Gates Angry, Bush Ambushed by Leak

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Lawrence Jackson / AP

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace, brief the media at the Pentagon in Washington, April 11, 2007.

The Pentagon's never been able to keep a secret, but top officials were really steamed this week when some unknown defense official tipped off the press to the impending announcement that Army troops would be spending more time in combat zones. In an ideal world, commanders want to be able to tell their combat units, in their own way, that they won't be going home as early as they hoped. Instead, Army grunts got the bad news via the Internet after it leaked prematurely to reporters Tuesday night.

Army Lieutenant General Ray Odierno grumbled Friday about the rushed official announcement in a video press conference he did from Iraq with Pentagon reporters. "I know the announcement the other day was probably one that surprised" troops in harm's way and their families, he said. "We would have loved to have let our families know first before it was out in the press, and we wish we had the opportunity to do that and also talk to our soldiers first."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it more bluntly on Wednesday. "Some very thoughtless person in this building made the unilateral decision [Tuesday] to deny the Army the opportunity to notify unit commanders who could then talk to their troops 48 hours before we made a public announcement," Gates said. He complained as he officially announced that active-duty Army troops in Afghanistan and Iraq will stay there for 15 months, instead of the planned 12, until further notice. "And I can't tell you how angry it makes many of us that one individual would create potentially so much hardship not only for our servicemen and -women, but their families, by letting them read about something like this in the newspapers."

There had been rumors that the Army was thinking of extending its active-duty units in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the Army had recommended the move to Gates recently as a way of ensuring that units would get at least a year at home between deployments to war zones (traditionally, they have gotten two years at home for each year overseas, but the Pentagon chopped that in half after the Iraq war began, and some units have been redeploying after less than a year at home).

Of course, soldiers and their families weren't the only ones surprised by the Pentagon announcement. Just hours before the news leaked out, President Bush complained about Democratic Congressional foot-dragging that has held up approval of a $120-billion-plus supplemental war bill. "The bottom line is this: Congress's failure to fund our troops will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines," Bush told an American Legion audience in suburban Virginia. The next day, his Pentagon did it all by itself, without any help from anyone of either party on Capitol Hill.