Rumsfeld Begins Exit from Pentagon Post

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld holds a last "town hall" meeting for Pentagon employees. He spoke of the Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and his own place in history.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

There was some laughter, some applause and a little emotion today from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In a final speech, he said goodbye to his Pentagon staff. He'll hand over control to Robert Gates in a little more than a week. Rumsfeld spoke briefly about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the war in Iraq and his own place in history. At almost the same time, his lawyers were in court arguing that the Defense Secretary should not be held responsible for the abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll have that story in a few minutes.

First, here's NPR's Tom Bowman from the Pentagon.

TOM BOWMAN: Rumsfeld in his six years had a reputation as a tough boss who brushed aside military advice and treated subordinates with, quote, “the wire brush treatment.” So when Rumsfeld was introduced the by military's top officer, General Peter Pace, the first issue was his management style and he was interrupted by the secretary himself.

General PETER PACE (U.S. Army): You know, this man's work ethic is incredible. Is he demanding? You bet.

Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Secretary of Defense): No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUMSFELD: I've been on my best behavior.

General PACE: If you don't have - if you haven't done your homework when you walk into the secretary's office, you're not going to have a good day.

BOWMAN: It was a carefully scripted affair for the hundreds of employees who gathered in a basement auditorium. There was a standing ovation. The questions were not tough ones. He was thanked for his leadership. He was asked if he would write a book. Maybe, he said.

He said his best day may be a week from Monday when he leaves office and his worst day, he said, was when word came about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Mr. RUMSFELD: I remember being stunned by the news of the abuse at Abu Ghraib and then watching so many determined people spend so many months trying to figure out exactly how in the world something like that could have happened.

BOWMAN: What was left unsaid was a criticism Rumsfeld received from a high level report about Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld failed to send enough guards to the prison. He approved harsher interrogation techniques that he later rescinded. Asked about the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, Rumsfeld said he had not read the entire report and he said success in Iraq would take time.

Mr. RUMSFELD: There is an impatience in the United States and in the Congress. The other thing we have to think about though is the dire consequences were we to fail there.

BOWMAN: Rumsfeld came close to breaking down when he recalled that a woman in Alaska asked him to wear a green woven bracelet until her soldier husband returned.

Mr. RUMSFELD: And I told her I'd wear it until the 172nd Stryker Brigade came home. That was the group that we had to extend, I think, up to 120 days.

BOWMAN: Rumsfeld's legacy will be tied to Iraq, much like his predecessor Robert McNamara's tenure will be forever tied to Vietnam. Rumsfeld said the U.S. military is doing all it can. It's now up to the Iraqis.

Mr. RUMSFELD: But they can't win this, quote, unquote, militarily. It has to be won by the Iraqi people. It has to be won through a reconciliation process and through a political process.

BOWMAN: Some senior generals and admirals say privately they respect Rumsfeld. He was tough, but fair. Others painted him as arrogant and stubborn. Just before the Iraq war began, he brushed aside a suggestion from then Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki that several hundred thousand troops were needed to occupy Iraq. Even the Iraq Study Group said relations between the civilian bosses and the military have, quote, “frayed.”

Rumsfeld was not one to admit mistakes. He only acknowledged that things did not often go as planned.

Mr. RUMSFELD: I wish I could say that everything we've done here has gone perfectly but that's not how life works, regrettably.

BOWMAN: Rumsfeld said the hope is that over time history will judge most of those decisions favorably.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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