When Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold was preparing earlier this year to leave his position as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his boss, Gen. Richard B. Myers, nominated an Air Force officer to succeed him.
But when Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that Lt. Gen. Ronald E. Keys would be the next director of operations, or "J-3," one of the most important jobs in the U.S. military, he got a rude surprise. Not so fast, said Rumsfeld, who in a sharp departure from previous practice personally interviews all nominees for three-star and four-star positions in the military. Give me someone else, Rumsfeld told Myers after twice interviewing Keys.
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Myers complied and came up with a selection more to Rumsfeld's liking, Air Force Lt. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, ending a long-standing practice of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs naming his own top subordinates.
Senior military officers now recount Keys's demise to illustrate a pronounced civilian-military divide at the Pentagon under Rumsfeld's leadership. Numerous officers complain bitterly that their best advice is being disregarded by someone who has spent most of the last 25 years away from the military. Rumsfeld first served as secretary of defense from 1975 to 1977, in the Ford administration.
Indeed, nearly two dozen current and former top officers and civilian officials said in interviews that there is a huge discrepancy between the outside perception of Rumsfeld -- the crisp, no-nonsense defense secretary who became a media star through his briefings on the Afghan war -- and the way he is seen inside the Pentagon. Many senior officers on the Joint Staff and in all branches of the military describe Rumsfeld as frequently abusive and indecisive, trusting only a tiny circle of close advisers, seemingly eager to slap down officers with decades of distinguished service. The unhappiness is so pervasive that all three service secretaries are said to be deeply frustrated by a lack of autonomy and contemplating leaving by the end of the year.
Rumsfeld declined to be interviewed for this article.
His disputes with parts of the top brass involve style, the conduct of military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and sharply different views about how and whether to "transform" today's armed forces. But what the fights boil down to is civilian control of a defense establishment that Rumsfeld is said to believe had become too independent and risk-averse during eight years under President Bill Clinton.
What makes this more than a bureaucratic dispute, however, is that it is influencing the Pentagon's internal debate over a possible invasion of Iraq, with some officers questioning whether their concerns about the dangers of urban warfare and other aspects of a potential conflict are being sufficiently weighed -- or dismissed as typical military risk aversion.
The dispute also promises to have a huge impact in the coming year over the fate of hugely expensive weapons systems, with Stephen A. Cambone, a top Rumsfeld deputy, now recommending more than $10 billion in savings by cutting or delaying the Air Force's F-22 stealth fighter, the Navy's next generation aircraft carrier, and three Army programs, the Comanche reconnaissance helicopter, the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle and the Future Combat System.
These tensions were straining relations between the uniformed military and Rumsfeld prior to Sept. 11, 2001, but were partially submerged by the Afghan war and other counterattacks on terrorism. They have now reemerged as the Pentagon plans for a possible war in the Persian Gulf and for a fiscal 2004 budget that is in danger of being swamped by war costs and long-deferred expenditures on modernization, new weapons and Rumsfeld's desire to transform the military into a 21st-century force.
"There is a nearly universal feeling among the officer corps that the inner circle is closed, not tolerant of ideas it doesn't already share, and determined to impose its ideas, regardless of military doubts," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute who has close ties to defense contractors and the military.
"All of the bad blood of last year is coming back in a very big way," said one former Pentagon official.
All three service secretaries were recruited from private industry to bring "best business practices" to the Pentagon and promised autonomy in making management reforms. But all three find their actions constrained by Rumsfeld and what is referred to as his small "palace guard," according to Pentagon insiders.
Air Force Secretary James Roche has felt he lacked input on decisions about the service's centerpiece program, the F-22, senior officers and defense contractors say. Navy Secretary Gordon England has expressed an interest in a top job at the proposed Department of Homeland Security, and Army Secretary Thomas E. White, a former executive at Enron Corp., has been tarnished by the Enron scandal, his failure to promptly divest his Enron holdings, and a controversy over his use of Army aircraft for personal business.