At a White House meeting on national security matters on Friday morning, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered several lower-ranking administration officials out of the room so he could talk about a sensitive matter with President Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Rumsfeld is unapologetic about his tight-fisted approach to information. "It's true, it's hard to get information from me," he said in an interview in his Pentagon dining room later that day. "It is true that I clean the damn room out."
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Nor does he much care about stepping on the toes of White House aides. "With the president's full blessing, I reduce down the size of the room," he continued. "And of course, when people are asked out of the room, that is not something that pleases them. So it's not surprising for me that some person who's not in the loop, and ought not to be in the loop, is expressing that thought, and it bothers me not one whit."
Such vintage Rumsfeld conveys a strong sense of the defense secretary's personality -- decisive and self-confident, sometimes impatient and blunt. They are characteristics that have shaped how the war in Afghanistan has been fought and what the public knows about it.
To a large degree, the Afghan war is Rumsfeld's war. He is the public face of the U.S. military; much of what is known about the fighting comes from the 111 news conferences and interviews he has given in the 90 days since the Sept. 11 attacks. He has played the central role in shaping strategy and tactics. And he has put his own distinctive stamp on the conduct of the war, pushing throughout for more imaginative and aggressive approaches from his generals.
In effect, Rumsfeld has combined big chunks of the parts played by the three marquee military officials in the Persian Gulf War. Like then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, he oversees the military establishment, coordinates with other parts of the government and meets with foreign leaders. But unlike Cheney, he has taken the lead in briefing the public about the progress of the war, much as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf did during the Gulf War. He is also actively supervising the top military commander for Afghanistan, taking over the work done a decade ago by Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not by Cheney.
Top officials say that the assertive, bantering defense secretary the public watches during the Pentagon briefings is exactly the man they work with behind closed doors. "We see the same Donald Rumsfeld the American people see," Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, said in a recent interview. He added that what he sees is "pretty impressive, as far as I'm concerned."
But other subordinates warn that -- for all the success Rumsfeld has found in the Afghan war -- the same traits that have served Rumsfeld so well in his stewardship of the war are the very ones that got him into trouble earlier this year as he presided over a fractious effort to reform the military. His seven-month-long review of the U.S. military turned into a brawl and, by some accounts, was eventually stymied by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some defense officials worry that the friction between Rumsfeld and the top brass is submerged but still present, and could erupt again if there are military setbacks.
"That lecturing attitude he demonstrates at the podium, you also see in meetings," said one administration official. "He is very taken with his own view of the world, and doesn't mind putting down people who disagree. . . . He can be mocking. He can be pretty abusive."
Rumsfeld's self-confidence stems in part from an extraordinarily successful career in both the public and private sectors. He graduated from Princeton in 1954, served in the Navy and was elected to Congress from a district near Chicago in 1962. He left Congress to serve in several positions in the Nixon administration, including counselor to the president. Under President Gerald R. Ford, he was first White House chief of staff, then defense secretary. He later went on to make a fortune in the pharmaceuticals industry.
In the wide-ranging interview Friday, Rumsfeld offered rare insight into the behind-the-scenes decision-making in the war. He talked about his personality, about his rejection of the first plan for the Afghan war submitted by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander in the war, and about his unusually close working relationship with Franks. He discussed the hands-on approach he took in the early, uncertain days of the Afghan campaign. And he confirmed that he pushed subordinates hard in October to move Special Operations target spotters to the front lines of the Northern Alliance, a move that would prove decisive by making the U.S. bombing more effective.
Rumsfeld indicated that for him the war began not on Oct. 7, with the first day of U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, but weeks earlier, with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In his account, the beginning of the airstrikes seemed almost irrelevant. "October 7th simply happened to be the day that the bombing started," he said.
Rumsfeld's strong views and personality began shaping the U.S. approach to the war soon after Sept. 11. "There were some growing pains" as the plan for a counterattack on terrorism was developed, recalled a senior administration official.
Most notably, when Franks's first war plan was briefed to Rumsfeld in late September, officials said, he threw it back as unimaginative. Asked about that, Rumsfeld paused, then said, "I think that would be an overstatement." But he continued: "I am very blunt, I am very outspoken. . . . It is entirely possible that I may have said something at one point or another that could lead some observer to want to characterize it that way."