Best Defense

How Rumsfeld misleads and ducks responsibility in his new book

Few people know the ins and outs of the Bush Administration as well as the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward, who is flat-out disgusted with the evasions and elisions in Donald Rumsfeld’s new book. Here he explains why: By Bob Woodward Best Defense guest columnist On page 527 of his memoir Known and Unknown, Donald Rumsfeld ...

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Few people know the ins and outs of the Bush Administration as well as the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward, who is flat-out disgusted with the evasions and elisions in Donald Rumsfeld’s new book. Here he explains why:

By Bob Woodward
Best Defense guest columnist

On page 527 of his memoir Known and Unknown, Donald Rumsfeld recounts what he says was an exchange on Oct. 14, 2003 with Condoleezza Rice who was then Bush’s national security adviser. She apologized for a flap over Iraq policy at the time.

You’re failing," Rumsfeld said.

"Don, you’ve made mistakes in your long career," she replied.

"Yes, but I’ve tried to clean them up," he said.

Rumsfeld’s memoir is one big clean-up job, a brazen effort to shift blame to others — including President Bush — distort history, ignore the record or simply avoid discussing matters that cannot be airbrushed away. It is a travesty, and I think the rewrite job won’t wash.

The Iraq War is essential to the understanding of the Bush presidency and the Rumsfeld era at the Pentagon. In the book, Rumsfeld tries to push so much off on Bush. That is fair because Bush made the ultimate decisions. But the record shows that it was Rumsfeld stoking the Iraq fires — facts he has completely left out of his memoir.

For example, I reported in my 2004 book, Plan of Attack (p. 25), that at 2:40 p.m. on 9/11, with the smoke and dust still filling the Pentagon, according to the notes of two of Rumsfeld’s top aides, Rumsfeld mused about whether to hit "S.H. @ same time," not only bin Laden. One note taker reaffirmed this in an interview with the 9/11 Commission, and said that "S.H." referred to Saddam Hussein. (p. 335 of Commission report, and p. 559 footnote 63). None of this is in Rumsfeld’s book. But he does cite the aides’ handwritten notes for other quotations he uses in his book to recount that day. (p. 343 of his book, and p. 759 notes 30, 31 and 32. The notes are of senior Rumsfeld aides Victoria Clarke and Stephen A. Cambone.)


On January 9, 2002, four months after 9/11, Dan Balz of The Washington Post and I interviewed Rumsfeld for a newspaper series on the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. According to notes of the NSC, on September 12, the day after 9/11, Rumsfeld again raised Iraq saying, is there a need to address Iraq as well as bin Laden?

When Balz read this to Rumsfeld, he blew up. "I didn’t say that," he said, maintaining that it was his aide Larry DiRita talking over his shoulder. His reaction was comic and we agreed to treat it as off the record. But Balz persisted and asked Rumsfeld what he was thinking.

"Yeah," Rumsfeld finally told us. "I wanted to make sure that — I always ask myself, what’s missing. It’s easy for people to edit and make something slightly better. But the question is, what haven’t we asked ourselves? So I do it all the time. I do it here, I do it in cabinet meetings or NSC meetings. It was a fair question."

"I don’t have notes," Rumsfeld insisted. "I don’t have any notes."  His memoir cites his personal handwritten notes dozens of time.

One of the important questions about the Iraq War has always been about when and who started the Iraq clock after 9/11. On page 425, Rumsfeld alleges that Bush on Sept 26, 2001 — just 15 days after 9/11 — called him to the Oval Office. "He asked that I take a look at the shape of our military plans on Iraq…"  Rumsfeld provides no footnote for this scene.

When I interviewed Rumsfeld at his Pentagon office on Oct. 23, 2003, Rumsfeld had a different story. "I do not remember much about Iraq being discussed at all with the president or me or the NSC prior to when the president asked me to — asked me what I thought of the Iraq contingency plan — that I believe was November 21st of ’01." He was confident of the date because six days later he went to talk with the combatant commander for the region, Gen. Tommy Franks. "And I would not have waited long from the president asking me."

White House records and President Bush’s recent memoir, Decision Points, support the Nov. 21 date. "Two months after 9/11 I asked Don Rumsfeld to review the existing battle plans for Iraq," Bush wrote, placing the request in November 2001 (p. 234)

The question of the date is not just a matter of whether something occurred on a Monday or a Thursday. On Sept. 26, 2001, the Bush administration was focused on Afghanistan. The first CIA team had just entered and the bombing had not yet begun. By his own account Rumsfeld was intensely trying to figure out how to begin the military aspect of Afghanistan War with bombing and inserting Special Operations teams.  

At a Camp David meeting on Sept. 15 — eleven days before Rumsfeld says Bush made his first Iraq war plan inquiry — Bush rejected going after Iraq. In fact, Rumsfeld himself writes, that "at the September 15 NSC meeting at Camp David days earlier when Iraq had been raised he [Bush] had specifically kept the focus on Afghanistan." (p. 425)

According to Rumsfeld, on Sept. 21, he and General Franks "drove over to the White House to present his initial operational concept" for Afghanistan (p. 370) and a more detailed approach was given to Bush on Sept. 30 (p. 373). It is inconsistent with everything known that in the middle of all that planning and anguish over Afghanistan, Bush would raise Iraq on Sept. 26.

However, by Nov. 21, the United States had had unexpected success in Afghanistan and controlled half the territory. Thousands of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters had fled the capital Kabul into Pakistan. If Bush were looking for another target — and he clearly was — that would be the time, not on Sept. 26.

Another key question: When did Bush finally decide to commit the United States to war? Rumsfeld writes, "Up until the very minute the president authorized the first strike [March 19, 2003] there was no moment when I felt with razor-sharp certainty that Bush had fully decided." He does describe a meeting Jan. 11, two months earlier, when he met at the White House with Cheney, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, and Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Rumsfeld quotes Cheney telling Bandar, "The president has made the decision to go after Saddam Hussein." In his book Rumsfeld adds, "Of course, Bush would not irrevocably decide on war until he signed the execute order." (p. 450)

According to my reporting, Cheney went further in that meeting, telling the Saudi ambassador, "Saddam is toast." In addition, General Myers outlined the battle plan from a Top Secret map.

When I interviewed Rumsfeld on Oct. 23, 2003, less than a year after that meeting, he said he "looked him [Bandar] in the eye and said, you can count on this. In other words at some point we had had enough of a signal from the president that we were able to look a foreign dignitary in the eye and say you can take that to the bank this is going to happen."

All other evidence shows that at least by Jan. 2003, Bush had decided on war. Earlier that month he told Rice, "Probably going to have to, we’re going to have to go to war." That month he also told Karl Rove, his top political adviser, who was planning for the re-election campaign the next year, "We got a war coming."


As numerous accounts have documented, the post-war planning and organization was close to a disaster. Rumsfeld blames the lack of "effective interagency coordination" and "the way the United States government is organized." (p. 487)

As secretary of defense he was responsible. Under our system, he was next in the chain of command after the president, effectively making him the deputy president for war. But he sidestepped his responsibility time and time again.

Some six weeks after the invasion Rumsfeld visited Iraq and was leaving on his plane. He had been notified by General Tommy R. Franks, who was retiring as combatant commander for the region, that Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan "would be the senior commander in Iraq for 90 days." (p. 497) He then recounts this scene, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic:

On my flight heading back to Kuwait City I was startled to see McKiernan onboard the C-130 aircraft. I asked him where he was going.

"To my headquarters back in Kuwait," he said.

"Well, aren’t you in charge of what’s going on in Iraq?" I asked.

McKiernan told me he went in and out of Iraq once, sometimes twice a week to check on things. It struck me that in the crucial weeks following the fall of Saddam, McKiernan did not seem to think of himself as the command in charge of the ground operations … McKiernan seemed to have removed himself from the critical daily responsibilities in the country.

Rumsfeld makes no effort to explain how he, the well-known control freak, would allow such drift and ambiguity about who was in charge. 

By June 2003, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the junior three-star in the Army was made commander in Iraq (p. 500-01). "I do not recall being made aware of the Army’s decision to move General Sanchez into the top position," Rumsfeld writes. The Army’s? It was an abdication of his own, clear responsibility.


Though Rumsfeld occasionally praises Bush, a careful reading shows that he clearly feels that Bush did not lead enough. "NSC meetings with the president did not always end with clear conclusions and instructions," he wrote on page 319, seemingly directing his fire at Rice. "The core problems the NSC faced resulted from the effort to paper over differences of views."(p. 329). But then he takes aim right at Bush, "I thought it unlikely that Rice was managing the NSC as she did without Bush’s awareness and agreement."

And so the book marches to the end. Chapter 49, the seven pages covering his firing by Bush as the secretary of defense, is called "Farewells." He launders the whole episode. Because he was willing to resign, he makes it sounds almost voluntary when Cheney calls to tell him that Bush wants "to make a change." When he meets with Bush (p. 707) to submit his resignation letter, Rumsfeld writes with classic condescension, "I tried to make the situation easier for him." It was almost, he subtly and deceptively suggests, as if Bush didn’t want to do it. He writes that Bush told him, "This is hard for me. You are a pro. You’re a hell of a lot better than others in this town."

Rumsfeld is indeed a pro — at ducking and weaving and dodging responsibility, a reflection of much of what is worst in Washington.

Near the end of the Oct. 23, 2003 interview — page 39 of my transcript — this interchange took place, illustrating the worst and the best of him:

Rumsfeld: "And you lie, you told people I stuck a finger in your chest. I never stuck a finger in your chest."

Woodward: "Yes, sir, yes, yes."

Rumsfeld: "I never touched your chest."

Woodward: "I swear you did."

Rumsfeld: "Did I?"

Woodward: "Yeah, you did."

Rumsfeld: "Physically?"

Woodward: "You did, physically, it wasn’t hostile you were illustrating a point."

Rumsfeld: "Good."

Woodward: "I explained that. I thought you scored a very good point."

Rumsfeld: (laughter)

Woodward: "Which was about surprise and off balance."

Rumsfeld: "Oh yes, I did. I remember that you’re right …Yeah, right, you are right …I said you got to get a little off balance — I’ve done that. He’s right, I’m wrong."

He had moved from calling me a liar to acknowledging that my memory was correct and his wrong. He probably should have been more tentative at both the front end and the back end, but there it was, Rumsfeld in full.


On July 7 and 8, 2006, I conducted nearly three hours of interviews with Rumsfeld. Near the end, I heard the final denial.  I quoted Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who had said, "Any military commander who is honest with you will say he’s made mistakes that have cost lives."

"Is that correct?" I asked.

"I don’t know. I suppose that a military commander –"

"Which you are," I interrupted.

"No, I’m not," Rumsfeld said.

"Yes, sir," I said.

"No, no well …"

"Yes, yes," I said, raising my hand in the air and ticking off the chain of command. "It’s commander in chief, secretary of defense, combatant commander."

He said, "I can see a military commander in a uniform who is engaged in a conflict having to make decisions that result in people living or dying and that that would be a truth. And certainly if you go up the chain to the civilian side to the president and to me, you could by indirection, two or three steps removed, make the case."

I quoted this interchange in my third Bush book, State of Denial, and then wrote: "Indirection? Two or three steps removed?" This was truly inexplicable. It was as if he could not see himself and realize that he was avoiding his duty. When all the records are available, the other memoirs written and the history complete, this failure to accept responsibility will likely be his legacy.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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