Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a House committee Wednesday that there was no senior-level effort to cover up the details surrounding the botched response to the 2004 friendly fire killing of Army Ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan.
"I know that I would not engage in a coverup. I know that no one in the White House suggested such a thing to me," Rumsfeld testified during a hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
While Wednesday's hearing broke no new ground in the Tillman matter, it marked a dramatic return before Congress for Rumsfeld, who was the top civilian military leader during the first years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where, together, 4,063 U.S. troops have died, according to Pentagon figures.
"War criminal," read a sign that an activist held up as Rumsfeld entered the hearing room.
Rumsfeld said he felt "a great deal of heartbreak for the Tillman family," conceding that the Army's handling of his death "added to their grief."
After six military investigations spanning three years and congressional review of more than 13,000 pages of White House and Pentagon documents, committee members voiced frustration at the lack of a clear explanation as to how the Army mangled the story of Tillman's 2004 death.
"The tragic truth can only fall somewhere between screwup and coverup, between rampant incompetence and elaborate conspiracy," said the committee's ranking Republican, Tom Davis of Virginia.
"It's very difficult to come to grips with how we screwed this thing up, but we screwed this thing up," said retired Army Gen. John Abizaid. But the problems stemmed from shortcomings, he said, not a conspiracy.
No fewer than 82 times during the three-hour hearing, Rumsfeld and his former military colleagues were heard to utter "I can't recall," "I don't remember," "I don't know" or a variation of these.
Tillman left an NFL football career to join the Army after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On April 22, 2004, he was killed in Afghanistan when his unit came under fire from fellow U.S. forces. It wasn't until May 29, after a military inquiry determined that Tillman had been killed by U.S. troops, that his family, and the American public, learned the truth.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.