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The Brian Williams helicopter scandal: a clear timeline

Brian Williams giving an on-air apology
Brian Williams giving an on-air apology
Screenshot/NBC News

On January 30, Brian Williams spoke at a New York Rangers hockey game to pay tribute to a retired soldier, thanking him for protecting Williams and his camera crew in Iraq in 2003 after the helicopter he was riding in was forced down by enemy fire.

That would be a charming tribute, if it weren't for one problem: it's false. Williams wasn't fired on in Iraq.

Williams has apologized on the air, but the story hasn't gone away. On February 7, Williams announced in a press release that he would take a brief absence from anchoring NBC Nightly News. Here's what really happened, the false story that Williams told and then recanted, and why it matters.

What actually happened

In 2003, Williams was in Iraq to cover the US invasion. He and his camera crew were riding in a Chinook helicopter across the desert. Another group of three Chinooks were flying in formation about an hour ahead of them, and one of those helicopters was hit by an RPG and forced down. The other two Chinooks in the formation also made emergency landings. When Williams' helicopter caught up with the others, it landed as well.

It is not clear whether Williams' Chinook landed because the others had already made emergency landings, or because a sandstorm was rolling in. However, the sandstorm did arrive, which meant that all four helicopters, their pilots and crews, and the NBC News staffers were all stuck in the desert for several days.

But the main thing to know here is that everyone — including Brian Williams — agrees that his helicopter did not get hit by enemy fire. That did not happen.

Williams told a false story several times

But Williams has said that his helicopter was hit by enemy fire — on several occasions.

During his tribute speech on January 30, Williams said, "The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG."

He went on to claim, "Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the US Army 3rd Infantry."

During a March 2013 appearance on David Letterman, Williams said that "two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47."

A few weeks earlier, Williams had told a similar tale during an appearance on Alec Baldwin's WNYC podcast "Here's the Thing." Williams said that his "unbridled confidence" occasionally got him into trouble. "I've done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq, with rounds coming into the airframe." Baldwin asked Williams if he had thought he was going to die, and he replied "Briefly. Sure."

How the story grew over time

Williams hasn't always told that version of the story. In a March 2003 report for NBC News, he said that he hadn't learned about the attack on the other helicopter until after his Chinook had landed. "On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky."

Over the years that followed, however, the story evolved to become more dramatic. In 2005, Williams told Tim Russert that "the 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." Williams didn't claim to have seen that happen, but he spoke in the vivid language of a firsthand account.

In a 2007 blog post, Williams told an even more detailed story of the attack on the helicopter:

"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.

Again, Williams didn't actually claim to have been in the helicopter that was hit. But he did describe the incident in a way that condensed the timeline, saying that "all four" choppers landed quickly and hard, without mentioning that the first three had landed long before his. (It is worth noting that Williams may not have known how far behind the other helicopters he was, given that he could not see them.) In other words, the story had evolved again, and in a way that placed Williams closer to the attack.

Then, in a 2008 blog post, Williams made the shift to actually claiming that his helicopter was fired upon:

The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down — for the better (or worse) part of 3 days and 2 nights.

Williams has now recanted the story and apologized

Several veterans told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes that Williams' account was wrong. On Tuesday, the newspaper reported that his version of events was fake. Speaking to the paper for their story, Williams made the first of several apologies acknowledging the story was false.

"I would not have chosen to make this mistake," Williams told the paper. "I don't know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another."

Williams also apologized on Facebook, saying that he felt "terrible" about the mistake, and that "I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two."

He also apologized live on air on NBC, as shown in the video clip above.

Williams continues to face criticism despite his apologies

Williams' multiple apologies did not make this story go away.

That's partly because his fake anecdotes made it seem like he was trying to claim the bravery of other people who really did come under fire. After all, one of the Chinooks did get hit by an RPG. The story Williams told was theirs, not his.

Lance Reynolds, who was the flight engineer on the helicopter that got hit with the RPG, told Stars and Stripes, "It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it." For Reynolds, the incident was "a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn't deserve to participate in."

And several commentators have said that Williams' falsehoods call his journalistic credibility into question. For instance, the Washington Post's Erik Wemple called the incident an "NBC News-wide scandal," and asked why it took pushback from veterans to reveal the problem. "Do these folks have to fight our wars and fact-check NBC News?" And CNN's Chris Cuomo said that "Memory is either right or it is wrong and we are in the business of being right."

As the criticism built, Williams apparently believed he had little choice but to step back temporarily from anchoring NBC Nightly News. He announced in a February 7 press release, "I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us."

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