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Frontline: Rumsfeld's War

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2004; 12:00 PM

With the United States Army deployed in a dozen hot spots around the world, on constant alert in Afghanistan, and taking casualties every day in Iraq, some current and former officers now say the army is on the verge of being "broken." They charge that the army is overstretched, demoralized and may be unable to fight where and when the nation desires. This fall, FRONTLINE and The Washington Post joined forces for an in-depth assessment of the state of the American army and the nation's military establishment. The program digs into the aggressive attempts to assert civilian control and remake the military by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his allies.

Watch "Rumsfeld's War" on Tuesday, Oct. 26, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). Then, join Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest, who contributed to the report, online Wednesday, Oct. 27, at Noon ET.

Dana Priest (The Washington Post)

Priest is author of "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military" (W.W. Norton). The book chronicles the increasing frequency with which the military is called upon to solve political and economic problems. She also hosts a regular weekly discussion each Wednesday at Noon ET.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Dana Priest: Hello everyone. I'm in. Let's begin.


Tulsa, Okla.: It appears to me that one of the factors that led Rumsfeld and others to believe they could get by with such a small force was that the government had no institutional memory of what it actually takes to occupy a country. Did you get that impression as well?

Dana Priest: There was/is loads of institutional memory at DOD, State and elsewhere. But the Defense Department had too few people in the inner circle with any, and they were not open-minded enough to listen to the collected wisdom. Some of it was dismissed as overly cautious Army talk.


Bethesda, Md.: With 380 tons of explosives missing in Iraq and the situation deteriorating there, I'm sure relieved to see Condi Rice has enough idle time on her hands to break with National Security protocol and campaign openly for the president. Did the White House really try to spin this otherwise? I listened to her on C-SPAN and it wasn't even "infomercial" material -- it was 100 percent commercial. Is this how low we've sunk?

Dana Priest: Yes, the White House tried hard to say that Advisor Rice and half of the cabinet that has been traveling to swing states to give speeches just happened to have accepted invitations and just happen to be talking about what a great job the president has done. I'll see if I can get our two excellent stories on the issue posted here for you.


Washington, D.C.: Hello Dana,

Posting early ... this is not a question about the FRONTLINE program, but is about the war in Iraq. I hope it's not too stupid of a question.

My question is, do we know with any certainty what is motivating the insurgents in Iraq? I suppose they may well be a heterogeneous group, but is there any obvious unifying ideology? Has any sort of 'manifesto' been issued proclaiming their agenda?

At first blush one might be tempted to think of them as 'nationalists' bent on driving out the occupying Americans and punishing their Iraqi 'collaborators', but they seem way too willing to inflict carnage on innocent bystander Iraqis for this to be true. And I strongly doubt that anyone could really be fighting as a Saddam (or his regime) loyalist in an attempt to bring him back; I just can't believe that anyone would actually think that might happen.

Alternatively, one might also be tempted to view the insurgents as miscreant thugs bent on carnage for its own sake, but in light of their persistence and degree of organization, that also seems unlikely.

What do we know about their motives/ideology?


Dana Priest: They are a collection of groups with a collection of motives. Some former Baath Party and military types who probably had this plan all along and are putting it in place to kick the US out and re-install a Sunni-dominated government. There are Sunni religious/community leaders who are deadly afraid of disenfranchisement and are fighting their way back in. There are Shiites with their own agenda, partly religious based and with Iranian backing. There are disgruntled "normal Iraqis" fed up with an American occupation. And there are foreign terrorists (who are the suicide bombers) a la Al Qaeda who want to defeat the US on Muslim soil, in whatever Muslim country they would be in.


Houston, Tex.: I can understand (I suppose) the military brass finally going along with the smaller occupation force -- the "good soldier" mentality that the documentary described. But what about other senior civilians, most notably Powell, who must have seen that the plan was terribly risky. Why didn't Powell throw himself in front of the bus? Was he still stuck in "good soldier" mode?

Dana Priest: To the best I can determine, yes. But I do think that's a very good question. He has so much credibility, so doesn't that mean people expect him to act credibly--to defend his firm beliefs?


Paoli, Pa.: Ten years from now, will the U.S. have a more effective military capability as a result of the "Rumsfeld transformation" to a lighter, more mobile force that is more geared toward special operations?

What do you hear on this subject from current senior military people versus retired senior military ?

Dana Priest: Ten years from now, if China has not become the most significant military challenger, then yes, I think the force will be different. But not as completely different as would have been the case without 9/11 and the Iraq war. The occupation in Iraq does show the need for big divisions (read: lots of people). As for equipment, these decisions are and will remain largely driven by the wrong factors: the defense industry and its power on Capitol Hill. Rumsfeld did a fairly good job taking them on with the Stryker. But it's hard.


San Francisco, Calif.: Hi Ms Priest,

Prior to 9-11-2001, Bush 'never' publicly discussed his ardent desire for the ME to be liberalized.

Thus would not the Bush Doctrine be more accurately described as the Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Wurmser, et al. Doctrine?

Dana Priest: Probably. But they clearly won Bush over and besides, it's easier to spell.


Linthicum, Md.: With the testimony of Gen. Shinseki regarding troop strength levels being dismissed out of hand by Rumsfield and Wolfowitz, coupled with the infamous memo written by the defense secretary regarding interrogation methods for prison detainees, has the congressional oversight that followed in the months there after produced any policy and or personnel changes in the DoD, Dept. of the Army, or any of the other military branches?

Thanks for your time.

Dana Priest: There are some policy changes in the Army. Tighter controls over interrogations and, I believe, more study of how best to integrate military intelligence and police. Also, the military now has an advanced interrogation program that it didn't have before. As for personnel. No big changes. Just the court martials so far.


Surprise, Ariz.: Kudos for an excellent FRONTLINE show last night. On a topic related to the "war on terror," are you aware of any actions to curb the brainwashing of young Muslims in the madrassas? Absent that, I can foresee generation after generation of jihadists bent on killing "infidels."

Dana Priest: Thank you. The Bush administration has said it was going to pour money into a competing school program. I think that is just beginning now. Candidate Kerry has pledged a major effort to replace the madrassas.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think that Rummy et al really believe that Iraq was tied to al Qaeda, or was it just a pretext to getting into Iraq? And if Bush wins the election, we know we'll see more of the same. But if Kerry wins, is there really any way get Iraq under control and exit gracefully. I'm having trouble imagining it.

Dana Priest: I do believe they saw more concrete links than the intelligence showed. There are people who believe a second Bush administration would be more like his father's. That would mean that a lot of people who have to leave, including Vice President Cheney, so I really don't know if that's realistic. More of the same, on the other hand, would be extremely costly in dollars, troops and foreign relations. Not sure the system could handle that. As for Kerry, he would inherit a quagmire with no obvious solution. One could exit gracefully, but the aftermath would be anything but graceful: great regional instability.


USS Lincoln: I am active duty. Why do you think it is the Army that is having creating all the problems? Us in other branches of the services are really getting tired of being dragged through the mud.

Dana Priest: Hate to remind you, but the Navy has had its fill of scandal in the past. The Army is, obviously, at the center of the storm in Iraq, so it is being challenged more everyday.


Kula, Hawaii: I really enjoyed the FRONTLINE program, please keep up these collaborations.

I am afraid, however that one of the unintended casualties of this documentary may be the notion of transformation itself. While embracing some aspects of transformation, Rumsfeld seems to have ignored crucial innovations in doctrine such as the netwar perspective which would have produced a far different strategy for waging the war on terrorism. As FRONTLINE pointed out, he settled on a compromise strategy, embracing the light mobile aspects of transformation but keeping the heavy-handed shock and awe tactics of fighting nation state wars rather than the far more complex and nuanced approach the netwar camp brings to the job of fighting a networked ideology not necessarily associated with any one nation.

Will the transformation baby be tossed out with the bathwater, resulting in the need to undergo another post
Vietnam-like rebuilding of the army, or is there enough
insight below Rumsfelds pay grade to salvage the
transformation process and begin a truly intelligent
offensive in the war on terrorism.

Dana Priest: Transformation is continuing, but at a slower pace. Technological change, manpower costs and the changed face of the "enemy" (smaller, non-state terrorist networks) demand change, don't you think?.


Toledo, Ohio: Great FRONTLINE. I do have a question though about troop size. If it is difficult to sustain 120,000 troops in Iraq, how could we sustain a deployment of 250,000 to 500,000 as some of the military generals proposed? I think 125,000 was a good compromise considering the initial idea was for only 50,000. Considering the type of attacks we now see IEDs, suicide bombings, snipers, etc. Would having more troops really make a difference?

Dana Priest: Well, the main criticism has to do with the immediate postwar period, when more troops could have prevented the kind of looting and jockeying to fill the power vacuum we see today. Fast forward to today and the dynamic is now much more difficult. The situation is, by and large, out of hand, and there is a very deep debate going on about whether more--or less--is better. Some argue there still aren't enough to provide security in other parts of the country that are not inflamed. Some argue that the hostility towards US troops is so great, that they should downsize their profile drastically. The key to everything now is training a replacement force--the Iraqis.


Washington, D.C.: I think a better response to USS Lincoln is that by simple numbers, the Army has the majority of forces on site and simply by the number of people they have and the number of operations they're involved in would lend itself to their being involved in problem areas, whether it was of their cause or not.

Dana Priest: You're right. I'll pass this on.


Laurel, Md.: What do you think happens to Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz if Bush gets a second term ?

Dana Priest: The betting is that Rumsfeld stays on for another year and Wolfowitz moves to another department. State? CIA?


Austin, Tex.: I have a comment for the person on the USS Lincoln. I'm really sorry that s/he feels that the military is being "dragged through the mud." While certainly people were criticized (rightly) for the prisoner abuse, my impression overall is that people back home have a lot of respect and admiration for the job the Army is trying to do in Iraq. Including people who have doubts about the war and who dislike Bush. Our questions are about the civilian leadership of the country, not the generals and admirals (or much less ordinary soldiers and sailors).

I hope you'll be able to post this. I think it's an important message, and I think the vast majority of Americans would agree with me.

Dana Priest: I totally agree with you, too. So here's your posting.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: You report the conflict between Rumsfeld and Powell as if this is horrible or unprecedented. Clearly Rumsfeld got some stuff right and some stuff wrong. If there was no dissension, you would report that Bush is surrounded by a bunch of sycophants.

Please admit your deep-seated, long-standing dislike of this administration. To make statements such as the U.S. Army is on the verge of collapse, exposes your ignorance and bias.

Dana Priest: I didn't/don't have a deep-seated or long-standing dislike of the administration. And conflict always exposes interesting and important debates with an administration. There is none greater than the debates over war. It's a natural story, and one that will fascinate us for generations.


Washington, D.C.: Dana,

Congratulations for this outstanding documentary. When will it be broadcast again? Any chance of additional broadcasts prior to the election? Every American should see this program. Thanks.

Dana Priest: I'm told it can be viewed on the PBS.org Web site.I don't know about rebroadcasts.


Lexington, Ky.: Should we be optimistic that there will be an election in Iraq in January? Could the result of an election held in only some of the provinces there be considered valid?

Dana Priest: The answers aren't clear. I would think valid elections and results would be honored where they occur. But I really don't know what will happen vis a vis a national government and whether they can elect one without valid results everywhere.


washingtonpost.com: PBS


Jacksonville, Fla.: I watched this last night and thought that due to the negative spin it put on the administration, it was highly inappropriate to air this within a week of the presidential election. Is Public Television exempt from FCC regulation?

Dana Priest: Not all of us are focused on the elections. We've been doing investigative work all along on the war and the administration. This is a continuation of that. And by the way, the administration has tried hard to stop "news" at its agencies. The CIA's public affairs shop is virtually shut down (they are never very open anyway, but still), as are Justice, DOD and the White House.


Canterbury, N.H.: What do you think about John Kerry's plan to double the size of our Special Forces? Isn't this likely to be very helpful to our perceived (and, possibly less importantly, actual) ability to project force against, er, evildoers without getting bogged down in another British-Empire-redux occupation? Are there any downsides to this?

Dana Priest: Sure. But it's very hard to do, some would say impossible. Also, the Bush administration has been trying to quickly increase their numbers as well. So it's not a unique idea.


West Coast: Is there any chance that the military generals in on the abuses in Iraq were "vetted" to make sure they were in allegiance with Bush? For instance, General Myers seems to be part of the Bush machine more so than a detached military man without a political agenda. General Miller is of the same ilk. At what point does Myers become a symbol of the politicizing of the military, and not the military itself?

Dana Priest: They better be with Bush, he's the elected commander-in-chief. No, I don't think political "vetting" goes on, but I do think vetting for independence did go on here. That's probably one of the reasons Adm. Dennis Blair was not named chairman. Too much of an independent thinker and not enough of a yes-ma. What you are seeing from Myers, is what you saw, by and large, from GEN Shelton during the Clinton administration. Generals are not policymakers. They follow the civilians, unless they want to resign. And that rarely happens. Dissent comes out in other, less obvious and less public ways.


Denver, Colo.: Dana,

I stumbled upon FRONTLINE last night while watching a boring World Series game, and I'm glad I did.

If John Kerry is elected president, who in your opinion would be the next Secretary of Defense, and what would be some of the biggest changes we'd see at the Pentagon?

Dana Priest: I hate to mention Adm. Blair twice in one chat, but I do think he would be considered (would require a Congressional vote because he retired just several years ago) Also Senators Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed. Perhaps John Hamre, former deputy defense secretary. As for big changes? Hmmm. No really big changes in terms of programs. Other than Iraq, pre-emption would be dead. Missile defense slowed. Don't know what Kerry would do with the proposed closing of bases in Europe. Maybe he would stall on that, to study it some more. Probably an embrace of the culture using his combat experience, but that will only go so far. Probably bring the generals back into the fold a little more.


Denver, Colo: What makes one think that FRONTLINE is completely correct in presenting a balanced evaluation? The U.S. is providing a unique opportunity to the Iraqi people to create a democratic state and they are responsible for making the most of the opportunity. After 30 years of dictatorship, why should we be surprised that it takes time for them to learn how to operate stable political institutions. Keep the faith in freedom.

Dana Priest: I'm not surprised it takes time. I'm surprised we weren't much better prepared for that, and the insurgency -- the strength of which has confounded policy makers.


Las Cruces, N.M.: Do you believe that there was a deliberate attempt to mislead the American people into the war in Iraq?

Dana Priest: No.


Alexandria, Va.: The Pittsburgh questioner is wrong (about our troop strengths). There simply aren't enough of us (U.S. soldiers) to go around. Pittsburgh should also know that once our reserve forces have used-up their 24 months, only "War Powers" (Act) can extend them beyond their total 24- month active duty service obligation (for deployments). They now comprise 44 percent of the units currently deployed in Iraq. The winner next Tuesday (Nov. 2, 2004) will have that hot potato in their lap.

Dana Priest: passing this on. time is running out....


The Woodlands, Tex.: Watched the report last night; interesting that this is yet another of the works of the media that matured during the last week of the campaign. But nevermind.

The Question: Since the exercise was an effort to demonstrate once more how the Bush administration has botched everything at the Pentagon perhaps there was no room. But --

Why have you not done a similar investigation of just why the U.S. determined to intervene in Iraq at this time?

Is it just possible that certain elements there and elsewhere in the administration and Congress had an entirely separate agenda? The removal of Saddam and his deadly threat to our only ally in the Middle East, Israel? And so 9/11 was just a good, handy, reason for this tragic decision and not the real one?

Given this benchmark the effort is a total success and seems to guarantee a U.S. military presence in the M.E. for the indefinite future.

Thank you for the courtesy of your reply.

Dana Priest: We've written quite a bit about the Israeli angle and I do think it played a role. Entirely a success? Hardly. You now have an inflamed Middle East that sees our alliance with Israel in an even worse light (read: anti-Arab, anti-Muslim light). And, according to the intelligence community, you have groups joining up (Hamas and maybe Hezbollah) with groups (Al Qaeda and its affiliates) that did not work together in the past--all to unite against, guess who? US and Israel.


Springfield, Mass.: How could you say that they didn't mislead us in going to Iraq, when their notion to go was pre-conceived back to the Wolfowitz Doctrine in 1992? As well as the fact that their reasons for going were proven to be totally false.

Dana Priest: I think Bush believed Iraq was a threat, and was convinced military action--now--was the best course. You may totally disagree with him, but I think that was his call. He might have been swayed by Wolfowitz and his neo-con group, but he's the prez and gets to make up his own mind.


Vancouver, Wash.: Good show!

The unspoken conclusion at the end was that Rumsfeld and Bush are "breaking" today's military in exactly the same was it was broken by Vietnam. Do you agree?

Dana Priest: Extreme stress, but not breaking (yet) and not in the same way. The military is so much more professional now (because of the Vietnam experience and because it's all volunteer), that I don't think it could be broken in the same way.


Wheaton, Md.: The Bush administration made it very clear before the war, that the war was against Saddam Hussein, not the people of Iraq. The war against the Hussein regime was won with great success. Constantly criticizing Rumsfeld for problems while trying to help rebuild Iraq is, at a minimum, unfair. History will always show that Bush and Rumsfeld successfully defeated Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

Dana Priest: i hope you're right, that Iraq is a success. It's just not clear right now


Arlington, Va.: I asked a similar question of Michael Kirk -- what do you think of the NYT report last weekend about "disappearing" prisoners secretly out of Iraq? Is this policy? Are there Pentagon concerns about these Geneva Convention violations? Didn't we criticize the Soviet Union for similar activities?

Dana Priest: Actually, the New York Times was writing about a Justice Department memorandum that I obtained for The Post. If you'd like to see it, I see if we can post it here. If not, go to washingtonpost.com, click on Nation, scroll down. it's on the right hand side. And here's our story from Sunday.


San Francisco, Calif.: I find it interesting that this major expose finds its way onto FRONTLINE but not onto the front page of The Post. Back when The Post should've been running the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz war story (presented a year-and-a-half after the fact on FRONTLINE), it was instead running puff pieces about Rumsfeld the rock star. One of these chummy Rummy Post items was actually seen in the FRONTLINE program. Was that a nod to the damning truth: The Washington Post was as negligent as the rest of the U.S. press in putting a happy face on Rumsfeld's war. I expect better from the Post. Sadly the result of this journalistic underachievement is the probable reelection of the corrupt Bush war machine. Hey, who knew?

Dana Priest: No, it's a nod to the fact you probably weren't reading the paper every day. We did loads of stories, dozens and dozens of them. Some are posted next to the Frontline promo on washingtonpost.com.


washingtonpost.com: Memo Lets CIA Take Detainees Out of Iraq (Post, Oct. 24


Dana Priest: Well, I did my best. We received more than 220 questions and I'm just not that fast! Thank you all so much, and for the many kudos on the FRONTLINE/WashPost program. We do hope to do more joint ventures. It was a great experience working with Mike Kirk and Jim Gilmore from FRONTLINE. See you next week, Dana.


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