Rumsfeld Files Reveal Pre-9/11 Focus on Iraq

Rumsfeld Files Reveal Pre-9/11 Focus on Iraq
Feb 8, 2011

"At the right moment, we may want to give Saddam Hussein a way out for his family to live in comfort," Rumsfeld wrote on Sept. 21, 2001, in a one-sentence memo.

Sharon Weinberger

Thousands of documents made available by Donald Rumsfeld to coincide with the publication of his memoir today reveal an early focus on Iraq, even before 9/11, and his willingness to consider a variety of options that critics might consider hypocritical but that the former defense secretary regarded as thoroughly rational.

"At the right moment, we may want to give Saddam Hussein a way out for his family to live in comfort," Rumsfeld wrote on Sept. 21, 2001, in a one-sentence memo.

Rumsfeld's so-called "snowflake" memos -- he issued hundreds of them from 2001 to 2006 -- are now available as part of an online library of documents released Monday evening on his personal website, The Rumsfeld Papers, to coincide with the release of his 700-page memoir, "Known and Unknown."

The book provides insights into a man who was initially lionized in the months following 9/11 for his no-nonsense style, and then later criticized for his arrogance. But it may be the documents, rather than the book itself, that provide the best portrait of America's longest-serving secretary of defense.

In the months leading up to the book's release, Rumsfeld via his Twitter feed touted his upcoming digital library, which includes many once-classified documents, as a counterpoint to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that has released tens of thousands of military documents and diplomatic cables, many of which were classified. Rumsfeld's documents, by contrast, were all reviewed and declassified.

Among the most interesting documents are those pertaining to Iraq, which reveal that Rumsfeld, while considering regime change before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, also considered diplomatic rapprochement with the Iraqi regime.

"Opening a dialog with Saddam would be an astonishing departure for the USG, although I did it for President Reagan [in] the mid-1980s," Rumsfeld wrote in a memo to Condoleezza Rice dated July 27, 2001, just weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The same memo also suggested regime change might be a good option. "If Saddam's regime were ousted, we would have a much-improved position in the region and elsewhere," he wrote.

One lengthy diplomatic cable details Rumsfeld's 1983 encounter with Saddam Hussein, a meeting that was highly publicized after 9/11 when pictures of Rumsfeld shaking hands with the late Iraqi president were circulated on the Internet. Rumsfeld, then a pharmaceutical executive, had been sent to Baghdad at the behest of President Ronald Regan.

The diplomatic cable indicates that Rumsfeld discussed at that meeting what he thought were some of the two countries' mutual interests in the region, such as containing Iran and facilitating oil exports. Not discussed were any concerns that Iraq might be developing weapons of mass destruction or supporting terrorism.

For critics, the memo on the 1983 meeting with Hussein will likely only add fuel to their claims that the former defense secretary was hypocritical in his willingness to do business with a dictator that he later claimed was so dangerous that he required immediate removal. But Rumsfeld's book, which opens with that meeting, views it through the lens of U.S. interest in the region.

While Rumsfeld's documents and memoir are clearly meant to answer the critics, they also highlight the flaws of assuming that knowns and unknowns can actually be distinguished. For example, the July 2001 memo that recommended options for dealing with Iraq also predicted -- quite wrongly -- that Iran will "almost certainly have a nuclear weapon sometime within the next five years."

While unapologetic in most cases, Rumsfeld can also make fun of himself, including his use of the now famous "snowflake" memos. "I wanted to find out something. I needed help. I needed advice," Rumsfeld told AP of the snowflakes in an interview before his book's release. "Some of them were just, 'I need a haircut.'"

While Rumsfeld for many will always be remembered as part of the small group of neo-cons who drove the United States into Iraq based on faulty intelligence, it's clear people are still interested in what he has to say. As of this morning, the book was listed at No. 13 on Amazon's sale rankings.