Within hours of Pat Tillman’s death, the Army went into information-lockdown mode, cutting off phone and Internet connections at a base in Afghanistan, posting guards on a wounded platoon mate, and ordering a sergeant to burn Tillman’s uniform.
New investigative documents reviewed by The Associated Press describe how the military sealed off information about Tillman’s death from all but a small ring of soldiers. Officers quietly passed their suspicion of friendly fire up the chain to the highest ranks of the military, but the truth did not reach Tillman’s family for five weeks.
The clampdown, and the misinformation issued by the military, lie at the heart of a burgeoning congressional investigation.
“We want to find out how this happened,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House oversight committee, which has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday. “Was it the result of incompetence, miscommunication or a deliberate strategy?”
It is also a central issue as the Army weighs punishments against nine officers, including four generals, faulted in the latest Pentagon report on the case of the NFL star-turned-soldier. Military offocials said those recommendations could come in the next several weeks.
It is well known by now that the circumstances of Tillman’s April 22, 2004, death were kept from his family and the American public; the Army maintained he was cut down by enemy bullets in an ambush, even though many soldiers knew he was mistakenly killed by his own comrades. The nearly 1,100 pages of documents released last month at the conclusion of the Army Criminal Investigation Command’s probe reveal the mechanics of how the Army contained the information.
For example, the day after Tillman died, Spc. Jade Lane lay in a hospital bed in Afghanistan, recovering from gunshot wounds inflicted by the same fellow Rangers who had shot at Tillman. Amid his shock and grief, Lane noticed guards were posted on him.
“I thought it was strange,” Lane recalled. Later, he said, he learned the reason for their presence: The news media were sniffing around, and Lane’s superiors “did not want anyone talking to us,” he said.
Inside Forward Operating Base Salerno, near Khowst, Afghanistan, a soldier heard the dreaded call come across the radio: “KIAs.” There were two killed in action, one allied Afghan fighter and one Army Ranger, identified only by his code name.
The soldier checked a roster and discovered the fallen American was Tillman. He rounded up four others and broke the news but withheld Tillman’s name.
Had this soldier wanted to share the news outside the tactical operations center, it would have been difficult. “The phones and Internet had been cut off, to prevent anyone from talking about the incident,” he told investigators.
Nearby on the same base, a staff sergeant was in his tent when a captain walked in and told him to burn Tillman’s bloody clothing.
“He wanted me alone to burn what was in the bag to prevent security violations, leaks and rumors,” the staff sergeant testified. The superior “put a lock on communications” in the tent, he testified. Other Army officers said this was probably a directive to the staff sergeant to keep the conversation to himself.
Then he left the staff sergeant to his work: placing Tillman’s uniform, socks, gloves and body armor into a 55-gallon drum and burning them.
Several Army officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan said pulling the plug on base phones and e-mail was routine after a soldier died. The practice was meant to ensure the family was notified through official channels, said Army Maj. Todd Breasseale, chief spokesman for ground forces in Iraq until last August.
But the truth was quickly becoming evident to a small group of soldiers with direct access to the evidence.
Two other sergeants who examined Tillman’s vest noticed the bullet holes appeared to be from 5.56-caliber bullets ? signature American ammunition. An awful realization dawned on the sergeants, whose names, like those of others who testified in the investigation, were deleted from the recently released testimony.
“At this time was when I had realized Tillman may have been killed by friendly fire,” one of them said.
The other sergeant, who was higher-ranking, told him to “keep quiet and let the investigators do their job,” the subordinate sergeant testified. He was not to go “informing unit members that Spc. Tillman was killed by friendly fire.”
This was the same reason top-ranking officers cited in trying to explain why they waited to tell the Tillman family: They wanted to have the definitive investigation results. Army regulations, however, dictate that the next of kin be informed of additional information about a service member’s death as it becomes available.
Then-Col. James C. Nixon, Tillman’s regimental commander, ordered an investigation but directed that the information gathered be shared with as few people as possible until the results were finalized, acting Defense Department Inspector General Thomas Gimble found in a separate probe also completed last month.
Nixon, now a brigadier general and director of operations at the Center for Special Operations at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, said that he was not aware of all regulations governing such a case, and that his missteps were unintentional.
Among the top brass at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger, a now-retired three-star general in charge of special operations, represented the Army at Tillman’s memorial service almost two weeks after the soldier’s death. “He decided to withhold notification from family members until all facts concerning the incident could be verified,” Gimble found.
Kensinger denied that he knew on the day of the memorial service that friendly fire was suspected. But investigators dismissed his claim as not credible and Kensinger could be punished under military law for making false official statements.
Congressional investigators will try to determine how high up the chain of command the information lockdown went. The Army delivered several thousand pages of new documents on Thursday, military officials said.
Gen. John Abizaid, then chief of Central Command, in charge of all American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, testified that he did not learn of the likelihood of friendly fire until sometime between May 6 and May 13 ? two or three weeks after Tillman died ? because he was traveling in the Middle East.
And a lieutenant colonel testified that he delayed briefing Central Command lawyers until more than a month after Tillman had died, in part because he feared leaks and did not want to be blamed as the source.
But Abizaid visited Afghanistan within a week of Tillman’s death and spoke to Tillman’s platoon leader, then-Lt. David Uthlaut. Uthlaut has testified he did not suspect friendly fire until later.
Abizaid’s trip to Afghanistan was not examined by Gimble’s investigators, according to spokesman Gary Comerford.
Abizaid had no immediate comment.
The new testimony and other documents do not identify who, if anyone, orchestrated the clampdown. Nor do they address whether there was a concerted effort to conceal the truth about the best-known casualty in the war on terrorism.
Gimble said last month he found no evidence of such a cover-up. But when asked by a reporter whether he probed why the Army had not told the family in a timely fashion, Gimble said no.
One soldier carried a particularly heavy burden of secrecy.
Ranger Spc. Russell Baer had witnessed Rangers shooting at Rangers. Afterward, he was directed to travel from Afghanistan to the United States with his friend Kevin Tillman. But he was ordered not to tell Pat Tillman’s brother and fellow Ranger that friendly fire was the likely cause of the former football player’s death.
He kept the secret, fearing he did not know the whole story. But in a personal protest, Baer later went AWOL and was demoted as punishment.
“I lost respect for the people in charge of me,” Baer testified in an earlier Tillman investigation. He had gleaned “part of the puzzle” of Tillman’s death, but lamented that “I couldn’t tell them about it.”
Five investigations and three years later, that information gap is what’s driving the congressional probe, which is also looking into misinformation surrounding the capture and rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch in Iraq.