Rumsfeld prods Pentagon for new anti-terror tactics

Tone of internal memo far less optimistic than recent Bush statements

October 23, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a candid and unusually blunt memo to top Pentagon officials, predicted "a long, hard slog" for the U.S. military in both Iraq and Afghanistan while conceding "mixed results" in the fight against al-Qaida and fugitive Taliban leaders.

In the memo written last week, Rumsfeld pressed his aides to consider new ways to combat terror and conceded that officials lack a way to measure "whether we are winning or losing the global war on terror."

He also raised the possibility in the memo of creating a new team or agency in the Pentagon or elsewhere in the federal government specifically to fight terrorism, saying the military as it is now organized might be too cumbersome to combat the terrorist threat.

The memo was released yesterday by the Pentagon after it was leaked to the press.

Rumsfeld later told reporters he crafted it as a way to prod his aides into thinking about how to deal with the challenge of terrorism.

Partisan response

Still, the two-page memo offered a more sober assessment about the war on terror than the recent upbeat public statements by Rumsfeld and President Bush. Reaction to the memo ran largely along partisan lines.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Rumsfeld's words were "a little different than the sort of self-assurance that was communicated to us in Congress."

"This is the first sort of introspection that I have even whiffed coming out of the civilian side of the Defense Department," Biden told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said, "I'm concerned to read that Secretary Rumsfeld is only now acknowledging what we've known for some time -- that this administration has no plan for Iraq and no long-term strategy for fighting terrorism."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan, traveling with President Bush in Australia, was supportive of Rumsfeld.

"That's exactly what a strong and capable secretary of defense like Secretary Rumsfeld should be doing," said McClellan. "The president has always said it will require thinking differently.

"It's a different type of war."

Rep. H. James Saxton, a New Jersey Republican who recently returned from a trip to Iraq, was given a copy of the memo yesterday after a breakfast with Rumsfeld and other lawmakers.

"We are asking the same questions. So, I commend the secretary for carrying out this leadership role," Saxton told reporters afterward.

In the memo, dated Oct. 16 and first reported by USA Today, Rumsfeld said, "We are having mixed results with al-Qaida, although we have put considerable pressure on them - nonetheless a great many of them remain at large."

That statement contrasted with a speech Bush had made a day earlier in California.

"We're hunting down the al-Qaida wherever they hide, whether it be from Pakistan or Iraq or the Philippines or the Horn of Africa. And we're making good progress," Bush said as he prepared to embark on a six-day trip to the Far East.

A week before that, speaking to National Guard troops in Portsmouth, N.H., the president said: "We're rolling back the terrorist threats - not on the fringes of its influence but at the heart of its power. We're making good progress."

After a closed-door meeting with senators last night, Rumsfeld told reporters that the memo was designed to spur discussion among top aides.

"And sometimes that's good and sometimes one needs to say to a big institution, `Hey, wait a minute. Let's lift our eyes up and look out across the horizon and say, Are there questions that we ought to be asking ourselves? Are there things that we ought to think about, ways to do it differently?'" Rumsfeld said.

Measure of success

Asked whether there is a need for a way to measure progress on the terrorist front, Rumsfeld said there are indicators that can mark success in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

"But the tough one is the macro one: How many young people are being taught to go out as suicide bombers and kill people?" Rumsfeld said.

"That's the question. How many are there? And how does that inflow of terrorists in the world get reduced so that the number of people being captured or killed is greater than the ones being produced?"

"There isn't anyone who knows a metric for that because it's too vast and too complex," he said. "But elevating that issue, I think, forces people to think about it in the broadest possible context, which is why I did so."

In his memo, Rumsfeld said that while the U.S. military has made "reasonable progress" in capturing or killing the top 55 Iraqi leaders, there has been "slower progress" in tracking down the Taliban leaders such as spiritual leader Mullah Omar.

And regarding the Iraq-based terror group Ansar Al Islam, which is allied with al-Qaida, Rumsfeld said, "we are just getting started."

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