19 May, 2009
Donald Rumsfeld's funny business
by Robert Draper
Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld has always answered his detractors by claiming that history will one day judge him kindly. But as he waits for that day, a new group of critics - his administration peers - are suddenly speaking out for the first time. What they're saying? It isn't pretty.
On the morning of Thursday, April 10, 2003, Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon prepared a top-secret briefing for George W. Bush. This document, known as the Worldwide Intelligence Update, was a daily digest of critical military intelligence so classified that it circulated among only a handful of Pentagon leaders and the president; Rumsfeld himself often delivered it, by hand, to the White House. The briefing's cover sheet generally featured triumphant, color images from the previous days' war efforts: On this particular morning, it showed the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Firdos Square, a grateful Iraqi child kissing an American soldier, and jubilant crowds thronging the streets of newly liberated Baghdad. And above these images, and just below the headline secretary of defense, was a quote that may have raised some eyebrows. It came from the Bible, from the book of Psalms: "Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him ... To deliver their soul from death."
This mixing of Crusades-like messaging with war imagery, which until now has not been revealed, had become routine. On March 31, a U.S. tank roared through the desert beneath a quote from Ephesians: "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." On April 7, Saddam Hussein struck a dictatorial pose, under this passage from the First Epistle of Peter: "It is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men."
Click here to see the covers
These cover sheets were the brainchild of Major General Glen Shaffer, a director for intelligence serving both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense. In the days before the Iraq war, Shaffer's staff had created humorous covers in an attempt to alleviate the stress of preparing for battle. Then, as the body counting began, Shaffer, a Christian, deemed the biblical passages more suitable. Several others in the Pentagon disagreed. At least one Muslim analyst in the building had been greatly offended; others privately worried that if these covers were leaked during a war conducted in an Islamic nation, the fallout - as one Pentagon staffer would later say - "would be as bad as Abu Ghraib."
But the Pentagon's top officials were apparently unconcerned about the effect such a disclosure might have on the conduct of the war or on Bush's public standing. When colleagues complained to Shaffer that including a religious message with an intelligence briefing seemed inappropriate, Shaffer politely informed them that the practice would continue, because "my seniors" - JCS chairman Richard Myers, Rumsfeld, and the commander in chief himself - appreciated the cover pages.
But one government official was disturbed enough by these biblically seasoned sheets to hold on to copies, which I obtained recently while debriefing the past eight years with those who lived them inside the West Wing and the Pentagon. Over the past several months, the battle to define the Bush years has begun taking shape: As President Obama has rolled back his predecessor's foreign and economic policies, Dick Cheney, Ari Fleischer, and former speechwriters Michael Gerson and Marc Thiessen have all taken to the airwaves or op-ed pages to cast the Bush years in a softer light.
My conversations with more than a dozen Bush loyalists, including several former cabinet-level officials and senior military commanders, have revealed another element of this legacy-building moment: intense feelings of ill will toward Donald Rumsfeld. Though few of these individuals would speak for the record (knowing that their former boss, George W. Bush, would not approve of it), they believe that Rumsfeld's actions epitomized the very traits - arrogance, stubbornness, obliviousness, ineptitude - that critics say drove the Bush presidency off the rails.