SAN JOSE, Calif. – Nine high-ranking Army officers, including four generals, made critical errors in reporting the friendly fire death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, but there was no criminal wrongdoing in the shooting of the former professional football star, the military concluded Monday.
Defense officials and a pair of reports released Monday on the 2004 incident did not rule out criminal action by those who provided misleading information as the military investigated the killing. They said, however, that they believed there was no orchestrated cover-up.
Tillman drew widespread attention, even hero status for many, after he abandoned a lucrative athletic career to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Army and Defense Department investigators said officers looking into Tillman's death passed along misleading and inaccurate information to Tillman's family and the U.S. public and delayed reporting their belief that fellow Rangers accidentally killed Tillman. They originally said he died a hero's death in combat.
The investigators recommended the Army act against the officers but suggested no specific punishments and left that decision to the Army. Possible steps could include demotions, discharge, jail or letters of reprimand. Acting Army Secretary Peter Geren has asked Gen. William Wallace, who oversees training for the Army, to review the actions of the officers and to provide a progress report in 30 days.
The Army will take corrective action and hold people accountable, said Geren, who also issued an apology.
"We as an Army failed in our duty to the Tillman family, the duty we owe to all the families of our fallen soldiers: Give them the truth, the best we know it, as fast as we can," Geren told reporters at the Pentagon. "Our failure in fulfilling this duty brought discredit to the Army and compounded the grief suffered by the Tillman family. For that, on behalf of the Army, I apologize to the Tillman family."
Investigators said there was no broad effort to conceal information. Though dozens of soldiers knew quickly that Tillman had been killed by his fellows, the Army said initially that he was killed by enemy gunfire when he led his team to help another group of ambushed soldiers. It was five weeks before his family was told the truth, which the Army has blamed on procedural mistakes.
"We thought there was never an attempt to cover up that we saw," Defense Department Acting Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble said during a Pentagon briefing as the military released two reports, one by the Army Criminal Investigation Command and the other by the inspector general.
Tillman's death received worldwide attention because he had walked away from a huge contract with the National Football League Arizona Cardinals football team to enlist in the Army after the terror attacks.
The highest current ranking officer blamed in the incident is Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. Investigators said he was "accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions" contained in the papers recommending that Tillman get the Silver Star award.
Also criticized in the investigation were Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger, now retired, who was in charge of Army special operations; as well as Tillman's regimental commander, now-Brig. Gen. James C. Nixon, who was a colonel at the time. Nixon is now director of operations at the Center for Special Operations at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
Using photographs, charts and a video re-enactment of the day's events, investigators walked reporters through a minute-by-minute accounting of Tillman's death in the rocky Afghanistan hills on April 22, 2004.
The inspector general investigation also recommended that the Army review its award of the Silver Star to Tillman, but Geren said the award would stand. Gimble said some information provided to justify the citation was inaccurate.
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, campaigning in Texas on Monday, called it a "travesty" that the events surrounding Tillman's death were "covered up, if not distorted." McCain emphasized that he hadn't actually seen the report but said he was familiar with it.
"An inexcusable cover-up took place regarding the circumstances of Pat Tillman's death," said McCain, a former U.S. naval aviator who spent more than five years in Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps.
President George W. Bush has been keeping apprised of developments in the Tillman case and "wants to learn more," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. She said the president, like Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has "very serious concerns" about the events surrounding Tillman's death, his family's notification and the performance of military personnel.