NEW YORK -- NBC News’ Justin Balding, a producer who traveled with Brian Williams on the March 2003 trip at the center of a controversy engulfing the "Nightly News" anchor, is refuting claims that he had also described being in an aircraft in Iraq that was hit by rocket-propelled grenade fire.
“With regard to a story posted online about me yesterday, I would like to state categorically that I have never been in a chopper that was hit by an RPG -- and I have never made any such claim,” Balding said in a Friday night email to The Huffington Post.
Balding didn’t specify which story he meant, but Deadline reported the previous day that a 2004 book mentions Balding made a claim similar to Williams regarding an RPG attack.
In the 2004 book Letters Home, military mom Mary Ward writes that Balding “told us that the helicopter that he was in with anchorman Brian Williams and General Wayne Downing (retired) was shot at by Iraqis.”
“It was an unforeseen and frightening event,” Ward wrote. “The Chinook they were flying in took a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and AK-47 in the cockpit requiring them to land unexpectedly.”
Breitbart News reported Sunday that Balding never told colleagues their helicopter was hit by RPG fire, citing an unnamed source with ties to NBC News.
Balding has given no public comments other than the email to HuffPost, in which he also referred this reporter to two NBC News spokeswomen.
In NBC's September 2003 book, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Balding is quoted about the helicopter incident.
“One of the chopper crews ahead of us spotted a pickup truck," Balding recalled. "As the Iraqis waved, a man suddenly whipped off a tarpaulin to reveal another man armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He took aim and fired.”
The book doesn't claim Williams' aircraft was hit by the RPG. But it does suggest Williams' helicopter had at least been part of the same mission as one that was struck. However, several Iraq War veterans have recently disputed the claim that Williams' aircraft was even part of the same group of helicopters, saying that it was instead in a second group flying anywhere from 15 minutes to about an hour behind. (NYU professor Jay Rosen looked Sunday at role of the 2003 NBC book in Williams' narrative through the years).
Williams admitted last week to falsely claiming to have ridden in a helicopter struck by an RPG and forced down in Iraq. But Williams' shifting accounts of the 2003 Iraq trip -- along with questions about other reporting, from Hurricane Katrina to Israel -– has cast doubt on whether he’ll remain in the anchor desk.
NBC News is currently investigating Williams’ Iraq and Katrina claims, and the anchor announced Saturday he was taking temporary leave from the newscast.
This story has been updated to include reference to a 2003 book in which Balding is quoted about the helicopter incident.