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THE NATION

Pentagon's Biggest Fight May Come From Within

Rumsfeld is shaking up the bureaucracy and the brass with his aggressive approach to reform.

January 04, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When the 4-inch-thick review of worldwide U.S. military intelligence first landed on his desk, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was incredulous. And then he started asking questions no one could answer.

What followed was a year of work by dozens of Pentagon officials distilling and reformulating the monthly overview of the military's spy planes, satellites and other reconnaissance assets into a slim report that Rumsfeld finally pronounced readable.

"It was root canal without Novocain. Painful," said one official who worked on the revisions but asked not to be identified by name. "He was drilling."

Tough, skeptical and dismissive, Rumsfeld is convinced a modern military can't be truly effective until it reforms itself from the bottom up.

Surrounded by a small council of trusted civilian advisors, Rumsfeld has shaken up the Pentagon senior military brass with a style that disdains bureaucracy and demands that military commanders adopt new ways of fighting.

But in the process he has created a rift so intense between high-ranking Pentagon civilians and senior officers that it threatens to slow military reform.

Rumsfeld's approach, his supporters say, is the only way to prod an intransigent bureaucracy into transforming itself, and to force military commanders Rumsfeld believes have become averse to risk to update fighting techniques that have grown stale.

While Rumsfeld enjoys a deep reservoir of respect among many members of the armed services, his relationships with some key senior officers are increasingly strained as the U.S. gears up for a potential war against Iraq.

And Rumsfeld is not done yet. A draft of his priorities for the next six to 12 months obtained by The Times calls for reasserting civilian control at the highest levels of the Pentagon and cutting, by half, the time it takes the military to get things done.

Believing that the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- the combined war-planning structure of all four branches of the armed services -- has become too independent, Rumsfeld has started taking steps to rein it in.

"Rumsfeld is very much about centralizing power within the Pentagon," said one defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's everywhere. He's C-SPAN Boy. He's very powerful. One can't blame a [Defense secretary] with that kind of clout for saying, 'I'm tired of people getting in the way, I know what's right and I'm gonna implement it.'

"He's made the point and it is true that you have all the military services trying to undo his reforms. But what he's doing to his own people is dangerous. He ought to be cultivating his own allies, the [civilian staff members] that work for him. Instead, he's cutting them out."

Rumsfeld aides fiercely defend the approach of the former Princeton wrestler. They say that, not only does he listen to people, he listens so much that it puts them on the spot as he burrows deeply into issues, demanding more from his subordinates.

They acknowledge that, with favorite programs on the line and budgets under the secretary's scrutiny, many elements of the military and of the civilian bureaucracy feel threatened by Rumsfeld's attitude and his reforms

Indeed, the extent to which Rumsfeld has achieved his stated aims to date is remarkable.

While fighting the war on terrorism, he has overseen the development of a nuclear posture review, done away with the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, restructured and increased funding to the missile defense program he holds dear, secured hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding for cutting-edge military programs, and, in killing the Army's Crusader artillery system, taken his first stab at moving money from weapons he considers outdated to newer technologies.

He doesn't mind people being on edge.

"People on edge are more alert," one senior defense official said. "He doesn't have any respect for people who are afraid of him. As a citizen, do you want somebody making life or death decisions about our society who can't stand up to some 70-year-old push-up artist? I don't think so."

Rumsfeld's personality and drive have served him well in a varied and accomplished career. A former Navy pilot, he served four terms as a congressman from Illinois and was President Ford's chief of staff before becoming the youngest secretary of Defense in U.S. history in 1975. He also served as the chief executive of two Fortune 500 firms -- G.D. Searle & Co., a pharmaceutical company with global reach, and General Instrument Corp. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian award, in 1977.

His operating style -- brusque, aggressive, impatient to the point of imperiousness -- clashed with those of his military commanders and much of the civilian staff of the Pentagon from Day 1. But in the early months of the war on terrorism and the Pentagon rebuilding itself from the shock of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, the differences were pushed below the surface.

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