WASHINGTON (MCT) A congressional investigation into how the Bush administration handled the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman "was frustrated by a near universal lack of recall" from top White House and Pentagon officials, a House committee's report said Monday.
After Tillman's death in Afghanistan in 2004, the Army Ranger and former football star from San Jose, Calif., was eulogized by President Bush and military leaders as a hero who gave up a lucrative NFL career to serve his country.
Previous investigations, including seven conducted by the military, showed that top officers misled Tillman's family and the public about his death. They did not disclose for one month that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire from his unit, not enemy fire.
White House interest in Tillman's death was intense. On April 23, 2004, the day after he was killed, White House officials received or sent 200 e-mails about him.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee also disclosed in its 49-page report that the White House turned over 1,500 pages of e-mails and other documents about Tillman. But there was not a single mention of the friendly fire cause of death, or the military term "fratricide."
"In comparison to the extensive White House activity that followed Corporal Tillman's death, the complete absence of any communications about his fratricide is hard to understand," the committee report found.
Committee staff also interviewed seven White House officials at the time, including communications chiefs Scott McClellan and Dan Bartlett and speechwriter Michael Gerson. None could recall when they or Bush learned about the fratricide.
The issue of when the White House and Pentagon learned about the true nature of Tillman's death is important, because top officials knew the story of his sacrifice helped counter a month of damaging news from Iraq, with mounting casualties and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
An internal memo from the Army Chief of Staff's Office reported that the Tillman story was "extremely positive in all media."
Bush lauded Tillman's sacrifice in a speech May 1. "Friends say that this young man saw the images of Sept. 11, and seeing that evil, he felt called to defend America," Bush said. E-mails show that the White House could not substantiate Bush's statement on Tillman's motives, which one official, John Currin, called "speculation."
Tillman and his brother Kevin were very private about their reasons for enlisting and gave no media interviews.
Bush's comments came two days after Major Gen. Stanley McChrystal told higher-ups in a memo that friendly fire was "highly possible" in Tillman's death, warning that Bush and others should be careful in any speeches. Bush did not mention the cause of death.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last year he could not recall if he informed Bush or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about fratricide in the Tillman case.
Tillman's memorial service in San Jose on May 3 was nationally televised. By then, at least one general knew the real cause of Tillman's death but did not tell the family, an Army investigation concluded.
ON THE WEB
The House committee's complete report on the Tillman case can be found at oversight.house.gov