Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s determination to kill terrorists and transform the military is detailed in “Rumsfeld’s War” (Regnery Publishing Inc.), the new book by Rowan Scarborough, defense reporter for The Washington Times. Exclusive excerpts begin today.
Donald H. Rumsfeld sat in a vault-like room studded with video screens and talked with President Bush as the Pentagon burned.
“This is not a criminal action,” the secretary of defense told Bush over a secure line. “This is war.”
The word “war” meant more than going after the al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan, the fault line of terrorism. Bush said he wanted retaliation.
The setting was the Pentagon’s Executive Support Center, where Rumsfeld held secure video teleconferences with the White House across the Potomac or with ground commanders 10,000 miles away.
The time was 1:02 p.m., less than four hours after terrorists steered American Flight 77 into the Pentagon’s southwest wall.
Rumsfeld at first had dashed to the impact site. In his shirt and tie, he helped transport the wounded.
Finally convinced to leave the scene, Rumsfeld entered the closely guarded ESC, where whiffs of burned rubble penetrated the ventilation system. The video monitor in front of him was blank, but there was an audio connection with the president at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
Rumsfeld’s instant declaration of war, previously unreported, took America from the Clinton administration’s view that terrorism was a criminal matter to the Bush administration’s view that terrorism was a global enemy to be destroyed.
“That was really a breakthrough strategically and intellectually,” recalls Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy. “Viewing the 9/11 attacks as a war that required a war strategy was a very big thought, and a lot flowed from that.”
Rumsfeld wanted a war that was fought with ruthless efficiency: special forces, high-tech firepower, a scorecard for killing or capturing terrorists. He had no desire to become the world’s jailer. And he refused to be stymied by bureaucracy.
Rumsfeld quickly shared his views in a meeting of his inner circle, the so-called Round Table group including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
This would be a global war, Rumsfeld said, and he planned to give Special Operations forces — Delta Force, SEALs and Green Berets — unprecedented powers to kill terrorists.
Special Operations missions lived or died on secrecy, so he would tolerate no leaks. Staff meetings that once attracted 20 or more bureaucrats quickly were shrunk to no more than 10.
Rumsfeld publicly threatened criminal prosecution whenever “classified information dealing with operations is provided to people who are not cleared for that information.”
The defense secretary kept his eyes on two balls — one relatively small, the other as big as the globe:
He authorized Army Gen. Tommy Franks to bring him a war plan for toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda operated. Perhaps far more importantly, he also summoned his top Special Operations officer, Air Force Gen. Charles Holland, to draw up a blueprint for a broader war on terror.
Holland’s Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., was a sleepy outpost at MacDill Air Force Base. U.S. Central Command (CentCom), across the street, got all the press. It fought wars. Holland’s command, dubbed SoCom, merely equipped some 35,000 special forces soldiers. When they went into battle, combatant commands such as CentCom took control.
Rumsfeld wanted that changed. Holland, however, was not a door-busting commando. He was a pilot who had flown the lumbering but deadly AC-130 gunships. Colleagues described Holland as courtly, polite and soft-spoken. He was a compromiser, not a bureaucratic infighter like his boss, Rumsfeld.
Holland arrived for his first wartime face-to-face meeting with Rumsfeld on Sept. 25, 2001. Rumsfeld told Holland he wanted SoCom to become a global command post.
Deeply disappointed by Holland’s caution, Rumsfeld walked to the Pentagon pressroom that same day and announced: “The United States of America knows that the only way we can defend against terrorism is by taking the fight to the terrorists.”
It was a message for Holland and other commanders as well as the public.
Rumsfeld’s Round Table began to settle on strategy.
“We developed what we called the territorial approach to fighting terrorism,” Feith recalls. “Instead of chasing every individual terrorist, you recognize that for terrorist organizations over a sustained period to do large-scale operations, they need bases of operations.”
Afghanistan was the logical first step. But al Qaeda and its surrogates also thrived in border regions and ungoverned states such as Somalia.
Rumsfeld made a list:
Yemen, where al Qaeda planned the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
The Horn of Africa, where terror cells freely moved money and men.
The Philippines, where a group of Islamic terrorists, Abu Sayyaf, used kidnappings and deadly bombings to try to bring down the pro-American democracy.
Summer of discontent
By June 2002, Afghanistan’s interim government was functioning amid the U.S.-led coalition’s low-intensity conflict with Taliban holdouts. Iraq war planning had been started.
But Rumsfeld’s ideas for hunting down terrorists worldwide had not taken hold. And he let Feith know he was not happy.
“I think we need a scorecard for the global war on terrorism,” Rumsfeld said in a confidential June 20 action memo to his undersecretary for policy.
Less than two weeks later, Rumsfeld sent another memo to Feith asking, “How do we organize the Department of Defense for manhunts? We are obviously not well organized at the present time.”
Rumsfeld wanted action. He wanted it from, among others, Holland.
Stephen Cambone, a close aide to Rumsfeld, told colleagues: “Holland was given the keys to the kingdom and he didn’t want to pick them up.”
Another aide told Rumsfeld: “You’re going to have to put your finger in his chest and tell him what you want done.”
On July 15, Holland returned to the Pentagon for another face-to-face with the boss. Holland again expressed caution about assuming new terror-hunt responsibilities. He didn’t want to step on the toes of combatant commanders like Tommy Franks.
Rumsfeld castigated the top commando, saying he had made it clear to Holland and other four-stars that he wanted them “leaning forward.” He ordered Holland to come up with a plan of action.
A historic change
I can reveal for the first time that Rumsfeld didn’t wait. On July 22, he initialed a highly classified directive to Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
The Rumsfeld directive is just one page, but its impact was historic: The defense secretary changed the nature of Special Operations forces — and the Pentagon — by giving commanders the authority to plan and execute missions on their own with a minimum of bureaucratic interference. Some excerpts:
“ The objective is to capture terrorists for interrogation, or if necessary, to kill them, not simply to arrest them in [a] law enforcement exercise.
“ The objective should be that processing of deployment orders and obtaining other bureaucratic clearances can be accomplished in minutes and hours, not days and weeks.
“ Special Operations command will screen DoD for personnel — civilian and military — with languages, ethnic connections and other attributes needed for clandestine and covert activities.
“ Gen. Holland will brief me on initiatives that can disrupt or destroy terrorist operations and additional assets that might be needed to pursue such initiatives.”
Holland returned July 31 with a plan that became known as the “30 percent solution,” because Rumsfeld wanted it done one chunk at a time.
Holland wanted more men and money. He wanted diplomatic approval to go anywhere, anytime. And he wanted the always elusive “actionable intelligence” that decided whether a mission was successful.
Rumsfeld wanted to make sure he got it.
In January 2003, as Rumsfeld’s tenure reached the two-year mark, he appeared in the Pentagon pressroom to announce a revamped SoCom. From now on, in-theater SoCom units would have authority to plan hunt-and-destroy missions, requisition weapons and men and run covert actions.
Rumsfeld abandoned the Clinton administration’s decree that the military must have an official “finding” signed by the president — a step that meant congressional notification and increased the possibility of leaks — before taking any action. Now, special forces on the scene could react immediately to track and kill terrorists.
By spring 2003, Holland had won commitments from the Pentagon for 5,000 new positions and $1 billion more a year, bringing his budget to $6 billion.
But Rumsfeld demanded results. At a conference of commanders at the Pentagon, he pulled Holland aside.
“Have you killed anyone yet?” he asked.