In the initial NBC broadcast where he described his 2003 Iraq reporting mission, embattled NBC anchor Brian Williams falsely claimed that “we saw the guy . . . [who] put a round through the back of a chopper,” which he further and incorrectly claimed was “the Chinook [helicopter] in front of us.”
Williams filed three reports from Kuwait for NBC News on March 26, 2003. The first was a live broadcast at noon Eastern, the second at 6:30 pm Eastern on the NBC Nightly News, and the third later that night in prime time on NBC Dateline. A review of all three transcripts (obtained from Nexis courtesy of MRC) shows that as the day wore on, Williams’s claims, and in particular the claim that he saw the guy who fired the RPG that downed the chopper “in front of us,” became less expansive.
Over the subsequent years, however, that process reversed. Williams reverted to increasingly dramatic and even less accurate versions of the claim. Williams made the false claim he “saw the guy” who fired the RPG that took down the chopper in front of the one in which he was riding in his first report to Tom Brokaw in a live broadcast from Kuwait at noon eastern on March 26, 2013. Williams did not repeat the claim in two subsequent, more carefully edited broadcasts that aired later that day on the NBC Nightly News and NBC Dateline.
The Nexis transcript of that live noon interview with Tom Brokaw on NBC News shows that Williams said he saw an event that military eyewitnesses confirm he did not see:
Tom, I know you remember Somalia all too well, those hopped up pickup trucks, some of them with 50 caliber machine guns on the back. In our case, it was a rocket-propelled grenade underneath a tarp. We saw the guy. We flew over a bridge. He waved to the lead pilot very kindly. With that someone else removed the tarp, stood up, and put a round through the back of a chopper missing the rear rotor by four or five feet.
On the Nightly News broadcast a little more than six hours later, Williams removed himself as a witness to the firing of the RPG:
Our lead chopper pilot remembers seeing a pickup truck driver stop and wave while another man pulled back a tarp, stood up in the back of the truck and fired an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade. Rifle fire came from yet another Iraqi.
And later, in the Dateline broadcast, Williams’s tale evolved again in its third telling that day.
At the 1:48 mark of the Dateline video we hear the voice of Williams.
“Down below some civilians, seemingly happy to see us,” Williams says.
The video pans for a few seconds to a shot from the helicopter of what appears to be an empty village. No civilians are readily visible to the naked eye, “seemingly happy” or otherwise.
However, in the accompanying audio, the origin of which is uncertain, the words support Williams’s claim.
Voice #1: See those people at 9:00 down on the ground? They’re not doing anything.
Veterans who were there say that in another section of the Dateline video, the audio supporting yet a different false claim made by Williams (that his chopper came under fire) was taken from radio traffic intercepted from the north-bound “Big Windy” three-chopper convoy on a separate mission from the two-chopper “Hercules” convoy in which Williams had hitched a ride.
Having given the viewers the impression he had seen “seemingly happy” civilians from his seat in the helicopter, Williams then describes how “the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky” (another claim disputed by the veteran eyewitnesses) by those same civilians, starting at the 2:29 mark:
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.
Two years later, in 2005 Williams resurrected the tale first told in the live noon March 26, 2003 broadcast. In an appearance on CNBC with Tim Russert, he once again claimed he personally witnessed the firing of the RPG that hit the chopper directly in front of the one in which he was riding:
[T]he 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.
By 2007, Williams’s claim evolved even further. Now, not only could he see the guy who fired the shot, he was able to “look down the tube” of the RPG from an altitude of at least several hundred feet.
As Ed Morrissey reported at HotAir:
Williams tells Fairfield University reporter Emily Fitzmaurice in November 2007 about all of the close calls he’s had as a reporter, including the 2003 incident in Iraq in which he looked down the tube of the RPG launcher.
WILLIAMS: I’ve been very, very lucky the way my life has turned out. I’ve been very lucky to have survived a few things that I’ve been involved in. At a reception a few minutes ago, I was remembering — I tend to forget the war with Hezbollah in Israel a few years back, where there were Katyusha rockets passing just underneath the helicopter I was riding. A few years before that, we go back to Iraq, and I look down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us, and it hit the chopper in front of ours. And I’m so fortunate to be sitting here.
By 2013, as Williams spoke to David Letterman on the 10th anniversary of his broadcast from Kuwait, his story had evolved even further. Not only was he able to look down the tube of the RPG, now, for the first time in ten years, the RPG hit the helicopter on which he was riding, and not simply “the Chinook [helicopter] in front of us.”
Had Williams not been caught in his lie, we can only wonder how far this and other lies might have evolved by the 20th anniversary of the event in 2023. Despite admittedly putting out fake news, Williams still has a career in broadcast journalism.