How Much Did Rumsfeld Know?

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David Hume Kennerly / Getty

Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talks to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, head of Coaltion Forces in Iraq, May 13, 2004.

Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq in 2003-2004, has written a new memoir, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story, an account of his life and his service in Iraq. Sanchez was a three-star general — and the military's senior Hispanic officer — when he led U.S. forces in the first year of the war. He was relieved of his command by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2004 following the revelations of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. In 2005, Marine General Peter Pace, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called him to say his career was over and he wouldn't get the promotion to a full general — four stars — that Sanchez says he was promised. Six months later, at Rumsfeld's request, he showed up at the Pentagon for a meeting with the defense secretary shortly before retiring. In this exclusive excerpt, Sanchez details what happened next:

I walked into Rumsfeld's office at 1:25 p.m. on April 19, 2006. He had just returned from a meeting at the White House, and the only other person present in the room was his new Chief of Staff, John Rangel.

"Ric, it's been a long time," Rumsfeld said, greeting me in a friendly manner. "I'm really sorry that your promotion didn't work out. We just couldn't make it work politically. Sending a nomination to the Senate would not be good for you, the Army, or the department."

"I understand, sir," I replied.

Then we walked over to his small conference table. "Have a seat," he said. "Now, Ric, what are your timelines?"

"Well, sir, my transition leave will start in September with retirement the first week of November."

"That's a long time. Why so long?"

"I want to have my son graduate from high school in June. After that, I'll have forty-five days to hit my three years' time in grade, so I can retire as a three-star without a waiver."

"Oh, yes, I remember now. That's why we kept you in Germany in your current job."

"Right."

"Ric, I wanted to tell you that I'm interested in giving you some options for follow-on employment as a civilian in the Department of Defense." Rumsfeld then talked about a possibility with either the Africa Center for Strategic Studies and the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. There was a director they were thinking of moving to make room for me, he explained.

"Well, I'll consider that, sir, but I'm not making any commitments. I have some other opportunities I need to explore."

Secretary Rumsfeld then pulled out a two-page memo and handed it to me. "I wrote this after a promotion interview about two weeks ago," he explained. "The officer told me that one of the biggest mistakes we made after the war was to allow CENTCOM and CFLCC to leave the Iraq theater immediately after the fighting stopped — and that left you and V Corps with the entire mission."

"Yes, that's right," I said.

"Well, how could we have done that?" he said in an agitated, but adamant, tone. "I knew nothing about it. Now, I'd like you to read this memo and give me any corrections."

In the memo, Rumsfeld stated that one of the biggest strategic mistakes of the war was ordering the major redeployment of forces and allowing the departure of the CENTCOM and CFLCC staffs in May–June 2003.

"This left General Sanchez in charge of operations in Iraq with a staff that had been focused at the operational and tactical level, but was not trained to operate at the strategic/operational level." He went on to write that neither he nor anyone higher in the Administration knew these orders had been issued, and that he was dumbfounded when he learned that Gen. McKiernan was out of the country and in Kuwait, and that the forces would be drawn down to a level of about 30,000 by September. "I did not know that Sanchez was in charge," he wrote.

I stopped reading after I read that last statement, because I knew it was total BS. After a deep breath, I said, "Well, Mr. Secretary, the problem as you've stated it is generally accurate, but your memo does not accurately capture the magnitude of the problem. Furthermore, I just can't believe you didn't know that Franks's and McKiernan's staffs had pulled out and that the orders had been issued to redeploy the forces."

At that point, Rumsfeld became very excited, jumped out of his seat, and sat down in the chair next to me so that he could look at the memo with me. "Now just what is it in this memorandum that you don't agree with?" he said, almost shouting.

"Mr. Secretary, when V Corps ramped up for the war, our entire focus was at the tactical level. The staff had neither the experience nor training to operate at the strategic level, much less as a joint/combined headquarters. All of CFLCC's generals, whom we called the Dream Team, left the country in a mass exodus. The transfer of authority was totally inadequate, because CENTCOM's focus was only on departing the theater and handing off the mission. There was no focus on postconflict operations. None! In their minds, the war was over and they were leaving. Everybody was executing these orders, and the services knew all about it."

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