On Tillman and Lynch Cases, a 'Near Universal Lack of Recall' by Bush Aides

An investigation into whether U.S. officials circulated tall tales is stymied by lack of cooperation.

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One of the most striking points to come out of a new House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigation into the misleading information released in the wake of the death of Cpl. Patrick Tillman and the capture of Pvt. Jessica Lynch is how little cooperation investigators got from top officials in the Bush administration.

The report notes that the investigation was ultimately "frustrated by a near universal lack of recall" and points, rather ironically in some cases, to "a striking lack of recollection."

In a number of instances, U.S. officials appear to have ginned up details to suit their purposes. The new report, to be put to an approval vote in the committee tomorrow, points to the creation of "new facts that were significantly different from what soldiers in the field knew to be true," often for the purposes, it added, of patriotic propaganda. In the case of both Lynch and Tillman, "the fictional accounts proved to be compelling public narratives at difficult times during the war." (Lynch is the blond private portrayed as a hero after being taken captive when her convoy was captured during the invasion of Iraq, and Tillman is the former pro football star killed in Afghanistan in 2004 by what turned out to be friendly fire.)

One point of extensive discussion in the report is a 2004 White House Correspondents Association dinner speech, delivered by President Bush and written by then speechwriter Michael Gerson, that included the line, "Friends say this young man saw images of September the 11th, and seeing that evil, he felt called to defend America." White House E-mails reviewed by the committee discovered that before the speech was delivered, the White House's director of fact-checking discovered he could not find any substantiation for that statement and E-mailed Gerson that "there is no direct support for the statement." He added that "the bottom line is that Tillman never stated publicly his reason for joining the [U.S. Army] Rangers, and it is speculation that he did so because of September 11th."

The aim of the investigation has been to determine "what top officials at the White House and the Defense Department knew about Corporal Tillman's fratricide, when they knew this, and what they did with their knowledge." But while the investigation "adds many new details to the Tillman story," according to the report, "on the key issue of what senior officials knew, the investigation was frustrated by a near universal lack of recall." Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the committee that he didn't remember when he was told of possible fratricide and who told him. The U.S. military has been accused of covering up details of the fratricide, and to date a three-star general is the highest-ranking officer to be reprimanded in the Tillman case.

The report discloses that commentators and reporters contacted the White House to offer advice as well. For example, in an E-mail released to the committee by the White House, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan advised the White House's director of strategic initiatives "to find out what faith Tillman practiced and have the president go by that church and light a candle or say a prayer."