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dana priest

The Defense Department, at the moment right before Bush and [Donald] Rumsfeld come in, where does it stand, and what is it thinking about itself?

By the second term, the military came to a fairly good working relationship at the top level with the Clinton administration ... but they were still in these conflicts that really tested their definition of themselves. They weren't high-intensity conflicts. Kosovo was just an air war. [There was] a lot of conflict over whether there should be ground troops there, to what extent we should put service members in harm's way. That debate came up on the Hill all the time. In Bosnia, you remember, they didn't go in for a whole year because of that worry: What's the exit strategy, how long will we be in there, and what's the risk to the troops?

The real significance of Abu Ghraib is that its a symbol of the unpreparedness of the military to deal with the chaos and the insurgency of the post-war. They did not think they would be running prisons, so they had nobody to run the prisons.

But when the Bush administration came in, I think people were looking forward to having, as they would say, grown-ups back in charge, and what they meant there was Republicans, who they felt more comfortable with, because in general, the military votes overwhelmingly Republican. So it was sort of like the family is back rather than the neighbors, who we really don't understand, even though we got to understand them and they weren't that bad. And also [there was] a sense that they would be no-nonsense; you wouldn't have to do all this flailing around about their role; that they would probably have a clearer sense of where to go in the world.

When Rumsfeld came in, I think for him in particular the expectation was also that he would be a father figure. He sort of fit the Father Knows Best image of the '50s -- he even looked like that. And yet he was a big shock to a lot of people, again at the highest levels. ... I had Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, tell me after he had retired that he was "shocked to be treated like a second-rate citizen" and to be distrusted on every turn. If the military said one thing, the civilians said, "Well, prove it!" And as he said, "It got so bad that we would say, 'It's sunny outside,' and they would say, 'Oh, yeah? Raise the blinds and prove it to us.'" ...

He also put on top of all of that his notion of transforming the military, which I think is a very good one. It says this military is not well structured for the demands of this century; it's still stuck in the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force, which means big units, lots of them, and maybe we need something more streamlined and small. And of course, that goes against everything the military is all about, especially the Army. So he butted heads with Army generals in particular, who he also found stuck in the mud in their own mentality and ways of doing things.

photo of priest

As staff writer for The Washington Post, Dana Priest covers intelligence and the Pentagon. She is the author of The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military. In this interview, she talks about Donald Rumsfeld, his management of the Iraq war and its aftermath, and the challenges confronting the military in a post-9/11 world. Says Priest, "The military is incredibly overstretched. Barring a miracle and some unforeseen trend, you have great instability and the Iraqi government trying to get on its feet. And the last thing the United States would want is some pocket of that to become a safe haven ... that allows an Al Qaeda-like organization to live and organize in." This interview was conducted on June 30, 2004.

And then September 11 comes along, and the military does what you would expect it to do, which is it rallies behind the leadership without question. But it doesn't have the plans on the table to go after the Al Qaeda network that the CIA has. So after 9/11, George Tenet's the one that comes to President Bush and says: "Have I got a plan for you! This is how we'll get into Afghanistan." And Rumsfeld is kind of caught flat-footed there because Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has given him a plan that would take far too long to execute for anybody's taste, and too many troops, something that's not nimble and flexible. So George Tenet for a while gets the upper hand, and I think that bothers Rumsfeld a lot.

Take me back to who Rumsfeld is.

He was the defense secretary under Ford, just coming out of Vietnam, the youngest defense secretary. He survived a coup, if you will, in the national security arena that involved other members who were ousted at the time. He was actually Cheney's boss for a little while. He was a fighter pilot for a while, Navy, and a wrestler. I think it's very apt of his personality. He's very forceful. You can see that on the podium when he bats away the reporters' questions over and over again and does it with not only talent and humor, but repetition. And he is a very strong, dominant personality. He is very confident about breaking the china and moving ahead with his own vision of how things should be. And he doesn't let generals stand in the way, he doesn't let Congress stand in the way, he doesn't let the Army institution stand in the way; he just goes forward.

He has a small group of people around him, and they got the reputation among the civilians who had been there as career civil servants for years, and also the military, that they were very insular, that there is a cabal of people that really runs the show. And that's still a feeling that is carried on to today.

Describe the cabal. Is that [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz and [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith?

Right. The policy people -- the people who later become very important to how you're going to prosecute not just Afghanistan, but more importantly the war on terror writ large after that, and certainly Iraq -- I think their common denominator is a vision for the Middle East in particular. Not necessarily Rumsfeld, but all of the people around him, who would include those that we just mentioned, who grew up intellectually together and who have worked in and out of the same circles, and who have a vision of the Middle East as one that you really need to change the status quo, their vision for that is that we can use force. It wasn't just to defeat Saddam Hussein; it was to create a new model for the Middle East that would be attractive to the people of the Middle East. ...

Securing Israel is a number one priority, and you would use the United States and its backing of Israel to do that and its armed forces. That's clearly one of their main strategies in the Middle East, is to make Israel secure. And after all, Iraq launched scud missiles against Israel, so taking out Iraq would be a part of that. But it's short-sighted, because it stops when Saddam Hussein is gone. ... It looks like they absolutely underestimated the next phase of their larger strategic vision, which is general acceptance of U.S. presence in the area, and then the U.S. as the forward-leaning engine to change the regimes in the Middle East.

The current secretary of state, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may be the most honored military figure in recent memory in America. What is the relationship like between Rumsfeld and the Defense Department and Powell?

I think one of the key conflicts in this story is the Powell Doctrine vs. the Bush Doctrine. And the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force, which is really the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, I think was still even in play in Bush's mind, certainly in their policies, before 9/11, that they wouldn't use the military for peripheral reasons and for reasons that weren't central to our own national security, and then when they used them, it would be no fight at all; we would win.

9/11 really does change all that, because it's a different war; it's a longer war. Under Goldwater-Nichols, which was a 1986 law that was passed to unify all of the military services during wartime … the military had the resources, had the four-stars out there in the world, and had the capability to interact with countries in their own regions much more so than any diplomat in the diplomatic corps. They were out there all the time. Largely because they were asked to in Washington, but also from the countries in their region, they became the main face of foreign policy. They had their own airplanes; they could travel with large entourages; they'd have encrypted communications that can keep them in contact with their headquarters in the Pentagon 24 hours a day. They even had the ability to call up refueling aircraft, so it wouldn't even take them that long to get anywhere. And by contrast, [in] the State Department, if you weren't the secretary or the deputy, you'd have to fly commercial or hitch a ride on military air. So there was a huge disparity in resources. And then, of course, the military discipline and hierarchy makes it easier for them to get things done.

Powell was a beneficiary of that in the sense that the military became much more sophisticated; it became much more worldly. They realized, rightly or wrongly, that they were going to be asked to do things that were not military in nature, and they'd better be ready for it, because the stakes were pretty large.

If you're Cheney and you want to counteract Powell -- or you're the president -- it makes some sense, I suppose, to drop a veteran political infighter like Don Rumsfeld into the fray.

A lot of Republicans and some Democrats thought, okay, they're going to have Papa Bush's foreign policy team in there, and it will be cold-eyed but realist, and people were assured by that. When 9/11 happened, who knows how Father Bush would have applied his Cabinet to that problem? But we see that the other hard-liners in the administration really do take a different tack than Powell is willing to take, not vis-a-vis Afghanistan, but everything that comes after that. And the question becomes, how central is the use of force in defeating terrorism? And this administration has put it at the center and really has not even emboldened, empowered, given the mandate to all of the other tools that the United States government has: our diplomacy, our economic prowess, ability to help other countries develop educational systems, political systems. Nation-building in general is not military in nature. ... So when Iraq happens, and the question is who's going to rebuild Iraq and they choose the military, that was again a shock to a lot of people in the military who thought, well, we can do certain things, but haven't we learned over the past decade that it would be better to have a civilian group of people ahead of us, trying to really make headway?

After 9/11 happened, what were your impressions of what the order of battle would be?

Well, I thought there'd be a military response as soon as they could conjure one up, as soon as they could get the targets set. ... It was going to be a real challenge on the part of the administration to come up with a strategy that would really deprive them of their safe haven, which is Afghanistan. And what they came up with was really quite different than any war that has been fought, and that is the use of CIA paramilitary teams and special forces teams in small numbers, these little 10-to-12 man teams, to work with the Northern Alliance. ... The CIA actually prepared the battlefield in a way that was surprising to the military. They went in right off the bat, hooked up with the Northern Alliance out of Uzbekistan and other places, and set the stage for these larger teams to come in and hook up with them. And it was really quite remarkable what they accomplished with so few people on the ground.

How surprised were you that the United States military could wage a war in this way?

Fairly surprised, mainly because I would think that the services were dying to get in. This is what they train for. So to say to the Army "You don't have a role in this" was unusual, and unusual that the Army didn't somehow get a big role for itself anyway. And I take my hat off to Rumsfeld for that, and [to] the commanders that came up with that idea, and to the Special Operations forces troops who really hadn't worked in that way before, even though they were taught to do that. ... Although there were mistakes -- there absolutely were bombs dropped where they shouldn't have, missiles launched against things and they went astray -- they really did a fairly good job of keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. Their real challenge was that the Taliban, and certainly the Al Qaeda, mixed in, on purpose, with civilians. And the question was, what were they going to do? And the answer was, they were going to kill them, because that was the enemy.

How upset was Rumsfeld about the fact that Tenet had the plan and that Shelton didn't have something he could ... dust off and implement right away in Afghanistan?

Well, he was very upset, but typical of Rumsfeld, he did something about it as soon as he could, which is, he forced the Special Operations forces to be the center -- very unconventional. And he starts to put in place a capacity and a mentality among the military and the war planners, who actually have to think about war and figure out how you do it, a new capability that's not yet fully developed. But the outlines are, we need to figure out how to gather more intelligence ourselves, the military, not rely so much on the CIA.

I think he's fairly distrustful, like other people in the administration are, of the CIA. Not that they didn't tell them what they wanted to hear during Iraq, but I think from the past they have been more reluctant to side with those who thought WMD [weapons of mass destruction] was a sure bet in Iraq, and more willing to push aside some of the allies, [Iraqi National Congress founder]Ahmad Chalabi being among the most important, who other people in the Bush administration embraced. So there's a little bit of an arm's-length view of the CIA's capabilities and their vision of the world. I think Rumsfeld falls into the camp of "Why do we need 100 percent proof that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction? He's a bad guy; he might ally with Al Qaeda, even if the die-hard proof is not there. What are we waiting for?" ...

Because they saw the war on terrorism as being so unconventional, they said that war -- not Iraq, not Afghanistan, but the larger, global war on terrorism -- will be directed out of the Special Operations Command. And that's why you don't see much of it either, because it's very secret and invisible, in fact, most of the time. And we have troops that are operating in small numbers on targets that we rarely hear about throughout the world, usually in conjunction with a foreign military or a foreign intelligence service that is usually doing most of the work on the ground.

Is that Rumsfeld's idea?

I think it is. It makes sense because this is such an unconventional enemy. But he has to push the institutions to live up to what the expectation is that they can do. In the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, for instance, you have conventional military units from divisions who are working up there. But the real work and the real effort to find Osama bin Laden and other supporters is being done with the Special Operations troops. And they had to grow more of them, as they say, had to bring in more people. They're very highly skilled, highly trained, so it wasn't like you could just recruit people off the street. ...

What's surprising is that I don't think they're getting as much resistance from the CIA as one would have thought. And it could be in part because the agency is really much smaller than you might think, and their capability to do all of these things that we're now asking them to do -- not only the insurgency in Iraq, but where is Osama bin Laden, and what about the rest of the Al Qaeda network and the other terrorist groups we have to worry about? And that doesn't even include proliferation monitoring in North Korea and Iran and elsewhere -- so the agency is absolutely stretched in what the real world demands of it. That is one of the reasons that Rumsfeld has been able to carry on with his efforts to build Special Operations into a bigger entity.

The other thing is that the Special Operations has less oversight on it than the CIA. It's a counterintuitive thing, but it's true. The CIA, if any of their personnel are going to conduct a covert operation, they are required by law first to get a presidential finding that says that's what they're going to do. But then they must -- they must -- tell the committees on the Hill who deal with intelligence, both the House and the Senate. The military, if they're doing something secret, clandestine, not to be found out, they are not required to tell anybody with an arm's-distance oversight like Congress; that is all worked out within the Pentagon between the civilian overseers in the Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Office and the Special Operations Command. So there's actually much less oversight on the operations of Special Operations than on the CIA, which is fascinating.

Why did the administration start planning for Iraq early after September 11?

Iraq, of all of the "axis of evil" candidates out there, was the easiest to defeat, was the closest to Israel and posed the biggest threat. And there was a feeling that because Saddam was a dictator and brutal, and a human rights violator, that you would be greeted with open arms if you removed him. And among the neocons, Iraq is an obsession; there's no doubt about that. It's been an obsession going back prior to '91, so this is their chance. And it makes sense to them because they believe that Iraq is either now connected to bin Laden in some way or will be in the future. So why not preempt that problem, in their view?

And Rumsfeld, why does he sign on?

I think that he must also believe that Iraq is a threat. ... Remember that until we focused on Al Qaeda, our focus vis--vis enemies was always on a state, and that it would require the help of a state to help a terrorist organization. You have Syria helping Hezbollah, and you have other state sponsors; the Iranians help out other terrorist groups throughout the world. And the belief among some of them was that Iraq, the Iraqi state, had to be helping Al Qaeda in some significant way. And depending on who you talk to, it's either somewhat significant or incredibly crucial to the support that Al Qaeda gets and [to] its ability to carry out terrorist strikes.

Of course, that flies in the face of anything we've heard from the intelligence community or any of the panels that have all of the evidence on the link. But nonetheless, they still believe that. And I think Rumsfeld must have been convinced that that was the case, and also that it wouldn't be a lifelong battle. It would not be Vietnam; it would be easier. And you could accomplish the mission of defeating the Iraqi military, and that would be the end of it, mission accomplished. Obviously, that's not been the case. We're in the third Gulf War, in a sense. We are in an insurgent war that no one prepared for, and they're having to develop not only the war plans but to understand the insurgency as it's in their face.

In a funny way, this is like the Army didn't get to play in Afghanistan, but it's definitely going to get to play in Iraq.

Well, there's a great question: Why weren't there more Special Operations involved in Iraq? One answer is, they were so overstretched already with Afghanistan and with the other operations around the world that they were not in the position to be front and center, but also that the Army made its way into that war plan. ... I think it illustrates their belief that there would be no postwar conflict; that the war would be over when they conquered Baghdad except for some mopping up that they would have to do of the irregular Iraqi army. And you can tell this because they said many times that if Saddam Hussein was captured, a lot of the resistance would melt away because they wouldn't any longer have their leader. And of course that's not what has happened. The insurgency is different in nature, and growing, and the conventional forces are the least able to deal with an insurgency.

There must have been voices that said, "Wait a minute, wait a second, you guys." Were those voices drowned out?

Oh, they were everywhere. The voices of dissent on how easy this would be were everywhere in Washington. ... I think that they were so convinced that it would be easy in the aftermath that they didn't have an open mind to the alternative views. And that's where ideology does play a part, I think. They were driven by their ideology, that all the Middle East really needs is someone with the guts to go in and crack up the bad regimes and to set people free. But that's not all it needs; it's much more complicated than that, and many people in Washington saw that. They saw that there would be a power vacuum from the start. ... We saw that things got out of control immediately with the looting and with the arms depots that weren't guarded and the nuclear material facilities that weren't guarded. And in a hundred other ways we saw that there were too few troops to keep order. It's impossible to have troops who have just come out of high-intensity battle to then become the Mr. Nice Guy who is going to be the diplomat for the United States and win the hearts and minds of neighborhoods and children and women and men who are suspicious of them anyway, in a culture that they don't understand and where they don't even have enough translators to speak to people on the street. It's just impossible, and I think that's why it hasn't worked.

Why would a smart guy like Don Rumsfeld, who micromanages every detail of everything, not have micromanaged that?

Well, after he was defense secretary the first time around, he got out of politics ... [and] government for a lot of years. He was in business, and his military world and the experience when he was secretary was totally different. ... He must not have paid attention to the experience of nation-building, either. I think they dismissed a lot of the critics because they considered them critics, when some of them weren't actually critics. Of course, they wanted them to succeed. If you're going to be in a country, you want them to succeed, and you want fewer casualties than you need to suffer. And I think they thought of a lot of those people as critics who wanted to undo what they were doing, or didn't agree with it, or they were sourpusses or sour grapes, or whatever, and didn't think realistically about them.

And where was Congress?

Congress is inherently skeptical of deploying troops. That's the other part of the equation. After 9/11 and really leading up to Iraq, there is no real voice from the opposition party, the Democrats. The Democrats are willing to do whatever this administration put forward in terms of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. ... It's only now that it's going south and that the election is on the horizon that a lot of the Democrats have come up and said this isn't working and that it was a bad idea to begin with. I think that for the Democrats, they thought it was politically risky to go against the president, because they were doing a very good job of linking it to 9/11. ... I really feel that the media was the only body in Washington that was consistently raising questions about WMD. And you would raise them, and no one in Congress would say anything at all. So you would raise them, and they would just go out into the atmosphere. There wasn't that normal debate-echo effect in Washington.

And inside the military?

Well, first of all, dissent in the military is a very tricky thing. It is not their role to dissent against the president and his plans. ... But I think the hesitancy and the belief that they were off on the wrong track was so strong that people felt that they had to voice it somehow. That's why you did see, now and again -- some articles, usually -- about dissent within the Pentagon brass over the war plan or over the troop levels.

Tell me about [former head of CENTCOM] Tommy Franks.

He is a bubba, and he will tell you at the drop of a hat that that's what he is and he's proud of it. So it was very interesting to really try to get behind that and say, can he think unconventionally? Clearly he did in Afghanistan, and I think people gave him credit for that. ... That was a real success in terms of a war, certainly from the American side -- so few causalities and fairly swift. Of course, the war may look like it's over, but the country is still there with so many problems, and warlords coming back. Who knows? It looks like it's becoming a safe haven again for the Taliban, at least, so I don't know if victory is totally accomplished there.

In Iraq, Franks sided with Rumsfeld. I think one thing that people underappreciate is, even if you're a four-star, and even if you have disagreements with your civilian boss, when the boss rules -- which he does in our society -- you're going to be a good soldier and go along with that, and you're not going to show the public that there's any dissent.

What happened that made Donald Rumsfeld the afternoon-TV star that he became?

I think, for one, they sensed that there is a big support in the beginning for the war and for the operations in Afghanistan. So the fact that you've got these sloppy-looking journalists criticizing every different thing you can think of, given the fact that the public largely supports the war, it's easy to make the press look bad. And Rumsfeld doesn't have to answer the questions anyway. He's great at entertaining the press and the public with his answers, because he's confident, and he's charismatic, and he's funny, and he's self-deprecating only sometimes. He doesn't shy away from taking on the media, and he's got great ways of obfuscating questions. That has become his trademark: "We know what we know. We know what we don't know. But what we don't know is what we don't know." At first it sounds ridiculous, but it makes a lot of sense when you're talking about intelligence, especially. So there's enough of that to keep it entertaining.

Does it matter that he so dominated those events? Is it more than bread and circuses?

Yeah, I think it does matter that he was so good at conducting press conferences, mainly because the public's view of him, by and large, comes through television. ... It didn't seem to matter to him that, technically speaking or legally speaking, people in Iraq who are against the American coalition are not classically terrorists. But you have Rumsfeld up there every day calling them terrorists, and that's because, I think, they want to link Iraq with 9/11, even if there's not a substantive link.

And the effect of that on a practical level is that the young soldier who's watching press conferences has this ringing in his ears.

I think that's part of the way that soldiers conducted themselves in Iraq. It did have to do with the idea that they were fighting the war on terrorism in Iraq; ... that we're defending our country by fighting them here rather than fighting them when they come to the United States. And there is no evidence to support that belief.

When we look at Abu Ghraib, the prison scandal there, did the rhetoric used in Washington by their leaders, whom they trust by and large, did it influence how they actually carried out their operations in Iraq? It's not quite that clear-cut that it did, but I think that's a really important question for us to ask in the prison abuse scandal.

When the president has just landed on an aircraft carrier and told the world that we've won the war, do you think it might be slightly premature?

Well, honestly, I think most reporters who covered this were uneasy from the very start, because you had the looting going on, and you could sense the lack of security apparatus on the part of the United States there. And all of our other experiences told us that power vacuums get filled and that somebody in Iraq would be trying to fill them, and that they weren't going to necessarily be the ones on our side. So it never was a relief. It never was: "Oh, we won! It's over!" … You're also hoping that the parallel track of reconstruction is going along enough so that even the indignity of having armed American troops rolling through your neighborhood and ordering people around is going to be overweighed by the fact that you have electricity and water for the first time, and you're not afraid that Saddam's henchmen are going to come and get you. But when that starts to falter ... we keep coming back with our many reporters on the ground who are saying, "This is getting worse; I can't travel anymore." It is hard for our Iraqi journalists, who are helping us out, to travel. And again, the bombs are going off in a larger area, and then you get the Sadr militias and Fallujah and the burning of the contractors, and it just doesn't stop. In fact, it grows larger.

In September 2003, you are traveling with the secretary of defense. What's that like?

When I traveled with Rumsfeld in September, the first thing that was impressive was he was right in the middle of all of us all the time. He actually sat in the front of a row of maybe 20 rows of seats that were airline passenger seats but in the middle of a cargo plane. I'm not going to tell you the latrine story. It's too bizarre.

Oh, go ahead!

So he would sit in the front row for eight hours straight, mostly reading, but also getting up and stretching. And he sat right in front of the Porta-Potty that was there, for use by anybody, everybody. So instead of any kind of comfortable place, he was right in the middle of the action, in a place where, you know, most people would choose not to be. So he's impressive physically in that way, in the sense that he can endure, at his age, endure a lot of bumping around and traveling. And he's fairly affable about taking press questions just at they come at him, and in a relaxed way. But he's very disciplined in what he says, in terms of what he gives away. ...

The first night that we flew into Baghdad, all of the media was put into one of Saddam's palaces, where Rumsfeld was and the party was. And Rumsfeld went off with the commanders and others and flew over Baghdad at night; it was his night tour of Baghdad. And we all waited up, because we knew that when he came back at about 11:00, he would come and speak with us, and we could hold a press conference in this big, giant, marble room with what used to be, probably, the banquet table. And so he came back, and he's been up, probably, 20 hours, and he came bounding into the room, and he says, "Oh, that was magnificent; it looked just like Chicago" -- which is where he's from -- and "Too bad you couldn't see it!" And you let him be like that, and enthusiastic, and at some point you have to get back down to the harder questions. ... What's the percentage of foreigners? How do you know it's linked to the former regime? What's the thinking now about whether it's spreading out into [the] normal Iraqi population, which is the thing he really wanted to guard against? ...

So I was asking those questions an awful lot and not getting my answer. But he also had Cmdr. [Ricardo] Sanchez, commander of all forces in Iraq, next to him, so you could bounce back and forth and ask Sanchez the same sorts of questions. And Sanchez, who is having to fight this insurgency, actually said: "There's no operation. There's no tactical threat; there's no operational threat; there's no strategic threat." And he didn't have great answers, but I persisted.

And then a sort of unusual thing happened, which is when the camera lights went off and they walked further away, one of the majors, who was standing in the background, came up and said: "You know, you ask really good questions. Just keep those up." It was my first indication from that trip that people were really worried, because this major was saying: "That's the question; keep asking it. Hopefully you'll get an answer, or hopefully you'll get the truth, which is [that] they don't really know."

When they capture Saddam Hussein, I gather they must have thought, okay, now it's over.

Well, they certainly said that many times, that Saddam would demoralize the dead-enders and the insurgents, and the regime loyalists would be fearful of their lives, and they would either sink back into the population or maybe they would even leave Iraq. And there was no perceptible dip in violence around that time. And then you saw shortly after that the rise in not only the Sadr militia, but also of what they say is the [Abu Musaab] Zarqawi network. ... The real conundrum is that in defeating [these] people, you are having to use tactics that are very unfriendly to the population. And oftentimes we read that there are unintended casualties and people who are unfairly brought into prison and held. Abu Ghraib is emptying out hundreds of prisoners now who probably should have been let go before, and all of that creates such a hostility within the population that, from our reporting over there, looks like normal, ordinary Iraqis, who had hoped they wouldn't have to be involved with any sort of armed anything, are actually becoming quite hostile toward the Americans.

What is Rumsfeld hearing from his commanders on your September trip with him?

Well, that's the big question for us: How comfortable do commanders feel in telling the secretary news that they know he doesn't want to hear? I really don't know. If they're telling him bad news, he, of course, is coming out and saying something completely different. But it's possible that they're shading their lack of knowledge and making it more definitive.

And so is it likely, at that moment anyway, that Rumsfeld didn't know of the growing insurgency?

Well, I definitely think that they were not aware or they were not accepting the fact that the insurgency was deep and growing. We have reports that there were CIA and State Department and Intelligence and Research Bureau people going out and surveying things and saying the insurgency was deeper than it looked back here. ... The CIA's station in Iraq is about four times as large as they thought they would need going into Iraq. And this is from the agency who was somewhat skeptical about conducting a war, not because they thought you couldn't defeat the military, but because of the aftermath. And yet even they are totally caught unawares. So to me, that's a huge indicator that they're still making it up as they go along, and not having a firm grasp of who it is and what it's going to take.

Tell me when you first heard the story of Abu Ghraib.

The first time I saw the pictures, it was very sad, not only for the people who were victimized there, but also you could just feel, immediately, the very depressing state that that would bring to the U.S. military, and total disgrace to the Army. At that time, you really knew the insurgency was a tough battle. Troops were getting killed and the hatred of America overseas, in the Middle East in particular, was so strong. And I remember talking with friends after the pictures came out, and all of us just had this feeling that our own personal, small worlds were going to be different, in that we could never really travel any time soon in the Middle East and not feel that somebody would want to take retribution for what happened there. And, because some of the people in the photos were women, you know--why doesn't anything go if you're going to take retribution? So that was very sad.

The military officers that I spoke with--it's just sort of a feeling that's beyond anything you even know--how to get back in the box and do the right thing, and make it feel right, and make it clear that we're not an institution that acts that way. Because they aren't. I mean, by and large, they aren't.

I think Abu Ghraib--for all the awful things that it says about the unit that conducted it, and potentially, about their commanders who were pushing for intelligence--the real significance of Abu Ghraib is that it's a symbol of the unpreparedness of the military to deal with the chaos and the insurgency of the post-war. They did not think they would be running prisons, so they had nobody to run the prisons. And then, when the prisons are filled with insurgents, they can't grab enough people to bring any kind of order to Abu Ghraib. And those people in Abu Ghraib are living under conditions that none of the other troops in the field, apparently, were having to live under. They were low priority on the totem pole in terms of supplies. They also fell right in the crack between two divisions, so neither one of them really wanted to have to take care of them. So their living conditions are awful. And, having been to Iraq the few times I have, in the summertime, it's so hot and just physically hard to endure. So, they've got that. Then they've got too few people there. They have an Iraqi population that they don't understand, and they learn only through really bad things that the prison itself is being infiltrated, and people on the outside are passing knives to people on the inside. So they have to worry about their safety. The unit that was brought in obviously had no normal discipline in it, and they're getting murdered at night. So I think they're in the worst situation that opens the door to some of this. That's by no means an excuse. It's to say that this doesn't happen in isolation. It happens in a context that was created by the decisions that were made in Washington--not necessarily, although we can't say yet, to abuse them, but the conditions that are ripe for lack of discipline and disorder.

And you have such a disparity in the use of force. One of the reasons the military has so many rules and regulations is because people realize that human nature is what it is. And if you have a gun, or a tank or an aircraft carrier, or missiles and bombs at your disposal, and you're put in a situation with people who have none of that, and you have such disproportionate power, you need to have rules to you don't abuse it. Soldiers typically carry a card about their rules of engagement that apply to when they can fire their weapons, and there are ten points on it, and it will be very explicit. Well, in the prison, the disproportionate power is even more so, because these are Iraqis who can't even run down the street away. They are at the complete control of the military.

And yet, it appears as if their own rules of engagement are very unclear--that some of their commanders were searching for more clarity. What can we do in interrogations? At the same time, they're being pressured by somewhere up the chain to get more actionable intelligence, because there is an insurgency all around them, and their fellow soldiers are dying. And that's the context in which Abu Ghraib happens.

And how does Rumsfeld handle all this?

Well, you know, how can he say that he was immune from all this? He is the commander. So, he did say that-- and, that's true--"the buck stops here."

But, in the days that follow, I think the message from the military--the message from the Pentagon, really--is that this is a rogue unit that got out of control, and that their own commanders didn't exercise proper authority, but there were no instructions, no pressures that would have led up to anything like that. And that's the unfinished part of the story, because we now will see through our own justice system--or the military justice system, which is going to allow the defendants to call generals who would have had interactions with the Pentagon onto the stand or at least in deposition--we might be able to answer some of the questions that have been laid out there. Like, who told you to do this? Or, why did you get this idea to do this? So, it's really not unfolded completely yet. You still may find that it comes all the way back to Washington.

And all the way back to Rumsfeld?

Possibly. In Guantanamo, first he approved a set of interrogation tactics. Then, when people down below who were interrogators said, 'I don't know, I don't feel comfortable about this,' he said, 'okay, let's have a review,' and got together some lawyers--military lawyers from all the services and others--and had a three-month review of interrogation tactics at Guantanamo. And he approved them. He approved all of the tactics, not just some broad guidance. He's very much a micro-manager. And what's happening in Iraq--there's not yet indication that he's acted that way, but that's his style. So, maybe he did. We just don't know yet.

Here we find ourselves just before the presidential election. We began by talking about the state of the military at the beginning of the Bush administration. What will the new president, or the new administration, inherit?

Given that you don't know what's going to be going on in Iraq, the military is incredibly overstretched. They're calling up Individual Ready Reserves now -- people who served in the military, got out, and now they need them back. We have so many troops in Iraq, but also we have Afghanistan, and you have the war on terrorism that probably is not going to be won any time soon. ... If John Kerry is elected, he may well find that he wants to keep the military at the forefront of the war on terrorism, in the operational sense.

In Iraq, it's just too hard to tell. Barring a miracle and some unforeseen trend, you have great instability in Iraq and the Iraqi government trying to get on its feet. And the last thing the United States would want is some pocket of that to become a safe haven for a version of fundamentalist Islam that allows an Al Qaeda-like organization to live and organize in.

Even if they find bin Laden, Afghanistan has the potential to become something of what it was before, because you have the resurgence of the warlords. So there's no doubt that we're going to have, as we have now, lots of human rights violations, resurgence in the growth of the poppy crop and what that brings with it -- criminal elements, unstable government, and that sort of thing. And you've also seen the return of the Taliban. The U.S. military, deployed in Iraq as it is, is not going to redeploy in Afghanistan and spread out. NATO is not going to do that either. They're trying to train an Afghan force, and they're willing to help out there, but they're not going to, again, fan out and bring stability to Afghanistan. You could very well see the resurgence of the Taliban in a way that it then becomes a safe haven for Al Qaeda again. That's the way that it's moving, and what is going to stop that is not clear.

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posted oct. 26, 2004

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