SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -Two influential lawmakers investigating how and when the Bush administration learned the circumstances of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death and how those details were disclosed accused the White House and Pentagon on Friday of withholding key documents and renewed their demand for the material.
The White House and Defense Department have turned over nearly 10,000 pages of papers – mostly press clippings – but the White House cited “executive branch confidentiality interests” in refusing to provide other documents.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Tom Davis, R-Va., the committee’s top-ranking Republican, said Friday the documents were inadequate. They insisted that the Defense Department turn over the additional material by July 25 and asked that the White House do likewise.
Tillman, a San Jose native, turned down a lucrative contract with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to join the Army following the Sept. 11 attacks. He was killed April 22, 2004, by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
Although Pentagon investigators determined quickly that he was killed by his own troops, five weeks passed before the circumstances of his death were made public. During that time, the Army claimed he was killed by enemy fire.
Tillman’s family and others have said they believe the erroneous information peddled by the Pentagon was part of a deliberate cover-up that may have reached all the way to President Bush and then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. The committee said Friday it had scheduled a second hearing on Tillman’s death for Aug. 1, this time to probe what senior Pentagon officials knew and when.
Rumsfeld and Richard Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were among those the committee invited Friday to appear.
The White House has turned over nearly 1,100 pages of documents and the Defense Department nearly 8,500 pages since the committee requested information from them in April, part of an inquiry into why Tillman’s family and the public were misled.
“The document production from the White House sheds virtually no light on these matters,” Waxman and Davis wrote to White House counsel Fred Fielding, part of a renewed request for additional papers.
The committee made public a letter last month in which Fielding said the White House was holding back certain papers “because they implicate executive branch confidentiality interests.” He added the White House had blacked out portions of “purely internal e-mails between White House personnel.”
The White House’s argument for withholding some papers is the same one it used last month as it rejected congressional subpoenas for documents in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Executive “confidentiality” is a lesser claim than “executive privilege” – more a polite way of declining than a firm refusal – and thus still leaves room for negotiation, congressional staffers involved in the matter said.
Fielding added the White House had blacked out portions of “purely internal e-mails between White House personnel.”
Waxman and Davis fired back that “these are not appropriate reasons for withholding the documents from the committee.” And they charged that the White House had simply held other papers back.
In particular, they expressed doubt that the two documents they’d received on communications between the White House and Pentagon on Tillman’s death were the only ones of their kind. One was simply a packet of newspaper clippings.
“Corporal Tillman’s death was a major national story,” they wrote. “It is not plausible that there were no communications between the Defense Department and the White House about Corporal Tillman’s death.”
“The committee was fully aware that certain documents were withheld as our letter to them made clear last month – along with our offer to discuss possible accommodation that meets the committee’s interests while respecting separation of powers principles,” Blair Jones, a White House spokesman, said Friday evening. “We continue to offer an opportunity for the committee to move forward in a spirit of accommodation, rather than conflict.”
Waxman and Davis complained to Defense Secretary Robert Gates of a “failure to provide a complete production to the committee.” For instance, the committee received no documentation on how Rumsfeld learned of Tillman’s death.
They said the Pentagon had not produced any papers from, among others, the offices of Gen. John Abizaid, then head of Central Command.
A week after Tillman died, a top general sent a memo to Abizaid warning that it was “highly possible” that Tillman was killed by friendly fire. The memo made clear that the information should be conveyed to the president. The White House said there is no indication that Bush received the warning.
Two days later, the president mentioned Tillman in a speech to the White House correspondents dinner, but he made no reference to how Tillman had died.
A White House spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
Separately, Waxman asked the Republican National Committee for copies of e-mail communications that involved Tillman and White House officials. That request was an outgrowth of the oversight committee’s finding last month that 88 White House officials had e-mail accounts with the RNC, and that the administration may have committed extensive violations of a law requiring that certain records be preserved.