WASHINGTON – In a surprise appearance in the Pentagon's press briefing room on Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) told reporters that when he read over in the newspaper a private memo he had written, he thought to himself, "Not bad."
The defense secretary may have been pleased with himself Thursday, but a senior defense official told Fox News on Wednesday that Rumsfeld was "livid" when he discovered the two-page missive written to his top aides had made it onto the front page of the nation's largest circulated newspaper, USA Today.
Rumsfeld appeared calm later on Wednesday when he and a top Pentagon official described the memo as an internal discussion paper, not an insight into the defense secretary's opinion about U.S. success in the global war on terror.
On Thursday, Rumsfeld popped in on the briefing being conducted by acting Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita and Lt. Gen. Norman Schwartz from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to comment further on the memo. He said he was not upset by its appearance in the paper, and he doesn't feel the memo portrays concerns on his part about the progress so far.
He added that it's his job to think about the big picture.
"I don't think that anyone who has ever come in to a position like secretary of defense is asked to cage their brain and stop thinking. And that's what we're here for, to try to think in the best interests of the American people, and to ask the kind of questions that are important and are probing and it seems to me that's a very constructive, useful thing to do," Rumsfeld said.
The Oct. 16 memo, written to four top aides — Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, JCS Vice Chairman Gen. Peter Pace and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith — posed about 20 questions regarding whether the Defense Department is doing everything it can and taking the right approach to the war on terror.
"Is the U.S. winning or losing the global war on terrorism?" Rumsfeld asked his deputies in the first sentence of the memo.
"Is our current situation such that 'the harder we work, the behinder we get?' It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog," he later stated.
In the memo, Rumsfeld asked his aides whether the United States was "capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas (search) [Islamic schools] and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"
Rumsfeld also posed some of his own discussion topics, including, "It is not possible to change [the Department of Defense] fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror, an alternative might be to try to fashion a new institution, either within DoD or elsewhere — one that seamlessly focuses the capabilities of several departments and agencies on this key problem."
Rumsfeld wrote that in terms of cost and benefit, the "ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists' costs of millions."
The defense secretary then asked his lieutenants to come up with thoughts for discussion at a future meeting.
Senior officials described the memo as part of Rumsfeld's standard operating procedure, in which he dictates his thoughts throughout the week, puts them for paper, tosses them around and then sends out "snowflakes," memos meant to lay out a host of discussion questions.
DiRita told reporters Wednesday that the memo is an informal writing that merely reflects the secretary's management style, his concerns about the pace and manner of the Pentagon's reorganization and his worry that senior defense officials are not adapting strategy and tactics in the war on terror equal to the adaptations made by the enemy when pressure is exerted on it by the United States.
On Thursday, DiRita added: "The secretary is not trying to reveal some hidden truth. As I said yesterday, and I think the secretary has said, these are questions he's raised, others have raised, consistently over a fairly significant period of time."
One senior defense official said Wednesday that he was shocked to find out the memo hit the newsstands.
"It boggles my mind how a memo to four people ends up on the front page of a newspaper," the official said.
On Thursday, Rumsfeld said the memo was not supposed to be made public, but a staff member for one of the officials to whom the memo was addressed copied and distributed it for discussion, and one of those copies ended up in the hands of the reporter.
"I sent it to four people," Rumsfeld recounted. "One of the people was out of town and his office received it, thought, 'Gee, those are interesting questions; I'll staff it out,' circulated it to a number of people, so that by the time the boss got back, he'd have their thoughts. And one of the people that it was circulated to, obviously, thought I'd issued it as a press release, which, I might add, was not the case."
While much of the reaction to the memo was muted, Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry (search) took the administration to task for revealing what he said was the real sentiment from the head of the Pentagon.
"I think it confirms what I've been saying all along, which is that they don't have a plan, they're not doing this right and if the secretary is now admitting privately what many have been saying publicly, it raises very serious questions about his leadership and the president's leadership," the Massachusetts senator said.
While the memo suggested that the United States needs a long-term plan for routing terrorists, needs to do more in Afghanistan to prevent the return of terrorists and must look at more cost-effective measures for combating terror, Rumsfeld said that a lot of progress has been made in the global war on terror.
"We're finding these terrorists where they are. And we're routing them out. We're capturing them. We're killing them. It's difficult work. It won't be over anytime soon," he said.
Earlier in the day, Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the rhetoric in the memo.
"Our job is just to stay at it," Ashcroft said. "I would rather always overestimate an enemy instead of underestimate an enemy, and perhaps that's what the secretary has done."
Fox News' Bret Baier and Ian McCaleb contributed to this report.