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General sought to warn Bush of Tillman friendly-fire death

A portrait of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, a former NFL star with the Arizona Cardinals, was part of an exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE 2005)

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Just seven days after the death of NFL star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, a top general warned that there were strong indications that it was friendly fire and that President Bush might embarrass himself if he said Tillman died in an ambush, according to a memo obtained by the Associated Press.

It was not until a month afterward that the Pentagon told the public and grieving family members the truth, that Tillman was mistakenly killed in Afghanistan by his comrades.

The memo reinforces suspicions that the Pentagon was more concerned with sparing officials embarrassment than with leveling with Tillman's family.

In a memo sent to a four-star general a week after Tillman's April 22, 2004, death, Major General Stanley McChrystal warned that it was highly possible that the Army Ranger was killed by friendly fire. McChrystal made it clear that his warning should be conveyed to the president.

"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," McChrystal wrote on April 29, 2004, to General John Abizaid, head of Central Command.

White House spokesman Blain Rethmeier said yesterday that a review of records turned up no indication that the president had received McChrystal's warning. Bush made no reference to the way Tillman died in a speech delivered two days after the memo was written. But Rethmeier emphasized that the president often pays tribute to fallen soldiers without mentioning the exact circumstances of their deaths.

The family was not told what really happened until May 29, 2004. In the intervening weeks, the military continued to say Tillman died under enemy fire and awarded him the Silver Star, which is given for heroic battlefield action.

The Tillman family has alleged that the military and the Bush administration deliberately deceived his relatives and the nation to avoid turning public opinion against the war.

Tillman's mother, Mary, had no immediate comment yesterday on the newly disclosed memo.

The memo was provided to the AP by a government official who requested anonymity because the document was not released as part of the Pentagon's official report on the way the Army brass withheld the truth. McChrystal was the highest-ranking officer accused of wrongdoing in the report, issued earlier this week.

In the memo, McChrystal expressed concern that Bush and Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee may give speeches in which they misstated the facts about Tillman's death.

A former spokesman for Abizaid did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages.

As for Brownlee, he told investigators he did not recall learning Tillman was killed by his fellow Rangers until several weeks after the fact. He told investigators he did not discuss the matter with the White House.

A spokesman for McChrystal said he had no comment.

McChrystal is still commander of Joint Special Operations Command, head of the "black ops" forces. He has since been promoted to lieutenant general. Abizaid was in charge of American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia.

In his memo, McChrystal said he had heard Bush and Brownlee "might include comments about Corporal Tillman's heroism and his approved Silver Star medal in speeches currently being prepared, not knowing the specifics surrounding his death."

McChrystal said he expected an investigation underway "will find that it is highly possible Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire."

At the same time, McChrystal said: "The potential that he might have been killed by friendly fire in no way detracts from his witnessed heroism or the recommended personal decoration for valor in the face of the enemy."

On Monday, the Pentagon released the findings of an investigation into the circumstances of Tillman's death and into whether the military covered them up.

The investigators recommended that nine Army officers, including McChrystal, be held accountable for errors in reporting the friendly-fire death to their superiors and to Tillman's family. McChrystal was found "accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions" contained in papers recommending that Tillman get the Silver Star.

Some of the officers involved said they wanted to wait until the investigations were complete before informing the Tillman family.

The latest document obtained by the AP suggests that officials at least as high as Abizaid knew the truth weeks before the family.

Tillman was killed after his Army Ranger comrades were ambushed in eastern Afghanistan. Rangers in a convoy trailing Tillman's group had just emerged from a canyon where they had been fired upon. They saw Tillman and mistakenly fired on him.

The White House has been careful not to wade into the circumstances of Tillman's death. The day after Tillman died, a spokesman said he "was an inspiration on and off the football field," but made no reference to the specifics of the episode.

In a speech given two days after McChrystal's memo, Bush made no mention of how Tillman died.

"The loss of Army Corporal Pat Tillman last week in Afghanistan brought home the sorrow that comes with every loss and reminds us of the character of the men and women who serve on our behalf," Bush said at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.