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Transcript: Rumsfeld Toughs Out Firestorm of Criticism

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, May 14, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: If anyone thinks I am there to throw water on a fire they are wrong. I am there to do the things I said we are here to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) toughing out a firestorm of recent criticism. The situation in Iraq and now the Abu Ghraib prison (search) have people calling for his resignation, and not all of them are folks you would expect.

Retired Air Force General Merrill McPeak (search) is strongly critical of the job Rumsfeld is doing. Today's big question, General, is Rumsfeld losing the support of his biggest backers, that would be the military people?

GEN. MERRILL MCPEAK, US AIR FORCE (RET): Well, John, people are going to salute, smartly, and do what they're told, and they have done that with — with Rumsfeld and the rest of his crowd in the Pentagon. But, frankly, this has always been, since the beginning, the most arrogant group that anybody can remember over there.

GIBSON: Now, General, say what you mean by that, because I hear the Europeans saying they're arrogant. And, frankly, I think it's much more arrogant than the French to tell us we can't defend ourselves. What do you mean by that?

MCPEAK: I don't know what the French mean, John. I'm telling you what the general reception is of Rumsfeld and his senior team and the Pentagon. They're regarded as the most arrogant crowd that anybody can remember over there. Arrogance works fine if you are right, but the minute you start making mistakes and stumbling as they have recently, then their popularity is simply not there to support them.

GIBSON: Let's back up. We know, even before there was a 9/11, that Donald Rumsfeld had stomped into the Pentagon to change its old, and tired and barnacled ways, so we would expect that he made some people angry, especially people of rank. Is that what this is? It's just leftover Rumsfeld trying to transform the Pentagon and the miliary and people are still mad at him?

MCPEAK: No, John. Transformation is necessary, and most of the senior leadership in all the services agreed to that, which proves it's not enough to know what needs to be done. You have to know how to do it. This crowd simply doesn't have any idea. They've no notion. They're completely at sea when it comes to figuring out how to get to a laudible objective that we all agree to.

GIBSON: But, you know, look, I don't have a lot of military experience, but when I talk to people like you, what they tell me is there's always grousing in the military from the lowest ranked enlisted men to the highest ranked four star there is some grousing. Why is this different?

MCPEAK: Well, John, you're right. It wouldn't be the Army or wouldn't be the Air Force if there wasn't complaining at the foxhole level. But in general, you can, you know — even people who have military experience will have the judgment to be able to differentiate between a kind of background noise of griping and genuine concern about the policy direction and leadership. What we have here is genuinse concern because, quite frankly, this group has not shown that they're confident to do anything well.

GIBSON: You say that, but what are you talking about? All right. I'll list one.

MCPEAK: Let's talk about — let's talk about the — let's talk about prewar planning for the war we have going on in Iraq. Now, to the extent that any planning was done by the senior policy level leadership in the Pentagon, it was entirely based on wishful thinking. That must be obvious to you and everybody in the country. So why should the senior military leadership, who have been called upon once again to pull the chestnuts out of a failing policy, admire, respect and be loyal to that kind of a situation?

GIBSON: Well ...

MCPEAK: If you take the prisoner abuse scandal, clearly the tone has been set at the top. The train only goes where the engineer takes it, and Rumsfeld would be the first to tell you that he is the engineer. So if, in fact, he is responsible for what was going on in this prison, as he says he was, then he should resign, obviously. He's done more damage to the country than we will recover from in 50 years.

GIBSON: General, are you saying that Donald Rumsfeld is responsible for Jeremy Sivits (search)?

MCPEAK: I don't know Jeremy Sivits.

GIBSON: He's the one that is going before the court-martial next week.

MCPEAK: Is he the corporal that's been charged?

GIBSON: Yes.

MCPEAK: And you think we can wash our hands of it once we've taken care of the corporals?

GIBSON: No, no, but what I am saying is I find it hard to believe that somebody who is far up the ranks as you would think that the defense secretary could be held responsible for what a renegade corporal — bearing in mind that other people in the same unit refused the same orders, properly, and this one went ahead and did it. How could Donald Rumsfeld be held responsible for that?

MCPEAK: John, once again, it's a question of judgment. I went to bed every night for four years knowing that somewhere in the world someone in the Air Force was doing something that I wouldn't approve of, but it never rose that kind of mistake or error in judgment never rose to setting back the country's interests for 50 years or so in the Middle East. If Rumsfeld is truly responsible, as he claims he is, for destroying or for damaging our national interests, then, of course, he can't stay in the cabinet.

GIBSON: All right. General Merrill McPeak. We'll see how it works out. General, thanks a lot.

MCPEAK: OK, John.

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