Well, it happens. Who hasn’t been in a helicopter hit by an RPG a few times? Er … Brian Williams, even though the anchor of NBC News has been telling that story for more than a decade.
But hey, Williams was telling the story to “honor and thank a veteran.” By lying about being under fire?
On this broadcast last week in an effort to honor and thank a veteran who had protected me and so many others after a ground fire incident in the desert during the Iraq invasion I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago, it did not take long to hear from some brave men and women and the aircrews who were also in that desert. I want to apologize, I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. We all landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert. This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect and also now my apology.
So why apologize about it now? Turns out Stars and Stripes had found out the real story, from the veterans who were there:
Williams and his camera crew were actually aboard a Chinook in a formation that was about an hour behind the three helicopters that came under fire, according to crew member interviews.
That Chinook took no fire and landed later beside the damaged helicopter due to an impending sandstorm from the Iraqi desert, according to Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the aircraft that carried the journalists.
“No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft,” he said Wednesday.
The helicopters, along with the NBC crew, remained on the ground at a forward operating base west of Baghdad for two or three days, where they were surrounded by an Army unit with Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams M-1 tanks.
Miller said he never saw any direct fire on the position from Iraqi forces.
The initial claim from Williams came almost immediately, but the veterans said they were shocked to hear him tell the same lie last week:
Miller, Reynolds and Mike O’Keeffe, who was a door gunner on the damaged Chinook, said they all recall NBC reporting that Williams was aboard the aircraft that was attacked, despite it being false. The NBC online archive shows the network broadcast a news story on March 26, 2003, with the headline, “Target Iraq: Helicopter NBC’s Brian Williams Was Riding In Comes Under Fire.”
Williams disputed Wednesday claims the initial reports were inaccurate, saying he originally reported he was in another helicopter but later confused the events. In a 2008 NBC blog post with his byline, he wrote that the “Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor.”
O’Keeffe said the incident has bothered him since he and others first saw the original report after returning to Kuwait.
“Over the years it faded,” he said, “and then to see it last week it was — I can’t believe he is still telling this false narrative.”
The real story began coming out last week on Facebook, and the follow-up from Stars and Stripes appears to have forced Williams’ hand. Let’s not forget that Williams and NBC News have been retelling this story for a dozen years. Matt Vespa points out in his Townhall post that Williams recounted it two years ago on Late Night with David Letterman:
This isn’t “misremembering.” It’s a lie, coming from a man whose network has made him the face of their credibility. He took the experience of veterans who came under fire and appropriated it for himself. NBC News can certainly hire who it wants for its top newsreader and managing editor, but this will color every single report that Williams fronts from now on. Of course, this is the same news organization that runs MSNBC, so don’t hold your breath waiting for NBC execs to come to the rescue of their credibility.
By the way, as I mentioned on Twitter when this story broke, Robert Redford is currently making a movie that will argue that we should have trusted Dan Rather all along rather than ask questions about the stories he tells. Great timing, Robert.
Update: Williams’ Twitter account has no tweets, but Jeryl Bier says it’s not because he deleted them:
— Jeryl Bier (@JerylBier) February 5, 2015
It is a verified Twitter account, but he only follows four others. Not sure why he bothers.
Update: The Hollywood Reporter notes the same 2008 blog post as Stars and Stripes found, with a similarly false story:
Five years before David Letterman, in 2008, Williams penned another account of the false story on the Nightly News blog: “Wayne and I were riding along as part of an Army mission to deliver bridge components to the Euphrates River, so that the invading forces of the 3rd Infantry could cross the river on their way to Bagdhad. We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPG’s and AK-47’s. The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire.”
Update: A handy timeline of the lie, from T. Becket Adams:
2003: NBC “reports” downed chopper 2005: BW repeats at Vets Day event 2013: BW repeats on Letterman 2015: BW repeats at NY Rangers game
— T. Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) February 5, 2015
Note too the extensive details that Williams “misremembers” in that Letterman appearance.
Update: TV Newser says that Williams’ story had become rather embellished over the years:
In Williams’ original telling of the story, his helicopter lands without drama–or danger. “Suddenly, without knowing why, we learn we’ve been ordered to land in the desert,” Williams says. “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.” The crew aboard that helicopter, Williams reported, were took shaken to talk about the incident on camera.
But years later, Williams told a far more dramatic version of the story to David Letterman. …
It was that harrowing version of the story that led some veterans to post comments to the “Nightly News” Facebook page, openly–and pointedly–questioning Williams. “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened. Then I remember you guys taking back off in a different flight of Chinooks from another unit and heading to Kuwait to report your ‘war story’ to the Nightly News.”
How did being ordered to land–without knowing why–grow into a tale of gunfire, a hard landing, and a wounded pilot? Williams has only said “the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area–and the fog of memory over 12 years–made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”
Well, maybe. The veterans interviewed by Stars and Stripes make it pretty clear that they thought Williams and NBC News was lying from the start, though, and they were surprised that he was “still telling this false narrative.”
Update: In September 2004, Williams got introduced at an event with a description of the event similar to the earlier version — still false — noted by THR. It’s in all-caps at C-SPAN, so …
BRIAN BECAME THE FIRST NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT TO REACH BAGHDAD AFTER THE U.S. MILITARY INVASION OF THE CITY. HE WAS TRAVELING ON A U.S. ARMY CHINOOK HELICOPTER MISSION WHEN THE LEAD HELICOPTER WAS SHOT DOWN BY ROCKET-PROPELLED GRENADES FIRE. HE SPENT TWO DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE IRAQI DESERT SOUTH OF NAJAF WITH AN ARMORED TANK PLATOON OF THE THIRD INFANTRY DIVISION THAT WAS PROVIDING PROTECTION FOR THEM.
Again, Williams showed up an hour after the helicopters hit by fire landed, and was not among them in flight. Tonight Williams admitted, “No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft.” He sat there and didn’t correct the record when he had the chance. (via Roland Blunt in the comments)