Williams’s Helicopter Story Evolved After Eyewitness Died in 2007, Boss Left NBC in 2013

Brad Barket/Getty Images/AFP
Brad Barket/Getty Images/AFP

Brian Williams’s story about his 2003 reporting mission to Iraq has evolved dramatically since he first told it in March of 2003.

William debuted the first version of the story on the March 26, 2003 edition of the NBC Nightly News, two days after the events took place. Over the years, he unveiled two embellished versions of the story. With each new version, the tale became more dramatic. By the third version, Williams had conflated his self-portrayal into one steeped in the valor of the soldiers whose activities he reported.

In the first version, Williams told anchor Tom Brokaw (my bold):

It all started Monday morning, a round trip that’s supposed to take six hours. Routine, yes, but we’re all aware it’s over Iraqi air space. And in war, routine gets thrown out the window…

Sergeant Clay Sower of Washington state is with the Bravo 159th Army Aviation Regiment based in Germany, now deployed here in Kuwait. Their job is to move troops and supplies around the battlefield. Today that means dropping huge sections of a steel bridge near Najaf, some 100 miles south of Baghdad. We’re going along for the ride. We are one of four Chinook helicopters flying north this morning, third in line. . .

Suddenly, without knowing why, we learned we’ve been ordered to land in the desert. On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky. That hole was made by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, fired from the ground. It punched cleanly through the skin of the ship, but amazingly it didn’t detonate. Though the chopper pilots are too shaken to let us interview them, we learned they were shot at by some of those waving civilians, one of whom emerged from under a tarp on a pick-up truck like this one and shot the grenade.

One aspect of the first version of Williams’ story in particular has been seriously disputed. Most subsequent reports indicate that the chopper that was hit by RPG fire and forced to land was not immediately in front of or even visible to Williams, as his reporting at the time suggested. Instead, it landed thirty minutes to one hour before the helicopter on which he was traveling landed.

As the Omaha World Herald reported on Thursday:

But soldiers who were there, including two who now live in southeast Alabama, say he [Williams] wasn’t in the group of helicopters that were fired on and, in fact, didn’t arrive on the scene until at least half an hour after the attack.

“That’s why I was in shock that he made that claim,” said Wiregrass resident Don Helus, the pilot who maneuvered the wounded Chinook to a safe landing in the desert after a rocket-propelled grenade damaged it. “They had no damage, and they didn’t take fire.”

From 2003 on, Williams’ story has irritated crew members of the two units who encountered the correspondent that day. Helus said he saw Williams’ initial March 26, 2003, report soon afterward, when someone emailed him a clip.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw introduced the report: “Our colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies over Iraq.”

Helus promptly emailed Williams’ producer and asked for a retraction. He said he never heard back.

“My crew was a little upset about that — somebody trying to make a claim to inflate their career,” Helus said.

Williams debuted the second version of his story during a three month period beginning in July 2007, shortly after his traveling companion on that 2003 trip, General Wayne Downing, died, and ending in a September 2007 interview of then-General David Petraeus.

In July 2007, just days after the death of General Downing, Williams wrote this in a blog post about the 2003 Iraq reporting mission he and Downing undertook:

Not long after Wayne’s warning, some men on the ground fired an RPG through the tail rotor of the chopper flying in front of ours. There was small arms fire. A chopper pilot took a bullet through the earlobe. All four choppers dropped their heavy loads and landed quickly and hard on the desert floor.

With this post, Williams added specificity to the now-debunked claim he first made in 2003 that a helicopter that was part of the group of four in which he was travelling was hit by RPG fire. One part of the story, that would evolve further in 2013, added the detail that “a chopper pilot [of one of the four choppers in the convoy] took a bullet through the earlobe.

Then, in his September 2007 interview with General Petraeus, Williams added what most witnesses say is additional false information: that the helicopter in which he was a passenger was fired upon.

Williams told Petraeus in that interview:

[A]t the start of the war [in 2003], when I was flying in a Chinook with General Downing, that helicopter was shot at by a farmer. He wasn’t even yet known as an insurgent. We didn’t know we had insurgents yet. It was too early in the invasion.

For a brief period on Thursday, a man who claimed to have piloted William’s helicopter in that 2003 mission, Rich Krell, told CNN that the helicopter was subjected to small arms fire.

However, by Friday morning, Krell had recanted his story to CNN, and another man who says he piloted the helicopter in that 2003 mission, Chris Simeone, told the New York Post that Williams’ version of the mission was completely inaccurate.

The second version had a brief public run. There is little evidence that Williams spoke publicly about either the first or second version of his 2003 Iraq reporting mission from late 2007 until early 2013.
But that changed in February 2013 when NBC President Steve Capus resigned.

In May, 2013 Capus was replaced by Deborah Turness, a British journalist with little knowledge of American politics.

“Ms. Turness’s role will be somewhat smaller than that of her predecessors, who reported directly to the NBC Universal chief executive,” the Wall Street Journal reported at the time of her hiring.

With the last vestige of “adult supervision” that could constrain Williams’ embellishments now removed from the scene, and no left to contradict him except rank-and-file soldiers, Williams soon began to tell an even more dramatic third version of his story, one that emphasized his own personal courage during war time.

On March 4, 2013, one month after the departure of Capus and two months before the appointment of Turness, Williams debuted the third version of the story in a WNYC radio interview with Alec Baldwin.

On March 26, 2013 Williams delivered a detailed edition of the third version of the story on the Late Show with David Letterman (ten years to the day after his initial broadcast of the story with Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News). Here’s the partial transcript. The story begins at 2:45:

Letterman: Something happened ten years ago in Iraq. Tell people what that was.

Williams: I brought a photo which arrived in my email two mornings ago of where I was tonight a decade ago. This very day.This was me ten years ago and a young command sergeant major. I was in Iraq…

We were in some helicopters. What we didn’t know was we were north of the invasion.

We were the northern most Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the Third Infantry could cross on them.

Two of our four helicopters were hit by groundfire, including the one I was in . . . RPG and AK-47. . .We were only at 100 feet doing 100 forward knots…

We landed very quickly and hard. . . We were north out ahead of the other Americans. . .
So we got hit, we set down. Everyone was OK. Our captain took a Purple Heart injury to his ear in the cockpit.

In this new and improved third version, Williams placed the chopper pilot who received an ear injury (who in the second version was only one of the pilots in the four chopper convoy) in the chopper in which he was a passenger.
Williams repeated this third version in January 2015 at an event designed to honor a soldier whom he had met during his 2003 reporting mission in Iraq.

Earlier this week, Stars and Stripes reported that the rank-and-file soldiers who had personally witnessed the 2003 events in Iraq surrounding Williams’s reporting mission say his story is false.

In Wednesday evening’s broadcast of the NBC Nightly News, Williams apologized and admitted that he had “misremembered” the events of his 2003 reporting mission in Iraq.

Ironically, in May of 2014, former NBC President Capus was named Executive Producer of the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, the third-place nightly network news show, and Executive Editor at CBS.

Breitbart News asked Capus to comment on this story, but he declined to respond.

While Williams has retracted the third version of his 2003 Iraq reporting mission story, the fourth version is still evolving.


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