How Much Did Rumsfeld Know?

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.”

Starting to get a little worked up, I paused a moment, and then looked Rumsfeld straight in the eye. “Sir, I cannot believe that you didn’t know I was being left in charge in Iraq.”

“No! No!” he replied. “I was never told that the plan was for V Corps to assume the entire mission. I have to issue orders and approve force deployments into the theater, and they moved all these troops around without any orders or notification from me.”

“Sir, I don’t … ”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone about this?” he asked, interrupting me in an angry tone.

“Mr. Secretary, all of the senior leadership in the Pentagon knew what was happening. Franks issued the orders and McKiernan was executing them.”

“Well, what about Abizaid? He was the deputy then.”

“Sir, General Abizaid knew and worked very hard with me to reverse direction once he assumed command of CENTCOM. General Bell also knew, and he offered to send me his operations officer. In early July, when General Keane visited us, I described to him the wholly inadequate manning level of the staff, and told him that we were set up for failure. He agreed and told me that he would immediately begin to identify general officers to help fill our gaps.”

“Yes, yes,” replied Rumsfeld. “General Keane is a good man. But this was a major failure and it has to be documented so that we never do it again.” He then explained that he would be tasking Adm. Ed Giambastiani, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to conduct an inquiry on this issue.

“Well, I think that’s appropriate,” I said. “That way you’ll all be able to understand what was happening on the ground.”

“By the way,” said Rumsfeld, “why wasn’t this in the lessons-learned packages that have been forwarded to my level.”

“Sir, I cannot answer that question,” I replied. “But this was well known by leadership at multiple levels.”

After the meeting ended, I remember walking out of the Pentagon shaking my head and wondering how in the world Rumsfeld could have expected me to believe him. Everybody knew that CENTCOM had issued orders to drawdown the forces. The Department of Defense had printed public affairs guidance for how the military should answer press queries about the redeployment. There were victory parades being planned. And in mid-May 2003, Rumsfeld himself had sent out some of his famous “snowflake” memorandums to Gen. Franks asking how the general was going to redeploy all the forces in Kuwait. The Secretary knew. Everybody knew.

So what was Rumsfeld doing? Nineteen months earlier, in September 2004, when it was clearly established in the Fay-Jones report that CJTF-7 was never adequately manned, he called me in from Europe and claimed ignorance, “I didn’t know about it,” he said. “How could this happen? Why didn’t you tell somebody about it?”

Now, he had done exactly the same thing, only this time he had prepared a written memorandum documenting his denials. So it was clearly a pattern on the Secretary’s part, and now I recognized it. Bring in the top-level leaders. Profess total ignorance. Ask why he had not been informed. Try to establish that others were screwing things up. Have witnesses in the room to verify his denials. Put it in writing. In essence, Rumsfeld was covering his rear. He was setting up his chain of denials should his actions ever be questioned. And worse yet, in my mind, he was attempting to level all the blame on his generals.

But why now? Why was he doing it in September 2006? I wasn’t completely sure. I knew it had been a hectic week. The media was hounding Rumsfeld, because a number of former generals had staged something of a revolt and were calling for his resignation. Perhaps he wanted to set up this link in his chain of denials before I left the service, or gauge how I was going to react to his position. Or Rumsfeld might have been anticipating a big political shift in Congress after the midterm November elections, which, in turn, might lead to Democratic-controlled hearings. I didn’t know exactly why it happened at this particular time. I just know that it did happen.

Upon returning to Germany, I had some very long discussions with my wife, especially about Rumsfeld’s offer of a possible high-paying job in the Department of Defense. “I’m not sure I want to pursue something like that,” I said. “But given my reaction to Rumsfeld’s memorandum, he now knows that I’m not going to play along. So I don’t think he’ll pursue it.”

“Ricardo, they are just trying to buy you off and keep you silent,” said Maria Elena. “I don’t think we should mess with them anymore.”

My wife had hit the nail right on the head. “I believe you’re right,” I replied. And sure enough, no one from the Department of Defense ever followed up. So at that point, I closed out all options of doing anything with DoD after retirement.

On my first day back in the office, I received a phone call from Adm. Giambastiani, who had obviously talked to Rumsfeld. “Ric, what happened in that meeting?” he asked. “The Secretary was really upset.”

“Well, sir, I essentially told him that his memorandum was wrong,” I said. “I guess he didn’t like that.”

“Well, no, I guess he didn’t. Anyway, he’s asked me to make this study happen, so we’ll get right on it.”

Giambastiani assigned the task to the Joint Warfighting Center and gave them a pretty tight timeline. So it wasn’t long before I was giving the investigative team a complete rundown of everything that had happened in Iraq between May and June 2003. I later learned that Gen. Tommy Franks, however, had refused to speak with them.

A few months later, I was making a presentation at the Joint Warfighting Center and ran across several of the people involved with the study. “Say, did you guys ever complete that investigation?” I asked.

“Oh, yes sir. We sure did,” came the reply. “And let me tell you, it was ugly.”

“Ugly?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. Our report validated everything you told us — that Franks issued the orders to discard the original twelve-to-eighteen-month occupation deployment, that the forces were drawing down, that we were walking away from the mission, and that everybody knew about it. And let me tell you, the Secretary did not like that one bit. After we went in to brief him, he just shut us down. ‘This is not going anywhere,’ he said. ‘Oh, and by the way, leave all the copies right here and don’t talk to anybody about it.'”

“You mean he embargoed all the copies of the report?” I asked.

“Yes, sir, he did.”

From that, my belief was that Rumsfeld’s intent appeared to be to minimize and control further exposure within the Pentagon and to specifically keep this information from the American public.

Continuing the conversation, I inquired about the “original twelve-to-eighteen-month occupation deployment,” because I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. It turned out that the investigative team was so thorough, they had actually gone back and looked at the original operational concept that had been prepared by CENTCOM (led by Gen. Franks) before the invasion of Iraq was launched. It was standard procedure to present such a plan, which included such things as: timing for predeployment, deployment, staging for major combat operations, and postdeployment. The concept was briefed up to the highest levels of the U.S. government, including the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, and the President of the United States.

And the investigators were now telling me that the plan called for a Phase IV (after combat action) operation that would last twelve to eighteen months.

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I had never seen any approved CENTCOM campaign plan, either conceptual or detailed, for the post�major combat operations phase. When I was on the ground in Iraq and saw what was going on, I assumed they had done zero Phase IV planning. Now, three years later, I was learning for the first time that my assumption was not completely accurate. In fact, CENTCOM had originally called for twelve to eighteen months of Phase IV activity with active troop deployments. But then CENTCOM had completely walked away by simply stating that the war was over and Phase IV was not their job.

That decision set up the United States for a failed first year in Iraq. There is no question about it. And I was supposed to believe that neither the Secretary of Defense nor anybody above him knew anything about it? Impossible! Rumsfeld knew about it. Everybody on the NSC knew about it, including Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, and Colin Powell. Vice President Cheney knew about it. And President Bush knew about it.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that they all embraced this decision to some degree. And if it had not been for the moral courage of Gen. John Abizaid to stand up to them all and reverse Franks’s troop drawdown order, there’s no telling how much more damage would have been done.

In the meantime, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars were unnecessarily spent, and worse yet, too many of our most precious military resource, our American soldiers, were unnecessarily wounded, maimed, and killed as a result. In my mind, this action by the Bush administration amounts to gross incompetence and dereliction of duty.

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