Did Brian Williams Lie to Tim Russert?

by Eliana Johnson

Did Brian Williams lie to Tim Russert about his notorious trip to Iraq, and did he do so just two years after the fact? 

Others have noted bits and pieces of Williams’s March 2005 exchange with Russert during an hour-long interview on the latter’s CNBC program. Williams had taken over as anchor of the Nightly News just months beforehand, at the end of 2004, and his interview with Russert was something of a retrospective on his career to date. 

Russert asked Williams to tell him about his experience “involving a helicopter that made you think about your life for several days at an end.” 

Williams went on to recount his infamous helicopter ride in vivid detail, telling Russert that “no more than 120 seconds” after spotting several enemy fighters on the ground below, the helicopter in front of him was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. 

“I believe it was our captain who took a small-arms — an AK-47 round right through the earlobe, Purple Heart,” he said. The captain of Williams’s helicopter Chris Simeone, has stepped forward with an article in the New York Post to say that he was neither struck by enemy fire nor received a Purple Heart. “I do not have a Purple Heart, and my ears are just fine,” Simeone said. Allan Kelly, an Army pilot also aboard Williams’s helicopter, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the same thing: that their chopper did not come under enemy fire. 

So what about that bullet to the ear and the Purple Heart? That appears to be a somewhat inaccurate version of the events that happened to the convoy well ahead of Williams, which really was forced down by enemy fire. Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper that broke the Williams story, published a report on the downing of the Chinook in April 2003. That report said nothing about Williams’s presence on the helicopter and indicated that the Chinook took two rounds of fire. Part of one bullet “hit the cheek of a passenger, an unidentified soldier from the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment in Illesheim, Germany. Sgt. Lance Reynolds, 29, of Hot Springs, Ark., the flight engineer, rushed to help him.” Reynolds is one of the servicemen who’s come forward to question Williams’s original story.

Here is Williams’s 2005 account in full: 

`Low and slow,’ remember those words. Because I was traveling with retired four-star General Wayne Downing, who was our military adviser. There is a bubble window in the wall of a Chinook helicopter made of Plexiglas, really so you can stick your head out and look below the helicopter and yet still be in an enclosed environment. General Downing, who knows a thing or two about this, looked out that window and said, `This is hot,’ meaning it was full of enemy. It was full of unpoliced Iraqis. He might have used one or two other choice words there, but I’ll leave it at hot, Tim. It was no more than 120 seconds later that the helicopter in front of us was hit. A pickup truck stopped on the road, pulled a tarp back; a guy got up, fired an RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. These were farmers, or so they seemed. And it beautifully pierced the tail rotor of the Chinook in front of us.

I believe it was our captain who took a small arms–an AK-47 round right through the earlobe, Purple Heart. We set down quickly. We dropped our loads. The helicopter goes up when it releases that much tonnage, but then we sat down on the deck hard and fast, from low and slow to hard and fast. We were assessing the damage on the ground, realizing we had landed in a hot zone–There were Iraqis in the neighborhood–wondering what we were going to do when we heard a distinctive sound. Once you’ve heard a Bradley, there’s a kind of mechanical metal-on-sand whining and grinding, and out from the hatch popped the head of this fairly new West Point cadet turned first lieutenant named Eric Nye, who, recognizing we were in trouble, dispatched his armored mechanized platoon, and they surrounded us for three days.

Oh, and then the famous sandstorm moved in. The air turned orange. We were grounded. We watched the war play out over our heads. We watched those multiple rocket launchers in the night sky. We watched the military supply line in the distance. It was an amazing seat to have for the war, but for the following problem. My network and my family had no idea where I was. We didn’t bring a satellite phone that day. We had no communications. We couldn’t break radio silence because we were in Iraqi-held territory. But, again, when you live to tell about it, you can someday do the Tim Russert show on CNBC.

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