Joe Conason's Journal

Rumsfeld's private candor provides a revealing contrast to the administration's public bluster.

Published October 23, 2003 7:53PM (EDT)

Rummy's red face
From the beginning, the Bush administration has taken inordinate pride in keeping a tight news hole. The leaks that occur are highly purposeful -- like the alleged White House outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. That could be why the reckless and possibly illegal leaking of Plame's name stirred so little reaction from administration officials, including the president, until the CIA finally demanded prosecution.

But occasionally there is an unauthorized leak that disturbs the administration's upper echelons -- like that all-too-candid memorandum from the defense secretary, which assessed the "mixed" results of the war on terrorism. "Is our current situation such that 'the harder we work, the behinder we get'?" wondered Donald Rumsfeld in the memo. "It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog." Concerning the effort to extirpate al-Qaida, he noted, "We have put considerable pressure on them -- nonetheless, a great many remain at large."

Evidently Rumsfeld was not pleased to have these thoughts shared with the rest of us. Speaking with Fox News, a "senior defense official" described Rumsfeld as "livid" when he learned that the memo's contents had been spilled onto the front page of USA Today. (Skepticism regarding Fox is always prudent, but if the Murdoch channel has sources anywhere, it has them in this administration.) Fox notes that Rummy later "appeared calm" at a news conference where he was asked about the memo. In his characteristically lighthearted way, the defense secretary explained his pique to reporters. "If I wanted it published," he complained, "I would have written it as a press release, which I didn't."

Perhaps Rumsfeld should consider a leaks investigation (although he probably shouldn't seek any assistance from John Ashcroft). There were only four recipients of this particular memo: his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretary Douglas Feith, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Richard Myers, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. Peter Pace. "It boggles my mind how a memo to four people ends up on the front page of a newspaper," that senior defense official growled. Could this mean that someone close to Rumsfeld is trying to take him down? Absolutely not, said a Pentagon spokesman. Somebody merely allowed too many copies to circulate.

Actually, the terrorism memo -- one among many messages raining down from his office onto the Pentagon brass, who call them "snowflakes" -- makes Rummy sound more in tune with reality than some of his colleagues.

He seems to understand that things aren't going so well in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the Muslim world, despite the happy news tirelessly spread by the White House. (Attacks on our troops are increasing, as one of the top generals in the field admitted Wednesday, and the administration's current pledge drive in Madrid is coming up short.) But his Socratic questions aren't particularly penetrating. And Rumsfeld's private candor provides a revealing contrast to the administration's public bluster.
[12:30 p.m. PDT, October 23, 2003]

For your regular Joe, bookmark this link. To send an e-mail, click here.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------