Was Pat Tillman Death Negligent Homicide?
The San Francisco Chronicle fronts a Matthew Stannard piece saying the Army has opened an inquiry into the April 2004 death of Pat Tillman that “will likely lead investigators from the Army Criminal Investigation Command to return to Afghanistan and conduct a monthslong investigation into whether Tillman’s death may have been a homicide, the result of criminal negligence or an accident.”
The initial investigating officer became a key witness in a subsequent inquiry, in which he testified that he thought some Rangers “could be charged for criminal intent.” For reasons that are not clear, the officer’s investigation was taken over by a higher-ranking commander. That officer’s findings, delivered the next month, called for less severe discipline than the initial investigator thought was warranted.
Tillman’s death was the subject of four reviews — two by the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, one by U.S. Army Special Forces Command and one by the Army’s Safety Center, which focused on preventing a similar case.
Seven soldiers received administrative reprimands, but no high-ranking officers have been disciplined. Tillman’s parents, who obtained heavily redacted versions of the investigations from the Army, complained publicly that the documents showed that Pentagon commanders — including Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command — had known soon after Tillman’s death that friendly fire had killed him.
The Army apologized in June 2005. But Tillman’s family, with the support of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and of Rep. [Mike] Honda [D-San Jose], demanded a further review of the case, and the inspector general agreed in August to conduct the review that led to Friday’s request for a criminal investigation.
The problem, however, is that none of the coverage on this gives any indication at all that Tillman’s death was the result of anything more nefarious than a poor tactical decision made at the platoon level.
Tillman’s platoon was split after a humvee became disabled — a decision one platoon leader protested was dangerous — and the two sides lost contact in a canyon, with Tillman’s group in the lead.
Some time later, according to testimony, the second group spotted Tillman’s group and opened fire wildly, despite the efforts of their lead vehicle driver — who recognized the group as friendly — and Tillman’s own efforts to identify himself by shouting and setting off a smoke grenade.
Somebody made a command decision that went terribly wrong. It is unclear what “one platoon leader” means in this context since there is only on Platoon Leader. Did some squad or team leader raise an objection?
Regardless, absent substantial evidence to the contrary, one does not charge leaders with crimes for poor tactical decisions. The risk of death is sufficient enough stress not to compound it with post hoc second guessing with criminal consequences.
The CNN‘s account offers no help, either, telling us that “fellow soldiers shot Tillman, thinking he was part of an enemy force firing at them.” We have known that for well over a year now.
WaPo also puts the story on A1. The key sentence: “Pentagon officials notified Tillman’s family on Friday that a review of the case by the Defense Department’s inspector general has determined that there is enough evidence to warrant a fresh look, after initial investigations that were characterized by secrecy, mishandling of evidence, and delays in reporting crucial facts about what had happened.”
The NYT account offers a bit more clarity:
Pentagon officials said no new evidence had prompted the inquiry and would not speculate about the outcome or timing. But the officials said that given the confusion on a battlefield, it would be highly unusual to pursue criminal charges against a soldier for the death of a comrade.
Col. Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman, said that the scope of the new inquiry had yet to be defined but that investigators would look at whether the soldiers violated military law when they failed to identify their targets before opening fire on his position.
Army Rangers are not policemen. On the other hand, their Rules of Engagement (ROE) might have required them to act as if they were, announcing themselves to a target unless they were being fired upon. While that would have likely saved Tillman’s life in this case, it would likely get a lot of more Rangers killed as a general policy, taking away the element of surprise and ensuring the enemy always got in the first shot.
A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said that the inspector general in ordering another inquiry had not found evidence of a criminal offense, in Corporal Tillman’s death or in the other investigations. Rather, Mr. Whitman said, the inspector general concluded that the Army had failed to conduct a thorough enough investigation, including the possibility of criminal activity, immediately after Corporal Tillman’s death on April 22, 2004.
So, the “possibility of criminal activity” is merely a routine throw-in to emphasize that this would be a thorough investigation, rather than an indication that anyone thinks criminal behavior resulted in Tillman’s death.
Most of these stories highlight the continued frustration of Tillman’s family. From WaPo:
Mary Tillman [Pat’s mother] said yesterday that she believes evidence of a crime has existed all along, and that the family’s repeated calls for a criminal investigation were ignored until now. “It is completely obvious that this should have been done from the very beginning,” she said. “The military has had every opportunity to do the right thing, and they haven’t. They knew all along that something was seriously wrong, and they just wanted to cover it up.”
Patrick Tillman Sr. expressed skepticism that the new investigation will yield additional answers. “I think it’s another step,” he said. “But if you send investigators to reinvestigate an investigation that was falsified in the first place, what do you think you’re going to get?”
Indeed, it seems to me that the more likely finding of criminality would be in the events after Tillman’s death that led to it being reported as a heroic clash against the enemy rather than a tragic internecine blunder. While I understand why the Army would want that image to come out, for both altruistic and selfish reasons, knowlingly rendering a false report violates the UCMJ. Making a bad tactical decision to split one’s force does not.