Rumsfeld: Whatever it is, I didn't do it

Published December 8, 2004 12:40AM (EST)

Remember that press conference back in April, the one where reporters kept asking George W. Bush to identify any mistakes he may have made as president? Remember when Bush said he wished he had been given the question ahead of time, so that he could "plan for it"? Remember how he said, "I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet"?

Donald Rumsfeld doesn't have that sort of problem. No, sir. Ask the Secretary of Defense about his mistakes, and he'll take full responsibility for them straight away. Why, just yesterday, when a reporter asked him if he'd made any mistakes with respect to the war on Iraq, Rumsfeld said "of course" and then said that "two things stand out."

But then things started to go just a little sideways, personal responsibility-wise.

Mistake No. 1, Rumsfeld said, concerned the weapons of mass destruction that provided the justification for going to war even though they maybe didn't, you know, exist. Perhaps Rumsfeld was ready to say he shouldn't have told Congress in Sept. 2002 that Saddam Hussein "has amassed large clandestine stocks" of biological and chemical weapons. Perhaps he was ready to apologize for saying of the weapons, just after the war began, "We know where they are." But that sort of mea culpa would have required some kind of acceptance of responsibility. Instead, what Rumseld identified as the mistake was "the fact that one basis for going to Iraq that the administration articulated was the conviction that [Saddam Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction which would be findable." It wasn't Rumsfeld, see? It was "the administration."

OK, but there were two things, right? Rumsfeld would come clean on his other mistake, wouldn't he? Well, no. In his own roundabout, passive-voice sort of way, Rumsfeld turned next to the Pentagon's failure to plan for the reality of post-war Iraq. That was his fault, right? Apparently not. After all, how could the Department of Defense have planned for post-war Iraq when nobody could possibly have predicted the insurgency? Rumsfeld explained: "I don't think anyone would say that the intelligence left anyone with the impression that you'd be in the degree of insurgency you're in today and resistance on the part of a mixture of Baathists and pro-dictatorship, pro-Saddam people, mixed in with some foreign terrorists and extremists."

Of course, that's almost exactly what the National Intelligence Council did predict. As the New York Times reported in September, the NIC warned before the war of a "possible insurgency against the new Iraqi government or American-led forces, saying that rogue elements from Saddam Hussein's government could work with existing terrorist groups or act independently to wage guerrilla warfare."

Rumsfeld's failure to 'fess up would be pretty shocking if only it weren't. While Rumsfeld said he understands that "everyone likes to assign responsibility to the top person," he plainly believes that such attempts are misguided. Just take the issue of troop levels in Iraq, he said. Those are set by the commanders on the ground, the Secretary of Defense said, and are therefore "one of those things that's really out of my control."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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