President Bush will keep Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary for a second term, administration aides said yesterday, hours after Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson resigned with a dire warning about the nation's vulnerability to a flu pandemic or a terrorist attack on the food supply.
The decision on Rumsfeld eliminated the last major uncertainty about the shape of President Bush's second-term Cabinet and ensures continuity on his national security team.
Rumsfeld, who at 72 is the oldest Pentagon chief in the nation's history, led the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A mentor of Vice President Cheney during the Gerald R. Ford administration, Rumsfeld has pushed for a lighter and swifter military, often putting him at odds with Congress and his generals.
Rumsfeld faced calls for his resignation this summer over the abuses at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq. Republicans close to the White House said the decision to retain him was driven partly by the calculation that replacing him would appear to be a concession that the administration made mistakes in Iraq.
Moreover, some Republicans have speculated that Rumsfeld wanted to stay on with the hope that security conditions in Iraq would improve, leaving him with a better legacy.
Thompson, whose department oversees Medicare, Medicaid and federal welfare programs, is the eighth Cabinet member to announce his departure since Bush's reelection Nov. 2. Although resignation announcements are typically formal affairs heavy on platitudes, Thompson used an afternoon news conference about his departure to reveal that he worries "every single night" about "food poisoning" on a massive scale.
"I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do," Thompson said. "And we are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that."
Some experts have warned about the vulnerability of the U.S. food system. It is unusual for a top administration official to publicly point out such a problem in such vivid terms.
Thompson spoke shortly after Bush announced at the White House that he was nominating Bernard B. Kerik, who was police commissioner of New York -- the head of the nation's largest law enforcement organization -- during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to replace Tom Ridge as the secretary of homeland security.
Thompson, who had expressed interest in the homeland security post, said he was "very concerned about pandemic flu, because we're not prepared for it," adding that Congress has inadequately financed preparations.
"This is a really huge bomb out there that could adversely impact on the health care of the world," he said.
The alarming tone of Thompson's comments contrasted with an assertion by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in his resignation letter last month. Ashcroft declared, "The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved."
Thompson is likely to remain in Washington and take a lucrative post, perhaps as head of a trade association, according to friends. His successor will be Mark B. McClellan, a physician and economist who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and is the brother of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, administration officials said.
Thompson said he went to the White House a year ago and asked Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. "if it would be problematic if I submitted my resignation."