October 28, 2003

Suspicions arise over absence of inquiry into Rumsfeld memo leak

In his infamous memo, Donald Rumsfeld wrote "My impression is that we have not yet made truly bold moves, although we have made many sensible, logical moves in the right direction, but are they enough?" Rumsfeld clearly leaked this memo intentionally. He is well aware of the tendency of military secrets to become public knowledge; he has been doing this for years. The memo continued, "It's pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog." Usually, when a memo of this gravity is leaked against the will of the author, there is a long, albeit futile, effort to find the culprit and have him drawn and quartered. This time, however, the administration decided to forgo an investigation, concluding that the leak had been an innocent mistake.

The mass media, led by USA Today, jumped on the alleged error. (Of course, there's a bit of a simultaneity problem when dealing with political blunders and media coverage. The media can virtually create political gaffes: remember Ashcroft's sudden fall from grace?) Democrats were quick to criticize the memo.

Harold Ford (D-Tenn) decided that the memo demonstrated that the administration had exaggerated the success of the war. Wesley Clark, a democratic presidential contender, must have read between the lines, for he claims that "Secretary Rumsfeld is only now acknowledging what we've known for some time: that this administration has no plan for Iraq and no long-term strategy for fighting terrorism."

Surprisingly, Rumsfeld appears unworried, especially given the glee with which the media has been trotting out the memo. "Elevating that issue forces people to think about it in the broadest possible context, which is why I did so," Rumsfeld commented. William F. Buckley Jr., editor of the National Review, writes, "It is not easy to suppose that when he wrote out the electrifying memo asking whether, in fact, the United States at war was displacing more terrorists than were being generated, he really thought that only [the four people for whom it was intended] would see it."

Although some claim that Bush was behind the leak, an intentional leak of this magnitude is not his style. More plausibly, the White House failed to anticipate the leak. Whether Rumsfeld leaked the memo as a threat to Bush—perhaps because of Bush's increasing reliance on Condoleezza Rice for military advice—or whether Rumsfeld simply desired a reexamination of anti-terror tactics, Bush may well have been as surprised by the leak as everyone else was. When the White House found the memo on the front page of USA Today, they checked Public Relations Kit for Dummies and decided, as usual, to straddle the fence.

One Bush administration source said, "This has put Rummy in a bad spot." He continued, "Before this, he had personality and policy problems. Now he has a credibility problem because he's acknowledged that they've all been putting on a happy face about Iraq." The Bush administration was careful, however, to put in a good word for Rumsfeld: "That's exactly what a strong and capable secretary of defense like Secretary Rumsfeld should be doing," said McClellan, White House press secretary.

Since it is not obvious what result Rumsfeld intended from the leak, it is not clear whether he succeeded or failed in this particular gamble. Rumsfeld, however, is far from a media darling and this particular stunt, whatever the motive, was quite brazen. "We lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror," he wrote. Public Relations Kit for Dummies would have advised against his writing that.