By PAUL von ZIELBAUER
Published: August 2, 2007
WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 — With Donald H. Rumsfeld seated at the witness table, the chairman of a House committee investigating the bungled aftermath of the friendly fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman told a packed Capitol Hill hearing room Wednesday that the time had come for some answers. What did Mr. Rumsfeld and other top Defense Department officials know about Corporal Tillman’s accidental killing by American forces, he asked, and when did they know it?
Three and a half hours, a few four-color charts and a couple of lost tempers later, the chairman, Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, solemnly admitted that he had gotten almost nowhere.
“You’ve all admitted that the system failed; none of you feel personally responsible,” Mr. Waxman said, addressing Mr. Rumsfeld, who resigned as defense secretary last fall, as well as one currently serving general and two retired ones who also testified under oath Wednesday.
“Somebody should be responsible.”
The hearing, held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was Mr. Rumsfeld’s first return to Capitol Hill since President Bush asked him to resign after the Democratic victories in midterm elections. And although the bitter exchanges between Mr. Rumsfeld and the Democrats who now control Congress focused on the case involving Corporal Tillman, they exposed veins of anger over what the Democrats regard as a lack of accountability for broad missteps in Iraq.
Still, for most of the hearing, Mr. Rumsfeld, who sometimes sounded frailer and more gravel-voiced than he did while leading the Pentagon for nearly six years, offered few specific facts and recollections. He interjected only one exasperated “Oh, goodness!” despite numerous verbal provocations from committee members and stuck to his prepared answers and upbraided Democratic committee members when he felt they had their facts wrong.
“I don’t recall precisely how I learned that he was killed,” Mr. Rumsfeld said of Corporal Tillman early in the hearing. “It could have been internally; it could have been through the press.” He said he was also unsure when he learned the death was most likely from American fire, he added, although it was probably around May 20, 2004, about three weeks after the three generals seated beside him at Wednesday’s hearing had learned of it.
Testifying not in their familiar uniforms rich with medals but in ordinary business suits, two retired generals, Richard B. Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and John P. Abizaid, the former commander of the American forces in the Middle East, each acknowledged that the Tillman matter was a “screw-up,” but not their fault.
General Abizaid said he received a classified message on April 29, 2004, saying Corporal Tillman, a professional football player who quit after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to become an Army Ranger, may have been killed by American fire in April 2004, and not in combat, as the Army had publicly stated.
General Myers said he could not recall how or when he learned of it, and even if he could, he said, “I don’t think there’s any regulation that would require me to do anything, actually.”
General Myers also said that if he knew that Army officials had suspected friendly fire — or what the military calls a “blue on blue” attack — in Corporal Tillman’s death, he would have informed Mr. Rumsfeld, his boss at the time, but added, “I cannot recall whether or not I did that.”
Several Democrats used the hearing to engage Mr. Rumsfeld in unrelated but longstanding grievances, including the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Pentagon’s policy of banning news media coverage of flag-draped military coffins returning from overseas.
At one point, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who is running for president, averred that Mr. Rumsfeld had “covered up” the Tillman matter as well as prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib.
“That’s just false,” Mr. Rumsfeld interjected. “You have nothing to base that on. You have not a scrap of evidence or a piece of paper or a witness that would attest to that. I have not been involved in any cover-up whatsoever.”
Stewing quietly throughout the hearing, and eventually lashing out at a lawmaker who approached to offer condolences, were several members of Corporal Tillman’s family, including his brother Kevin and his father, Pat Tillman Sr. The family has been assertive in calling attention to the Army’s mishandling of Corporal Tillman’s death, and has been critical of Republican members of Congress who have sought to minimize the significance of the case.
Near the end of the hearing, Pat Tillman Sr. told Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, in a low but furious voice, “Get away from me.”
The only active duty witness at the hearing was Gen. Bryan D. Brown, the former commander of the United States Special Operations Command. Each of the four witnesses said he was either not the proper person, did not know enough or was not in the proper position to correct the public record on the Tillman killing or alert the Tillman family to the suspicions of friendly fire.
The Army told Corporal Tillman’s parents that he had been killed by fellow troops almost five weeks after his death, long after his nationally televised memorial service and posthumous Silver Star award.
“It’s very difficult to come to grips with how we screwed this thing up,” General Abizaid said, “but we screwed this thing up.”