Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Wednesday the family of Army Ranger and football star Pat Tillman deserved the truth and an apology about his death by US Army fire in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld, making his first appearance before the US Congress since leaving office last year, told a hearing the Army made errors in handling the investigation of Tillman's death in 2004, but he said "in no instance" was there a coverup by the Pentagon.
"I don't think there was a coverup," said General John Abizaid, former head of the US Central Command responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan. "I think people tried to do the right thing and the right thing didn't happen."
The two testified before the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Abizaid acknowledged mistakes were made in relaying information up and down the chain of command, including a failure to advise the administration of President George W. Bush quickly that Tillman's death may have been caused by his fellow US soldiers.
"It's very difficult to come to grips with how we screwed this thing up," Abizaid said, "but we screwed this thing up."
Tillman became a patriotic symbol in the US when he gave up a US$3.6 million National Football League career with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
He died on April 22, 2004, in Afghanistan. The Army initially said his death was due to enemy fire and Tillman was awarded the Silver Star eight days later.
The military did not acknowledge Tillman was killed by fellow soldiers until a month later on May 29.
Rumsfeld, who was replaced as defense secretary by Robert Gates, said: "The Tillmans were owed the truth, delivered in a forthright and timely manner. And certainly the truth was owed to the memory of the man whose valor, dedication and sacrifice to his country remains an example for all."
Asked if they deserved an apology, he said: "Indeed, as I said in my memo some time back ... And as I've said publicly here today."
His testimony came a day after the US Army censured retired Lieutenant General Philip Kensinger, former head of the Army Special Operations Command, for lying about Tillman's death. Six other officers received reprimands.
Rumsfeld told the committee he did not recall when he learned Tillman had been killed by US forces but said it was sometime after May 20, 2004.
He was greeted by protesters denouncing him as a war criminal, but he ignored them.
"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. I know that the gentlemen sitting next to me are men of enormous integrity and would not participate in something like that," Rumsfeld said.
He also denied suggestions that there was an effort between the White House and the Pentagon to coordinate media strategies when responding to questions about Tillman's death.
"I can say without qualification that I can't recall ever having a discussion with anyone in the White House on press strategy relating to the Tillman matter in any aspect of it," Rumsfeld said.
He defended his decision not to intervene more directly in the case, which has been investigated repeatedly, saying senior commanders had to avoid doing "anything privately or publicly that could be characterized as command influence, which could alter the outcome of an investigation."