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Donald Rumsfeld's Dysfunctional Pentagon

5 years ago
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This seems to be the season for books from political insiders. Taylor Branch's "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President" is loaded with intriguing info on the Clinton years, courtesy of Bill Clinton himself. Ted Kennedy's "True Compass" offers posthumous reflections on life as a Kennedy brother. And Matt Latimer, a former White House speechwriter for George W. Bush, has written a memoir entitled "Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor," which garnered early bloggable attention for disclosing that Bush was not so kind when it came to talking about Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But it was the section on Donald Rumsfeld in Latimer's book that I've found especially intriguing.

Before becoming a word-slinger for the president, Latimer crafted speeches at the Pentagon for Rumsfeld from 2004 through 2006. Though he depicts Rumsfeld in glowing terms -- Latimer recalls he cried when the defense secretary resigned after the GOP lost the 2006 congressional elections -- he portrays Rummy's Pentagon as a dysfunctional world run by toadying sycophants and bureaucratic bunglers. In his account, the top echelons of the Defense Department under Rumsfeld were a Catch-22ish circus of the absurd.

Some of the high jinks:

* During his job interview, Latimer asked Rumsfeld why he had decided to use the term "old Europe" to describe France and Germany, countries that were not riding merrily along with the Bush-Cheney administration on Iraq. This phrase had been widely seen as an insult and had caused an uproar. "Actually," Rumsfeld replied, "it was an accident." He had meant to refer to critics of the Iraq war as being part of "old NATO" -- to distinguish them from the new NATO members of Eastern Europe (who were, let's be fair, more eager to kowtow to U.S. aims). But Rumsfeld was proud of this slip, telling Latimer, "It turns out it was the smartest thing I ever did."

* In Latimer's account, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy and one of the leading advocates of the Iraq war, was kind of a weirdo. At one point, he whistled Latimer into his office and asked him if he would write speeches for him. Feith was upset with his own speechwriter. In particular, he was incensed with the opening line of congressional testimony his writer had drafted for him. The offending sentence: "Mr. Chairman, thank you for inviting me to testify today." There was nothing wrong with the line, Latimer notes in the book, leaving the impression that there was something wrong with Feith.

* Stephen Cambone, Latimer writes, had to be promoted out of his job as Rumsfeld's special assistant because he was detached, disdainful and non-communicative -- that is, he did not have the people skills to be a bridge between Rumsfeld's office "and the rest of the building." Yet instead of booting him out of the Pentagon, Rumsfeld named him to one of the department's most important positions: undersecretary of intelligence. Why did Cambone thrive in Rummyland? Cambone, Latimer notes, mastered the technique of repeating whatever Rumsfeld had said "back to him as if it were Cambone's idea."

* Jim O'Beirne, the White House liaison at the Pentagon, was a political hack, in Latimer's telling. When Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," reported that O'Beirne had hired unqualified people for key positions in Iraq based on loyalty to the Republican Party, O'Beirne demanded that the Defense Department come to his rescue. "But," Latimer writes, "nearly everybody could cite examples of O'Beirne's office pushing unqualified candidates, or blocking the hiring of candidates they didn't like." He wasn't defended -- but he stayed in the job. According to Latimer, O'Beirne and his deputy spent two years blocking him from hiring a woman to be an editor for the speechwriting office. Why? "I have strong reason to suspect," he explains, that it was due to "her sexual orientation." He adds, O'Beirne's "ideal candidates for Pentagon jobs . . . tended to possess one or more of the following characteristics: they were just out of college (usually an evangelical one), they had no relevant work experience, or they had been home-schooled. It made no sense."

* At one point, Latimer and his fellow speechwriters were ordered to write a report on the Abu Ghraib controversy -- what had happened and what the Pentagon was doing about it. "We were also asked," he recalls, "to put in an appendix that absolved three people being criticized in the press as architects of the detainee issue: DoD general counsel Jim Haynes, Steve Cambone, and Doug Feith. I think the exoneration idea came from Haynes, Cambone, and Feith. It was a long, convoluted digression that basically said that no one was responsible for any of the abuses that took place. And even if someone was responsible, it wasn't them." This "detainee book" was never released to the public.

* Pentagon public affairs chief Larry Di Rita, Latimer relates, wielded "near-absolute power" and "built a bubble around Rumsfeld that was not easily pierced." And a lot of Pentagon officials gave up trying to tell Rumsfeld information Di Rita didn't want Rumsfeld to know: "They resented Larry, but they saw the obvious affection Rumsfeld had for him. So they gave up. It's impossible to know how much damage that caused the secretary or how much information he was never allowed to hear."

* Latimer depicts Di Rita's top assistant, Eric Ruff, as bumbler with ADD. Usually when a problem came up, Ruff would suggest that the speechwriters draft an op-ed that would present the department's side. But days would go by, while Ruff edited the drafts -- until the crisis had passed: "With that strategy, we never effectively rebutted an attack on Rumsfeld or the Pentagon." One time, according to Latimer, Ruff had the brilliant idea that Rumsfeld, during a press briefing, should declare that "we found WMD in Iraq" and keep on talking as if he had said nothing momentous. If subsequently asked to explain, Rumsfeld would note that American forces had uncovered traces of chemical weapons in Iraq. When Latimer pointed out to Ruff that these traces were generally assumed to be from old armaments, Ruff replied, "We don't know that for sure."

Latimer offers other examples of Pentagon inanities. (Don't get him started on the Defense Department press office.) Still, he raves about the wonders of Donald Rumsfeld -- without ever holding the man responsible for assembling a McHale's Navy crew of officials who created an environment in which the free flow of information was squelched and unqualified party loyalists were handed critical positions. After all, who hired all these ninnies Latimer denigrates? Latimer wants the reader to be impressed by Rumsfeld, but his book is a guilt-by-association indictment of his hero. Rumsfeld is now writing his own memoirs. (A friend of his tells me that Rumsfeld has insisted on writing the book in chronological fashion, starting with his childhood and painstakingly covering the whole expanse of his life, while his publisher has been pushing him to focus on his combative tenure at the Pentagon during the W. years.) Latimer's book is hardly helpful source material for him.

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