Monday, May 18, 2009

The general picked to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan privately warned superiors in 2004 that Army Ranger Cpl. Patrick Tillman may have been accidentally killed by his comrades, even as he approved a Silver Star recommendation that inaccurately portrayed the ex-football star as having died from enemy fire, documents show.

Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was cited by a Defense Department inspector general’s report for being “accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions” contained in the medal citation, but he escaped punishment in an episode that scarred the Pentagon’s credibility and upset the Tillman family.

Now five years later, the late soldier’s father wants Congress to demand answers of Gen. McChrystal as part of his ascension to a new role on one of America’s most important battle fronts.

“I still don’t have all the facts,” Patrick Tillman Sr. told The Washington Times in a short phone interview on Friday.

Mr. Tillman said he has “very serious concerns” about Gen. McChrystal’s selection and whether the general played a role in hiding information about his son’s death. Mr. Tillman also said nobody from Congress has asked him to testify about his concerns, but added, “I’d be happy to show up.”

Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where Gen. McChrystal currently is director, told The Times in an e-mail that “senior [military] leadership remains satisfied - as they were in the past - that Gen. McChrystal’s conduct merited no corrective action and remains firmly convinced that he has both the character and experience to lead the fight in Afghanistan.”

Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, added that Mr. Gates “believes our troops in Afghanistan deserve the very best leadership we can provide, and Gen. McChrystal is the very best the military has to offer.”

Gen. McChrystal won accolades in the past for overseeing the forces that captured Saddam Hussein and killed the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

He was named last week by Mr. Gates to oversee U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. If confirmed, Gen. McChrystal would replace Gen. David McKiernan, who was fired after the Obama administration decided it needed new leadership to conduct a war that U.S. forces do not seem to be winning.

Many have applauded the appointment, citing hopes that the former Green Beret and three-star general will be able to re-invigorate the hunt for Osama bin Laden and reverse Taliban advances. The Tillman controversy, however, continues to linger over his military record.

Documents gathered in the inspector general investigation published in 2007 show that on April 24, 2004, Gen. McChrystal approved a recommendation that Cpl. Tillman posthumously receive the Silver Star for dying during an enemy firefight a week earlier on a hillside outside the town of Khost.

Just one day later, however, Gen. McChrystal sounded a different sentiment in a special memo, known as a P4, to the then-commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid.

“It is highly possible that Cpl. Tillman was killed by friendly fire,” he warned, urging senior military officials and even President Bush that they risked embarrassment if they embraced the account that Cpl. Tillman died by enemy fire.

He cited “reports that [the president of the United States] and the Secretary of the Army might include comments about Cpl. Tillman’s heroism … in speeches currently being prepared, not knowing the specifics surrounding his death.”

Gen. McChrystal said he was writing to “preclude any unknowing statements by our country’s leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public.”

Cpl. Tillman, a National Football League star who turned down a $3.6 million contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was mistakenly killed, along with an Afghan soldier, by fellow Rangers after their platoon was ambushed.

Officials initially announced that he had died at the hands of the enemy, and it was more than a month before the Army finally told his family the truth, though senior officers - including Gen. McChrystal - knew within three days that there was at the least a suspicion of fratricide.

Although Gen. McChrystal wrote in his memo that he did not believe Cpl. Tillman’s death by friendly fire detracted from his valor, or invalidated his Silver Star, the inspector general’s 2007 report criticized him for signing off on a “misleading citation that implied Cpl. Tillman died by enemy fire.”

The investigative report added that the episode had “caused the [Tillman] family to question … the Army’s true motives” in making the award.

Cpl. Tillman’s brother, Kevin, told a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2007 that the evidence “revealed a series of contradictions [in the medal citation and other records] that strongly suggest deliberate and careful misrepresentations … intended to deceive the family, but more importantly to deceive the American public.”

The inspector general’s report recommended “appropriate corrective action” against Gen. McChrystal, but in the end he was the only general officer criticized by the report to be spared disciplinary action by the Army, partly because he had raised the alarm about the fratricide up his chain of command.

Gen. McChrystal’s role in the Tillman affair, and questions about detainee abuse by special forces teams he later oversaw in Iraq as commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), were all investigated thoroughly by the Senate Armed Services Committee last year when he was confirmed as director of the Joint Staffs, according to a congressional staffer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The detainee-abuse questions surrounded a secret interrogation center called Camp Nama at the Baghdad International Airport run by a JSOC task force hunting “high-value targets” in Iraq. Five Army Rangers pleaded guilty in December 2005 to kicking and punching prisoners there, and an investigation by Human Rights Watch revealed that Gen. McChrystal was a regular visitor at Camp Nama.

“There was a thorough and rigorous review of these issues. … [Gen. McChrystal] answered all the questions, and the committee voted for his confirmation,” the congressional aide said.

Partly because he was so recently subjected to such a thorough review, other congressional officials said, Gen. McChrystal is expected to be easily confirmed for the new Afghan job.

The approval of the NATO foreign ministers council - required because Gen. McChrystal will also command the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan - is also a “done deal,” according to Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Brussels.

“U.S. allies will accept him as the man trusted by Washington to carry out the military parts of Obama’s strategy,” Mr. Korski told The Times.

“But,” he added, “McChrystal would do well to build on [his predecessor’s] work with the United Nations and other allies even while - or especially because - the United States is taking over the Afghan mission, if he hopes to maintain what little NATO cohesion there is.”

Paul Hughes, a retired army colonel and executive director of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, said Gen. McChrystal is “the right guy for the job because he understands the nuances of counterinsurgency. He is the best available officer to put in that position.”

John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, praised Gen. McChrystal as a man of “extraordinary energy and drive and a real dedication to the cause of making the military more effective in Afghanistan.”

Gen. McChrystal’s role in leading the manhunt for al Qaeda in Iraq leader Zarqawi was “part of an integrated counterinsurgency strategy,” just like the one needed in Afghanistan, Mr. Nagl said.

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