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Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld Thought War On Terror Would Be Easily Won


Donald Rumsfeld served as secretary of defense for the first five years of the war on terror, from 2001 to 2006. During those years, he wrote tens of thousands of memos. They were known as snowflakes - short, to-the-point messages about everything from his dentist appointments to battlefield tactics. And now they're finally being released to the public. The National Security Archive at George Washington University just won a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the Department of Defense, and they released the first batch of memos last week.

Earlier today I talked to Nate Jones, the project director at the archive who led the fight to get the memos. And I first asked him what these snowflakes tell us about what it was like to work for Rumsfeld.

NATE JONES: I would say it would be tough. You would come into the office early one morning to find a snowflake saying, write me a report on something as difficult as why we're not winning these wars. He would also yell at generals for being late to meetings. They show that it probably was a difficult environment to work at the Pentagon, as you might expect.

MCEVERS: This first batch of memos is all of 2001. How did they change after September 11?

JONES: They show initially the secretary of defense coming into the Pentagon and trying to get his - to grasp what's going on. He actually on September 10 gives a big speech saying that up until this point, he wanted to do battle against entrenched Pentagon bureaucracy, comparing the Pentagon bureaucracy to Red China and the Soviet Union. Then 9/11 happens. On September 12, we have a snowflake that says, we have to figure out some kind of ceremony for all the people that died here. And then that battle on bureaucracy ended, and the war on terror began.

MCEVERS: Wow. The U.S. of course invaded Afghanistan shortly after. What do his memos tell us about the Pentagon's approach to the fight against the Taliban in those early days?

JONES: They show that they thought it was going to be a battle that was easily won. They were impressed by the great early successes. And already by December of 2001, Rumsfeld was writing snowflakes about looking at what to do next...


JONES: ...Making the case of where to go next. What do we want our footprint to ultimately be?

MCEVERS: December 3, he writes, I have a feeling we're going to have to make our case on anything we do after Afghanistan.

JONES: And at the same time, he was asking for statistics about where and how many Kurds live in Iraq.

MCEVERS: So he - you can see from the memos that he was already thinking about Iraq. And this is long before of course sort of official statements were being made about why the United States might want to invade Iraq.

JONES: And this has been reported and written about before, but it's very interesting to read the snowflakes - kind of a real-time tracking of Pentagon thinking.

MCEVERS: And it's also so interesting to think that he might have thought Afghanistan was going to be fast. I mean, of course U.S. soldiers are still in Afghanistan. You know, we've just seen a rash of attacks there.

JONES: Right. One of the ones that stung to read was a snowflake where he said, we need to think through what our presence in Central Asia will be when the war on terrorism is over.

MCEVERS: It's hard to think about now, yeah. You're going to have 59,000 memos, right? That's tens of thousands of memos...

JONES: Yeah.

MCEVERS: ...To read in the coming years. What are you hoping to learn?

JONES: There are countless things that you can learn. But just having the benefit of an actual chronology for a story is incredibly important. You can't help but look forward to see and wonder who is going to be mentioned, obviously looking forward to key players today like Secretary Mattis and General Flynn to see how they interacted with Secretary Rumsfeld.

MCEVERS: Right - one member of the current administration, one former member of the current administration. You also I think have to wonder, do we have to wait 15, 20 years to know the story that we all want to know right now?

JONES: Well, I will say that the Department of Defense is more willing to release information after the passage of time. The journalists get the first crack, and then historians have a lot more resources to take on the second crack.

MCEVERS: Well, we're grateful for it. Nate Jones is the director of the Freedom of Information Act Project at George Washington University's National Security Archive. Thanks so much.

JONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.