When NBC News decided to suspend Brian Williams for six months, it seemed clear that the network’s “truth squad” had discovered lies — or “conflations” — beyond the one that initially got him into trouble. While NBC hasn’t commented on what they found, other news organizations are reporting on Williams’s further apparent untruths.
It turns out that the helicopter story probably isn’t the only thing Williams exaggerated from his 2003 visit to Iraq. The Huffington Post notes that on several occasions over the last few years, Williams has talked about traveling with SEAL Team 6, the unit that went on to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011. “We have some idea which of our special operations teams carried this out,” Williams told David Letterman shortly after bin Laden was killed. “It happens to be a team I flew into Baghdad with, on the condition that I would never speak of what I saw on the aircraft, what aircraft we were on, what we were carrying, or who we were after.”
In another telling, Williams said that he had been “told not to make any eye contact with them or initiate any conversation” with the SEALS. But, he said, that didn’t stop him from befriending the men. According to Williams, he got into a conversation with one of the elite soldiers about the knife he was carrying. “Darned if that knife didn’t show up at my office a couple weeks later,” Williams said. He also claimed that, nearly a decade after this supposed embed, a member of SEAL Team 6 sent him a souvenir from the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. “I got a white envelope and in it was a thank-you note, unsigned,” Williams said during another Late Show appearance. “And in it was a piece of the fuselage of the blown-up Black Hawk in that courtyard. Sent to me by one of my friends.”
The United States Special Operations Command and a former SEAL told the Huffington Post that this was all pretty unlikely:
“My initial reaction is it sounds completely preposterous. There’s a healthy dislike towards embedded journalists within the SEAL community,” said Brandon Webb, a writer and former SEAL sniper who helped train Chris Kyle. “I can’t even remember an embed with a SEAL unit. And especially at SEAL Team Six? Those guys don’t take journalists with them on missions.”
“We do not embed journalists with this or any other unit that conducts counter-terrorism missions,” United States Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw told HuffPost about SEAL Team 6. It’s not clear whether Williams could have come into contact with the team outside the formal embed process.
McGraw also noted that the Black Hawk Williams mentioned was blown up after the SEALs left bin Laden’s home, which means that nobody would have been able to grab a piece on the way out. If Williams did receive a part of the helicopter, someone would have needed to pick it out and send it to Williams after the wreckage was returned to the United States — as classified evidence.
Meanwhile, CNN Money notes some inconsistencies in Williams’s recollection of Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Catholic University. In his initial telling of that story, Williams said that he merely attended the Pope’s speech. Years later, he added that he shook the pontiff’s hand. And then, somehow, it turned into this:
“I have to begin with a beautiful day in 1979,” Williams said in an interview published by NBC News. “I was a student at Catholic University, and over the course of two hours, chatted up a Secret Service agent who spilled like a cup of coffee and told me that the pope would be coming our way, straight up the steps of a side door at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I positioned myself and held out my hand and said, ‘Welcome to Catholic University, Holy Father.’ And he embraced my hand with both of his, made the sign of the cross, and said a blessing to me.”
The same year, he told Esquire he met the pope simply by being in the right place at the right time — not thanks to a chatty Secret Service agent.
There are similar problems with his memory of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, which he has claimed to have witnessed from the Brandenburg Gate:
Williams did indeed witness some of the wall’s physical removal. But “the night the wall came down” is widely recognized as November 9, 1989, an iconic date with particular significance to Williams’ “Nightly News” predecessor Tom Brokaw. Brokaw was famously the only American anchorman to report live from the scene on that historic day, an accomplishment that NBC News has proudly trumpeted for years. It was a defining moment for Brokaw.
And Williams has, to be sure, consistently credited Brokaw and NBC for having a jump on the story. In a 2004 interview, Williams said he “arrived at the Berlin Wall a day after — more like 12 hours after — Tom Brokaw did.” “But I got there, and I have my own piece of the wall, my own piece of that memory that I’ll always hold tight to,” he added.
Other times, Williams has arguably conflated his experience with that of Brokaw’s. “Here’s a fact: 25 years ago tonight, Tom Brokaw and I were at the Berlin Wall,” Williams said at a gala held on November 8, 2014.
Is there more where that came from? Probably.