Well, this is a little embarrassing: Brian Williams was forced to recant a harrowing tale he’s been telling about himself for over a decade because it wasn’t true. For years, the anchor has claimed that during a 2003 trip to Iraq, his Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and forced to the ground. He shared the story again at a Friday night New York Rangers game.
“The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG,” he said. “Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded, and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”
However, when Stars and Stripes spoke to some of the soldiers who were with the anchor and his crew in Iraq, the newspaper learned that Williams’s description of events was less than accurate. While three Chinook helicopters did come under fire and make emergency landings on the day Williams made his visit, no one from NBC was on them. From Stars and Stripes:
Williams and his crew were actually aboard a Chinook that 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.
When asked to explain himself, Williams said: “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 with another.” Nearly getting shot out of the sky does seem like the sort of experience one would remember pretty clearly (if it happened), but, you know, the fog of war.
The story Williams told at Friday’s Rangers game differs greatly from versions he’s told for over a decade. In 2003, Williams said he was traveling in a Chinook helicopter when he “learn[ed] the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.” The passage about the incident in the NBC book Operation Iraqi Freedom is equally vague, but still does not say whether Williams witnessed or was a part of the event.
By 2007, Williams’s accounting of his participation in the event switched from something that occurred before he arrived to something he was directly involved in. According to CNN, he said in a 2007 segment that the chopper “in front of ours” was taken down, and that they “were fired on and forced down for three days in a stretch of hostile desert in a sandstorm.”
By 2013, the fog of war has clouded Williams’s memory so profusely that he says he was actually in one of the shot-down Chinooks. On Late Show With David Letterman, Williams states that “two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.” That’s the story he’s stuck with since, and the one he’s been forced to recant.
Williams was forced to issue an embarrassing apology on Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News, but he attempted to couch it as a good act gone bad. “This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran,” he said.
Dissatisfied with Williams’s half-apology, some wondered Thursday morning if the lie would lead to his firing. The Baltimore Sun questioned whether Williams will damage NBC’s credibility as a news network. TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall told the Daily Beast, “This is not fatal, but it’s really bad.”
“The actual lie is a trivial one,” Tyndall said. “But the motive for the lie is really damning. Telling fibs to make yourself seem braver than you are? Why would you do that? The actual consequences of the lie are minimal, but the moral problems the lie raises are massive.”
The facts of Williams’s experience are still unclear. On CNN’s The Lead, Rich Krell, the pilot of the helicopter that was carrying Williams, told Tapper that while it was not hit by RPG fire, it was struck by “small arms fire.”
“We were a flight of three,” Krell said. “I was on the second aircraft. Mr. Williams was aboard my aircraft. We took small arms fire. All I know, one RPG was fired. It struck the lead aircraft which was about what we call six rotor discs in front of me.”
Krell said that he isn’t personally offended by Williams’s accounting of the story, and said, “We were all scared. That’s the truth. You know, there’s minor details here and there.”
“I do agree he needs to apologize and get the record set straight, but I don’t take offense to it personally, no,” he added.
Lance Reynolds, the flight engineer of the Chinook that was hit with RPG fire, accepted Williams’s apology in a message on Facebook.
“I appreciate the timely response by Brian Williams to correct the story and set the record straight,” Reynolds said. “I would not want to speculate on why the mistake was made. I personally accept his apology.”