Should He Stay?
The biggest question mark was Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006

This is the second of two articles adapted from the book "State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III" by Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, New York, © 2006.

After President Bush won reelection in 2004, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. got out an 8 1/2 -by-11 spiral notebook, half an inch thick, with a blue cover. He called it his "hit-by-the-bus" book -- handy in case someone in the administration suddenly had to be replaced. He had intentionally used a student notebook, something he had bought himself, so it wouldn't be considered a government document or presidential record that might someday be opened to history. It was private and personal.

A second term traditionally leads to personnel changes. The question was whether one of them would involve Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Card had to approach the issue with delicacy. Iraq was the centerpiece of everything now, and the president was clearly predisposed not to do anything that would disrupt the war effort. If Rumsfeld left, what would the impact be on overall momentum and on the morale of those who were doing the fighting? Rumsfeld had a virtual monopoly on defense contacts with the president, so there was no way the president could get independent information to answer those kinds of questions.

The champions of change at the Defense Department included Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser who would soon be nominated to become the new secretary of state; her replacement as national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley; and Card himself.

Card had the names of 11 possible Rumsfeld replacements in his "hit-by-the-bus" book, among them Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who had been Al Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000 and was a staunch defender of the Iraq war, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

But Card thought the best replacement for Rumsfeld would be James A. Baker III, who had been White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary under President Ronald Reagan, then secretary of state and chief political adviser to the president's father.

Card floated the names to Bush over the course of several weeks, all the while underscoring the advantages of change. But his focus was on Baker.

"Mr. President, this is my quiet counsel," Card said. "Put a diplomat in the Defense Department."

The president seemed genuinely intrigued.

"You don't have to rush to make a decision," Card advised.

Card spoke with Rumsfeld, who talked as if he presumed there would be no change. One of Rumsfeld's minions told Card, "Nothing will happen until the war is over."

Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, weighed in with the president. A contentious session with Congress was coming up. As he saw it, the Democrats were in no mood for a honeymoon. With Rice's confirmation hearing to replace Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and with the expected nomination of White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to be attorney general, would another Senate confirmation overload the system?

"I've got Powell going. I'm going to have to replace Condi," the president told Rove. "Do I have to have some continuity in all of this?" And, clearly, the conduct of the war in Iraq would be the subject of confirmation hearings for anyone Bush nominated to be the new secretary of defense.

Rove agreed they did not want to do anything that would prompt hearings on the war.

"If we need to do it, we need to do it. But if we don't need to do it, you know," Bush said, deciding nothing but sounding reluctant to make a change.

With Card's knowledge and encouragement, Michael Gerson, the chief White House speechwriter, also lobbied the president. Gerson said he believed that Rumsfeld should be replaced, as a symbol of change. The president should talk to Lieberman about taking over for Rumsfeld, Gerson recommended. What better symbol of change could there be than to bring in Gore's running mate?

Knowing how important loyalty was to Bush, he said, "Mr. President, it's not disloyal to have someone in for four years, four and a half years, in a job like this, and then for a variety of reasons, many of them not of his own doing, okay, to say that it would be advantageous to have a change."

Interesting idea, Bush said.

Card kept pushing, at one point raising the possibility of change at the Pentagon with Vice President Cheney.

No, Cheney said, he was predisposed to recommend that the president keep Rumsfeld right where he was. Card was not surprised.

In private conversations with Bush, Cheney said Rumsfeld's departure, no matter how it might be spun, would be seen only as an expression of doubt and hesitation on the war. It would give the war critics great heart and momentum, he confided to an aide, and soon they would be after him and then the president. He virtually insisted that Rumsfeld stay.

In mid-December 2004, the president made his final decision. Rumsfeld would stay, he indicated to Cheney and Card. He couldn't change Rumsfeld.

"That didn't mean he didn't want to," Card later said.

Earlier this year, I asked Rumsfeld whether there was ever a moment when Bush asked him to stay.

"I don't recall that there was," he said. But on the other hand, he added, laughing, "I'm quite confident there was never a moment where he said, 'I want you to leave.' "

Doubts From the Start

Cheney had suggested Rumsfeld to Bush in late December 2000. Rumsfeld was so impressive, Bush told Card at the time. He had had the job in the Ford administration a quarter-century before, and it was as if he were now saying, "I think I've got some things I'd like to finish."

But there was another dynamic that Bush and Card discussed. Rumsfeld and Bush's father, the former president, couldn't stand each other. Bush Senior didn't trust Rumsfeld and thought he was arrogant, self-important, too sure of himself and Machiavellian. Rumsfeld had also made nasty private remarks that the elder Bush was a lightweight.

Card could see that overcoming the former president's skepticism about Rumsfeld added to the president-elect's excitement. It was a chance to prove his father wrong. And Rumsfeld fit Cheney's model of a defense secretary who could battle things out with the generals but also had as much gravitas as the rest of the new national security team.

Bush would nominate Rumsfeld, he told Card. Cheney had been selected for his national security credentials. He was the expert, and this was the sort of decision that required expertise. Still, Bush wondered privately to Card about pitfalls, if there was something he didn't see here. After all, his father had strong feelings.

Is this a trapdoor? he asked.

Disdain for the Process

During the long run-up to the war, Rumsfeld made little attempt to disguise his disdain for what was called "the interagency process" -- coordinating policy with the State Department under Powell and the National Security Council under Rice.

By the start of 2003, Frank Miller, the NSC's senior director for defense, who was coordinating the Iraq issue among the different federal agencies, felt that Rumsfeld had made his job almost impossible.

There was constant tension between the NSC and Rumsfeld's Pentagon, and Rumsfeld went to extra lengths to keep control of information. Often, when Rumsfeld came to the White House with Gen. Tommy R. Franks to brief the president, the NSC and some of the staff on the Iraq invasion plans, he would see that the slides and handouts were distributed just before the meeting and taken back immediately after.

Sometimes there would be a handout for the president with 140 pages, and the lesser beings like Miller would be allowed to see only 40 of them. On one occasion, Rumsfeld came to a meeting without enough briefing packets for all the principals, so Rice wound up looking on with the person next to her.

Sometimes, Rumsfeld would point across the room in the middle of a briefing. "People shouldn't be taking notes," he scolded. "People should not be taking notes in here."

When the generals came over to the White House with him, Rumsfeld spoke first, introducing everyone and explaining what they were going to talk about. It was worse for Gen. Richard B. Myers, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Miller and Myers were longtime friends, and Miller could see that Myers was suffering.

At times Rumsfeld would not return Rice's phone calls when she had questions about war planning or troop deployments. She complained to Rumsfeld, who reminded her that the chain of command did not include the national security adviser.

Rice complained to the president.

Bush's response was to try to be playful with Rumsfeld.

"I know you won't talk to Condi," Bush once teased Rumsfeld, "but you've got to talk to her."

At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld built a "kitchen cabinet" of special assistants and consultants within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It grew into a fortress of old friends and retired military officers.

Perhaps the most important of these was Stephen Herbits, a lawyer and longtime Rumsfeld friend going back to 1967. Herbits had been one of Rumsfeld's civilian special assistants during his first Pentagon tour. Rumsfeld made him a consultant with a license to analyze current problems, and he functioned as a management fix-it man, somewhat as Karl Rove did for Bush.

Herbits, who was also a gay rights activist and occasional contributor to Democratic candidates -- and thus highly unusual among Republican defense experts -- was known for his incisive, provocative, slashing dissections of personnel and institutions. Rumsfeld appreciated his style and skill at cutting through the normal fog of Pentagon paperwork and lowest-common-denominator analysis.

On December 5, 2002, in the middle of the most intense invasion planning for Iraq, Herbits walked into Rumsfeld's office.

"You're not going to be happy with what I'm going to tell you," he said, "but you are in the unique position of being the sole person who could lose the president's reelection for him if you don't get something straightened out."

Rumsfeld flushed.

Herbits continued. "Now that I've got your attention, you have got to focus on the post-Iraq planning. It is so screwed up. We will not be able to win the peace."

Herbits warned Rumsfeld that policy Undersecretary Douglas J. Feith was screwing up. The fighting between the State and Defense departments was so bad that interagency meetings were at times little more than shouting matches. Postwar planning was so fiercely off track that it required the secretary's personal intervention.

Rumsfeld didn't say much, but soon he called a surprise Saturday meeting with Feith and others involved.

"What's going on here?" he asked. "We've got to get this on track."

It later became clear that one of the root causes for troubles in postwar Iraq was the lack of security, and that that was the result of the chronic shortage of troops faced by U.S. commanders.

The record showed that the plan for invading Iraq had a top number of 275,000 ground combat troops, including about 90,000 who were scheduled to flow into Iraq in the weeks and months after March 19, 2003, when the war began.

Earlier this year, I asked Rumsfeld about the troop levels.

He said it is one of the great "canards" that he had decided or unduly influenced the decision to not bring in the 90,000. It was all on Franks's recommendation, he said. "He made a judgment that he had what he needed, or would have as this played out, and that he would not need the additional ones that were in the queue. . . . And he made that recommendation and I made the recommendation to the president, and we agreed with it." So the 90,000 additional ground troops were not sent for the war or stabilization.

The critics -- or the "opiners," as Rumsfeld called them, "the people who don't have responsibility for making the decisions" -- don't understand, he said.

"Many of them say, 'Oh, it's Rumsfeld,' as though I'm sitting around with a black box figuring all this out. And anyone who knows me or watched me do anything knows that I don't do it that way. I come here to this job knowing that there's no one smart enough to do this job." So he relied on "smart people," he said, and on "advice from multiple sources."

But half a dozen of the generals and civilians who worked most closely with Rumsfeld made it clear in interviews that it was Rumsfeld who was making the decisions.

By this summer, Rumsfeld had softened his position on the issue of whether there were enough troops.

"It's entirely possible there were too many at some point and too few at some point, because no one's perfect," he said in another interview. "All of us that were trying our best to make these judgments were doing it in a context of concern about having enough to get the job done, and enable a process, political and economic process, to go forward, and not so many that it persuaded people that we were there to steal their oil and occupy their country and disrupt and cause disturbances in the neighboring countries that cause the overthrow of some of those other regimes. And so we made the best judgment we could.

"In retrospect, I have not seen or heard anything from the other opiners that suggests to me that they have any reason to believe that they were right and we were wrong. Nor can I prove we were right and they were wrong. The only thing I can say is they seem to have a lot more certainty than my assessment of the facts would permit me to have."

One of the harshest critics of what happened in Iraq as the security situation deteriorated and the insurgency intensified was Rumsfeld's own aide, Herbits.

On July 15, 2004, Herbits sat down at his computer and wrote another memo, a scathing seven-page report titled "Summary of Post-Iraq Planning and Execution Problems." Though he discussed the postwar planning and policies, and the tenure of L. Paul Bremer III as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, his real target was his friend of 37 years. The memo listed a series of tough questions:

· "Who made the decision and why didn't we reconstitute the Iraqi army?"

· "Did no one realize we were going to need Iraqi security forces?"

· "Did no one anticipate the importance of stabilization and how best to achieve it?"

· "Why was the de-Baathification so wide and deep?"

"Rumsfeld's style of operation," Herbits wrote, was the "Haldeman model, arrogant" -- a reference to President Richard M. Nixon's White House chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman.

"Indecisive, contrary to popular image," Herbits wrote of Rumsfeld. "Would not accept that some people in some areas were smarter than he. . . . Trusts very few people. Very, very cautious. Rubber glove syndrome -- a tendency not to leave his fingerprints on decisions."

Herbits reached his crescendo: "Did Rumsfeld err with the fundamental political calculation of this administration: not getting the post-Iraq rebuilding process right within 18 months?"

A Worried General

Rumsfeld's relationship with his own generals only worsened.

In the summer of 2005, Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, the NATO commander, paid a call on his old friend Gen. Peter Pace, then the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It was virtually certain that Pace was going to move up to replace Myers as chairman, the top position in the U.S. military.

Jones expressed concern that Pace would even want to be chairman. "You're going to face a debacle and be part of the debacle in Iraq," he said. U.S. prestige was at a 50- or 75-year low in the world. He said he was so worried about Iraq and the way Rumsfeld ran things that he wondered if he himself should not resign in protest. "How do you have the stomach for eight years in the Pentagon?" he finally asked.

Pace said that someone had to be chairman. Who else would do it?

Jones did not have an answer. "Military advice is being influenced on a political level," he said. The Joint Chiefs had improperly "surrendered" to Rumsfeld. "You should not be the parrot on the secretary's shoulder."

Pace became chairman, and later flatly denied Jones had told him that Iraq was a debacle. "He's a good friend. He was in my wedding," Pace said, noting they had known each other for 36 years. "If Jim felt that way, he would tell me."

I called Jones at NATO headquarters in Belgium. He said that he had made all those comments to Pace in their meeting in 2005. "That's what I told him," he said.

The First Lady's Concerns

Every six weeks or so, Card tried to have a private, candid session with first lady Laura Bush to hear her concerns.

The first lady was worried that Rumsfeld was hurting her husband, and her perspective seemed to reflect Rice's concern about Rumsfeld's overbearing style and tendency to dominate. Card knew that the first lady and Rice often took long walks together on the Camp David weekends.

"I agree with you," Card said. On one level he was trying to educate and explain, but he was also lobbying. So he outlined his problems with Rumsfeld and said he believed it was time for a change.

"Well, does the president know about that?" she asked. Was Card being candid with her husband?

Card said he was. "That's why I'm arguing." He said, however, that so far his advice on the Rumsfeld situation had been considered and rejected.

"He's happy with this," the first lady said, "but I'm not." Another time she said, "I don't know why he's not upset with this."

Card's relationship with Rumsfeld was always difficult. Last year, in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with devastating effect, Bush decided more troops were needed and asked Card to relay the message to Rumsfeld.

"You know I don't report to you," Rumsfeld said.

"I know you don't report to me," Card replied. "You report to the president. But believe me, he would like you to do this."

"I'm not going to do it unless the president tells me," Rumsfeld told the chief of staff. Too many strains and obligations were being placed on the National Guard.

Card protested that he had just talked to the president, who had made an absolute decision.

"Then he's going to have to tell me," Rumsfeld said.

"Hey," the president said to Card later. "Rumsfeld called me up. I thought you were going to handle that."

One More Try

After Thanksgiving 2005, Card made another concentrated effort to get the president to replace Rumsfeld. He didn't want the president to have blinders on. Many Republican and Democratic leaders were telling Card privately that they just could not deal with the secretary of defense. He was arrogant and unresponsive.

Card was also hearing from members of the old foreign policy establishment connected to the president's father -- the Gray Beards, he called them -- who were complaining more and more.

"Who's going to do the job?" the president asked Card.

Card again mentioned Baker.

"How do we get Roger Clemens back into the game?" Card asked, comparing Baker to one of the all-time great pitchers, who had retired from baseball only to come back for another year with his hometown team. "He can still pitch," Card said about Baker.

Bush reminded him that they were at war. Rumsfeld was transforming the military, hadn't been insubordinate and needed to get the new Pentagon budget approved. Replacing him would be disruptive to the upcoming Iraqi election on Dec. 15.

"Interesting," the president said nonetheless. "Interesting."

But the president would not even authorize Card to send out feelers or to enter into any discussion with Baker. Rumsfeld would stay.

Bill Murphy Jr. and Christine Parthemore contributed to this report.

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