Much of what you know about Donald Rumsfeld is wrong.
I worked intimately with Rumsfeld for four years, from the summer of 2001 until I left the Pentagon in August 2005. Through countless meetings and private conversations, I came to learn his traits, frame of mind and principles — characteristics wholly at odds with the standard public depiction of Rumsfeld, particularly now that he has stepped down after a long, turbulent tenure as defense secretary, a casualty of our toxic political climate
I know that Don Rumsfeld is not an ideologue. He did not refuse to have his views challenged. He did not ignore the advice of his military advisers. And he did not push single-mindedly for war in Iraq. He was motivated to serve the national interest by transforming the military, though it irritated people throughout the Pentagon. Rumsfeld’s drive to modernize created a revealing contrast between his Pentagon and the State Department, where Colin Powell was highly popular among the staff. After four years of Powell’s tenure at State, the organization chart there would hardly tip anyone off that 9/11 had occurred — or even that the Cold War was over.
Those of us in his inner circle heard him say, over and over again: Our intelligence, in all senses of the term, is limited. We cannot predict the future. We must continually question our preconceptions and theories. If events contradict them, don’t suppress the bad news; rather, change your preconceptions and theories.
If an ideologue is someone to whom the facts don’t matter, then Rumsfeld is the opposite of an ideologue. He insists that briefings for him be full of facts, thoughtfully organized and rigorously sourced. He demands that facts at odds with his key policy assumptions be brought to his attention immediately. “Bad news never gets better with time,” he says, and berates any subordinate who fails to rush forward to him with such news. He does not suppress bad news; he acts on it.
In late 2002, Pentagon lawyers told Rumsfeld that the detainee interrogation techniques in the old Army field manual were well within the bounds of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. statutes. Detainee information could help us prevent another terrorist attack, and al-Qaeda personnel were trained to resist standard interrogations. So, with the advice of counsel, military officers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, asked Rumsfeld to authorize additional techniques thought to fall safely within the bounds of the law. He did so.
Less than a month later, in December 2002, Jim Haynes, the Defense Department’s general counsel, brought him the disturbing news that some lawyers in the military departments questioned the legality of the additional techniques. Rumsfeld did not brush off the questions or become defensive. In short order, he directed Haynes to revoke the authority for the new techniques. He told him to gather all the relevant lawyers in the department and review the matter — and he would not approve any new techniques until that review was completed. It took almost four months.
I was impressed by how quickly Haynes brought the information to Rumsfeld and how Rumsfeld changed course upon receiving it. It seemed to me that if the country’s leading civil libertarians had been in on the meetings with us, they would have approved of the way Rumsfeld handled the service lawyers’ dissent. This story bears telling because when the cruel and sexually bizarre behavior at Abu Ghraib occurred many months later, critics inaccurately depicted Rumsfeld as disrespectful of laws on detainee treatment.
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