WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Wednesday the family of Army Ranger and football star Pat Tillman deserved the truth and an apology about his death by U.S. Army fire in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld, making his first appearance before Congress since leaving office last year, told a hearing the Army made errors in handling the investigation of Tillman’s death in 2004, but he said “in no instance” was there a cover-up by the Pentagon.
“I don’t think there was a cover-up,” added Gen. John Abizaid, former head of the U.S. Central Command responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan. “I think people tried to do the right thing and the right thing didn’t happen.”
The two testified before the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Abizaid acknowledged mistakes were made in relaying information up and down the chain of command, including a failure to advise the Bush administration quickly that Tillman’s death may have been caused by his fellow U.S. soldiers.
“It’s very difficult to come to grips with how we screwed this thing up,” Abizaid said, “but we screwed this thing up.”
Tillman became a patriotic symbol in the United States when he gave up a $3.6 million National Football League career with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
He died on April 22, 2004, in Afghanistan. The Army initially said his death was due to enemy fire and Tillman was awarded the Silver Star eight days later.
The military did not acknowledge Tillman was killed by fellow soldiers until a month later on May 29.
Rumsfeld, who was replaced as defense secretary by Robert Gates, said: “The Tillmans were owed the truth, delivered in a forthright and timely manner. And certainly the truth was owed to the memory of the man whose valor, dedication and sacrifice to his country remains an example for all.”
Asked if they deserved an apology, he said: “Indeed, as I said in my memo some time back. ... And as I’ve said publicly here today.”
His testimony came a day after the U.S. Army censured retired Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger, former head of the Army Special Operations Command, for lying about Tillman’s death. Six other officers received reprimands.
Rumsfeld told the committee he did not recall when he learned Tillman had been killed by American forces but he said it was sometime after May 20, 2004.
He also denied suggestions there was an effort between the White House and the Pentagon to coordinate media strategies when responding to questions about Tillman’s death.
“I can say without qualification that I can’t recall ever having a discussion with anyone in the White House on press strategy relating to the Tillman matter in any aspect of it,” Rumsfeld said.
He defended his decision not to intervene more directly in the case, which has been investigated repeatedly, saying senior commanders had to avoid doing “anything privately or publicly that could be characterized as command influence, which could alter the outcome of an investigation.”
Kensinger, who faces possible demotion in the case, refused to testify at Wednesday’s hearing. He rejected the Pentagon’s allegations that he misled investigators, saying in a statement on Tuesday, “Never did I lie or would I lie, deceive or intend to obstruct or mislead in any fashion.”