- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

This is the second of three exclusive excerpts from “Rumsfelds War” (Regnery Publishing Inc.), the new book by Rowan Scarborough, defense and national security reporter for The Washington Times.

A phone call from House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s office marked Donald H. Rumsfeld’s re-entry to Washington and the good graces of the Republican majority in Congress.

In little more than two years, the practiced Washington hand would be named secretary of defense — again.

In 1998, Rumsfeld accepted Gingrich’s offer of the chairmanship of a congressionally created panel charged with assessing the threat to the nation posed by ballistic missiles.

“We were looking for a strong team and I was a huge admirer of his and always thought he was a potential president,” Gingrich recalls. “He was available. He was willing to do it.”

Missile defense had become a core Republican issue.

President Reagan had spent billions trying to develop a virtual shield against attack. His “Star Wars” rhetoric rattled the Soviet politburo, helping to hasten the “Evil Empire’s” collapse.

Gingrich thought Rumsfeld’s resume impressive: Navy pilot, congressman from Illinois, head of the Office of Economic Opportunity and U.S. ambassador to NATO in the Nixon administration, White House chief of staff and defense secretary (the youngest ever) in the Ford administration, the chief executive officer who turned around pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle & Co., special Middle East envoy for Reagan.

Since 1989, the argument for missile defense had focused on rogue nations like Iran, Iraq and North Korea, which appeared bent on building an arsenal of ballistic missiles armed with nuclear, biological or chemical warheads.

History showed that such rogue regimes made progress acquiring weapons at a faster pace than the CIA predicted. North Korea, for example, did not spend a lot of time on testing and perfecting missiles. The communist regime tested once and then deployed.

The Rumsfeld commission’s formal name was the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. Conservative Republicans saw the panel — five Republicans and four Democrats — as a chance to debunk the CIA’s latest national intelligence estimate (NIE) on missile proliferation.

An NIE is the intelligence community’s best judgment on a national security issue. This particular NIE said the United States had a safety net of 15 years before a rogue nation could activate intercontinental ballistic missiles.

If the Rumsfeld commission could compile evidence to challenge that assessment, it would provide a boon to advocates of developing and deploying a missile defense.

The challenge

The nine-member commission was tilted in Rumsfeld’s favor.

On the panel were his old friend Bill Schneider, a veteran of the Reagan administration; future deputy Paul Wolfowitz, who got his first Pentagon job in the Carter administration; William Graham, an early “Star Wars” enthusiast; and James Woolsey, President Clinton’s former director of central intelligence.

But in achieving what Rumsfeld wanted — a unanimous report — two members might put up objections. One was Richard L. Garwin, a renowned scientist who had advised Democratic administrations, and the other was Barry M. Blechman, who ran his own consulting firm.

Garwin and Blechman long had supported the Anti?Ballistic Missile Treaty. Liberals cited the 30-year-old ABM Treaty with the Soviet Union as an impenetrable firewall between research, which the pact allowed, and deployment, which it did not.

Also working for the commission was Stephen Cambone, a young defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Introduced to Rumsfeld by Schneider, Cambone had passed the Rumsfeld test: He was smart and willing to work long hours on tough problems.

“Rumsfeld forces you to make a decision about whether you will take the time and energy to be his guy,” says a person who worked on forming the commission.

Cambone became the panel’s chief of staff and helped the chairman get the right intelligence information.

Rumsfeld immediately cleared away some stumbling blocks. He made it clear that the commission was to assess the current missile threat, not recommend what to do about it. That approach won over anti-missile critics like Garwin.

The full story

The chairman then worked to get access to the CIA’s most sensitive intelligence on any given nation’s arms programs. Initially, CIA briefers passed out useless information.

“When we started, they were trying to give us pap,” Blechman recalls. “It was worse than a briefing for the Kiwanis Club: ‘The Russian federation has a lot of missiles.’ It was a joke.”

After one briefing, Schneider commented, “That briefer is a waste of food.”

No expert on one country seemed to know what was going on in other countries.

Rumsfeld took his complaints directly to CIA Director George Tenet. Soon, the commission not only got better information, it got office space at Langley to view the crown jewels.

“Rumsfeld pressed and pressed and pressed until we got the full story on these different countries,” Blechman says.

Members remember Rumsfeld reading all the material himself.

“Rumsfeld got very concerned about the intelligence community’s lack of willingness to fill in the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle — for which they didn’t have direct evidence — with judgment,” Woolsey recalls. “That’s what you’ve got to do.”

Rumsfeld culminated the research by having the staff write a first draft of findings only. He then reworked it and unveiled the product.

United voice

Only when the findings were agreed upon did the staff produce a 300-page report. In the end, all agreed on relatively simple, but important, language:

“The threat to the U.S. posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community,” the Rumsfeld commission concluded. … “The warning times the U.S. can expect of new, threatening ballistic missile deployments are being reduced.”

In spring and summer 1998, during the Rumsfeld commission’s investigation and immediately afterward, two events reinforced the notion of a dangerous, unpredictable world.

In May, India conducted its first underground testing of a nuclear warhead since 1974. It did so while deceiving the United States, lying to the Clinton administration about its plans and preparing the site while U.S. spy satellites were not overhead. India’s test prompted Pakistan to do the same.

On Aug. 31, a month after the Rumsfeld commission released its findings, North Korea, as if on cue, test-fired its Taepodong rocket over Japan.

“[Rumsfeld] figured out that a unanimous commission was worth everything, because a unanimous commission meant that [liberal Democrats] are voting yes and it’s impossible to discredit the report,” Gingrich says. “It’s an example of his ability to strategically understand what’s necessary and then discipline himself to get it.

“What he wanted to do was get to the hardest unanimous report he could get to, and that was an art form. I think it’s a really great work of leadership.”

Tapped by Bush

Rumsfeld’s chairmanship of the ballistic missile commission gave him his first entry into the inner circle of presidential candidate George W. Bush, the governor of Texas.

In January 2000, about 10 months before the election, Bush invited Rumsfeld to Washington to brief him on missile threats. The setting was a private room at the Mayflower Hotel.

“I met with him for hours, just alone,” Rumsfeld recalls.

Rumsfeld told me that he never had a formal job interview with Bush.

After the election, the president-elect sought Rumsfeld’s advice on the qualities needed in a defense secretary.

“He wanted to ask me questions about what I thought about the intelligence community and what I thought about defense and foreign policy areas,” Rumsfeld told me. “And not because I had any desire to come in or he had any desire to have me. I think that was out of the question. It wasn’t on the radar screen.”

But Rumsfeld met again with Bush, this time in Austin, Texas. The president-elect did talk jobs, but made no direct offer. Rumsfeld also traveled to Bush’s ranch in Taos, Texas.

A few days later, the phone rang. It was Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s former protege in the Nixon and Ford administrations, offering him the defense job.

Gingrich analyzes the Bush-Rumsfeld marriage this way:

“Bush is talking to a first-rate politician, who won elective office, who’s been chief of staff to a president, who was the youngest secretary of defense in history, who had been CEO of a big corporation, very successful big corporation.

“So [Bush] could say to him, do you think you could redo the Pentagon? Well, this Rumsfeld spent his career preparing for this.”

Gingrich adds: “It doesn’t hurt that the guy in charge of staffing the administration [Cheney] is Rumsfeld’s former deputy. This is a small conspiracy.”

Part I: ‘This is war,’ Rumsfeld told Bush

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