A frustrated Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lashed out Wednesday at media portrayals of post-war Iraq, urging Members of Congress to disregard reports of rampant chaos and mismanagement and rely instead on the first-hand accounts of fellow lawmakers who have been on the ground after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
As debate began on the Bush administration’s $87 billion emergency funding request for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rumsfeld described a fiercely energetic effort by the Pentagon to make its case on Capitol Hill, but suggested this bid has been undercut by a series of seemingly intractable myths regarding the progress of post-war reconstruction.
“I don’t know where it started — it’s magic, it’s a mystery to me,” Rumsfeld said of common criticisms that the Bush administration has “no plan” in Iraq.
In an hour-long session with Roll Call reporters and editors at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld ticked off hundreds of contacts at every level between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, all aimed at providing Members with the information they seek about Iraq.
“I’ve had a total of 78 sessions — 28 briefings, 43 meetings of various types, seven hearings — not counting yesterday or the day before, and five other meetings,” Rumsfeld said, rattling off several more statistics about consultation with Congress on Iraq. “How can people keep saying ‘You’re going it alone’? How can they keep saying we don’t have a plan? I don’t know!”
Even as Rumsfeld spoke, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), as if on cue, appeared on the Senate floor to call for “greater cooperation among our allies” and for the administration to draft a “clear plan” to settle the situation in and around Baghdad.
The complaints voiced by Daschle comprise two of the four “untrue” assertions that, according to Rumsfeld, are being fed and perpetuated by the distorted picture that is beamed back from Iraq.
The other two, Rumsfeld said, are that “more troops” are needed on the ground in Iraq, and that the overall “end strength” of the military has been compromised by the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld drew an explicit distinction between the perspective of Members who have visited the region to see things first-hand, and those who have relied on information from the major media in reaching their conclusions.
“No one comes back [from Iraq] and says, ‘Gee, you’re wonderful,’” Rumsfeld said. “But they do come back and say it’s obvious you’ve accomplished more than anyone could have expected to be accomplished.”
He cited a bipartisan Congressional delegation that had returned from Iraq on Monday, noting that they were “stunned” by the discrepancy between the news reports from the region and the reality.
“Here were six or seven Congressmen — including [Rep. Norm] Dicks [D-Wash.], the second or third ranking Democrat on the [Appropriations] committee, been around a long time — and one after another went down the line commenting on what is happening,” Rumsfeld said. “And the fact that nothing [about the CODEL] appeared [in Wednesday’s papers] made the point.”
Rumsfeld acknowledged that his unwillingness to provide lawmakers with firm cost estimates and deadlines regarding the deployments has been a source of regular friction with decision makers in Congress.
But he said there are too many variables to consider in these questions, and suggested it would be fruitless to provide answers that could easily become obsolete.
Rumsfeld said that previous administrations have “gone up to Congress and said [soldiers] will be ‘out by Christmas.’ Others have gone up and said, ‘The casualties are going to be this many in this war.’ Others have gone up and said, ‘It’s going to cost X amount,’” Rumsfeld said. “And I know I don’t know [the answers]. I know I don’t know, and I say I don’t know.”
This blunt approach to Congress has elicited criticism, primarily from Democrats, that Rumsfeld has been dismissive toward them and their concerns.
Rumsfeld suggested he would place his own record for consulting Congress up against those of any of his predecessors. He said that during his own tenure in Congress, in the 1960s, he only saw Robert McNamara or Dean Rusk — Defense secretaries during that period — “I think twice.”
“I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this,” he said of his own effort.
Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, has recently called for “somebody to go” over the handling of Iraq. But Murtha made clear Wednesday that his complaint is not with Rumsfeld, but with the White House.
“These guys [at the Pentagon] have kept me as well informed — I may not agree with the policy — as any secretary of Defense,” Murtha said. “I cannot complain about the amount of information I’ve gotten.”
Between Rumsfeld’s own visits and the briefings provided to Congress by officials at numerous other levels of the Pentagon, the Defense secretary suggested he is aggravated by complaints from some Members that they have been left out of the loop.
Rumsfeld has been a magnet for complaints from lawmakers, including a few Republicans, who contend that he either hasn’t acted prudently with the resources he’s been given or that the blunt and sometimes prickly Defense secretary projects an image that undermines U.S. goals in the region.
Daschle even threatened Wednesday to block the $20 billion the Bush administration is seeking for Iraqi reconstruction unless control is stripped from Rumsfeld and passed to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Rumsfeld’s style is decidedly non-Congressional. When asked about the “subtext” of his media criticisms he shot back: “I’m not complicated enough to have a subtext. I say what I say, and I don’t mean anything else. I might not say it well.”
Rumsfeld indicated he is eager to find ways to hone the appeal of his message on Capitol Hill. Just last week Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was in his office reviewing the situation on the ground in Iraq — things such as number of hours of electricity now compared with before the war.
Alexander was amazed at what he thought was considerable progress and offered advice on how to better illustrate what’s going on, such as a chart or graphic that shows the number of hours of electricity being pumped through Iraq.
Rumsfeld indicated that he agreed with Alexander’s idea and is now preparing a declassified version of a chart that he hopes will help Members put things in perspective.
Rumsfeld acknowledged that, at the end of the day, Members reflect the concerns of their constituents when they voice their own concerns. Rumsfeld made it clear that this is the source of his frustration with the reporting from Iraq.
Asked to explain the discrepancy between the media’s portrayal and his view of the facts, Rumsfeld laughed at the idea of being a media critic.
“I do know that there are three or four things that are [being said] in this town that I believe, sincerely, are inconsistent with the facts,” he said.