Donald Rumsfeld's Troubled Reign

Donald Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon with a plan to transform the Defense Department. Then America went to war with Iraq.
Bradley Graham
Monday, June 15, 2009; 12:00 PM

Donald Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon with a plan to transform the Defense Department. Then America went to war with Iraq.

Bradley Graham was online Monday, June 15 to take your questions and comments about "Decline and Fall," his Washington Post Magazine cover story about the dramatic end of the former defense secretary's tenure. The article is adapted from his book, "By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld," published this month by PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

Graham served as Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post for more than a decade. The transcript is below.


Bradley Graham: Hi, Brad Graham here. Thanks to everyone for reading the magazine article, which was drawn from my new book about Rumsfeld. I'm happy to take your questions.


Detroit, Michigan: How much was Rumsfeld involved in making public statements in the run up to the Iraq war that were false? Also, I have read that he gave authorization for the so-called "enhanced interogation" techniques. Is this true?

Bradley Graham: In the run-up to the war, Rumsfeld believed the intelligence reports indicating that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and said so. To that extent, he contributed to what proved to be a false view of Iraq. As for the enhanced interrogation techniques, Rumsfeld personally authorized one set of harsh measures for use at Guantanamo in December 2002, then rescinded the measures the following months after strong objections from some Pentagon lawyers. He issued a new set of 24 measures in April 2003 after a review by Pentagon officials.


Alexandria, Va.: From what I've read, quite a few folks in the Obama administration picked up a copy of Angler to find out how Dick Cheney wielded so much power for so long. Should a current DoD staffer read your book to discover how Don Rumsfeld ruled for 6 years? Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency

Bradley Graham: The bulk of my book deals with Rumsfeld's six years as defense secretary under Bush. So yes, I think DoD staffers would find it very instructive.


Sioux Falls, SD: What were his connections and profit from the Avian Flu vaccine and apartame?

Bradley Graham: Rumsfeld was instrumental in bringing the artificial sweetener aspartame (more commonly known as Nutrasweet) to market when he headed G.D. Searle and Company. His instrumental role in improving Searle's fortunes earned him his first millions when the company was sold in 1985. As for the flu vaccine, Rumsfeld maintained his stake in the pharmaceutical firm Gilead even after becoming defense secretary, and it was Gilead's influenza remedy, Tamiflu, that profited during the the bird flu scare in 2005. But Rumsfeld, who had served as Gilead's chairman, recused himself from any decisions involving the company after taking the Pentagon job. He also had the Pentagon's general counsel issue instructions defining precisely what Rumsfeld's role could be if there were an avian flu pandemic and the Pentagon had to respond. When the flu issue became a hot topic in 2005, Rumsfeld considered selling his Gilead shares but was advised by lawyers to hold onto the stock and be public about his recusal rather than sell and be accused of insider trading.


Golden, CO: In another administration--or life--Rumsfeld served as envoy to the United States whose duties include meeting with Saddam Hussein. Flash forward about 20 years--under the Bush administration--and he alleges Saddam is evil.

Rumsfeld fall begin with Iraq and his lack of credibility.

Bradley Graham: Rumsfeld's meeting with Saddam Hussein in December 1983 took place at a time when both the Iraqi leader and the Reagan administration were interested in re-establishing ties. Twenty years later, when the situation had drastically changed, it certainly was more than little awkward for Rumsfeld to have in circulation photos of him shaking hands with Saddam. But it was U.S. policy that had changed, not Rumsfeld.


Sterling VA: During the Reagan administration, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was considered one of our allies. I have seen pictures of Rumsfeld with Hussein. I understand that the US assisted Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war in several ways. Financial loans, and military equipment were two. Some have said that it was the US that sold/gave Iraq the supposed chemical weapons that were used during that war. Did the US provide chemical weapons to Iraq? Did Rumsfeld ever express any regrets for supporting Iraq during those years?

Bradley Graham: I'm not aware of any U.S. chemical weapons sold to Iraq. And no, Rumsfeld has not expressed regret for his role in facilitating the resumption of U.S.-Iraq ties in the mid-1980s.


Get your Revisionist History Here!: Wow. I don't know whether to laugh or cry about the excerpt from your book that the Washington Post chose to publish. It is astounding that a major news organization could publish such a puff piece on a man responsible for so much death and destruction. The fact is that you have it exactly backward: Rumsfeld was never interested in transformation. Rather, he, Cheney and the other criminals in the Bush Administration were interested in invading and laying waste to Iraq for oil. They made this clear as early as 1998, if not before. Rumsfeld merely used transformation to provide cover for such an invasion and "lucked out" when 9/11 provided additional cover. It is also clear from documents now publicly disclosed that Rumsfeld was intimately involved in the planning of a far-reaching torture program. How a reputable news organization could leave information like this out of a story on a man who, according to General Bill Odom, is one of a select few primarily responsible for "the greatest strategic disaster in the history of the United States" boggles the mind.

Bradley Graham: Rumsfeld's interest in transformation was genuine and consuming while he served as secretary. As for his role in the military's treatment of detainees, I deal with that at considerable length in the book.


Boston: What, if any, is the personal relationship between Rumsfeld and McNamara? I would be curious if they have traded post-office perspectives on serving as secretary of defense in times of war. I would like to be a fly on the wall for a private conversation like that...

Bradley Graham: I'm not aware of any close tie between the two men. And yes, it certainly would be interesting to hear them reflect with each other on their experiences.


Dallas: Mr. Graham, Will Cheney's secret energy meeting documents ever be unsealed?

Bradley Graham: I don't have any information about that.


New London, NH: Press reports at the time said that Cheney tried to talk Bush out of firing Rumsfeld. True?

What happened to Bremer's predecessor Garner, and what was Rumsfeld's role in Garner's sudden departure and subsequent deletion from memory?

Bradley Graham: Yes, Cheney did argue for retaining Rumsfeld. As for Garner and Bremer, it was Rumsfeld who recommended Bremer be sent to take the top civilian job in Iraq, although the secretary hadn't intended that Garner leave. He thought the two could still work together. Garner thought otherwise and left.


Philadelphia, Pa.: It seems that Secretary Rumsfeld often disagreed or ignored advice from the military brass. What do you believe were the judgement factors that he used in creating policies over the objections or against the advice of Generals and military officials?

Bradley Graham: Early on as secretary, Rumsfeld was intent on reasserting civilian control of the military. He and a number of those he brought with him were concerned that under the Clinton administration, the military brass had managed to dominate the Pentagon's civilian leadership. So Rumsfeld made a point of seeking outside advice for how to carry out his transformation agenda. And the four-star heads of the military services continued as a group often to feel sidelined by Rumsfeld, particularly on operational matters. That was largely because Rumsfeld took a narrower view of the responsibilities of the Joint Chiefs. But it's not correct to regard him as generally dismissive of the views of senior military leaders. In fact, he arguably was too deferential toward the combatant commanders--the generals and admirals who head the military's regional and functional commands. And in the case of Iraq in particular, he should have actually done much more to challenge sufficiently some of the military advice he got.


Dallas, Tx: Mr. Graham, Thanks for the article and chat. Will any of the bush/cheney administration ever admit their mistake in the preemptive Iraq War?

Bradley Graham: Can't speak about all of the administration. But I doubt Rumsfeld will ever come to view the invasion as a mistake.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Graham, can you talk a little bit about how this book came to be? What inspired it, what did you do to gather your information?

Bradley Graham: Having covered Rumsfeld while he was defense secretary, I just thought there was much more to say about his rise and fall. No matter what one thinks of him, he certainly was enormously consequential. And his undoing had all the makings of a classic tragedy, with the traits that once made him great eventually contributing to his downfall. In researching the book, I spoke to several hundred people who had experience with him. And I also was able to interview him eight times and was given access to a number of his memos.


Floris, Va.: Secretary Rumsfeld, in the many times I saw him on television, always came across to me as arrogant, condescending, and combative. Is that your impression based on personal interactions

Bradley Graham: That's certainly one side of him. But he can also be affable, engaging, funny and sensitive. He really is a remarkable complex individual.


Boston: Who else was close to being considered for the Secretary of Defense job when Bush came into office (understanding it was Cheney doing the vetting)? Was the Bush administration's fate sealed on his decision to have Cheney in that admin nominee vetting role (with Cheney packing the admin with his people)? Who else had Bush considered for that role? What would the Iraq, Afghanistan and the Defense Department looked like had Gates been Secretary from the beginning of Bush's first term?

Bradley Graham: The leading candidate initially for the Pentagon job was former senator Dan Coats. But his interview with Bush went poorly. Cheney then recommended Rumsfeld, who was seen at the time as capable of providing a formidable counterweight to Powell at State.


"... Garder thought otherwise and left": Excuse me. My understanding, based on previous articles and analyses of the situation, was that Jay Garner was fired. Fired. Not "flounced out in a huff" -- booted out the door.

Where did you get this "thought otherwise and left" business?

Bradley Graham: Garner wasn't fired.


Vienna, VA: Mr. Graham: While reading the excerpt of your new book in the Washington Post Magazine, I recalled the testy statement (one of many) that former SECDEF Rumsfeld made in response to a reporter's critically loaded question regarding his handling of the Iraq conflict. The response I'm referring to was "You go to war with the forces you have".

As you well know, he received a lot of negative blowback as a result of that statement. But I wonder now if what he was really saying is that the decision to invade Iraq interfered with his personal goal of reshaping the military, in terms of encouraging fresh thinking and creating flexibility of response to a wide range of potential threats to the security and interests of the US.

This thought begs the question: Was Rumsfeld truly supportive of a military incursion into Iraq?

Or, was VP Cheney's office (with President Bush's assent) the primary cheerleader of the decision to invade in 2003? Was Rumsfeld being the "good soldier", remaining loyal to the Commander-in-Chief and to his longtime friend Dick Cheney, while harboring personal misgivings?

(I am well aware that your answer might be, "spend the money and read my book!")

Bradley Graham: The short answer is indeed as you suggest: Read the whole book! But I will say here that from everything I could determine, Rumsfeld was indeed fully supportive of the invasion. Some have pointed to his famous October 2002 memo warning of the things that could go wrong as suggesting he had reservations. But I see it as Rumsfeld simply trying to satisfy himself that all risks had been adequately considered. As for his "you go to war statement," that was uttered not in response to a reporter's question but to troops in Kuwait who were getting ready to go into Iraq and were concerned about a lack of armor. I don't think he was bemoaning there how the war had interfered with his transformation agenda. And in fact, even looking back now, he believes the war helped accelerate some of the kind of change in the U.S. military he had been promoting.


New Jersey: Does Rumsfeld have the slightest inkling that the Iraq war was a disastrous failure? If you review the goals of the invasion, it was supposed to set in motion a realignment of the Middle East towards friendship with the US (and Israel!), strengthen the US's hand in dealing with the states there, eradicate Al-Quaeda and the Taliban (and capture bin Laden and Omar), promote more democratic regimes, and assist the US economically by insuring friendlier oil suppliers.

Well .... what a disaster. Rumsfeld and Bush and Cheney have left the US much worse off, weaker militarily, diplomatically, economically. We had a real chance to change the situation in Afghanistan. That is lost. Pakistan, a nuclear power, is engulfed in violence.

This is a failure of enormous and lasting impact. I hope he knows that.

Bradley Graham: He'll have a chance to make clear what he knows and, if anything, regrets when he publishes his own memoir, which is due out in the fall of 2010.


San Francisco, CA: Does your book discuss the current status of the relationship between Sectys. Powell and Rumsfeld? It doesn't seem like they got along at all.

Bradley Graham: Their relationship was definitely strained, to say the least. And yes, my book addresses this at some length.


Dallas: Mr. Graham, I see the UK will investigate the Iraq war, will the US ever know more of the spin, fraud, torture and deaths, of the preemptive Iraq War?

Bradley Graham: I certainly hope so.


Florida: Here's the thing: Rumsfeld was right about the need to transform the military away from the "big war" approach. The renovations he was beginning were interrupted, but his thinking was in the right direction.

Bradley Graham: I agree that much of his thinking and many of his transformation initiatives were in the right direction.


Chicago: Without a doubt Donald Rumsfeld was one of the most intelligent, sucessful knowledgeable and experienced Sec/Def's we have ever had in our nation's history.

Do you think it was simply the media that was responsible for his early departure, or was it his decision to move on?

Bradley Graham: I don't think you can hold the media responsible for his departure. Nor was it just his choice. Bush had decided it was time for Rumsfeld to go--and much of the U.S. public appeared to think so as well.


San Francisco, CA: In your discussions with Secty. Rumsfeld, were you able to get him to discuss any regrets or things he looks book and wishes he had done differently? I know he's not one for Monday morning quarterbacking but interested to know.

Bradley Graham: I pressed him on the question of regrets but he wasn't ready to go very far down that road. I think he's still, in his own mind, going over a lot of what happened and trying to make sense of it to himself.


Military Wife: My husband retired from the army this year after 21 years of service. He served in Iraq during 2003. An easy-going gung-ho officer, he seldom gets really angry about anything, but he has frequently expressed the hope that some international court will convict Mr Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush et al for war crimes. He says it is the last best hope for justice during an era when the honor of his service was sullied. How do you assess the probablility of this?

Bradley Graham: I don't think an international court proceeding against those folks is very likely. But I do expect we'll learn more over time about how they came to the decisions they did and why.


Bethesda, MD: Mr. Graham, I am eager to read your book as I am one of the remaining Rumsfeld supporters in this country. Do you think that your book will change people's perceptions of Rumsfeld? I hope that your book is historically accurate and will shed light for those who think that Rumsfeld operated with complete disregard. It is because of a strong and powerful DoD that we are able to enjoy our freedoms today.

Bradley Graham: Don't know about changing any perceptions, but I have tried in the book to provide a much more comprehensive view of Rumsfeld's strengths and weaknesses.


San Francisco, CA: Does your books deal with the Gates era at DoD and how things have changed since Rumsfeld left?

Bradley Graham: It does a bit in the epilogue, mostly in terms of contrasting some of Gates' moves with those of Rumsfeld. Whether intentionally or not, Gates came into office acting in a number of ways as a kind of anti-Rumsfeld, reaching out to the military chiefs, appearing less intrusive, even treating the press more kindly. Certainly his lack of flare and self-promotion have contrasted with the theatrics of his predecessor. But Gates, in the Rumsfeld tradition, has continued to push for change and has been heard stressing more than a little sympathy for what Rumsfeld went through trying to transform the military.


San Francisco, CA: How much does your book discuss Rumsfeld's interactions with Messrs. Wolfowitz and Feith? If you read certain accounts, it seems like DoD scoffed at the intelligence coming from CIA and set up their own in-house intelligence. How much of this was done with Rumsfeld's approval?

Bradley Graham: I do get into that a bit in the book. My understanding is that Rumsfeld was aware of the in-house intelligence effort but wasn't the prime mover behind it.


New Jersey: One more quick question: do you have any idea of Rumsfeld's best guess as to how long the war in Iraq would last? I know he made some ritual disclaimers that the war "could" last a long time, but all the preparations I saw were for a quick victory and installation of a friendly regime.

Bradley Graham: I don't think he ever provided a firm estimate, although he did ask his senior staff to do so on the eve of the invasion. They all expected a short war.


San Francisco, CA: I have been reading Tom Ricks' "Fiasco" which is not very flattering of Secty. Rumsfeld. Is your book more balanced? Ricks seemed to cherry pick comments from unnamed military officers to present his portrait of Rumsfeld. How much does your book rely on anonymous sources? Excerpt from 'Fiasco' Post, July 2006

Bradley Graham: I have very few anonymous quotes in my book, which is not a criticism of anyone else's work. I have great respect for Tom's writings and will leave you to make any comparisons.


Houston, TX: Mr. Graham, How do you see the Powell-Rumsfeld relationship?

Bradley Graham: I don't have time to get into a full discussion of the relationship here but would encourage you to read the book.


San Francisco, CA: How heavily footnoted is your book? It seems like the book has the potential to antagonize people based on what you say about Rumsfeld versus their own conceptions of what has gone on in Iraq and the man himself.

Bradley Graham: There are lots and lots of footnotes. The text itself runs about 700 pages, with another 100 pages or so of notes and bibliography.


Bradley Graham: Well, we're unfortunately out of time. I appreciate all the interest and regret having been unable to get to all the questions. You'll find much more information about Rumsfeld in my book, which is available online or in bookstores starting June 22.


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