SAN FRANCISCO -- 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
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.
Those recommendations could also come next week.
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
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,"
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
Then he left the staff sergeant to his work: placing Tillman's
uniform, socks, gloves and body armor into a 55-gallon drum and
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.
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 agreed to an interview with The Associated Press late
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
"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.