WASHINGTON -- The brother of Army Ranger Pat Tillman accused the Pentagon and the Bush administration yesterday of deliberately concealing the circumstances of the former NFL star's friendly-fire death in Afghanistan in an attempt to avoid embarrassment.
Speaking publicly for the first time since his brother was killed in Afghanistan three years ago, Kevin Tillman at a congressional hearing accused Army and administration officials of exploiting his brother's death to shift attention away from the detainee abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, which at the time was about to become a public relations nightmare for the military.
Investigations by the Army, including an inspector general's report late last month, have not established any conspiracy to cover up the cause of Pat Tillman's death in April 2004. But top officers, including four generals, have been criticized for failing to tell his family the truth for more than a month afterward and could face criminal charges.
Kevin Tillman, who gave up a minor-league baseball career to enlist with his older brother in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and was nearby the day Pat Tillman was shot by fellow American soldiers, said the military's early, heroic depiction of his brother's death was "utter fiction" intended to deceive not just a grieving family, but the entire country.
"To our family and friends, it was a devastating loss. To the nation, it was a moment of disorientation. To the military, it was a nightmare," Kevin Tillman said, his voice wavering with emotion. "But to others within the government, it appears to have been an opportunity."
In his brother's case, he charged that evidence had been destroyed, an autopsy did not conform to regulations and eyewitness testimony "disappeared into thin air."
"These are deliberate and calculated lies" and "a deliberate act of deceit," he said.
Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he called the hearing into Tillman's death - as well as the exaggerated reports of Pfc. Jessica Lynch's heroism - because "the bare minimum we owe our soldiers and their families is the truth."
In the case of Tillman and Lynch, the California Democrat said, "the government violated its most basic responsibility."
Referring to the military's efforts to portray Tillman as a combat hero, Waxman said: "I come from Hollywood. I expect showbiz in Hollywood, not from the military."
Spc. Bryan O'Neal, a witness to Tillman's death and the last person to see him alive, told lawmakers that one of his superiors instructed him not to tell Tillman's brother or family about the circumstances of the shooting, even though he knew it was a case of friendly fire.
"I was ordered not to tell them," O'Neal said, adding the order came from Jeff Bailey, the lieutenant colonel in charge of the platoon. "He made it known that I'd get in trouble" for speaking with the family, O'Neal said.
Waxman asked O'Neal whether he found such an order troubling.
"Yes, sir," he shot back. "I wanted right off the bat to tell the family."
Waxman released a copy of a "valorous award witness statement" attributed to O'Neal that suggested Tillman died during a firefight with enemy combatants. But O'Neal reiterated a claim he made to Pentagon investigators that the unsigned document had been changed from the version he submitted.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, asked military officials at the hearing what the punishment was for covering up a friendly-fire incident. Noting that pilots who land on the wrong runway are fired "even if no one gets killed," he asked whether anyone would be punished for quashing facts of Tillman's death. "That's out of my lane," said Brig. Gen. Rodney Johnson, who conducted the Army's criminal investigation of the Tillman case.
The Tillmans have dismissed as insufficient repeated Pentagon investigations into the killing. They are angry that Army officers let them bury Tillman, a former Arizona Cardinals safety, while believing he had been killed in a battle with enemy fighters and that he was awarded a Silver Star on false premises.
Afghan villagers in the area where Tillman was killed told the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that they saw no enemy activity at the time. But military investigators said that residents told them that enemy militants were firing at the U.S. troops. Investigators say Tillman was killed when he was shot mistakenly by other Americans who had been attacked moments before.
After the release of last month's inspector general's report, the Tillman family renewed their push for congressional hearings.
The committee released an exchange of messages indicating that the White House had been seeking information about Tillman just days after his death for use in a speech by President Bush. But a response at the time from military officials suggested that senior officers were aware that Tillman's death probably was caused by friendly fire.
An officer, whose name was redacted, wrote to U.S. Central Command: "I felt it was essential that you receive 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 Corporal Tillman's death become public."
A speech by Bush days later included a reference to Tillman but did not mention the circumstances of his death.
Kevin Tillman has been largely silent since his brother's death, although he posted an essay on the Web site truthdig.com in October in which he criticized what he called an "illegal" war in Iraq.
Lynch, the Army truck driver who was captured in an ambush during the early days of the Iraq war, recounted how the news media repeated "the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting."
She added: "It was not true."
She said that the story of her capture and a dramatic rescue videotape that was released to the news media by U.S. forces might have helped "inspire our troops and rally a nation," but she said that the real heroes were her comrades who died during the ambush.
"The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes," she said. "They don't need to be told elaborate tales."
Adam Schreck and Johanna Neuman write for the Los Angeles Times.