A Taste of Rummy's Way

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Thomas White at a media briefing with Donald Rumsfeld, May 8, 2002

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?

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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.

When the Army decided to fight to the death over the ironclad Crusader, Rumsfeld saw his chance. The Army played into his hands when its deputy congressional liaison, Kenneth A. Steadman, faxed talking points to the Crusader's friends on Capitol Hill, saying that elimination of the long-range artillery gun would endanger G.I.s. Not long after that, Rumsfeld's aides put out the word that the gun was dead and that White was finished. And then, in a truly inspired piece of bureaucratic jujitsu, Rumsfeld sent his Post-it note to White — and held a press conference in which he not only praised the Army boss but brought him before the cameras to confess the error of his ways. Asked if White was now falling in line, Rumsfeld flashed the grin that has made Pentagon briefings more entertaining than Saturday Night Live. He said, "Do you think I would have invited him up to the podium and offered him an opportunity to oppose the President of the United States? Not a chance! Not a chance! My goodness, gracious!" Now Rumsfeld has to fight those in Congress who want to resurrect the howitzer.

Of course, White hadn't just been saved. He had been humiliated. By Friday, folks close to White began hinting that the Army Secretary might leave in a few weeks. If he stays, he is effectively neutered — so Rumsfeld can live with either outcome. Rummy's message to the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps was clear: Don't mess with me. No one at the Pentagon with stars or birds or bars on his or her shoulders missed the semaphore. As a White aide put it, "Secretary White is in awe of Mr. Rumsfeld's political skills." Steadman resigned last week.

White had plenty of problems before the Crusader came along. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that internal Enron documents suggested that White's unit, Energy Services, played a role in the price-fixing scheme involving California electricity. (White denied wrongdoing.) But White's clock was ticking even before that. He has had trouble explaining why he delayed selling Enron stock that he had been ordered to drop. Last spring he made an ill-considered trip to sell real estate in Colorado — on a government plane. All of which just made it easier for Rumsfeld to make an example out of him.