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RESPONSE TO TERROR | MILITARY LEADERS, ACTION

Action Role a Better Fit for Rumsfeld

Military: Once considered imperious, the Defense secretary is now universally lauded for his focus, leadership and drive.

November 11, 2001|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had just settled into his private office aboard the military plane speeding him to Moscow when the phone rang. It was Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the Afghanistan campaign, and he had bad news

A helicopter that had rushed into a winter storm to airlift a sick soldier out of Afghanistan was down, and four crew members were injured, stranded in the snows of the Hindu Kush.

"We were trying to figure out what to do," Rumsfeld recalled later of the subsequent series of phone calls with Franks. "At one point, there was a report [the soldiers] were going to start walking."

As Rumsfeld arrived at the Kremlin and maneuvered through a series of complex meetings with Russian officials on arms control, he also kept close track of the rescue effort until the helicopter crew and the soldier were finally whisked to safety.

The crisis was a dramatic example of how Rumsfeld's job has changed since Sept. 11. Until the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the chief concern of the then-maligned Defense secretary was how to sell his ideas for "transforming" the military to meet the theoretical threats of the 21st century.

His president had not proposed a budget commensurate with his ambitions, the military establishment was vexed by his imperious management style, and Congress was alienated by his talk of closing bases and cutting weapon systems.

But since the moment he literally was rocked in his Pentagon office by the impact of a hijacked airliner hitting another part of the massive complex, Rumsfeld has been transformed into a wartime leader faced with real-life threats to U.S. troops suddenly in harm's way.

The new agenda contrasts dramatically with what had been on Rumsfeld's plate. And it has dramatically reversed how he is viewed.

"From the minute the plane hit the building and he's out there wading through the wreckage, that's Rumsfeld," said one of his senior aides. "He was active, he was pushing, he was taking charge. That's just who he is."

With U.S. troops more than one month into fighting a faraway war against a shadowy enemy, criticism is emerging over how the conflict is being waged. But Rumsfeld has by all accounts remained unshaken. His self-confidence, his indifference to criticism, his unwavering devotion to his vision of how the war should be fought--the very character traits that made him a divisive and infuriating figure when the biggest battles the Pentagon faced were over the budget--are what today have won him support and respect within the military.

He "made it very clear from the early days that we were going to do this war the right way and that it was going to take a long time," said Stephen Herbits, a Florida-based consultant who has worked for and known Rumsfeld for years. "He said we were going to withstand pressure from critics and take the long view."

Herbits headed the transition effort in the mid-1970s when Rumsfeld was named Defense secretary for the Ford administration. Herbits assumed the same role when Bush tapped Rumsfeld for a repeat performance last year.

And after the attacks on America, Rumsfeld brought Herbits back to help reorganize his staff to wage war.

"It was somber, it was serious, it was a very tense time," Herbits said. "Rumsfeld said that everybody had to rethink their jobs because, while you had a lot of long-term planning going on and thinking about the military of the 21st century, suddenly the 21st century was here. That sort of gave people a confidence and a sense of direction and some meaning to how they were going to operate."

The day of the attacks, while Bush was being shepherded around the country on Air Force One, Rumsfeld was front and center.

"He stuck his head outside his boardroom and said, 'Does anybody know what's going on?' " recalled Rumsfeld's spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke. "He didn't wait for anyone to find out. He jogged down the hallway, went right outside and right over to the crash site."

Clarke added: "He has this amazing inner gyroscope that tells him exactly what to do at the right time. And his inner gyroscope told him that day to get out there."

These days, Rumsfeld is the most visible member of President Bush's war council. Vice President Dick Cheney is often kept under wraps at a secure command post. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell conducts much of his coalition building out of the public eye.

But Rumsfeld is virtually a daily presence. His frequent briefings to the media on the military campaign are described even by his antagonists as "impressive" and "consistent." In clear language, he usually provides just enough information to slowly advance public understanding of the war even as he guards details of operational planning with stern threats of criminal punishment for anyone who discloses them.

In private conversation, Rumsfeld is extraordinarily quick with a riposte.

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