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Rumsfeld vs. Rice: What's the role of a national security adviser?

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 7:11 PM

What's the role of the president's national security adviser?

There's an insider's view on Pages 324 to 330 in former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's 726-page memoir "Known and Unknown," which is backed up by several hundred declassified documents posted on his Web site, www.rumsfeld.com.

Described by most reviewers as a critique of Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush's national security adviser during his first term, a close reading of those pages and the accompanying documents reminds us again how personality clashes affect processes at the top levels of our government.

Let's start with the mundane elements, but ones that give you a sense of Rumsfeld.

On Jan. 23, 2001, three days after Bush's inauguration, Rumsfeld dictated a series of memos (which he eventually called snowflakes) to members of his personal staff. In a note to one secretary: "You ought not to say it's Dr. Rice if it is her secretary. You ought to be precise. Thank you."

To another: "Let's get the light in this room up, particularly in over the table."

And to Steve Cambone, his special assistant: "I think you always should have the current calendar on the plastic holder on the back desk behind me, even though I have one in my pocket. Then I will always be able to see it."

On Feb. 5, 2001, Rice sent a memo to Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying she wanted a brigadier general to serve on her National Security Council staff to work on U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy and interagency efforts to define the nuclear force structure.

Four days later, Shelton sent the memo to Rumsfeld for his information, adding, "We are working on it."

That afternoon, Rumsfeld sent Rice a memo saying that any NSC communication to the Pentagon, even to the Joint Chiefs chairman, should come through his office. "It is exceedingly difficult to manage the Pentagon without that clear understanding and procedure," he wrote.

In his book, Rumsfeld notes that Rice suggested she approve his official travel. "I certainly kept the national security adviser and the secretary of state informed of my travel plans," he wrote, but he added that he never acceded to her suggestion.

Petty issues aside, Rumsfeld wrote in the book that his concern with Rice's operation of the NSC arose from her tendency to bridge "differences between agencies, rather than bringing those differences to the president for decisions."

A Dec. 27, 2001, memo from Rumsfeld to Rice notes that she is circulating draft memos that said, "If no objections are raised, the NSC paper will be considered as approved by the Principals as of (a specific date)."

Rumsfeld wrote that he was "uncomfortable with that procedure" because his travel or "dozens of things going on" in the Pentagon might make it impossible "to get back in your time frame. . . . Please change your procedure so that you need to hear back from me before you can assume that something is approved. Thanks."

In August 2002, questions were being raised publicly about harsh detainee interrogations bordering on torture and countries were interested in visiting their nationals who had been brought to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In an Aug. 22 memo to Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, Rumsfeld wrote that Rice had told him: "We have to get the detainee mess sorted out, that nobody is able to get answers. . . . She always comes in with these cryptic messages as thought (sic) the Pentagon is messed up and I don't have any idea what she is talking about."

Rumsfeld told Wolfowitz to call her. "I told her that everyone who has wanted to see their detainees has been able to and it is baloney" that they couldn't. Rumsfeld cautioned, "But you should check it out and get back to her."

An Oct. 16, 2002, morning memo to Rice raised several problems arising from an NSC meeting on the Middle East that had taken place a week earlier. One complaint was that at the Oct. 9 meeting, she told those present, including Bush, that a paper prepared by the NSC deputies committee [made up of representatives of all relevant agencies, including the Defense Department] had been worked on at two sessions of that group and cleared by them. Rumsfeld wrote that he had checked and found "the paper was not a Deputy product and had not been cleared by the Deputies." He ended by writing: "I am concerned that the President may have the wrong impression as I did."

Not satisfied, Rumsfeld dictated an internal memo on the NSC that day. He wrote, "Condi has taken over the President's role as head of the NSC by having a PC [Principal's Committee meeting, which she chairs]. We don't need a PC - we should have an NSC and the Deputies should do the rest."

He added, "Most of what the President gets about the Department of Defense he is getting from Condi Rice, not from the Department of Defense."

Rice fired a memo back to Rumsfeld two days later. "You may assume that PC meetings and NSC meetings are 'plus one' unless otherwise noted."

Plus one meant that Rice's deputy, Stephen Hadley, was present along with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.

Reading Rumsfeld makes you wonder what is going on within President Obama's NSC.

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