I first noticed the pattern last year with the Abu Ghraib torture scandal exploding. By now it's beyond a trend. Closer to an established fact. Plain for all to see -- and it suggests a significant breakdown of some unknown sort at the Department of Defense.
On April 28, 2004, with Sy Hersh about to scoop them, the journalists at CBS ran a story about crimes committed by American soldiers at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison on its 60 Minutes II program. It included the now infamous torture photographs as well as information on the military's own "scathing report" on the subject, which would later become known (by its author's name) as the Taguba Report.
About a week later, I began to notice the trend. During a briefing with reporters on May 4, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked if he had himself read the Taguba Report. He hemmed and hawed about seeing a summary of it before finally answering "no." Another question followed:
"REPORTER: …given the ramifications of not only what is in this report, the findings specifically, but the pictures, the photographs that you knew, as of a couple of weeks ago, were going to be broadcast, why did you not feel [it] incumbent upon you at that time to ask for the findings, to take a look at the pictures beforehand, so you could perhaps be prepared to deal with some of the world reaction?
"SEC. RUMSFELD: I think I did inquire about the pictures and was told that we didn't have copies.
"RUMSFELD (to staff): Is that correct?
"STAFF: We didn't have them here, that's for sure.
"SEC. RUMSFELD: Yeah, I didn't have them."
Could it be, I wondered, that I had the hardware on my desk to burn photo CDs and make copies of reports, but the Pentagon didn't?
On May 5, Rumsfeld did an interview with Matt Lauer of NBC's Today Show and was again asked about not reading the report or seeing the photographs until they aired on television. Rumsfeld sputtered "just a minute" before he confessed that "when I'm asked a question as to whether I've read the entire report, I answer honestly that I have not. It is a mountain of paper and investigative material."
So I wondered, could the problem be the amount of reading involved? Or could the SECDEF be suffering from adult Attention Deficit Disorder?
On May 7, Rumsfeld testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing on the treatment of Iraqi prisoners. There, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham asked him about the video files of torture at Abu Ghraib.
"GRAHAM: Mr. Secretary, have you seen the video?
"RUMSFELD: I have not. The disk that I saw that had photos on it did not have the videos on it. I checked with General Smith and he indicates he does have a disk with the videos on it. I don't know if that means there's two disks with all these photographs or if the photographs are the same and one just doesn't have the video."
Later, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson asked:
"BILL NELSON: …Mr. Secretary, when did you first see the photos?
"RUMSFELD: Last night about 7:30.
"BILL NELSON: Mr. Secretary...
"RUMSFELD: I should say, I had seen the ones in the press. I had seen the ones that are doctored slightly to suit people's tastes. We've been trying to get one of the discs for days and days and days. And I'm told by General Smith that there were only a couple of these, that they were in the criminal investigation process. And we finally, Dick Myers and I, finally saw them last night."
By then I was truly curious: Was it a budgetary problem -- the lack of CD burners, or floppy disks, or available computers at the Pentagon? Or was no one technically capable of making copies for Rumsfeld? Or was there some kind of institutional/personal issue at stake? Were Rumsfeld's underlings, for unknown reasons, engaging in a game of diskette keep-away "for days and days and days" (and right before his big Senate grilling too)?
Since then, I've paid closer attention to Rumsfeld's problems and continued to speculate. Just take a look at a few of the numerous incidents thus far in 2005…
On January 8, 2005, Newsweek broke a story about a high-level debate within the Pentagon on implementing the "Salvadore Option" -- that is, the use of "death-squads" like those the U.S. funded in El Salvador during the 1980s -- in Iraq. On January 11th, at a press conference, Rumsfeld finally weighed in:
"The -- on the subject of Iraq, I also have been reading and hearing about this so-called Salvatore -- Salvador option, I think it's called. And I looked all through Newsweek, which apparently was the place it supposedly had appeared. I couldn't find it."
Rumsfeld went on to complain that he couldn't find a copy of the story anywhere and could only read articles about the story. Members of the press corps promised to get him a copy and informed him that it was available in the on-line edition of the magazine. In his defense, Rumsfeld claimed that he only buys the hard-copy of Newsweek.
I wondered how much time he had spent futilely paging through back issues of Newsweek. Had none of his staff thought to look online? Or could it be that they were thumbing their noses at their aging boss as he stared at an unplugged computer? Or was there simply not a single person on hand in the Pentagon who could master a Google search?
Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, made headlines when, on February 1st , he publicly stated, "It's fun to shoot some people." Rumsfeld apparently missed all the morning newspaper accounts and TV reports on this; for, on the afternoon of February 3rd, he told a reporter, "I have not read his words. I don't know what he said precisely…"
On February 10, Axis of Evil Enemy Number One, North Korea, declared for the first time that it definitively possessed nuclear weapons. You'd think an announcement of that sort from a nation with which the United States is still technically at war would warrant some attention from the Secretary of Defense. (I mean, just look at the response Saddam's phantom WMD warranted way back in 2002-03). But Rumsfeld, it seems, didn't even bother to read an account of the announcement, although he was apparently briefed on the fact that such stories had been written. When asked about North Korean nukes, the Secretary of Defense said, "I know I'm told that today in the press they indicated they do [have nuclear weapons]."
On February 16, when fielding questions from the press following a House Armed Services Committee Hearing, Rumsfeld was asked about an intelligence report concerning Al-Qaeda and replied, "I have not seen the paper that you're referring to with respect to the memorandum. It hasn't come to me yet… [To General Meyers:] You haven't seen it either, have you?"
Not surprisingly, Meyers hadn't.
The next day dawned on a near repeat of this incident. At another session with the press, this time following a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, Rumsfeld was asked about a presidentially-ordered joint CIA/Department of Defense study of paramilitary activities.
"Rumsfeld: [To Myers]: Have you seen it? I have not seen the study.
"Myers: I have not seen the results of the study. I think that's coming over here shortly to us in the department."
Responses like these have come fast and furiously from Rumsfeld since the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke. Obviously, a pattern has developed, involving what looks like a systemic breakdown in information reaching the Secretary of Defense. The question is why? Why do reporters consistently know more than he does? Hell, why had I read the stories (and probably the military's own reports) before Rumsfeld?
I assume he's busy, but given his lack of reading, what exactly is he busy doing? Is he having personal problems? Recent reports indicate that lately Rumsfeld has been increasingly belligerent and cranky; most recently packing up his briefcase and spouting off about his lunch while being questioned by the House Armed Services Committee (where he also replied incoherently to a question about an aide's comments pertaining to the expansion of military retirement benefits with, "I have not… seen the statement that you've quoted in the context that it might have been included").
Other theories exist. Has he developed his boss's aversion to reading? Or has he somehow, despite all the new intelligence powers he's been garnering for the DoD, been squeezed out of the national security information loop. Is he being kept in the dark even about front-page national security news? Could Pentagon subordinates be rebelling against him for unknown reasons by refusing his requests for information, thus making him look uninformed and inept? Or could this be a more general problem of incompetence at the Department of Defense? Okay, maybe you can't expect a 72-year-old Secretary of Defense to be up-to-date on the latest technology, but can no one at the Pentagon figure out how to photocopy a report? Burn a photo CD? Copy a disk? Find an article on-line? Or figure out how to email a file?
Last year the DoD paid out almost $300 million to Battelle Memorial Institute -- whose scientists "played a crucial role in developing the office copier machine (Xerox)" and which holds "more than 250 patents related to the dry-copying process." It paid almost $643 million to PC-maker Dell, and nearly $2.4 billion to Computer Sciences Corporation -- "a leading global information technology (IT) services company… [whose] mission is to provide customers… with solutions crafted to meet their specific challenges and enable them to profit from the advanced use of technology."
You'd think with this kind of spending the people at the DoD could manage to get copies of crucial materials to their chief. But they either can't or won't. They've left Rumsfeld twisting in the wind, forced to admit on a daily basis that he can't get the information he asks for or wants to see in a timely fashion. The implications for national security are obvious. It's time for an inquiry. We need to know what Rumsfeld didn't see, when he didn't see it, and why he is so incredibly uninformed.
Nick Turse is a doctoral candidate at the Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He writes for the Village Voice and regularly for Tomdispatch on the military-corporate complex and the homeland security state.
© 2005 Nick Turse