By David Von Drehle
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Secrets in Washington can get you in trouble. Seasoned bureaucrats prefer to make incriminating disclosures themselves, but in a way that assures they won't grab headlines. They float their revelations amid the cloudy verbiage of official government documents.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and company showed last week how it's done.

If you read closely in the barrage of weighty tomes they put out in recent days, you might discover that the Rumsfeld era is over, and Rumsfeld lost.

The secretary had staked his tenure on two ideas. He wanted to change Pentagon culture, and he wanted the military to drive American foreign policy. Neither idea survived the week.

Example one: The signature effort of Rumsfeld's historic tenure -- his "transformation" of the world's most powerful military -- melted away under the cover of the imposing Quadrennial Defense Review. In 92 dense pages it revealed that while America's troops will be called to perform new missions in countries around the globe, the entrenched forces in Washington, the contractors and the members of Congress, have survived Rumsfeld virtually unscathed.

As government documents go, the QDR came wreathed in glamour, like a new novel from Tom Wolfe, grand and rare. Every few years Congress demands "a comprehensive examination . . . of the national defense . . . expressing the defense strategy of the United States and establishing a defense program for the next 20 years."

Furthermore, this QDR was the sequel to a blockbuster. In his first effort, Rumsfeld promised futuristic transformation. This one offered a chance to see how Rumsfeld's thinking had been shaped by the dramatic events since September 2001.

The document revealed that Rumsfeld has changed a lot. Four years of war against a highly unconventional enemy have persuaded him to maintain every conventional weapons system in the pipeline. No longer does the secretary talk about canceling major purchases to direct our money to a smaller, lighter, faster high-tech force.

The QDR speaks pulse-poundingly of an enlarged cadre of Special Forces trained to sneak into dangerous countries to tag, track and even disarm nuclear weapons. There was no explanation of how these thoroughly modern missions connect with the many billions of dollars programmed for more dogfighting jets and a doubling of submarine production.

What remained of "transformation" was a combination of changes conceived before Rumsfeld arrived, like the reorganization of the Army into interchangeable combat brigades, and changes made when his ax was still sharp, like the downsizing of Cold War garrisons in Germany, South Korea and elsewhere.

If the secretary caved to the old "iron triangle" of contractors, Congress and the brass, his fall was cushioned by another major document -- the 2007 budget. When Rumsfeld suggested in his first QDR that the United States must choose between the status quo and the future force, he didn't reckon on an ocean of new money that would provide for both.

Another secret hidden in plain sight in last week's $439 billion Pentagon request -- up nearly 7 percent from the wartime budget of fiscal 2006 -- was that the real sum is much higher. Military spending in the coming months will pass the half-trillion-dollar mark. That $439 billion doesn't include the ongoing costs of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, for which the Pentagon will soon seek a "supplemental appropriation" of at least $70 billion for the rest of this fiscal year and another $50 billion to start next year.

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