WASHINGTON — Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld distanced himself Wednesday from the Army's handling of Cpl. Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire in Afghanistan, and denied allegations that the Bush administration covered up what actually happened so that it could use the former NFL star's death to rally public support.
"Of course there's a difference between error and coverup," Rumsfeld told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has held several hearings on the case.
Once the Army began investigating who suppressed details of Tillman's death, Rumsfeld said, he deliberately asked no questions to avoid exercising undue command influence over the process.
In his first appearance before Congress since leaving office, Rumsfeld acknowledged that the case was botched. "The Tillmans were owed the truth," he said. But he denied "any evidence of a coverup" by the White House or the Pentagon. "I know that I would not engage in a coverup," he said. "I know that no one in the White House suggested such a thing to me."
Tillman, who turned down a $3.6-million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks, was a member of the elite Rangers unit. The Army initially said that he died in a fierce firefight with the enemy in a remote Afghanistan canyon on April 22, 2004. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for valor.
On May 29, more than a month after his death and more than three weeks after a memorial service in San Jose, the Pentagon revealed that his fellow Army Rangers, and not the enemy, had fired the shots that killed the 27-year-old.
"The concealment of Cpl. Tillman's fratricide caused millions of Americans to question the integrity of our government, yet no one will tell us when and how the White House learned the truth," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), the committee chairman.
After seven investigations, including one by the Defense Department's inspector general, Army Secretary Pete Geren announced Tuesday that he was censuring retired Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., who led Army special operations in 2004, for failing to disclose promptly that Tillman had been killed by the soldiers with whom he served. Kensinger, who also may be demoted from three-star to two-star general, did not respond to the subpoena to appear.
In an e-mail to the Associated Press, Kensinger's lawyer, Charles W. Gittins, said his client was not evading the subpoena.
"He declined the committee invitation to testify two weeks ago, so it was no surprise to the committee that he has no intent to participate in a hearing that is all about show and no substance," Gittins wrote.
In questioning Rumsfeld and others at the Pentagon at that time, most committee members avoided questions about the prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, they limited themselves to the Army's failure to notify the Tillman family as soon as possible that their son had been killed in a "blue on blue" incident.
With Tillman's mother, Mary, and other relatives looking on, retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the former head of U.S. Central Command, expressed regrets over the handling of the case.
"I think people tried to do the right thing, and the right thing didn't happen," Abizaid said. "There was never any intention to keep the idea of fratricide from the family or the public."
Myers said he had never been involved in any discussion about "withholding information from the public," to which Rumsfeld added, "Nor was I."
Retired Army Gen. Bryan Douglas Brown, who was head of U.S. Special Operations Command when Tillman was killed, testified that once it was determined that Tillman's death was caused by friendly fire, he insisted the family be notified before a news release was issued.
But Waxman said that the Pentagon's top leaders had failed to take personal responsibility. "You've all admitted that the system failed," he said. "The public should have known, the family should have known." Saying that errors were made, "that's too passive," Waxman said. "Somebody should have known."
Waxman tried to establish when and how each man learned of the possibility of friendly fire in Tillman's death and why the information had not been passed on. Abizaid said he was not informed until about May 6, 2004, because of a communication breakdown in his office. Myers and Brown said they were aware of the friendly fire investigation in late April. None of them said it was his responsibility to notify White House officials or the secretary of defense.
Rumsfeld said that he couldn't remember the exact date he was notified, but that he believed it was after May 20.
Democrats on the committee said they were skeptical of Rumsfeld's credibility, but Republicans said he had answered their questions adequately.
"I commend you for being here," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R- Conn.). "It would have been easy to not show up, and then they could keep criticizing."
During the hearing, antiwar activists from Code Pink, a group based in San Francisco, held up signs reading "war criminal," but Waxman warned them to put down their signs and respect committee decorum. "This is a hearing of Congress, not a rally or demonstration," he said.