Brian Williams’ War Story Is FUBAR

The claim that his helicopter was hit by an RPG in Iraq blew up in his face. Now the NBC anchor is busily apologizing to salvage his reputation—and career.

Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press

The Brian Williams Apology Tour has begun—and who knows where it will end?

The NBC Nightly News anchor publicly apologized three times Wednesday—during his regular broadcast, in a Facebook post, and in Stars and Stripes—after the military-focused newspaper published a damning story that Williams and NBC have been claiming falsely “for years” that, during the 2003 Iraq invasion, he was aboard a U.S. Army helicopter that was hit and forced down by rocket-propelled grenades.

“The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq,” Williams told viewers during last Friday’s broadcast of the top-rated NBC Nightly News, “when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.” Video accompanying the story showed a severely damaged helicopter, its skin pierced by an RPG, and strongly suggested that Williams had been a passenger on the combat-hobbled aircraft.

Williams has told the story of being hit by enemy fire at least twice on national television, most recently during Friday’s Nightly News segment about a retired Army sergeant who protected him and his NBC colleagues in the war zone. But Stars and Stripes reported that contrary to Williams’ tall tale, his Chinook helicopter was miles away when an entirely different chopper took enemy fire.

The Nightly News story focused on honoring retired Sgt. Tim Terpak, who, as Williams’ guest at a New York Rangers hockey game last Thursday, was introduced by the Madison Square Garden announcer with the erroneous anecdote and received a standing ovation from the crowd as the two men hugged.

Williams quickly retracted the story after Stars and Stripes confronted him with testimony from the crew of the 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook that actually was downed by rockets and small-arms fire; service members who were on the scene at the time also took to Facebook after Friday’s broadcast to contradict the Williams account.

“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams told the newspaper, adding that he was sorry. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.... No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft.”

In a remorseful Facebook post, Williams wrote: “I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake....”

And in his apology on Wednesday’s Nightly News broadcast, Williams pleaded with viewers to trust his good intentions, cut him slack for his love of the U.S. military, and forgive his faulty memory: “[I]n an effort to honor and thank a veteran who protected me and so many others following a ground-fire incident in the desert during the Iraq War, I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. It didn’t take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in the desert.... This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran, and by extension, our brave military men and women—veterans everywhere—those who have served while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect… and also now my apology.”

Unfortunately for Williams, this is not the first time he has made “this mistake” on network television. On the March 26, 2013 episode of CBS’s Late Show With David Letterman, he told the host (at the 3 minute, 50-second mark): “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in.”

“No kidding!” Letterman exclaimed.

“RPG and AK-47,” Williams elaborated.

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“What altitude were you hit at?” Letterman asked.

“We were only at 100 feet doing 100 forward knots...”

“What happens the minute everybody realizes you’ve been hit?” Letterman asked.

“We figure out how to land safely—and we did,” Williams answered. “We landed very quickly and hard...”

Stars and Stripes left open the possibility that Williams also misreported the incident initially on March 26, 2003, but it turns out that back then, at least, he never claimed to have been aboard the attacked chopper—during two different broadcasts on that date. Television news analyst Andrew Tyndall dipped into his videotape library and screened the Nightly News segment in which Williams said “he was in a convoy of helicopters, one of which got hit,” Tyndall told The Daily Beast.

NBC News, meanwhile, unearthed a March 26, 2003, Dateline segment in which Williams reported: “On the ground, we learn that the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown of the sky.”

Whether Williams’ Chinook was flying in close formation with the chopper that was hit—as his NBC reports imply—or was traveling as much as an hour behind it—as Stars and Stripes’ witnesses contend—remains a matter in dispute. “Williams arrived in the area about an hour later on another helicopter after the other three had made an emergency landing, the crew members said,” Stars and Stripes reported.

The Williams claim to have been under fire recalls 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s false assertion that, as first lady in March 1996, she came under sniper fire during a trip to Tuzla, Bosnia. “I remember landing under sniper fire,” Clinton said during a speech. “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base." CBS News video of Clinton’s arrival showed no such thing; instead she alighted on the tarmac and greeted a welcoming child who offered her a poem.

Needless to say, the standards of veracity and accuracy demanded of a network news anchorman are much higher than those expected of a politician. Clinton ended up in a world of hurt for her Bosnia fabrication, and Williams, at least for the near future, might suffer a similar hard landing.

“The actual lie is a trivial one,” Tyndall said, noting that it has zero public policy or political implications. “But the motive for the lie is really damning. Telling fibs to make yourself seem braver than you are? Why would you do that? The actual consequences of the lie are minimal, but the moral problems the lie raises are massive.”

Tyndall, however, said Williams can recover. “But it all depends on how much is mobilized against him and how contrite and forthcoming he is in response to it. This is not fatal, but it’s really bad.”