Pentagon officials say this month’s closed-door conference of the military’s top field commanders was gratifying, describing it as an uninhibited exchange of ideas rather than a fixed-agenda meeting monopolized by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Officials said Mr. Rumsfeld, four-star generals and admirals, and top civilians brainstormed over two main topics: how to fight the war on Islamic terrorists and how to reconfigure the military for future threats.
“Four years ago, we could not have had a discussion like this without people getting into parochial interests,” said a senior defense official. “Rumsfeld didn’t steer the discussion. They all went at it.”
The Pentagon conference room was full of top brass Mr. Rumsfeld handpicked during the past five years in a search for out-of-the-box thinkers who would “lean forward” in a war against Islamic terrorists.
It is clearly Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon today, but it was not always that way. Mr. Rumsfeld inherited Joint Chiefs and four-star combatant commanders, in this case ones promoted by President Clinton. “Rummy would have to drive the discussion at earlier commanders’ conferences,” said the defense official.
In those days, Mr. Rumsfeld did not always share his thinking with them, and in some cases had outright clashes, such as with Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army Chief of Staff. Mr. Rumsfeld solved his Army problem by picking Mr. Shinseki’s successor from the ranks of the retired. The new chief, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, had worked closely with Mr. Rumsfeld on transforming U.S. Special Operations Command.
At the Jan. 9-11 biannual commanders’ conference, around-the-table discussions kicked off once the Joint Staff — the planning and operations arm of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — presented a slide show on a particular topic. There were candid back-and-forths about both successes and failures.
One failure, two defense officials said, is that Mr. Rumsfeld still does not think the Pentagon is doing a good job of destroying al Qaeda cells planning attacks on Americans. He has come to call the problem “find, fix and finish — in other words finding their general location, getting an exact fix on their whereabouts, and finishing them by killing or capturing them.
“It’s got to get a lot better,” said a second senior defense official. “The conference got very passionate. It’s passion with a purpose.”
Asked which general talked the most about the need for intelligence, the source declined to name names, but said it was “the commander where most of the action is right now.” That would be Gen. John Abizaid, who heads U.S. Central Command. He is overseeing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and is in charge of the military’s hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Sources said Mr. Rumsfeld already has improved Pentagon intelligence collection by beefing up the Defense Intelligence Agency and giving its agents more power; naming an undersecretary of defense for intelligence; empowering special operations forces to spy; and embedding intelligence officers in newly configured Army combat brigades.
The conference was composed of the most powerful military men in the world. Besides Mr. Rumsfeld, there were the nine combatant commanders from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and other commands; the four service chiefs; the Joint Chiefs chairman and vice chairman; defense undersecretaries and assistant secretaries; and the services’ civilian secretaries.
All of them were picked by Mr. Rumsfeld, some after closely working with the secretary in other roles. Gen. Abizaid, for example, had directed the Joint Staff, putting him in frequent contact with the chief.
The conference typically convened at 8 a.m. and lasted until the late afternoon.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s spokesman, Larry Di Rita, said of the conference, “It’s freewheeling, but it’s not unstructured. When this group gets together, it’s not like some off-site corporate retreat. It is people focusing on real problems and working off an agreed set of assumptions.”