Head Strong: A rush to war? Seeking answers from Rumsfeld


Perhaps the best evidence of a rush to judgment for war with Iraq came in the portrayal of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plotting against Saddam Hussein while sitting in a still-smoldering Pentagon on 9/11. Why, if the immediate suspicion was on Osama bin Laden, was Rumsfeld already thinking about Hussein?

This vignette was first supplied by Bob Woodward when he published Plan of Attack in 2004. Woodward wrote:

"At 2:40 p.m. that day, with dust and smoke filling the operations center as he was trying to figure out what happened, Rumsfeld raised with his staff the possibility of going after Iraq as a response to the terrorist attacks, according to an aide's notes. Saddam Hussein is S.H. in these notes, and UBL is Usama Bin Laden. The notes show that Rumsfeld had mused about whether to 'hit S.H. @ same time - not only UBL' and asked the Pentagon lawyer to talk to Paul Wolfowitz about the Iraq 'connection with UBL.' The next day in the inner circle of President George W. Bush's war cabinet, Rumsfeld asked if the terrorist attacks did not present an 'opportunity' to launch against Iraq."

When the 9/11 Commission released its report that same year, the portrayal was expanded upon:

"On the afternoon of 9/11, according to contemporaneous notes, Secretary Rumsfeld instructed General [Richard] Myers to obtain quickly as much information as possible. The notes indicate that he also told Myers that he was not simply interested in striking empty training sites. He thought the U.S. response should consider a wide range of options and possibilities. The secretary said his instinct was to hit Saddam Hussein at the same time - not only Bin Ladin. Secretary Rumsfeld later explained that at the time, he had been considering either one of them, or perhaps someone else, as the responsible party."

The sources of the 9/11 Commission depiction were notes from Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, and from Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary for intelligence. Cambone's notes pinpointed the discussion to 2:40 p.m. on 9/11.

Which brings us to the new No. 1 book on the New York Times' nonfiction list: Known and Unknown, by Donald Rumsfeld. When I obtained my copy, I quickly scanned the index to see what attention Rumsfeld gave the matter. Unfortunately, there wasn't much.

"Much has been written about the Bush administration's focus on Iraq after 9/11," Rumsfeld writes. "Commentators have suggested that it was strange or obsessive for the president and his advisers to have raised questions about whether Saddam Hussein was somehow behind the attack. I have never understood the controversy. Early on, I had no idea if Iraq was or was not involved, but it would have been irresponsible for any administration not to have asked the question."

Elsewhere in the book, Rumsfeld details a conversation he had with then-CIA Director George Tenet shortly after noon on 9/11. According to Rumsfeld's recollection, Tenet said the National Security Agency had intercepted a phone call in which an al-Qaeda operative said he "heard good news" about the attacks and hinted that yet another plane was poised to reach its target. Further, Rumsfeld writes that at 3:30 p.m. that day, Bush conducted a National Security Council meeting, during which Tenet said the intelligence community was confident in its belief that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks.

In other words, at noon, Tenet told Rumsfeld that there was reason to blame al-Qaeda. At 2:40, Rumsfeld was nevertheless thinking about Hussein, and by 3:30, there was additional confidence that al-Qaeda was responsible.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to ask Rumsfeld to respond to the view that his consideration of Hussein that day was evidence of a predisposition toward war with Iraq.

Rumsfeld: "When I came to the Pentagon in January of 2001, the only country in the world that was shooting at our aircraft on a regular basis, some 2,000 times, was Iraq. So the president and the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were concerned about that. We had an expectation that at some point, one of our aircraft and crews would be shot down. It was very much on our minds. The United Nations during that period was engaged in resolutions trying to determine what was taking place with respect to weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. And the country during the Clinton administration had passed legislation overwhelmingly in the Congress and signed by President Clinton calling for regime change in Iraq. The State Department had Iraq on the terrorist list during that period. And these various things came up.

"The president called me up on Sept. 11 and said this is going to come to the Department of Defense soon, and we want you to be thinking about it. Needless to say, there were some discussions, not anything extensive, but the subject did come up."

I then read to Rumsfeld the relevant portion of the 9/11 Commission report and suggested that at the time of his plotting about Hussein, he already knew or suspected that the attacks were actually the work of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

"We did not know precisely, but the CIA was speculating at that point that they thought it was al-Qaeda, and it turned out to be correct," he replied.

"I do remember shortly thereafter we were up at Camp David and someone brought up the subject of Iraq, and the president very precisely said: 'Look, we are not interested in Iraq. We are interested in al-Qaeda,' and that was the focus, the entire discussion at the Pentagon during that period."

I then asked, "To those who say it is evidence of you having been predisposed toward taking out Saddam Hussein regardless of any involvement relative to Sept. 11, you would say what?"

"That's nonsense. I was not predisposed to doing anything. 9/11 was a surprise. What we were doing during that period while the building was still burning was trying to figure out what was happening, who was responsible, and it became very clear very quickly that Saddam Hussein was not involved, and we discuss this in the book in some detail."

I know better than to think that will settle the matter. But at least now the record is complete and ready for debate.

Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read all of his columns at www.philly.com.smerconish.