WASHINGTON — "A near universal lack of recall" by Bush administration officials has thwarted a congressional investigation into whether the administration deliberately misrepresented the details of the friendly fire death of former NFL player Patrick Tillman in Afghanistan and the capture of Jessica Lynch in the first days of the Iraq invasion.
In a report released Monday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform expressed skepticism about the widespread lack of memory of the two events, which were the subject of widespread media coverage and can be counted among the best known incidents of the wars.
About Tillman's death, "The committee interviewed several senior White House officials, including Communications Director Dan Bartlett, Press Secretary Scott McClellan and chief speech writer Michael Gerson," the committee said. "Not a single person could recall when he heard about the fratricide or what he did in response."
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also said he couldn't recall when he learned that Tillman had been killed mistakenly by fellow American soldiers and not by Taliban fighters, the committee said, even though Rumsfeld had written a memo after Tillman enlisted suggesting that his progress be followed closely.
The lack of information about how Tillman died contrasted sharply, the committee noted, with what it described as a flurry of activity when word of Tillman's April 22, 2004, death first reached Washington.
"On the day after Tillman's death, April 23, White House officials sent or received nearly 200 e-mails concerning Corporal Tillman," the report noted, including several from Bush's re-election office.
"In comparison to the extensive White House activity that followed Corporal Tillman's death, the complete absence of any communications about his fratricide is hard to understand," the committee said. Of 1,500 pages of documents the White House surrendered in the Tillman probe, "there is not a single discussion of the fratricide," the committee noted.
The committee reported similar problems in determining how the story of Jessica Lynch became so inaccurately portrayed. Lynch was an Army private who was badly injured when the Humvee she was riding in collided with another American vehicle as their convoy was fleeing Iraqi fire. Lynch was taken to an Iraqi clinic, where American Special Forces rescued her 10 days later in a raid, a video of which was later released by the military.
In the days after the rescue, news media reports, citing unnamed military sources, portrayed her as having fired her rifle till she ran out of ammunition. The reports also said she'd been wounded numerous times. The real story came out only weeks later. Lynch did not fire her weapon and the injuries she sustained were all related to the collision with the other American vehicle.
The committee said it interviewed a number of military spokesmen. All "said they had no knowledge of how the report that Private Lynch fired her weapon and was wounded during her capture was spread to the media and the public."
"Nor could they explain why it took so long for the military to correct the inaccurate story of the 'little girl Rambo from the hills of West Virginia.' "
The report is the latest effort to determine whether Bush administration officials deliberately misled the country about Iraq-related issues. Earlier this year, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report in which it concluded that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made statements about Iraq's weapons programs in the runup to the war that they knew were not supported by available intelligence.