Rumsfeld Back in Fighting Trim

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the combat fratricide of NFL star and US Army Ranger Pat Tillman on Capitol Hill August 1, 2007 in Washington, DC.

Nine months of retirement haven't mellowed Donald Rumsfeld. Back on Capitol Hill Wednesday for the first time since he resigned in November as Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld sparred with Democratic Congressmen and pushed back hard against accusations that the top leadership in the Pentagon tried to cover up the friendly-fire killing of Army ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004.

Questions focused on which key Defense department leaders knew what and when about the death. The military had initially told the Tillman family that the former football star had been killed by enemy fire. But seven Army investigations have concluded he was inadvertently gunned down by fellow Rangers. Rumsfeld called the errors in the initial reports of Tillman's death "most unfortunate" and acknowledged that Tillman's family "were owed the truth — delivered in a forthright and timely manner." But when it came to suggestions that the Pentagon conspired with the White House to spin Tillman's death, Rumsfeld was uncharacteristically clear: "I have not been involved in any cover-up whatsoever."

Rumsfeld almost didn't testify. As recently as the day before, Rumsfeld had declined the invitation to appear, citing "logistical difficulties." But his decision to come before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee proved to be a shrewd move. Had he stayed away, Rumsfeld's absence would have left many questions about his role unanswered and open to speculation. By doing so, he was able to form a united front with former Chairman of Joint Chiefs Richard Meyers, and former U.S. Central Command chief General John Abizaid — a trio of the highest-ranking Pentagon leaders at the time of the incident — against accusations that a cover-up was orchestrated from the highest levels. Rumsfeld and the generals gave vague but plausible explanations for when they heard the truth about Tillman's death and how they were powerless to make sure the family knew.

Instead, blame was heaped on the guy who wasn't there, Philip Kensinger, the retired three-star general who was head of the Special Forces command at the time. A review panel will soon consider an Army recommendation that Kensinger lose a star for lying under oath to investigators about when he knew that Tillman's death may have been military fratricide. According to an official reprimand of Kensinger released by the Army, subordinates recall the general seeing a report that Tillman may have been killed by friendly fire and responding, "Damn, I wish they had not told me." Yet, according to the same document, Kensinger said nothing to Tillman's relatives during the memorial service that occurred soon after. Indeed, the family did not hear about the friendly fire theory till a few weeks after the service. The House committee issued a subpoena for Kensinger to appear, but the U.S. Marshals' service was unable to deliver it before the hearing, according to a committee staffer who characterized Kensinger as "confrontational and not willing to cooperate." Congressmen still want to know how one eyewitness's report to the killing was allegedly rewritten to include enemy fire as a cause of Tillman's death.

One thing that the committee feels it has clearly proven, said ranking member Tom Davis (R-Virginia) is "serial ineptitude up and down the Army and civilian chains of command." Rumsfeld's testimony today did nothing to change that.