The pressure on beleaguered U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld intensified Sunday and threatened to taint his main supporter in Washington, George W. Bush. David Hackworth, a retired U.S. Army colonel turned writer, reported that Rumsfeld had used a mechanical signature writer to sign his name on letters of condolence to relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although the charge was initially denied by the Pentagon, Rumsfeld issued a statement on Thursday acknowledging the practice and promising to halt it. "While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter," Rumsfeld said in the statement.
Hackworth also reported allegations by relatives of deceased soldiers that letters they had received from the president had been signed by a machine. Ted Smith, whose son Eric was one of the first 100 U.S. soldiers to die in Iraq, told Hackworth that the letter he received "from the commander in chief was signed with a thick, green marking pen. I thought it was stamped then and do even now. He had time for golf and the ranch but not enough to sign a decent signature with a pen for his beloved hero soldiers." Rejecting the charges, White House spokesman Allen Abney told the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes that the president did personally sign all condolence letters.
But the revelations about Rumsfeld cap an uncomfortable fortnight for the defense secretary. One of the few members of the Bush Cabinet to avoid being reshuffled after the election, Rumsfeld has come under attack from within the Republican Party for his handling of the war in Iraq.
Public attention focused on the defense secretary when he faced hostile questions in a town-hall-style meeting with Iraq-bound soldiers in Kuwait. He bluntly answered their complaints about a lack of equipment by saying that governments have to go to war with the army they have, "not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
Rumsfeld also came under attack from veteran Republican and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott last week, who declared that he was "not a fan" of the secretary of defense. And William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and one of the biggest supporters and architects of the neoconservative foreign policy followed by the Bush White House, questioned whether Rumsfeld was the right man for the job.
Critics have focused on his sometimes arrogant style, his handling of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and his enthusiasm for a scaled-down, high-tech military.
Most observers concur that it is very unlikely that Bush will remove Rumsfeld before the scheduled January elections in Iraq. But with more than 1,300 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, the revelation that Rumsfeld and perhaps Bush have not personally signed all the condolence letters will heighten the impression that the administration has been callous in its handling of the war.
"Using those machines is pretty common, but it shouldn't be in cases of those who have died in action," Hackworth told Stars and Stripes. "How can [officials] feel the emotional impact of that loss if they're not even looking at the letters?" he asked, adding that using fake signatures was "like having it signed by a monkey."
Rumsfeld's future and his record were discussed Sunday on all the main news programs, which often set the agenda for the week. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card appeared on ABC's "This Week" to defend Rumsfeld, saying: "Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a spectacular job."