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Right Turn
Posted at 05:34 PM ET, 04/04/2011

Gates’s spokesman does damage control

On Friday I received a message from Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. I promptly returned the call and provided him with contact information. I heard nothing until this afternoon. Morrell was plainly annoyed about my post last week concerning Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s congressional appearance, using profanity to describe my earlier reporting. Morrell said he was calling those who picked up on Gates’s testimony that there would be no “boots on the ground” in Libya — “Not as long as I am in this job.” He repeatedly stressed that there were many statements during Gates’s hours of testimony that showed this was the president’s policy. If so, why would Gates imply he’d be compelled to depart if that policy changed?

Morrell reverted to a talking point — that Gates had made plenty of other statements emphasizing that this was the president’s policy. Around and around we went. Not having gotten an answer, I tried another tack. I asked Morrell whether the following would be correct: “The comment came in the context of statements in 10 hours of testimony in which the secretary made clear this was the president’s policy. This statement was not meant as a threat to the president but an embellishment.” Morrell said this was correct, but that I was saying that “embellishment” was a negative thing. He stressed that in “10 hours of testimony” and being asked that question “a dozen times,” it was not surprising that Gates used that term for emphasis.

So if this was a stray comment, would Gates retract or correct it? Morrell said, “There is nothing to retract or correct.” He said this was not an instance in which Gates “threw his stars on the table,” and noted that Gates has said he “would not resign over policy differences.”

I pressed him on whether this issue would be considered a policy difference and whether, if the president changed his mind, Gates would salute and carry this order out or whether he would feel compelled to resign. Morrell wouldn’t answer. He accused me of hoping the president would commit ground troops. I informed him that this actually wasn’t the case, since I generally believe that when the president sends in ground troops, he should do so wholeheartedly, and it was not my impression that the president had his heart in it.

A few more points are noteworthy. During the conversation Morrell twice mentioned the name of a high-level executive at The Post, suggesting that he would go over my head. (I don’t report to the person in question, and it’s generally a bad gambit to try to intimidate a journalist.) In addition, Morrell suggested that my reporting was not my own but represented the ideas of two well-known conservative men. As I told him, I did not crib from others; the views expressed are mine and mine alone, as they are in whatever I write (save for the comments I attribute to others.) Finally, Morrell was incredulous that others shared my view of Gates’s comments. As I told him, I spoke to foreign policy and defense experts at several think tanks who were alarmed and dismayed by the comments. These discussions were on background, but I can assure my readers and Morrell that the remarkable statement, which Gates will not retract or correct, did not go unnoticed.

By  |  05:34 PM ET, 04/04/2011

Categories:  National Security

 
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