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert. I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by [rocket-propelled grenade] fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. . . . This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and, by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not.”
The admission is a rare black mark for Williams, a poised, veteran newsman who has anchored NBC’s signature newscast since 2004 and has endeared himself to non-news audiences through appearances on “30 Rock,” “The Tonight Show” and other entertainment programs.
At least in the short term, the false story may damage the anchor’s most valuable asset — his credibility. NBC has not said whether he will face discipline for perpetuating the false story.
Williams’s apology came after the Stars and Stripes newspaper contacted crew members of the Chinook helicopter that Williams had said he was aboard when it was hit by two rockets and small-arms fire. They said that Williams was not aboard the aircraft during the incident at the onset of the war in March 2003. They said Williams arrived on another, undamaged helicopter an hour after the crippled Chinook had landed.
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams told the newspaper. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
In the hockey broadcast last week, Williams told viewers, “The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG. Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”
Williams’s claim of surviving an air attack bothered several soldiers familiar with air operations at the time, including Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the helicopter that carried the NBC News crew. “No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft,” he told the newspaper. The soldier’s complaints prompted Williams to issue his first apology Wednesday afternoon on the “NBC Nightly News” Facebook page.
“I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy,” Williams wrote. “I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp.”
He added, “Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”
He continued, “Nobody’s trying to steal anyone’s valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty.”
The episode dates to a report by Williams on March 26, 2003. During the prime-time “Dateline NBC,” he recounted the dangers faced by U.S. helicopters. But in that broadcast, he noted that the helicopter that was hit was not the one he was aboard. Over footage of a damaged Chinook, he said. “That hole was made by a rocket- grenade, or RPG. It punched cleanly through the skin of the ship, but amazingly it didn’t detonate. . . . We learned [the helicopter] was shot at by some of those waving civilians.”
But over the years, the story began to morph into an incident that involved Williams himself.
Williams has told the helicopter-under-fire story before. In a 2013 appearance on David Letterman’s talk show, he said, “Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.”
A somewhat ambiguous recounting appears in “Operation Iraqi Freedom: The Inside Story,” a book written by NBC Enterprises in 2003. That account has Williams in the helicopter and details such as the grenade round grazing a crewman’s face.
It’s unclear in the book which Chinook Williams was riding in, but he comments: “There was some symbolism in all of this. A Vietnam-era RPG going clean through the tail of a Vietnam-era Chinook helicopter.” And a caption describes a photo taken inside a helicopter, saying “With NBC anchor Brian Williams . . . aboard, Army Chinook helicopters are forced to make a desert landing after being attacked by Iraqi Fedayeen.”
Lance Reynolds, the flight engineer on the Chinook that was hit, told Stars and Stripes: “It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it. It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”
Reynolds told the newspaper that Williams and the NBC cameramen arrived in a helicopter 30 to 60 minutes after his damaged Chinook made a rolling landing at an Iraqi airfield and skidded off the runway into the desert.
Julie Tate and Jennifer Amur contributed to this report.