NEW YORK -– NBC News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday night that he was not riding in a helicopter hit by rocket-propelled grenade fire in Iraq, as he had claimed, but now the media are picking over his shifting accounts of the incident over the last decade.
Williams apologized on air Wednesday night for falsely claiming in a "Nightly News" segment five days earlier that he had been aboard a helicopter that was struck by an RPG and forced to land in late March 2003 during the earliest days of the U.S. invasion.
"On this broadcast last week, in an effort to honor and thank a veteran who protected me and so many others after a ground-fire incident in the desert during the Iraq War invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago," Williams said. "It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert. I want to apologize."
He clarified Wednesday that he had been in a helicopter following the one hit by an RPG. He recalled how his NBC News team and the air crew next "spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert," a detail that is not in dispute.
The on-air apology, however, may not suffice. Williams' public recollection of the events that day has changed several times over the past decade, ranging from his being unaware of the lead helicopter having been struck when changing course, to his apparently witnessing the attack, to his most recently claiming that he was in the rocket-damaged helicopter.
The fog of war continued Thursday, as members of Army flight crews told Stars and Stripes that the helicopter carrying Williams wasn't in the formation hit with enemy fire, but was instead flying "in a different direction, and linked to the attacked unit by radio only." Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper, broke the original story Wednesday.
The Iraq helicopter controversy is the first to shake Williams' decade-long tenure as anchor of "NBC Nightly News," the top-rated evening newscast. A network star, he may be able to ride out the unflattering press and social media swipes. But the same might have been said about then-"CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather, whose career at the network unraveled in 2004 after bloggers challenged documents he reported as detailing the young George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.
Rather, whose own controversy the media have revisited over the past 24 hours, defended Williams on Thursday.
"I don't know the particulars about that day in Iraq. I do know Brian," Rather said in a statement provided to The Huffington Post. "He's a longtime friend and we have been in a number of war zones and on the same battlefields, competing but together. Brian is an honest, decent man, an excellent reporter and anchor -- and a brave one. I can attest that -- like his predecessor Tom Brokaw -- he is a superb pro, and a gutsy one."
So far the network has also stood by its anchor. An NBC News spokesman did not comment Thursday when asked about the changes to Williams' account over the years.
The first time Williams described the incident was on March 26, 2003, a week after the U.S. invasion of Iraq began.
Brokaw, then the "Nightly News" anchor, told viewers that "for about 48 hours we did not see NBC's Brian Williams, and that's because he and NBC News analyst General Wayne Downing were hunkered down in the Iraqi desert during a U.S. Army helicopter mission that suddenly turned dangerous."
Williams, reporting from Kuwait City, described how the lead helicopter pilot of four Chinooks flying in formation had observed a man in a pickup truck fire an RPG and another man shoot a rifle. Williams didn't say in the report that the helicopter in which he was traveling had been hit. He noted that "all four choppers dropped their load and landed immediately."
That night, on NBC’s "Dateline," Williams expanded on the earlier report and suggested that he didn’t realize another helicopter, in front of the four, had been hit.
"We quickly make our drop and then turn southwest," Williams said. "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 version of the story, in which Williams doesn't witness the attack, matches what former crew members told Stars and Stripes. They described the anchor as being "nowhere near" the attack, having arrived in a fourth helicopter about an hour after the three helicopters in front were forced to make an emergency landing.
Rich Krell, who piloted the anchor's helicopter, told CNN on Thursday that some things Williams has said "are not true," but that some of what the crew members are "saying against him are not true either."
Krell recalled that three helicopters, not four, were flying in the formation when all of them, including Williams', were hit by small-arms fire. Krell said the helicopter in front of his was hit by the RPG.
Williams recalled the event similarly in the mid-2000s. In March 2005, he told the late Tim Russert on CNBC that "the helicopter in front of us was hit" that day, according to a CNN timeline of Williams’ shifting story.
He also wrote in a July 19, 2007, blog post on the death of Gen. Downing, the NBC analyst who accompanied him that day, how "some men on the ground fired an RPG through the tail rotor of the chopper flying in front of ours."
In a television segment on Downing's death, Williams said that the helicopters "we were traveling in at the start of the Iraq War were fired on and forced down for three days in a stretch of hostile desert in a sandstorm." He didn't distinguish between an RPG and small-arms fire, such as from a rifle.
A couple of months later, Williams again suggested that his helicopter had been fired upon. In a Sept. 12, 2007, interview with Gen. David Petraeus, he said that "at the start of the war, when I was flying in a Chinook with General Downing, that helicopter was shot at by a farmer."
Williams wrote in a May 2008 blog post that the helicopter in front of his "took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire."
But in a few March 2013 media appearances, a decade after the invasion, Williams' account became more harrowing.
On March 4, he told Alec Baldwin, on the actor's radio show, that he was once "in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe." When Baldwin asked if he thought he might die, Williams responded, "Briefly, sure."
Later that month, he recounted the story to David Letterman, saying that "two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in -- RPG and AK-47."
On Jan. 30 of this year, Williams recalled on the "Nightly News" that the "helicopter we're traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG." The segment was offering tribute to Sgt. Tim Terpack, who led the platoon that protected the NBC News crew in the desert that day. Williams and Terpack were shown at a New York Rangers game while the arena announcer described how the anchor's "Chinook helicopter was hit and crippled by enemy fire."
If Williams is stressed about the controversy, he isn't showing it. Shortly after apologizing Wednesday evening, he was back at Madison Square Garden, cheering on the Rangers alongside Tom Hanks.
Watch the video above.