Gen. McChrystal's Credibility Problem
Shortly after President Obama nominated Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal to command U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the general was summoned to the U.S. Senate to be grilled by the Armed Services Committee. Although McChrystal had enthusiastic admirers on both sides of the congressional aisle and was regarded as an innovative, uncommonly effective leader, he was expected to face difficult questions about two incidents that occurred during his tenure as leader of the Joint Special Operations Command (or JSOC): the torture of detainees in 2003 at the secret facility in Iraq known as Camp Nama, and his role in the coverup of Pat Tillman’s fratricide in Afghanistan in 2004. During the committee hearing, though, none of McChrystal’s inquisitors probed deeply into either of these issues, and on June 10 the Senate unanimously confirmed his nomination.
McChrystal has lately been the subject of numerous media profiles, most of them adulatory. Dexter Filkins has a long story in the upcoming New York Times Magazine. In an October 5 Newsweek article, Evan Thomas referred to the general as a “Zen warrior… with a disarming, low-key style, free of the bombast and sense of entitlement that can come with four stars…. He has great political skills; he couldn’t have risen to his current position without them. But he definitely does not see himself as the sort of military man who would compromise his principles to do the politically convenient thing.” In the week after Tillman was killed, however, this is precisely what McChrystal appears to have done when he administered a fraudulent medal recommendation and submitted it to secretary of the Army, thereby concealing the cause of Tillman’s death.
Army officers embarked on an elaborate campaign to suppress the truth. Soldiers were ordered to lie. Tillman’s notebook, uniform, ammo vest, and body armor were burned.
* * *
Tillman was accidentally gunned down by members of his Ranger platoon on the evening of April 22, 2004. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bailey, commander of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, visited the site of the calamity the following morning. A few hours later, he called his boss, Col. James Nixon, commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, and said (according to Bailey’s sworn testimony), “My gut feeling was that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire…. There was no doubt about it. It was a case where there were six or seven Rangers that saw the vehicle shooting at them.” Before the day was out, Nixon notified three of his superiors, including McChrystal, that Tillman’s death was a fratricide. According to Army regulations, this information should have been immediately shared with the Tillman family, even if friendly fire was only a possibility. Instead, Army officers embarked on an elaborate campaign to suppress the truth and persuade both the family and the public that Tillman was killed by enemy fire. Soldiers were ordered to lie. Tillman’s notebook, uniform, ammo vest, and body armor were burned, in clear violation of other important protocols.
At the time of Tillman’s fratricide, McChrystal was only a one-star general, but as commander of JSOC he ran the most covert branch of the U.S. armed forces. Shrewd, driven, and willing to bend rules to get results, 13 months earlier he’d commanded the Navy SEALs, Delta Force operators, and Army Rangers who’d rescued Jessica Lynch from her captors in Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld held McChrystal in the highest esteem, and regularly bypassed the chain of command to communicate with him directly. He was trustworthy. He worked under the radar and got stuff done. He didn’t suffer from “the slows,” as Rumsfeld characterized the risk-averse nature of some of McChrystal’s superiors.
Within two days of Tillman’s death, officers in the 2nd Ranger Battalion initiated paperwork to give Tillman the Silver Star, the military’s third highest decoration for valor. McChrystal was put in charge of writing and expediting the medal recommendation so that the award could be announced in advance of a nationally televised memorial service scheduled for May 3. According to McChrystal’s Senate testimony, he “sat down with the people who recommended [the Silver Star]… and we went over a whiteboard, and we looked at the geometry of the battlefield, and I queried the people to satisfy myself that, in fact, that his actions warranted [the Silver Star], even though there was a potential that the actual circumstances of death had been friendly fire.”
The latter clause is a lawyerly flourish on McChrystal’s part, intended to suggest that there was still doubt about the cause of death, when in fact he knew with near-absolute certainty that Tillman was the victim of fratricide. During the medal-recommendation process, McChrystal was shown the preliminary findings of a so-called Article 15-6 investigation that had been launched the day after Tillman died, which included detailed eyewitness testimony from more than a dozen soldiers in his platoon. Transcripts of these interviews described how Tillman, in order to protect a young private under his command, had exposed himself to a ferocious squall of bullets—hundreds of rounds from three machine guns shooting at him from close range. McChrystal ascertained, correctly, that the extraordinary valor of Tillman’s act was in no way diminished by the incontrovertible fact that the lethal fusillade had come from his American comrades. “So,” McChrystal testified, “I was comfortable recommending, once I believed that the people in the fight were convinced it warranted a Silver Star.” On April 28, 2004, six days after Tillman’s death, McChrystal reviewed a final draft of the medal recommendation, signed his name to it, and emailed it to the acting secretary of the Army, R.L. Brownlee.
The recommendation package received by Brownlee consisted of four documents: a one-paragraph “award citation” that summarized Tillman’s courageous deed; a five-paragraph “award narrative” that offered a more nuanced account of his actions; and two brief statements from soldiers who witnessed those actions. Astoundingly, none of these documents mentioned, or even hinted, that Tillman was killed by friendly fire. The award citation alleged, “Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire,” even though there was never any enemy fire directed at Tillman’s position during the incident. The witness statements (which also suggested he was killed by the enemy) were not signed, and the two soldiers whose names were attached to them later testified that both statements had been fabricated, apparently by one or more members of the Silver Star recommendation team.
In the week after Tillman was killed, however, McChrystal administered a fraudulent medal recommendation and submitted it to secretary of the Army, thereby concealing the cause of Tillman’s death.
In June of this year, during McChrystal’s confirmation hearing, Sen. John McCain asked the general to explain why, five years earlier, he had submitted the perjured Silver Star recommendation “in the form that it was in.”
McChrystal replied, “We sent a Silver Star that was not well written—and, although I went through the process, I will tell you now that I didn’t review the citation well enough to capture—or, I didn’t catch that, if you read it, you can imply that it was not friendly fire.” McChrystal insisted that the package of four short documents bearing his signature wasn’t meant to deceive. Although he closely supervised the drafting of these documents, he simply failed to notice that all of them had been painstakingly written to omit any reference to friendly fire.
During a presentation on October 3 of this year in Mesa, Arizona, to promote Where Men Win Glory, my book about Tillman, I described the testimony cited above and expressed skepticism about McChrystal’s honesty. Afterward, while I was signing books, an Army veteran approached me and said that he had served under McChrystal, admired him immensely, and took issue with my accusation that his former commander had dissembled to the Senate, or knowingly participated in any sort of coverup. He said that in his experience McChrystal was a man of unimpeachable integrity. I countered that McChrystal’s words were taken verbatim from a transcript of the Senate hearing, and then added, “Gen. McChrystal is known to be meticulous, a perfectionist. He doesn’t tolerate sloppiness or excuses. Do you really believe that he would sign his name to such an important, high-profile document without first reading it carefully enough to realize it was bogus?”
The ex-soldier frowned thoughtfully before answering. “No,” he admitted. “For him to do something like that, he’d have to be under incredible pressure.”
* * *
On April 28, 2004, the same day McChrystal sent the Silver Star recommendation to the secretary of the Army, he received word from Rumsfeld’s office that the White House was working on a speech in which President Bush would eulogize Tillman at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Because the true cause of Tillman’s death had been restricted to a tight cadre that did not include the president’s speechwriters, McChrystal fretted they might inadvertently script something that would make the president look like a liar should the truth about Tillman eventually be leaked.
To forestall such a gaffe, one day after submitting the falsified medal recommendation, McChrystal emailed a high-priority personal memo (known as a “Personal For” memo, or simply a “P4”) to Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of all troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and two other general officers. “Sir, in the aftermath of Corporal Patrick Tillman’s untimely yet heroic death in Afghanistan on 22 April 04,” McChrystal wrote, “it is anticipated that a 15-6 investigation nearing completion will find that it is highly possible that Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire. This potential finding is exacerbated by the unconfirmed but suspected reports that [the president of the United States] and the secretary of the Army might include comments about Corporal Tillman’s heroism and his approved Silver Star medal in speeches currently being prepared…. I felt that it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order 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.”
Many months later, after the coverup unraveled and the Tillman family demanded the Army reveal who was responsible for the many lies they’d been told, McChrystal would spin the P4 memo as proof that he never meant to conceal the fratricide. But McChrystal took no action to halt the coverup and divulge the truth; his memo merely sounded the alarm that someone needed to warn speechwriters to be ambiguous about the cause of death when crafting statements about Tillman, in order to provide President Bush with deniability. (In the speech Bush gave at the correspondents’ dinner two days after the P4 was sent, the president praised Tillman for his courage and sacrifice, but pointedly made no mention of how he died.)
If McChrystal had a change of heart after submitting the falsified medal recommendation and wanted the truth to be revealed, all he needed to do was pick up the phone, inform the secretary of the Army that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, and ask him to put the Silver Star on hold until the paperwork could be corrected. That didn’t happen. Instead, Secretary Brownlee approved the medal based on the spurious documents submitted by McChrystal, and on April 30 the Army issued a press release announcing that Tillman had been posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Because it made no mention of friendly fire, none of the hundreds of news stories based on the press release reported anything about friendly fire, and the nation was kept in the dark about the fratricide. As Brigadier General Howard Yellen later testified, “For the civilian on the street, the interpretation would be that he was killed by enemy fire.”
* * *
McChrystal, who was promoted from Brigadier General to Major General nine days after Tillman’s death, was, and remains, intensely ambitious. Were he to be held accountable for the fraudulent Silver Star recommendation, his Army career would likely end in disgrace. Why, then, did he take such a risk? Last June, near the conclusion of McChrystal’s Senate confirmation hearing, it seemed as though an answer to this question might be at hand when Sen. Jim Webb told the general, “You have not, to my knowledge, been on record in terms of how you personally feel about this incident, and I would like to give you the opportunity to do that.”
Appearing genuinely contrite, McChrystal confessed, “We failed the family. And I was a part of that, and I apologize for it.” But then the tenor of his remarks abruptly shifted and he reiterated the same disingenuous claims made by virtually every officer who participated in the subterfuge: “It was not intentional…. I didn’t see any activities by anyone to deceive.” A moment later, nevertheless, McChrystal may have inadvertently revealed what motivated the entire coverup. “To provide context,” he explained to Webb, “we were still in combat when we were doing all of that…. We were in the first battle of Fallujah in Iraq at the same time, so we were making mistakes.”
Three weeks before Tillman was killed, horrific violence engulfed Fallujah. The bloodshed commenced when Iraqi insurgents killed four American contractors working for Blackwater USA, burned their bodies, dragged them through the streets, and then hung their charred remains from a bridge over the Euphrates River. In response, 2,000 U.S. Marines launched an assault on the city, initiating furious urban combat that continued until the Marines were pulled out of Fallujah on May 1, 2004, by which time 27 American troops were dead, and more than 90 had been wounded.
One week before Tillman’s death, compounding the bleak news coming out of Fallujah, CBS News notified Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that 60 Minutes II was about to broadcast a story about the torture and abuse of Iraqi captives by U.S. soldiers at a prison called Abu Ghraib. On April 28, the program aired, followed two days later by even more disturbing revelations about Abu Ghraib by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. Public support for both the Bush administration and the war in Iraq was plummeting. The president was engaged in a bare-knuckled campaign to win a second term. The election was barely six months away. When Tillman was killed, White House perception managers saw an opportunity to divert the nation’s attention from the glut of bad news.
The administration had tried to make Tillman an inspirational emblem for the Global War on Terror when he was alive, but he had rebuffed these efforts by refusing to do any media interviews. On April 23, the day after Tillman perished, approximately 200 emails about Tillman were transmitted or received by White House officials, including staffers from Bush’s reelection campaign, who suggested to the president that it would be advantageous for him to respond to Tillman’s death as quickly as possible. A press release about Tillman’s patriotic sacrifice was hastily written and disseminated to the media before noon that same day. Communications Director Dan Bartlett later explained that he rushed out the statement in order to accommodate overwhelming interest in Tillman from the media, noting that the story “made the American people feel good about our country… and our military.”
When he walked away from a $3.6 million National Football League contract to enlist in the Army with his brother Kevin in 2002, Pat Tillman became the object of tremendous public fascination, and White House officials calculated that celebrating him as a fallen hero would send the media into an orgy of reverential coverage. They were not disappointed. Thousands of tributes to Tillman appeared in all manner of media over the weeks that followed. On April 25, 2004, just two days after the initial White House press release, a “Weekend Media Assessment” compiled by the Army chief of staff’s Office of Public Affairs reported that stories about Tillman had generated the greatest interest in the Army since the president’s “Mission Accomplished” speech the previous May, adding that the Tillman stories “had been extremely positive in all media.” The Army’s announcement on April 30 that Tillman had been awarded the Silver Star prompted another torrent of favorable press.
Had it been disclosed at the outset that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire, the press coverage would have been no less voluminous, but its effect on the nation’s mood would have been very different. This is the context in which the Tillman coverup, and Gen. McChrystal’s central role in the deception, must be considered. As Kevin Tillman testified, “Revealing that Pat’s death was fratricide would have been yet another political disaster during a month already swollen with political disasters…. So the facts needed to be suppressed. An alternative narrative needed to be constructed.” McChrystal’s chicanery, Kevin explained, was “an insult to the Tillman family, but more importantly, its primary purpose was to deceive a nation…. We have been used as props in a public-relations exercise.”
Given the overwhelming challenges the United States faces in Afghanistan, and President Obama’s determination that Gen. McChrystal is the most qualified person to command our military campaign there, some may wonder why his dishonesty about Tillman should matter. It matters because deceit by a military officer of McChrystal’s rank is a poisonous betrayal of trust that shouldn’t be countenanced. The possibility that his subterfuge was intended to mislead the public during the run-up to a presidential election is especially troubling. “What we have here is a very clear, deliberate abuse intentionally done,” lamented Rep. Henry Waxman at the conclusion of a 2007 hearing into the Tillman coverup by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “Why is it so hard to find out who did it?”
Jon Krakauer is the bestselling author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and Under the Banner of Heaven. His most recent book, Where Men Win Glory, tells the story of Pat Tillman, who gave up a $3.6 million NFL contract to enlist in the U.S. Army, then died in the hills of Afghanistan.