Washington -- Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld distanced himself yesterday from the Army's handling of Cpl. Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire in Afghanistan and denied allegations that the Bush administration had covered up what happened so that it could use the former NFL star's death to rally public support.
"Of course, there's a difference between error and cover-up," Rumsfeld told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has held several hearings investigating the incident.
Once the Army began investigating who suppressed details of Tillman's death, Rumsfeld said, he deliberately asked no questions so that he could avoid exercising undue command influence over the process.
In his first appearance before Congress since leaving office last year, Rumsfeld acknowledged that the case was botched.
"The Tillmans were owed the truth," he said.
But he denied "any evidence of a cover-up" by the White House or the Pentagon.
"I know that I would not engage in a cover-up," he said. "I know that no one in the White House suggested such a thing to me."
Tillman, who turned down a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was a member of the elite Rangers special operations unit.
The Army initially said that he had been killed in a firefight with the enemy in a remote Afghanistan canyon on April 22, 2004. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for valor.
On May 29, more than a month after his death, the Pentagon revealed that Tillman's fellow Army Rangers, and not the enemy, had fired the shots that killed him.
"The concealment of Corporal Tillman's fratricide caused millions of Americans to question the integrity of our government, yet no one will tell us when and how the White House learned the truth," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who is the committee chairman.
After seven investigations, including one by the Pentagon inspector general, Army Secretary Pete Geren announced Tuesday that he was censuring retired Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., who led Army special operations forces in 2004, for failing to disclose promptly that Tillman had been killed by fellow Rangers. Kensinger did not respond to the committee's subpoena to appear at yesterday's hearing.
Claudia Lauer and Johanna Neuman write for the Los Angeles Times.