Rumsfeld “snowflake” memos reveal struggle to control Iraq publicity

WASHINGTON – Did former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld order the military into greater danger just to spin journalists into writing more positive coverage of the Iraq War?

Judge for yourself. Rumsfeld’s office this week released 522 “snowflakes,” or short memos from his time in the Pentagon, revealing his concerns and scheming on everything from steering media coverage to understanding Iraq’s unrelenting violence to avoiding having to attend a chamber music recital with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Reporters have revealed and scrutinized Rumsfeld’s snowflakes before. Bob Woodward’s State of Denial detailed many of them as proof the administration harbored secret fears the war was spiraling out of control. Other reporters delved into more of them. His office released a large batch in February, timed to the release of his memoirs.  

In this latest batch is a Sept. 5, 2006 memo Rumsfeld wrote, saying that he heard from Stephen Hadley, national security advisor at the time, that journalists “dreaded” the road trip leading out of Baghdad’s airport.

“If it was corrected,” he wrote, that could “affect things positively.” Rumsfeld asked his chief of public affairs, Larry DiRita, to have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, to “take a look at that.”

At the height of the war, the airport road was one of the most dangerous places in the country, a virtual shooting gallery for U.S. convoys and anyone who made the run -- dignitaries, diplomats, generals and journalists.  

It’s not immediately clear how many of these newly released snowflakes are new, and how many are still being held back from the public.

Behind the scenes, this batch of snowflakes shows Rumsfeld frequently directing DiRita what to say and what not to say to the press, and even to correct New York Times articles in which he felt misquoted. 

  • Rumsfeld tells DiRita to have more press briefings with ground commanders because, he said, “they have a credibility on the progress and the challenges ahead that goes a long way with the American public.”
  • Rumsfeld jotted down some ideas for top general placements: “Cartwright – future Commandant of the Marine Corps,” he wrote, in Jan. 2005. Gen. James Cartwright never made commandant, but is about to retire as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  

Other snowflakes depict Rumsfeld desperately trying to catch up to a downward spiraling war.

  • In January 2005, he wrote to Myers and Central Command’s Army Gen. John Abizaid: “I think it is critically important that we, very promptly, have a plan for the rest of this year in Afghanistan. If we announce it and it is a good plan, it can have a positive effect in Iraq.”
  • In January 2005, Rumsfeld sent a two-line snowflake to Myers: “We need the force structure necessary to do Stability Ops. Thanks.”
  • In February, Rumsfeld asked former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz why DOD doesn’t just go ahead and buy some Slovenian armored personnel carriers that he read about, if the U.S. can’t make them fast enough.
  • In May 2005, Rumsfeld wrote: “I’ve got to talk to somebody about pulling down troop commitments so they don’t last forever, and understanding stability operations better.”
  • In July 2005: “We need a plan to mobilize moderate Muslims now -- in the U.S. and around the world.”

In one memo, Rumsfeld asked his former Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England to help Haley Barbour, one of the most powerful Republican lobbyists in Washington who became governor of Mississippi, to “accelerate” some DOD spending in order “to help get the economy of Mississippi going.”

Barbour asked DOD to speed up shipbuilding in his state and suggested Naval Air Station at Pascagoula would be a “terrific” Coast Guard base. “Why don’t you go look into these?” Rumsfeld tells his deputy.

Some were prescient:

  • “If we don't get a very good program supporting Pakistan and get other countries to help them, we're going to have trouble in the FATA for a long time,” Rumsfeld wrote Hadley, in February 2006.
  • In April 2006, Rumsfeld appears to reply to Rice’s idea that they attend a Kennedy Center event by suggesting they instead try a Washington Nationals game. Rice is a concert pianist. “If it is going to be the Kennedy Center,” Rumsfeld wrote, “we could always find some country music session, or something else that is short (except Chamber music).”
  • In May, Rumsfeld instructs Hadley to use U.S. combat deaths as leverage to press Iraqis to form a government. “The longer it takes them to get a government, and the longer it takes them to start providing leadership in that country, the more people are going to be killed. There has to be a limit.”
  • In June 2006, Rumsfeld begins looking ahead, saying a new way to describe the war is needed. Bush was considering "train and surge."
  • Rumsfeld tells Abizaid: “I have no visibility into the intelligence capabilities of either the Afghan government or the Iraqi government. I would appreciate an update.”
  • By October 2006, Rumsfeld tells Pace that the “Baghdad security plan … does not appear to be working” after President George W. Bush met with his Iraq War commander, Gen. George Casey, and asks Pace to have Casey brief him, too.
  • In October 2006, Rumsfeld, appearing to grow impatient for answers, asks Casey to take a “careful look” at why the U.S. continued to maintain high numbers of troops that are cutting into dwell time, even though hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had stood up a new security force and new bases, and U.S. bases had declined.
  • In November 2006, Rumsfeld writes, “If we undertake a new course, we should admit that what we have been doing is not working fast enough, it is not working well enough, and therefore, the conflict has been constantly evolving.”

There are more snowflakes. In 2005, Rumsfeld writes that he wants Gen. David Petraeus, when he’s done in Iraq, to go to Afghanistan and see whether they can transfer any lessons from Iraq.

At one point, Rumsfeld writes a snowflake saying he needs to call Sen. Carl Levin, D.-Mich, to get a Senate committee to stop “harassing” his policy chief, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, by investigating the alleged politicization of intelligence to justify invading Iraq.

Rumsfeld even wrote Adm. James Stavridis, then his senior military assistant, to look into whether the Pentagon should get President Bush his own coin.

Read all of the snowflakes, here.



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