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Rumsfeld Questions Terrorism Strategy

The Defense chief asks in a memo whether the Pentagon is best suited to fight extremist foes.

October 23, 2003|Esther Schrader and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A memo from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to his senior staff raises doubts about how much progress has been made in the war on terrorism and asks whether the Pentagon is the right agency to lead the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations around the world.

The sober tone of the memo, which refers to the campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan as "a long, hard slog," contrasts sharply with the upbeat public face that Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials have put on U.S. efforts to defeat terrorists. Its disclosure has struck a chord in a capital where lawmakers from both major political parties have been increasingly questioning the Bush administration's goals in Iraq and its direction in fighting terrorism.

Portions of Rumsfeld's memo seemed aimed at the CIA, giving middling marks to the effort to capture terrorist leaders and raising questions about whether the agency has the authority it needs to do the job.

"Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror?.... Is our current situation such that 'the harder we work, the behinder we get?' " Rumsfeld asks in the Oct. 16 memo, sent to Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz; Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of Defense for policy.

The memo was first reported in Wednesday's editions of USA Today. It was later released by the Pentagon, where officials tried to deflate any suggestion that the memo reflected pessimism by Rumsfeld about the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and efforts to tamp down terrorism.

"It was not a memo about Iraq, and it was not a memo about Afghanistan," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said Wednesday.

"It was a memo about the global war on terror, trying to ask the kinds of questions that need to be asked, that any leader should be asking."

Rumsfeld's intent, DiRita said, was to provoke candid discussion within the Defense Department about "the big questions in the war on terror."

In a brief question-and-answer session with reporters in Canberra, Australia, President Bush said he hadn't read the memo but that he agrees with the sentiment. "What I agree with is that the war on terror is going to be tough work, and it's going to take a while. And we're making great progress," Bush said.

In the memo, Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the administration's policy on fighting terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, asks whether the institution he leads is capable of waging the war in the future.

A "new institution," he writes, may be needed to fight terrorism because "it is not possible" to transform the Pentagon fast enough to effectively conduct the war on Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

Such an institution might be formed within the Pentagon or outside it, but it must be one that "seamlessly focuses the capabilities of several departments and agencies on this key problem," the memo says. "It is not possible to change DoD [the Department of Defense] fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror."

While Rumsfeld, Bush and others have said often that the war on terror will be long and difficult, the administration has talked frequently of the victories already achieved in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rumsfeld's memo, by contrast, acknowledges that those battles aren't yet won and that success is not a sure thing.

"It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog."

The memo may provide ammunition for critics who say the war in Iraq has distracted government leaders from the broader goal of fighting terrorism.

"Here's one of the architects behind the Bush administration's foreign policy and Iraq policy basically admitting that we may have missed the target," said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian public policy research organization in Washington.

But Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council counterterrorism expert and co-author of "The Age of Sacred Terror," said, "It's reassuring that someone is asking some of the hard questions, even if there's a bit too much happy talk in the administration's public rhetoric."

U.S. intelligence officials took issue with some of Rumsfeld's comments, particularly the implication that the war on terrorism was suffering from flagging energy or a lack of focus.

"There's anything but complacency on this particular issue," one U.S. intelligence official said. He added that he believed the United States had had more than "mixed results," as Rumsfeld put it, in its efforts to corral senior members of Al Qaeda.

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