SPENCER MICHELS: Amid continuing violence on the ground and debate in Congress over the White House funding request, tensions within the Bush administration over postwar Iraq burst into public view this week.
That followed news that the White House set up a new task force to oversee postwar Iraq and Afghanistan. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, heads up the new Iraq Stabilization Group. Its stated purpose is to coordinate efforts in the areas of counterterrorism, economic and political restructuring, and the administration's public message.
First reported in Monday's New York Times, the reorganization "appears part of an effort to assert more direct White House control over how Washington coordinates its efforts" in Iraq. Rice, who drew up the plan in a classified memo last week, told The Times the change indicates "we are in a different phase now." And she said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had input into the new policy, which appears at odds with Rumsfeld's account.
On Monday, President Bush noted the Pentagon is still in charge in Iraq. He spoke at a press conference with the president of Kenya.
REPORTER: What is the purpose of the Iraq Stabilization Group? And is this an acknowledgment that the effort to stabilize Iraq is flagging? Does it diminish the authority of Secretary Rumsfeld?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes. Um... you know, it's common for the National Security Council to coordinate efforts... interagency efforts. And Condi Rice, the national security adviser, is doing just that. And this group formed within the National Security Council is aimed at the coordination of interagency efforts, as well as providing a support group to the Department of Defense and Jerry Bremer.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Rumsfeld apparently did not know about the changes in advance.
In an interview with foreign reporters published Wednesday, he said, "I happened not to know that Rice was going to write a memo." Asked repeatedly why the reorganization occurred, he responded, "I said I don't know. Isn't that clear? You don't understand English? I was not there for the backgrounding."
Rumsfeld spoke again about the matter at a NATO press conference yesterday.
REPORTER: Do you believe that the press has mischaracterized the memo and its implications?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, not at all. The task of the NSC is to coordinate among the departments and agencies. That's what its charter is. I was asked if I had happened to have seen it, and the fact is, I hadn't seen it. It was apparently at a lower level. I get three or four memos from the NSC a day and send out three or four to other agencies. I think, with the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs and what's going on in California, one could find something more important than that.
SPENCER MICHELS: This week the White House backtracked from previous statements on the issue. Spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that Rumsfeld had been "very involved" in the changes. Two days later, he said, "I should not have characterized it that way."
MARGARET WARNER: For more now on the overhaul of the Bush administration's running of Iraq, we turn to two New York Times reporters: David Sanger covers the White House and Eric Schmitt covers the Pentagon. Welcome to you both. David, what is the again genesis of this overhaul?
DAVID SANGER: Well, the president met over the summer with Dr. Rice and of course with many of his other aides and it became clear by the time that he was getting ready to leave his ranch in Crawford that the Iraq occupation was not working out the way they wanted. It was also clear that they had to get their arms around it. That became even more clear when they got back here.
So, at some point Dr. Rice decided that the moment had come to actually create a coordinating group within the NSC. Now, you heard the president, and you heard Secretary Rumsfeld say this is what the NSC does, they coordinate. That's true, it's what they have done since Harry Truman's time.
But in this particular case they are doing more than that because they have set up individual organizations, subgroups that are effectively going to be putting together the master plan here and making sure all the agencies are working together.
MARGARET WARNER: So Eric, will did Rumsfeld react so testily in that initial interview?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well, he reacted that way because any talk of diminishing his authority is going to get up his dander, and I think that's what you saw here -- the suggestion he was out of the loop and somehow didn't know about this memo was coming and his acknowledgment of that. On top of the fact that there is the White House reining in, if you will, the policies on Iraq, as Dave has just described, obviously got under his skin.
MARGARET WARNER: So is that how it is being interpreted in the Pentagon? I know Rumsfeld is out in Colorado, but are folks at senior levels in the building saying to you that's how they see it?
ERIC SCHMITT: I think people at the Pentagon are waiting. They want to wait and see what happens here. Obviously, as your report indicated, the Pentagon has taken the lead both on the ground with the military operations and with the reconstruction.
Both General John Abizaid and Ambassador Jerry Bremer both report to Secretary Rumsfeld. And so it's unclear I think in the minds of many senior Pentagon officials exactly what this new task force at the National Security Council will mean in practical terms. In the bureaucratic battle in Washington it looks like Mr. Rumsfeld has been slapped down. What practical effect however it will have is still to be seen.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, now, David, you are talking to folks at the White House. What is their intention - I mean, does this signal an intention to somehow diminish the Pentagon's role?
DAVID SANGER: Well, they insist not and they say that most of the tasks that will group will be taking on counter terrorism, economic development, the media focus and so forth, are all things that the Pentagon is not now doing. So they are just out interest to assist them by bringing in the rest of the resources of the government.
Now that's a nice way of saying we have all of these tasks of occupation that need to be done and you guys aren't set up to do it. And what they will then tell you on background when their promised all forms of anonymity is -- we have been trying to get the Pentagon to integrate the other elements of government into this and they have refused. People in the State Department tell you that their opinions are really not solicited and not listened to except in those NSC meetings where you have Secretary Powell setting next to Secretary Rumsfeld. It has to happen there, but it's not happening at the lower levels.
MARGARET WARNER: But now, as Eric pointed out and as we know, Jerry Bremer in charge of civilian reconstruction reports to Donald Rumsfeld. Is that going to change?
DAVID SANGER: He does and it will not change we're told. But there are some interesting, you know -- there's the way this all looks on the nice flow charts and there's the way power flows in real life.
Jerry Bremer has set up some very interesting contacts outside of the Pentagon. He speaks frequently with Secretary of State Powell; he deals with many others in the government. And now his chief deputy in Washington is going to sit on this Iraq Stabilization Council. So while he is technically reporting to Secretary Rumsfeld, you have to wonder as individual issues and problems come up whether they are going to be decided at the Pentagon or over in the White House and I suspect the answer to that is the White House.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Eric, would you say that from the people you talked to the Pentagon they think they have been running these four key areas: counter terrorism, building political institutions, economic redevelopment and even message which is the fourth one.
ERIC SCHMITT: The Pentagon has been on the defensive and senior officials have been on the defensive for several weeks now particularly as the casualties in Iraq continue to mount. The bill that -- the $87 billion supplemental that has come out -- the price tag has come out here and the Pentagon is under the defensive.
You have everyone from Secretary Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, on to others trying to defend the record -- coming out again and again saying security is getting better, that reconstruction is going along while there are continued attacks against Americans in Iraq. They insist that if you look at the majority of the country, the North and the South and the bulk of even in Baghdad area that things are getting better, that they are doing a good job.
MARGARET WARNER: And they have had -- have they not -- the so-called planning, the post war planning, which has now been much maligned, that has been within the Defense Department?
ERIC SCHMITT: Exactly. And that's another thing they are coming under criticism is for their overly optimistic scenarios and assumptions when it came to security. What would happen with the Iraqi army and security forces? They would stay in place -- a number of things that just didn't happen that contributed to some of the security problems we now see in Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: So, David, this new structure that's been set up -- Condi Rice, these four deputies - are they -- have they already been given any authority or is this just a flow chart?
DAVID SANGER: Well, it's an interesting question, Margaret. We don't really know the answer to it yet.
The NSC is not -- was not really created to be an operational controller of anything. And at times when it has attempted that in history, it hasn't always worked out so well. Dr. Rice in particular has not been an operational head as the national security adviser. The interesting question now is, does her role change? And the interesting question in relation to Secretary Rumsfeld is how does the courthouse deal with two competing instincts here?
One instinct is portray this as a bureaucratic change to aid the Pentagon. The other instinct is to say to Congress and the voters, hey, we've got have $87 billion coming down to us now and believe me we're not only going to make sure it's spent well, but if there's a problem, the problem is going to bubble up just down the hall from the Oval Office where Dr. Rice can go in and say hey, boss, how are we going to solve this one. That's not how it's run so far.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly before we go we heard Eric say and we heard Rumsfeld say that he hadn't been consulted but the White House said he had. Do you have anything to enlighten this us on that, anything the White House is saying?
DAVID SANGER: The White House has changed their story on this a few times. First of course they said he had been and Rumsfeld said he hadn't. The memorandum that went to Secretary Rumsfeld and the other secretaries begins, pursuant to our previous discussions; I read that as suggesting that in fact he had been.
MARGARET WARNER: David Sanger, Eric Schmitt, thank you both.