Rumsfeld and Cheney safeguard America

Thursday, March 10, 2011; 9:59 PM

Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been wrongly accused by critics of arrogantly shooting from the hip and getting us into that mess in Iraq.

But private memos from earlier in his career reveal a cautious man, much more cautious than people give him credit for, maybe even hyper-cautious.

For example, a "memorandum for the file" that he dictated on Sunday, Sept. 29, 1974, seven weeks after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency following Richard Nixon's resignation, recounts a problem that arose as he prepared to replace Alexander Haig as White House chief of staff.

Rumsfeld, temporarily in an office in the Executive Office Building, noted that he had met the day before "at approximately 5 p.m." with his pal Dick Cheney, then a presidential assistant, and others "to assist me in starting the move into Haig's old office" in the West Wing.

Rumsfeld recalled that the group helped him empty cupboards and closets and "look around the place."

He recalled that he wanted "to make sure that Haig had left nothing that he might want . . . and I wanted to make sure that there was nothing in the place that I didn't want there, such as recording equipment, telephone bugs and the like." Good idea.

"At approximately 5:15, I believe," an aide told him there was "a safe in the cupboard" by the fireplace in the office. At "approximately 7 p.m.," he recalled, he asked Cheney and another aide to get the safe combination "so I could start using it in the event I had classified material."

But an aide said that "there is something you ought to know about the safe." Seems the safe had not been opened during Haig's tenure. "Haig had apparently asked to have it opened" but former White House counsel J. Fred Buzhardt told Haig he didn't want it opened, Rumsfeld recalled being told.

So Rumsfeld told Cheney he "wanted the safe moved out of my office, unopened" and would check with counsel about letting Watergate investigators know it was there and, if possible, what might be in it.

He arranged for a guard at the door when he left his office later that night, he recalled, "to protect it from entry," in case there was "evidence related to the work of the Justice Department" or other Watergate investigators.

"I knew that I had not touched it nor had any of the people who had been in my office," he said, listing Cheney and others who'd been in there.

And no one had touched it the next morning when he called the counsel's office to "develop a procedure for transfer of the safe out of this office," he wrote. Before the safe was carefully put on a dolly to take it across West Executive Drive to a vault in the EOB, Rumsfeld made sure he got a receipt (which is attached to the memo) showing it had been transferred out of his custody.

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