The disclosure that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resigned on Nov. 6, 2006 – the day before the election, not the day after as previously thought – means that he was pushed out of his job the same day he suggested a de-escalation of the Iraq War.

When Rumsfeld’s resignation was announced on Nov. 8, with both his resignation letter and his de-escalation memo still secret, it was widely assumed in Washington political circles that President George W. Bush was reacting to the stinging Republican electoral defeat on Nov. 7 and was appointing Robert Gates as an olive branch to the Democrats.

The reality now appears to be almost the exact opposite. Bush was preparing for an Iraq War escalation and was looking for a fresh face as Defense Secretary to buy him the necessary time to accomplish this extraordinary political maneuver. Bush also may have recognized the damage that might have come if Rumsfeld’s war doubts became known.

The Rumsfeld memo was kept under wraps for almost a month, finally appearing in the New York Times on Dec. 3, 2006, and his resignation letter was withheld from the public until revealed by Reuters and other news agencies on Aug. 15. Normally, resignation letters are released routinely when the official’s departure is announced.

Yet, because Rumsfeld had grown so unpopular with many Democrats, his post-election departure was greeted with relief and approval, not probing questions. Wishful thinking prevailed about Bush possibly making major concessions on the war. The euphoria continued even when Bush began to signal his “surge” plans at the end of November.

In Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 30, Bush said he had no interest in the gradual troop withdrawals that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group was expected to urge. Bush said American forces would “stay in Iraq to get the job done,” adding “this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever.”

Though Rumsfeld’s memo leaked only a few days later, Democratic senators still handled Gates with kid gloves at his confirmation hearing on Dec. 5. Sen. Hillary Clinton and other Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee praised Gates for his “candor.”

Since Gates – a former CIA director – had been a member of the Iraq Study Group, many Democrats assumed that he would help implement its troop drawdown plan, despite the President’s belligerent tone. Skeptical reporting about Gates and his likely role was confined mostly to Internet sites, like Consortiumnews.com. [See our “Who Is Bob Gates?” Archive.]

As it turned out, Gates has served Bush well, implementing the troop “surge” in early 2007 and deflecting public anger about the war escalation by presenting himself as, stylistically, less confrontational than Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld’s Advice

For their part, the Democrats never called Rumsfeld to testify about the circumstances of his resignation, nor to explain his Nov. 6 memo, which called for a “major adjustment” in Iraq War policy and echoed troop withdrawal ideas of Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania.

“Clearly what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough,” Rumsfeld wrote in his Nov. 6 memo, seeking consideration of “an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases” from 55 to 10 to 15 by April 2007 and to five by July 2007.

Another idea was to commit U.S. forces only to provinces and cities that request the assistance. “Unless they [the local Iraqi governments] cooperate fully, U.S. forces would leave their province,” Rumsfeld wrote.

Rumsfeld also suggested that U.S. generals “withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions – cities, patrolling, etc. – and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.”

And in an implicit criticism of Bush’s lofty rhetoric about transforming Iraq and the Middle East, Rumsfeld said the administration should “recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) – go minimalist.” [NYT, Dec. 3, 2006]

If Rumsfeld’s ideas had been implemented, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq would have been sharply reduced by now and the responsibility for the war would have been shifted significantly to the Iraqi army. Instead, Bush has beefed up the U.S. military presence by more than 20,000 troops and put them into more dangerous forward positions.

Meanwhile, Gates consistently has gotten friendly treatment in the U.S. news media. After Bush tapped Gates to replace Rumsfeld, the Washington press corps quickly adopted a conventional wisdom that the Gates nomination represented a move by former President George H.W. Bush to impose some reason and discipline on his headstrong son.

The thinking went that Gates would guide the younger George Bush away from the neoconservative ideologues who were gung-ho for war in Iraq and back toward the so-called “realists” who held the upper hand under the elder George Bush.

There was even a Newsweek cover illustrating this thesis with a large Poppy Bush in the foreground and a smaller Sonny Bush in the rear.

Misguided Consensus

But the truth has turned out to be different, with George W. Bush virtually spitting out his contempt for the “realists” and deciding to escalate – rather than de-escalate – the war.

Though serving as a front man for Bush’s “surge,” Gates has continued to receive favorable press clippings, portrayed as a sensitive man who is troubled by the burdens of war and who chokes up when talking about dead soldiers.

In September, Gates is expected to take center stage when the Bush administration presents its case that the President’s “surge” is working and should be continued. Gates’s congressional testimony may represent a moment of truth for the Defense Secretary, when he either breaks with Bush or accepts ownership of the war.

If his government career is any clue, the betting should be that Gates finds lots of silver linings in the Iraq War cloud. Since the early 1980s, Gates usually has acted the part of the mild-mannered moderate – the aw-shucks Eagle Scout from Wichita, Kansas – but then did the bidding of his hard-line bosses in the Executive Branch.

According to rank-and-file CIA officers who knew him well, Gates cloaked his fierce ambition in his boyish charm as he ingratiated himself to powerful mentors, such as the late CIA Director William J. Casey.

For instance, in the early 1980s, while head of the CIA’s analytical division and responsible for maintaining a clear line between intelligence and policymaking, Gates pushed dubious intelligence assessments on Nicaragua, the Soviet Union and Iran. Invariably, these intelligence judgments served the interests of Gates’s superiors.

In December 1984, Gates even veered off into policy prescriptions, sending a secret memo to CIA Director Casey that took extreme positions on the conflict in Nicaragua, including calls for air strikes and other actions to oust the “Marxist-Leninist” regime – just the kind of tough talk that Casey liked to hear.

Not only did Gates’s behavior violate the principle of separating intelligence from policymaking, but it turned out that his alarmist assessment of Nicaragua was completely wrong. Rather than becoming a permanent “Marxist-Leninist” regime on the American mainland, the ruling Sandinistas surrendered power when they lost an election in 1990.

To some at CIA, it was never clear whether Gates was a closet true-believer in right-wing policies or a skillful apple-polisher eager to please his bosses. But Gates’s bureaucratic maneuvering did serve his career well, as Casey elevated Gates in 1986 to be deputy CIA director. [For more on the Nicaragua memo, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Trust Robert Gates on Iraq?”]

Dodging Scandals

However, after the Iran-Contra scandal broke in late 1986 – revealing widespread deception by the Reagan administration – Gates found himself in hot water. Members of Congress suspected that Gates had misled them and they didn’t buy his claims of ignorance. He was denied the top CIA job in 1987 after Casey’s death from brain cancer.

Gates salvaged his career with the help of the senior George Bush who took Gates on as deputy national security adviser in 1989. By 1991, after the Iran-Contra scandal had cooled, Bush nominated Gates again to be CIA director.

This time, Gates’s nomination faced an extraordinary uprising of CIA analysts who went public to accuse Gates of politicizing the analytical division and shaping the intelligence to fit the desires of the Reagan-Bush political team. There were also new allegations that Gates had skirted the law by joining Casey and other Republican politicians in questionable arms deals with Iran and Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret World of Robert Gates.”]

But Gates survived these allegations with the help of his friend, Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren, and Boren’s top aide George Tenet, who combined to shepherd the nomination through to approval.

Once ensconced at CIA, Gates was in position to protect George H.W. Bush’s flanks when the Iran-Contra scandal heated up again and special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh brought charges against CIA officers implicated in the arms-for-hostage deals.

Though Gates escaped indictment in the Iran-Contra scandal, he was widely viewed as a Bush loyalist prone to trim the truth. After Bush lost in 1992, President Bill Clinton replaced Gates at CIA, sending the ambitious intelligence bureaucrat into almost 14 years of political exile.

With the support of George H.W. Bush, Gates did land a job as president of Texas A&M, where Gates bided his time for a return to the power centers of Washington. That opportunity finally presented itself in 2006 when President George W. Bush named Gates as a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group created by Congress to review the Iraq War.

The study group was headed by George H.W. Bush’s old Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton.

Rummy’s Bum Rush

Though Rumsfeld had become a lightning rod for criticism across the political spectrum – from Democrats to retired generals to neoconservatives who felt he had botched their Middle East vision – Bush insisted during Campaign 2006 that Rumsfeld would finish out the administration’s final two years.

However, on the weekend before the Nov. 7 elections, facing voter repudiation of the Iraq War and the prospect of Democratic congressional control, Bush secretly reversed himself on his endorsement of Rumsfeld’s continued tenure. Bush privately turned to Gates and asked him to be Rumsfeld’s successor.

The day after the Republicans lost control of the Congress, Bush announced that Rumsfeld was out and Gates was in. Though Bush took some heat for lying about Rumsfeld’s continued service, the Gates move met with widespread acclaim from Official Washington, which assumed that Gates would rein in Bush’s zealotry.

One of the few contrarians to this conventional wisdom was right-wing pundit Fred Barnes, who reported in the neoconservative Weekly Standard that “rarely has the press gotten a story so wrong.”

According to Barnes, Gates “is not the point man for a boarding party of former national security officials from the elder President Bush’s administration taking over defense and foreign policy in his son’s administration.”

Barnes reported that the younger George Bush didn’t consult either his father or Baker about appointing Gates – and only picked the ex-CIA chief after a two-hour face-to-face meeting at which Bush sought assurances that Gates was onboard with the neoconservative notion about “democracy promotion” in the Middle East.

"Two days before the election, the President summoned Gates to his ranch near Waco, Texas,” Barnes wrote. “It was the first time they’d talked about the Pentagon position. … It was only the two of them. No aides participated in the meeting.

"The President wanted ‘clarity’ on Gates’s views, especially on Iraq and the pursuit of democracy. He asked if Gates shared the goal of victory in Iraq and would be determined to pursue it aggressively as defense chief.

"He asked if Gates agreed democracy should be the aim of American foreign policy and not merely the stability of pro-American regimes, notably in the Middle East. Bush also wanted to know Gates’s ‘philosophy’ of America’s role in the world, an aide says, and his take on the pitfalls America faces. ‘The President got good vibes,’ according to the Bush official." [The Weekly Standard, Nov. 27, 2006]

The Secret

Though Barnes has often been wrong in his journalistic judgments, his reporting in this case seems to have been on the mark. Bush eased out the suddenly war-wobbly Rumsfeld and slipped in the more pliable Gates.

Bush benefited, too, from the misplaced confidence that the U.S. news media and the Democrats bestowed on Gates. Despite the leak of the Rumsfeld memo to the New York Times in early December 2006 and the disclosure of Rumsfeld’s resignation letter more than nine months after it was written, Official Washington still hasn’t put the pieces together.

Angry Republicans continue to complain that Bush could have spared them electoral losses if he had announced Rumsfeld’s resignation before the election. And Bush took some heat for his deception about his intent to keep Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

Explaining Bush’s decision to conceal Rumsfeld’s resignation, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino offered the spin that “one of the things that the President wanted to avoid was the appearance of trying to make this a political decision." Yes, certainly.

But none of that explains why the administration would fight so hard against releasing Rumsfeld’s resignation letter, both last November and in response to Freedom of Information requests. The Pentagon even claimed that it didn’t have a copy.

The touchy secret about Rumsfeld’s departure seems to have been that Bush didn’t want the American people to know that one of the chief Iraq War architects had turned against the idea of an open-ended military commitment – and that Bush had found himself with no choice but to oust Rumsfeld for his loss of faith in the neoconservative cause.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.

To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.

Back to Home Page