Rumsfeld Reflects on Mistakes of Iraq War

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaks during a news briefing June 14, 2005 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The pair spoke on numerous topics including the war in Iraq and the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Getty Images/Joe Raedle
Donald Rumsfeld speaks during a news briefing
Getty Images/Joe Raedle

The sun was long gone by the time I pulled into the driveway of an adobe ranch house just outside Taos, New Mexico. Framed in a well-lit window, there was a famous face - former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He was leaning over the kitchen sink, relaxed and at home.

I fumbled with my keys as I got out of the car, setting off two quick blasts of the horn. "What's going on out there?" he cried. "Are we being invaded?"

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Talk about biting back the first thing that comes to mind - this really was no time to bring up "Shock and Awe." So I called out a cheerful "Incoming! Incoming!" and went in to greet our host.

CBS News cameraman Mike Hernandez, soundman Andre Palai and I were there to set up cameras and lights for an interview national security correspondent David Martin would do with Rumsfeld early the next morning.

It would be a tough interview - both sides knew that. Martin had spent weeks preparing for it, reading Rumsfeld's new book, "Known and Unknown," along with memoirs of a dozen other major players in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - from President George W. Bush to one American commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.

Sanchez's promotion to commander of coalition forces June 2003 was one of the early signs management of the war in Iraq was going terribly wrong. It came just as the euphoria of taking Baghdad was slipping into a grim daily count of roadside bombs and insurgent attacks on American troops and convoys.

The generals who led the invasion all went home, only to be replaced by Sanchez - the most inexperienced lieutenant general in the entire United States Army. How that happened was one of the great mysteries of the war, in my book anyway. What if Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley had split after D Day?

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The Sanchez promotion turned out to be a mystery to the most powerful man in the Pentagon too. The former Secretary of Defense told Martin he was surprised when the "most junior" lieutenant general with "the least experience in Iraq" was brought in to take command.

"Aren't you the guy that signs off on all this?" Martin asked. "No. No. No," Rumsfeld replied. "There are things that happen three layers down. The Department of Defense involves millions of people."

Rumsfeld also said the Pentagon didn't give Sanchez the staff he needed. The commander in Iraq was trying to pull off his mission with 37 percent of the officers that were required. The headquarters "was not staffed, not properly staffed," Rumsfeld said. "I raised 16 kinds of dickens about it."

"I said to the chairman (of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and others 'Get it staffed,'" Rumsfeld said. "And the Army didn't get it staffed . . . and it was inexcusable. It shouldn't have happened."

Donald Rumsfeld
Susan Walsh

There were a lot of things that shouldn't have happened in Iraq, a great many of them in the spring and summer of 2003 when the U.S. snatched near defeat from the jaws of victory. Don't expect to find Rumsfeld claiming responsibility for much of what went wrong.

Having covered Rumsfeld for all his second term as Secretary of Defense (the first term was during the Ford Administration), I was prepared for his quickness and agility when we went to interview him in Taos. The skills he developed as a takedown artist on Princeton's wrestling team have not left him.

But while he was good at sidestepping some questions about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, he also came up with head-scratching inside information on how the war was launched and managed.

Rumsfeld's wife Joyce believes her husband is a blend of simplicity and complexity. "The simplicity," she said, is "his love for his family. He's so content if he's just home with his family."

Rumsfeld has retreated to his ranch near Taos for more than three decades. Here he watches the horizon as sunlight plays across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Here he gathers his children and grandchildren for those simple times. Here he is a little more - shall I say it? - mellow.

He doesn't apologize for -- even own up to -- any mistakes in Iraq or Afghanistan. But he is giving all the profits from his book to military families and wounded troops.

Watch David Martin's Interview with Rumsfeld on CBS' Sunday Morning on Feb. 13.

Mary Walsh is a CBS News Pentagon producer based in Washington.