Two copies of USA Today appeared on Army Secretary Thomas White's desk last Tuesday morning--but they carried messages so different that White couldn't have known which one to believe. One newspaper that White and millions of other Americans received reported that aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were predicting White's resignation by the end of the week, if not sooner. But the other copy on White's desk had a Post-it note stuck to the front page with "BS" scrawled on it--by Rumsfeld himself.
Which paper would you believe?
The story of how White became a marked man is the latest dispatch from a secret war inside the Pentagon--a war over the shape and size of the American military in the 21st century. White finds himself fighting a two-front battle, because he is also the lone former Enron executive in the Bush Administration. Above all, the story is a reminder that to survive in Washington's bureaucratic wars, you have to be a master infighter. In this case, White went up against Rumsfeld, perhaps the best of them all.
Alfred Hitchcock's films employ what the director called the MacGuffin--the object around which the plot seems to revolve. In the Thomas White Affair, the MacGuffin is the Crusader, an $11 billion piece of artillery that the Army long championed--until Rumsfeld axed the program last week. The tanklike Crusader has been in trouble for years, though that didn't keep the Army from fighting for it right up to the end. Rumsfeld had been thinking of killing it for months, but when he learned that Army officers had gone behind his back to try to save the program on Capitol Hill, he decided to make an example out of White.
If Rumsfeld had good reason to kill the Crusader on the merits, he also had a compelling need to show that he was proceeding with his plan to "transform" the Pentagon from an old-fashioned, cold war fighting machine into something faster and leaner--whether the guys in uniform liked it or not. When Rumsfeld tried to overhaul the Pentagon all at once last summer, he ran into a concrete wall of generals, Congressmen and contractors. Then along came Sept. 11, and everyone got down to more important battles. The terrorists had proved Rumsfeld's point--a new kind of enemy had attacked the Defense Department. Two things were suddenly obvious: the generals had been preparing for the wrong type of war, and Rumsfeld would before too long make another run at changing the way the Pentagon plans for future wars.