Exclusive report: In his words: Brian Williams' interview with Stars and Stripes
WASHINGTON — NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams on Sunday scuttled what would have been his first public appearance to explain his situation when he canceled a planned appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Williams has only ever answered questions about the Iraq incident — how he ended up telling a war story he now admits was false — during an interview with Stars and Stripes.
The embattled anchor published a Facebook apology to troops after claiming he was in a Chinook forced down by rocket-propelled grenade fire in 2003, addressed the issue on air Wednesday, and issued a brief statement over the weekend saying he will temporarily leave the news desk while NBC investigates.
Questions have also arisen around statements he made about reporting on Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans in 2005, and Israel’s war with the militant group Hezbollah in 2006.
As NBC investigates and Williams keeps out of the public eye as his place as one of the most watched and trusted television news reporters in the country remains uncertain, Stars and Stripes is publishing a full transcript of the Feb. 4 interview in which the anchor admits he was never on the attacked helicopter and claims he was unaware his flight was not directly behind but actually far from the company that was hit.
Stars and Stripes reporter Travis J. Tritten: Speaking to these guys today they all told me they don’t understand how you could make a mistake like this. It is the opening of the war, the first week of the invasion. These are memories that are seared into people’s minds. There’s all this buildup to the war. And all of them told me they couldn’t understand how you could misremember what aircraft you were on or whether your aircraft was hit, so I’m just wondering how that could happen?
Brian Williams: Same reasoning in reverse. It was my first engagement of the war and remember I was — we were all I think — scared. I have yet to meet the veteran who doesn’t admit to cinching up a little bit when it starts, and it all became a fog of getting down on the ground, what do we do now, taking our direction from the air crews — I’m traveling with a retired four-star general — and then the arrival of the armored ‘mech’ platoon. So, a professional will look at this differently. They go into a kind of hyper-drive. I did what a civilian, an untrained civilian, would do in that instance and it was being scared. I think anyone in my shoes would admit that. It could not have been a more foreign environment. 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.
I had multiple guys tell me that they remember immediately after this the news coverage — this was within days of it — that you and NBC had reported that you were on the aircraft in those first broadcasts. So, is that not true?
On which aircraft?
On the aircraft that was hit.
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. Also, remember, adding to the fear of the moment was the fact that we unhooked, our load master let loose a huge, our cargo, so you go through this over-torque where you rise in the air before you settle, despite what was some dandy piloting by the crews of all three aircraft. It was like landing on the surface of the moon. And I’m going to have a far different recollection than the professionals. These are the guys, and I think maybe you know more than I do — Was it a mixture of Big Windy [Company] out of Germany and Air National Guard from the States? Because that is what I recall.
From Savannah, yeah, that is correct and what I was told my one of the crew members who was actually on your Chinook was that you guys were an hour behind this grouping of three Chinooks that were out in the front, and those three Chinooks out in the front came under fire and the middle one was hit.
And that’s the first I’ve heard of that. I did not think we were in trail by that far. I think that’s probably a good question for Tim [Ed.: Terpak, a retired soldier, was featured in the broadcast where Williams falsely claimed to be on the attacked Chinook], who I now learn witnessed the overflight. But 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.
So, you are going to provide that explanation to these guys [posted last week on Facebook] that you had read to me —
Are you guys going to do anything on the air to kind of correct the record?
I don’t know; I’ll talk to my boss. I am certainly willing. I did not, again … 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. And it was our first engagement of the war, a trip that eventually brought me to downtown Baghdad. And this is what I said to you earlier, my war experience in no way matches that of the professionals soldiers we were traveling with, and though we certainly had a variety of experiences from the airport road into Baghdad to Baghdad itself, after Col. Perkins led his thunder run. [Ed.: Col. David Perkins was commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.]
(Williams asks to go off the record, briefly, then goes back on the record.)
I just set out to call attention and honor a 23-year returning Army veteran with three Bronze stars, and all who serve with him and are still over there in uniform. I did not set out to in any way change the chronicle of what happened to us.
I know a lot of these guys are concerned about this reflecting on Terpak and I’m just wondering if you spoke with him. If you had a conversation about this.
Well, we’ve talked about what happened but not about any — there’s anger being expressed towards him?
No, the guys who I talked to today about you being on the aircraft that was hit were saying, ‘You know, we don’t want this to reflect badly on Terpak.’
That is my total goal here.
So, I am just wondering if you had discussed this with Terpak, this kind of controversy and what these guys have come out and said.
I have expressed my frustration that this is in some way going to take, going to soil what I attempted to do for him. Yes, I am very frustrated by this. Look, I deal with a lot of veterans groups and a lot of veterans. I’ve made it my business since we came back from OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] and because I didn’t serve myself -- I’m the son of a U.S. Army captain in the World War II era -- and I just, anything that takes attention away from him [Terpak], anything that ends up not honoring the veterans is a failure on my part. This is about honoring the people I saw over there. As I’ve said a million times publicly, [they are] the best team we’ve ever fielded.
Brian, again, thank you so much. Those are all the questions I have. Was there anything else you want to add?
No, I know it sounds outlandish. There is nothing else I can think of.