WASHINGTON - Unanswered questions about the bungled response to Army Ranger Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death in Afghanistan reach into the highest ranks of the Pentagon and beyond, a key Democrat charged Wednesday.
Ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld watched from the witness table, hands clasped, shoulder-to-shoulder with other high-ranking former Pentagon officials, as Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, opened a hearing on the issue.
"The concealment of Corp. Tillman's fratricide caused millions of Americans to question the integrity of our government, yet no one will tell us when and how the White House learned the truth," said Waxman, D-Calif.
Before the hearing started, Rumsfeld entered the hearing room smiling, and shook hands with retired Gen. Richard Myers, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and retired Gen. John P. Abizaid, former commander of the U.S. Central Command.
Both joined him at the witness table.
Two activists held signs reading "war criminal."
"Are you not ashamed?" one said. Rumsfeld didn't react.
"This is not a rally or demonstration, let's keep that in mind," Waxman chided, before delivering his opening statement.
Tillman's mother Mary and other family members watched from the last row in the committee room.
The congressional inquiry comes a day after the Army laid most of the blame for the response to Tillman's death on Philip Kensinger, a retired three-star general who led Army special operations forces after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Army censured Kensinger for "a failure of leadership" and accused him of lying to investigators probing the aftermath of Tillman's death. For five weeks the Army knew Tillman was cut down by his fellow Army Rangers, but told the public and Tillman's own family that he died in a fire fight with enemy militia.
Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld defended himself and took no personal responsibility Wednesday for the military's bungled response to Army Ranger Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld, in his first public appearance on Capitol Hill since President Bush replaced him with Robert Gates late last year, reiterated previous testimony to investigators that he didn't have early knowledge that Tillman was cut down by fellow Rangers, not by enemy militia, as was initially claimed.
He told a House committee hearing that he'd always impressed upon Pentagon underlings the importance of telling the truth.
Army Secretary Pete Geren insisted, however, that there was no intentional Pentagon cover-up, and he rejected a suggestion that Rumsfeld knew the circumstances of Tillman's death before that information became public.
"I have no knowledge of any evidence to that end," Geren told a Pentagon briefing Tuesday after announcing Kensinger's censure.
A review panel made up of four-star generals will decide whether Kensinger should have his rank reduced. Geren also announced lesser punishments of seven other officers.
That wasn't good enough for Democrats, who along with Tillman's family suspect a cover-up that goes all the way to the White House.
The punishments "do nothing to lift the appearance of cover-up that continues to envelop the Pat Tillman story," said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., who represents Tillman's hometown of San Jose.
"It is inconceivable that numerous top-ranking generals ... were aware of the true circumstances of Pat's death, but did not inform their civilian superiors _ President Bush and then-Secretary Rumsfeld," said Honda, promising to "hold these commanders' feet to the fire" at Wednesday's hearing.
Waxman wanted to hear from Kensinger, and the committee issued a subpoena Monday for his testimony. As the hearing began U.S. marshals still hadn't been able to deliver it.
Kensinger's attorney, Charles W. Gittins, said Tuesday night that Kensinger was away on business travel.
"He declined the committee invitation to testify two weeks ago, so it was no surprise to the committee that he had no intent to participate in a hearing that is all about show and no substance," Gittins said in an e-mail message to The Associated Press.
Gittins said his client "had no reason to lie" and had told investigators "everything he knows" about the case. In May, in a rebuttal letter to the general who reviewed the matter, Kensinger firmly rejected all accusations that he had lied.
Gittins also dismissed accusations that Kensinger should have told the Tillman family about the possibility of friendly fire, saying the retired general "was not the release authority for the information." That "release authority," Gittins said, was Gen. John Abizaid, then the head of the U.S. Central Command.
Tillman's death received worldwide attention because he had walked away from a huge contract with the National Football League's Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after 9/11.
Among possible evidence of White House knowledge, lawmakers have cited a memo written by a top general seven days after Tillman's death warning it was "highly possible" the Army Ranger was killed by his own comrades and making clear his warning should be conveyed to the president.
President Bush made no reference to the way Tillman died in a speech delivered two days after the memo was written.
A White House spokesman has said there's no indication Bush received the warning in the memo written April 29, 2004, by then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Abizaid.
Abizaid was on the witness list for Wednesday's hearing.
McChrystal was spared punishment in the investigation report released Tuesday. The investigation concluded McChrystal behaved reasonably in assuming the supporting material for Tillman's Silver Star recommendation was accurate, and in conveying the message about the likelihood of friendly fire in Tillman's death.