WASHINGTON — The brother of Army Ranger Pat Tillman accused the Pentagon and the Bush administration Tuesday of deliberately concealing the circumstances of the former football star's friendly fire death in Afghanistan in an attempt to avoid embarrassment.
Speaking publicly for the first time since his brother was killed in Afghanistan three years ago, Kevin Tillman at a congressional hearing accused Army and administration officials of exploiting his brother's death to shift attention away from the detainee abuses at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which at the time was about to become a public relations nightmare for the military.
Investigations by the Army, including an inspector general's report late last month, have not established any conspiracy to cover up the cause of Tillman's April 2004 death. But top officers, including four generals, have been criticized for failing to tell his family the truth for more than a month afterward, and could face criminal charges.
Kevin Tillman, who gave up a minor league baseball career to enlist with his older brother in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and was near his sibling when he was shot by fellow American soldiers, said the military's early, heroic depiction of Pat's death was "utter fiction" intended to deceive not just a grieving family, but the entire country.
"To our family and friends, it was a devastating loss. To the nation, it was a moment of disorientation. To the military, it was a nightmare," Kevin Tillman said, his voice wavering with emotion. "But to others within the government, it appears to have been an opportunity."
He charged that in his brother's case, evidence had been destroyed, an autopsy did not conform to regulations, and witness testimony "disappeared into thin air."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he called the hearing -- which also included testimony by former Iraq prisoner of war Pfc. Jessica Lynch -- because "the bare minimum we owe our soldiers and their families is the truth."
In the cases of Pat Tillman and Lynch, Waxman said, "the government violated its most basic responsibility."
Referring to the military's efforts to portray Tillman as a combat hero, he added: "I come from Hollywood. I expect show biz in Hollywood, not from the military."
The hearing showed how Tillman's death and the military's response provoke heated emotion and produce gripping drama three years after the botched Army operation in Afghanistan.
Army Spc. Bryan O'Neal, a witness to Tillman's death and the last person to see him alive, told lawmakers that one of his superiors instructed him not to tell Tillman's brother or other family members about the circumstances of the shooting, even though he knew it was a case of fratricide.
"I was ordered not to tell them," O'Neal said, adding that the order came from Jeff Bailey, then the lieutenant colonel in charge of the platoon. "He made it known that I'd get in trouble" for speaking with the family, he added.
Waxman asked O'Neal if he found such an order troubling.
"Yes, sir," he shot back. "I wanted right off the bat to tell the family."
Waxman released a copy of a "valorous award witness statement" attributed to O'Neal that suggested Tillman died during a fight with enemy combatants. But O'Neal reiterated an assertion he made to Pentagon investigators that the unsigned document had been changed from the version he submitted.
The Tillmans have dismissed as insufficient repeated Pentagon inquiries into the killing. They are angry that Army officers let them bury Tillman while believing he had been killed in a battle with Taliban-allied fighters, and that he was awarded a Silver Star based on false premises.
Afghan villagers in the area where Tillman was killed told The Times in 2004 that they saw no militant activity at the time. But military investigators said that local residents told them that guerrillas were firing at the Rangers. Tillman was killed, according to the investigators, when he was shot mistakenly by other Americans who had been attacked moments before.
After the release of last month's inspector general's report, the San Jose family renewed their push for congressional hearings.
The House panel released an exchange of messages indicating that the White House had been seeking information about Tillman days after his death for use in a speech by President Bush. A response at the time from military officials suggested that senior officers were aware that Tillman's death probably was caused by fratricide.
An officer, whose name was redacted, wrote to U.S. Central Command: "I felt it was essential that you receive this information as soon as we detected it in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country's leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman's death become public."