SAN JOSE, Calif. – For weeks after his death, the Pentagon maintained that Pat Tillman was killed in an enemy ambush, even after a top general tried to warn President Bush that the NFL star-turned-soldier likely died by friendly fire, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press.
In the memo sent to a superior officer seven days after Tillman's death, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned that the evidence strongly pointed to friendly fire and the nation's leaders risked embarrassing themselves if they publicly said otherwise.
"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.
It is not clear whether Bush or Brownlee received the warning, but it raises new questions on how high up the chain of command the misinformation campaign extended. In speeches following the memo, Bush avoided any reference to the circumstances of Tillman's death.
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.
White House spokesman Blain Rethmeier said Friday that a review of records turned up no indication that the president had received McChrystal's warning. Rethmeier emphasized that the president often pays tribute to fallen soldiers without mentioning the exact circumstances of their deaths.
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 this week.
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 fire."
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."
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.
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 family.
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.