What to make of Donald Rumsfeld’s memo to his top assistants, raising questions about the progress of the war on terror? It was first reported in today’s USA Today; since then other news services have picked it up. Here is the Washington Post’s article on the memo.
The press will of course play up the memo’s negative aspects, like the statement that we are in for a “long, hard slog” in Afghanistan and Iraq (but it is “pretty clear” that we will find a way to win), that we are having “mixed results” with al Qaeda, that the “cost benefit” ration is bad for us because we spend billions to defend against terrorism while the terrorists need only spend millions, and so on.
But there is nothing particularly surprising in the memo; the most controversial observation is Rumsfeld’s statement that “It is not possible to change [the Department of Defense] fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror. An alternative might be to try to fashion a new institution, either within DoD or elsewhere.” But that isn’t really out of line with Rumsfeld’s historic view of the Department.
I wondered who the source of the leak was, until I saw this: “Three members of Congress who met with Rumsfeld Wednesday morning said the defense secretary gave them copies of the memo and discussed it with them.” No one tells anything he wants to remain secret to Congress, so presumably the adminstration leaked the memo on purpose. Consistent with that assumption, administration spokesmen were ready with supportive quotes when asked about the memo.
But why? Two possibilities, I think. The first is that the administration really does intend to move terror-fighting out of the DoD, and this is a trial balloon. Hard to believe, but possible. The second possibility is that the adminisration is trying to remind people that we have a long way to go to win the war. Earlier today President Bush said, “I’ve always felt that there’s a tendency of people to kind of seek a comfort zone and hope that the war on terror is over. And I view it as a responsibility of the United States to remind people of our mutual obligations to deal with the terrorists.”
It has been widely reported that Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire don’t care about the war on terror; maybe the administration thinks they aren’t alone.
UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds devotes much of today’s blogging to the Rumsfeld memo. He thinks the memo was good and leaking it was terrible; assuming that the leak was unintentional, he says the USA Today reporter should be subpoenaed and forced to reveal the source. He links to a number of others who have made mostly similar comments. I agree entirely with Glenn’s observations on the need for self-criticism, the desirability of department heads like Rumsfeld prodding their subordinates to do better rather than becoming complacent, and the newspapers’ negative spin.
But I’m not convinced the “leak” was unintended. The reality is that most leaks in Washington are intentional. Government officials routinely place stories in the press, directly or indirectly, from a variety of motives. If Rumsfeld wanted his memo to be confidential, I can’t imagine that he would have given copies to three Congressmen. This virtually guaranteed that the memo would wind up in the newspapers, which Rumsfeld must have foreseen.
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