Donald Rumsfeld is back. Four years after being ousted from his job as secretary of defense, he has produced a memoir, “Known and Unknown,” which covers a lot of ground, most notably his own backside.
The former wrestler throws jabs at critics such as Senator John McCain, lavishes fawning praise on former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and keeps the overall tone defiant and biting rather than contrite or reflective.
One thing he doesn’t do is take responsibility for the widespread detainee abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan or the bad decisions made during the war -- the shortages of body armor and armored vehicles, the poor postwar planning, the lack of troops that contributed to a deadly insurgency.
Rumsfeld may be trying to present a friendlier image here - - the book jacket features a photograph of him wearing a fleece vest and jeans -- but this is the same guy once known as “Rumstud” who enthusiastically sold the Bush administration’s wrong-headed story about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and set the tone that led to detainee abuses.
A constant theme is that the administration went to war in Iraq with only the best intentions, based on faulty intelligence stating that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
“What was unique about Iraq was that the intelligence community reported near total confidence in their conclusions,” Rumsfeld writes. “Their assessments appeared to be unusually consistent.”
Nowhere does Rumsfeld, the grand inquisitor of generals and admirals when discussing strategy, disclose any instance when he or other officials grilled the Central Intelligence Agency with skepticism.
The impression I got from the book is that Rumsfeld and others heard what they wanted to hear and embellished broadly.
Don’t forget this Rumsfeld statement from September 2002: “There’s no debate in the world as to whether they have those weapons. We all know that. A trained ape knows that.”
Rumsfeld never explains this one, but he does acknowledge a “misstatement” when he told ABC News “we know where they are,” referring to prohibited weapons.
“I should have used the phrase ‘suspect sites,’” he says in one of the few nods to a mistake.
Rumsfeld also blames the intelligence community for its purported failure to predict the insurgency that brought Iraq to virtual civil war: “In the list of intelligence shortcomings, the failure to highlight the dangers of an insurgency was among the more serious.”
That’s not the way intelligence professionals remember it. A widely circulated January 2003 National Intelligence Council assessment of postwar Iraq predicted violence.
“The threat of Shia reprisals for the oppression they suffered under Saddam’s rule is a major concern to the Sunni elite and could erupt if not prevented by an occupying force,” the report said.
Among the Pentagon officials on the distribution list was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.
Rumsfeld devotes many pages to Guantanamo Bay, detainee interrogations and Abu Ghraib, and includes a thoughtful discussion of “the complex moral questions” the U.S. faced in crafting a judicial system for alleged terrorists.
One of his “biggest disappointments” as secretary was “my inability to marshal the resources within our government to help persuade America and the world of the truth about Gitmo: the most heavily scrutinized detention facility in the world was also one of the most professionally run in history.”
This rings extremely hollow considering the shifting ground rules for media coverage at the facility dating back to 2002. If it was being so well run, why not make it more transparent? (The November/December 2010 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review lays out the media history.)
Rumsfeld sticks to the view that the “unacceptable” Abu Ghraib abuses in late 2003 were committed by “a small group of disturbed individuals.” He did offer to resign twice over the incident; Bush rejected the idea. Still, he selectively quotes from at least one official report to back up his claim that Pentagon interrogation policy had nothing to do with the abuse.
The August 2004 report by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, which looked at Pentagon detainee operations around the world, said -- as Rumsfeld repeated -- “there is no evidence of a policy of abuse promulgated by senior officials or military authorities.”
Rumsfeld, however, neglects to quote another part of the report that says a December 2002 memo he authorized --and later rescinded -- allowing “more aggressive” interrogation of some detainees at GTMO had unintended consequences.
“Although specifically limited by the Secretary of Defense to Guantanamo, and requiring his personal approval (given in only 2 cases), the augmented techniques migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq where they were neither limited nor safeguarded,” the panel said.
After all the dust settles, Rumsfeld still believes the Iraq war was justified -- though he says it’s fair to ask whether it was worth the cost. Sure, he notes, it came at a “high price” -- thousands of combat casualties, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, “poisoned” domestic politics. Still, he says, “I have no doubt that given the facts available to President Bush in 2003, I would have made the same decision.”
In a book of knowns and unknowns, Rumsfeld is certain of that.
“Known and Unknown: A Memoir” is published by Sentinel (815 pages, $36). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Tony Capaccio is a Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)