Brian Williams Explains Mistakes in Iraq Story: I Was ‘Scared’

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NBC News Anchor Brian Williams speaks onstage at The New York Comedy Festival and The Bob Woodruff Foundation present the 8th Annual Stand Up For Heroes Event at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 5, 2014 in New York City.
Brian Williams speaks at The New York Comedy Festival in November 2014. Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Since removing himself from the airwaves following his weak on-air apology, Brian Williams has not commented publicly as the scandal over his various exaggerations threatens to cost him his job. However, we got to hear a lengthy defense from the NBC Nightly News anchor on Monday when Stars and Stripes posted the audio from their interview with Williams on February 4, before he broadcast his apology. Asked how he could possibly misremember whether he was in a helicopter that came under fire during the Iraq War, Williams explains, “It was my first engagement of the war and remember I was — we were all I think — scared.” He says professionals may remember the situation differently, but “I did what a civilian, an untrained civilian, would do in that instance and it was being scared.”

Williams’s story shifts slightly during his conversation with reporter Travis J. Tritten. First he remarks: “All we knew is we had been fired upon. All we knew was we had set down and then with the arrival of the sandstorm, how do we defend our little desert bivouac area.”

When asked why it was initially reported that Williams’s helicopter was hit, he said: “No, I think I correctly reported as I did in my blog in ’08 that I was on the aircraft behind the one that was hit. It was not … Because I knew we had all come under fire, I guess I had assumed that all of the airframes took some damage because we all went down.”

Later, he admits that he’s conflated some of the details but says he knows he was flying with the aircraft that was hit: “It’s very basic, I would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other. The fact is, I remember three aircraft going down. I was on one of them. An additional aircraft aside from ours took an RPG through the rear housing above the ramp.”

In the last week, those involved in the 2003 incident have disputed that claim, saying that Williams’s helicopter was well behind the three choppers that came under fire (reports vary on whether they were 15 minutes or an hour behind). When Tritten mentions those claims, Williams says that’s news to him. “I did not think we were in trail by that far,” he says. “I could not see in front of us and I thought we were just in one flotilla, for lack of a better word. That’s the first time I’ve heard that.”

Williams says of his explanation, “I know it sounds outlandish,” and these newish comments aren’t likely to help his image. (Tritten suggested that Stars and Stripes posted the audio because Williams has yet to publicly answer questions on the topic, but it’s unclear why they waited five days.) The New York Times reports that prior to the scandal, Williams was the 23rd most-trusted person in the country, according to the Marketing Arm, but now he’s fallen to 835th. Even if Williams’s remarks explained why he misremembered the Iraq incident, it’s hard to imagine that fear made him shift his story about an Israeli helicopter incident years later and various events during Hurricane Katrina.

Brian Williams on Iraq Mistakes: I Was ‘Scared’