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Congress begins investigating death of NFL star Tillman
San Francisco Chronicle


April 23, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Congress will open its first inquiry into the death of former football star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman with a hearing this week that is expected to focus on whether the Army deliberately destroyed evidence and ordered soldiers to keep quiet about key details showing that Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

A House committee wants to know why the Pentagon spun a tale of Tillman's death by "enemy forces" even though Army officials knew almost immediately that he had been killed accidentally by fellow U.S. soldiers.

The Defense Department turned over four boxes of uncensored documents to Congress on Friday - a victory for Tillman's family, who has complained that the heavily redacted Army reports on his death have made it difficult to find out who was responsible for the misinformation.

But even the redacted records from three Army investigations and an inspector general's report provide clues that Congress will use to determine whether a cover-up took place, including:

- deliberate destruction of evidence;

- testimony from soldiers who claim they were told not to talk about key details of Tillman's death;

- false or distorted information in casualty reports, the field hospital report and press releases about Tillman's death;

- a grossly inaccurate depiction of Tillman's battlefield actions in his citation for the Silver Star medal, including fabrications in eyewitness statements;

- evidence that Army officials discussed a public-relations strategy on how to handle his death;

- allowing a nationally televised memorial to proceed with false information.

Lawmakers will hear testimony Tuesday from Tillman's family, who believe the San Jose, Calif., native's death was first covered up to save the Army from a scandal and then glorified to stir patriotism at a time when support for the Iraq war was flagging.

"We just want to find out what really happened," said his mother, Mary Tillman, who will be a key witness. "People need to be held accountable."

The hearing also will focus on the rescue of Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch in Iraq in April 2003. The Pentagon leaked false details about Lynch fighting back fiercely against her captors when she never fired a shot. Critics claimed the administration exaggerated her rescue - televising the covert raid by commandos - to boost public morale at a time the U.S. invasion of Iraq appeared bogged down. Lynch later complained, "They used me to symbolize all this stuff. It's wrong."

Lynch will testify along with Tillman's brother, Kevin, who served in the same Ranger unit in Afghanistan but did not witness his death or know of the cause for more than a month. Lawmakers also will hear from Department of Defense Inspector General Thomas Gimble, who investigated Tillman's case and recommended that nine top officers be disciplined for violating Army rules and misleading the public.

"What is striking to me is that the two highest-profile soldier cases for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq both were characterized by false stories," said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who requested the hearing.

"What we're trying to find out is, was this the result of incompetence, miscommunications or a deliberate strategy? In both cases, (the military) used the people involved in a way that put the war in a favorable light as a result of their heroics."

Lawmakers plan to seize on a high-priority memo sent five days after Tillman's death to Gen. John Abizaid, then chief of U.S. Central Command, warning that the former NFL safety probably had been killed by friendly fire - not by the Taliban, as the Army had claimed publicly.

In the memo, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal urged Abizaid to contact "POTUS" - the president of the United States - "in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country's leaders which might cause public embarrassment."

Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., said the memo suggests that several top administration officials knew a false story was being spread to Tillman's family and the public but did nothing to set the record straight.

"The question is, how high does it go? When did they know it and who knew it?" Honda said. "Hopefully, Congress will bring that out. I think, along with the Tillmans and Patrick's widow, we and they all deserve the unvarnished truth."

Tillman made headlines across the country when he turned down a $3.6 million contract from the NFL's Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army in May 2002, joining his brother, who had been a minor-league baseball player in the Cleveland Indians' organization.


E-mail Zachary Coile at zcoile(
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