WASHINGTON – Retired military officers on Monday bluntly accused Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of bungling the war in Iraq, saying U.S. troops were sent to fight without the best equipment and that critical facts were hidden from the public.
"I believe that Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the administration did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq," retired Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste said in remarks prepared for a forum conducted by Senate Democrats.
A second military leader, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, assessed Rumsfeld as "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically ...."
"Mr. Rumsfeld and his immediate team must be replaced or we will see two more years of extraordinarily bad decision-making," he added in a statement prepared for the policy forum, held six weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which the war is a central issue.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Armed Services Committee, dismissed the Democratic-sponsored event as "an election-year smoke screen aimed at obscuring the Democrats' dismal record on national security."
"Today's stunt may rile up the liberal base, but it won't kill a single terrorist or prevent a single attack," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. He called Rumsfeld an "excellent secretary of defense."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, speaking at the National Press Club Monday, said election-season politics may be what's standing in the way of finding a solution to the insurgency in Iraq.
"My instinct is once the election is over there will be a lot more hard thinking about what to do about Iraq and a lot more candid observations about it," said Specter, R-Pa.
The conflict, now in its fourth year, has claimed the lives of more than 2,600 American troops and cost more than $300 billion.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the committee chairman, told reporters last week that he hoped the hearing would shed light on the planning and conduct of the war. He said majority Republicans had failed to conduct hearings on the issue, adding, "if they won't ... we will."
Since he spoke, a government-produced National Intelligence Estimate became public that concluded the war has helped create a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Along with several members of the Senate Democratic leadership, one Republican, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, participated. "The American people have a right to know any time that we make a decision to send Americans to die for this country," said Jones, a conservative whose district includes Camp Lejeune Marine base.
It is unusual for retired military officers to criticize the Pentagon while military operations are under way, particularly at a public event likely to draw widespread media attention.
But Batiste, Eaton and retired Col. Paul X. Hammes were unsparing in remarks that suggested deep anger at the way the military had been treated. All three served in Iraq, and Batiste also was senior military assistant to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.
Batiste, who commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, also blamed Congress for failing to ask "the tough questions."
He said Rumsfeld at one point threatened to fire the next person who mentioned the need for a postwar plan in Iraq.
Batiste said if full consideration had been given to the requirements for war, it's likely the U.S. would have kept its focus on Afghanistan, "not fueled Islamic fundamentalism across the globe, and not created more enemies than there were insurgents."
Hammes said in his prepared remarks that not providing the best equipment was a "serious moral failure on the part of our leadership."
The United States "did not ask our soldiers to invade France in 1944 with the same armor they trained on in 1941. Why are we asking our soldiers and Marines to use the same armor we found was insufficient in 2003," he asked.
Hammes was responsible for establishing bases for the Iraqi armed forces. He served in Iraq in 2004 and is now Marine Senior Military Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University.
Eaton was responsible for training the Iraqi military and later for rebuilding the Iraqi police force.
He said planning for the postwar period was "amateurish at best, incompetent a better descriptor."
Public opinion polls show widespread dissatisfaction with the way the Bush administration has conducted the war in Iraq, but division about how quickly to withdraw U.S. troops. Democrats hope to tap into the anger in November, without being damaged by Republican charges they favor a policy of "cut and run."
By coincidence, the hearing came a day after public disclosure of the National Intelligence Estimate. The report was completed in April and represented a consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services inside government, according to an intelligence official.