SAN JOSE, Calif. — Just seven days after Pat Tillman's
death, a top general warned there were strong indications that
it was friendly fire and President Bush might embarrass himself
if he said the NFL star-turned-soldier died in an ambush, according
to a memo obtained by The Associated Press.
It was not until a month afterward that the Pentagon told the
public and grieving family members the truth _ that Tillman
was mistakenly killed in Afghanistan by his comrades.
The memo reinforces suspicions that the Pentagon was more concerned
with sparing officials from embarrassment than with leveling
with Tillman's family.
In a memo sent to a four-star general a week after Tillman's
April 22, 2004, death, then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned
that it was "highly possible" the Army Ranger was
killed by friendly fire. McChrystal made it clear his warning
should be conveyed to the president.
"I felt that it was essential that you received 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 Cpl. Tillman's death become
public," McChrystal wrote on April 29, 2004, to Gen. John
Abizaid, head of Central Command.
White House spokesman Blain Rethmeier said Friday that a review
of records turned up no indication that the president had received
McChrystal's warning. Bush made no reference to the way Tillman
died in a speech delivered two days after the memo was written.
But Rethmeier emphasized that the president often pays tribute
to fallen soldiers without mentioning the exact circumstances
of their deaths.
The family was not told until May 29, 2004, what really happened.
In the intervening weeks, the military continued to say Tillman
died under enemy fire, and even awarded him the Silver Star,
which is given for heroic battlefield action.
The Tillman family has charged that the military and the Bush
administration deliberately deceived his relatives and the nation
to avoid turning public opinion against the war.
Tillman's mother, Mary, had no immediate comment Friday on
the newly disclosed memo.
The memo was provided to the AP by a government official who
requested anonymity because the document was not released as
part of the Pentagon's official report into the way the Army
brass withheld the truth. McChrystal was the highest-ranking
officer accused of wrongdoing in the report, issued earlier
In the memo, McChrystal expressed concern that Bush and acting
Army Secretary Les Brownlee might give speeches in which they
misstated the facts about Tillman's death.
A former spokesman for Abizaid did not immediately return phone
and e-mail messages.
As for Brownlee, he told investigators he did not recall learning
Tillman was killed by his fellow Rangers until several weeks
after the fact. He did not discuss the matter with the White
House, he told investigators.
A spokesman for McChrystal said he had no comment.
McChrystal was, and still is, commander of the Joint Special
Operations Command, head of "black ops" forces. He
has since been promoted to lieutenant general. Abizaid was in
charge of American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia.
In his memo, McChrystal said he had heard Bush and Brownlee
"might include comments about Cpl. Tillman's heroism and
his approved Silver Star medal in speeches currently being prepared,
not knowing the specifics surrounding his death."
McChrystal said he expected an investigation under way "will
find that it is highly possible Cpl. Tillman was killed by friendly
At the same time, McChrystal said: "The potential that
he might have been killed by friendly fire in no way detracts
from his witnessed heroism or the recommended personal decoration
for valor in the face of the enemy."
On Monday, the Pentagon released the findings of an investigation
into the circumstances of Tillman's death, and into whether
the military covered them up.
The investigators recommended that nine Army officers, including
McChrystal, be held accountable for errors in reporting the
friendly fire death to their superiors and to Tillman's family.
McChrystal was found "accountable for the inaccurate and
misleading assertions" contained in papers recommending
Tillman get the Silver Star.
Some of the officers involved said they wanted to wait until
the investigations were complete before informing the Tillman
The latest document obtained by the AP suggests that officials
at least as high as Abizaid knew the truth weeks before the
Tillman was killed after his Army Ranger comrades were ambushed
in eastern Afghanistan. Rangers in a convoy trailing Tillman's
group had just emerged from a canyon where they had been fired
upon. They saw Tillman and mistakenly fired on him.
The White House has been careful not to wade into the circumstances
of Tillman's death. The day after Tillman died, a spokesman
said Tillman "was an inspiration on and off the football
field," but made no reference to the specifics of the episode.
In a speech given two days after McChrystal's memo, Bush made
no mention of how Tillman died.
"The loss of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman last week in Afghanistan
brought home the sorrow that comes with every loss, and reminds
us of the character of the men and women who serve on our behalf,"
Bush said at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.