WASHINGTON – Former Pentagon chief Donald H. Rumsfeld reveals in his new book that he urged a U.S. military strike on a suspected chemical weapons site in northern Iraq in 2003, and that he wanted the attack timed to coincide with Colin Powell's address to the U.N. Security Council making the case for war.
In his memoir, "Known and Unknown," Rumsfeld wrote that the Joint Chiefs supported a strike, based on what Rumsfeld called extensive but not conclusive CIA evidence that the site housed an underground facility for testing chemical weapons. He called it a "fairly sizeable terrorist operation."
The prewar attack never happened, although the site was struck in the opening days of the war that President George W. Bush launched in March 2003, about six weeks after Powell's U.N. speech. The U.S. never found substantial evidence of an active Iraqi program to produce weapons of mass destruction, but Rumsfeld believed that the site near the Iranian border presented the best chance to prove they existed before the war began.
"For whatever reason, the administration never made public these facts about an active WMD production facility run by terrorists in Iraq," Rumsfeld wrote.
He said he made his recommendation to Bush at a Feb. 3, 2003, National Security Council meeting in which Powell sketched out the presentation he was to make at the U.N. two days later.
Rumsfeld quotes himself as telling the meeting, "We should hit Khurmal during the speech, given that Colin will talk about it." Khurmal is the name of a village near the site. Powell objected.
In his U.N. presentation, Powell described it as "Terrorist Poison and Explosive Factory, Khurmal." Rumsfeld said Khurmal was operated by Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni militant group with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian extremist who later led the Iraq branch of the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Rumsfeld wrote that he wanted to attack the site before Powell finished his presentation in New York, because otherwise the site would be abandoned.
Had Powell not stood in the way, in Rumsfeld's view, the Bush administration might have gained conclusive evidence that Iraq had an active WMD site. "As expected, shortly after Powell's speech was delivered, many of the terrorists fled Khurmal," he wrote.
An AP reporter who visited the site a few days after Powell's speech found a half-built cinderblock compound filled with heavily armed Kurdish men, video equipment and children — but no obvious sign of chemical weapons manufacturing. Much of the site was destroyed by American cruise missile strikes at the outset of the invasion.
Micah Zenko, a political scientist at the Council on Foreign Relations, extensively researched U.S. planning for a military strike on Khurmal in 2002 and detailed it in his book, "Between Threats and War." He said in an interview that he was unaware that Rumsfeld had advocated bombing the place while Powell was at the U.N.
By that time, the Khurmal camp had been largely empty for months, Zenko said.
The Rumsfeld memoir covers the full span of his 78 years, from growing up in a small town outside Chicago, his Navy days, his years in Congress, a string of staff jobs in the Nixon White House, his first tour as defense secretary under President Gerald R. Ford, a period as a business executive and his return to the Pentagon in January 2001. He is the only person to have served twice as defense secretary; he also was the youngest to have held the job and the oldest.
To promote and expand on the book, Rumsfeld established a website that contains a select group of his official papers. Some required declassification at his request.
Rumsfeld said he chose documents that are "of particular historical interest" or are related to the events that he describes in the book. Without knowing the full contents of the papers it is impossible to know whether he included only documents that support his version of events or omitted unflattering items.
Additional secret documents from his years at the Pentagon will be declassified and reviewed for public release, he said. On his website he wrote that deciding to release certain papers was difficult.
"These documents were not designed with an eye to history as part of an authoritative archive," he wrote. He said he chose to release them "warts and all," for readers to draw their own conclusions.
Some early reviews of what Rumsfeld called "my slice of history" have cast it as a score-settling exercise, a revenge memoir. That, he sniffed, comes from "people who haven't read it."
Much of the attention to the book has focused on controversies from the Iraq war, but he also writes about the period when the Afghan war began slipping into a stalemate.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rumsfeld said the State Department's performance was lacking, but he denied that the administration was distracted by the war in Iraq.
Taking a jab at allies, Rumsfeld said that Britain, Italy, Germany and other countries that agreed in the early years of the war to take the lead on certain nonmilitary tasks — such as training the Afghan police and creating a civil justice system — found their tasks more difficult than they had anticipated.
"And an awful lot of that didn't get done," he said.
Asked his view of the Obama administration's decision to begin withdrawing troops in 2011 and to complete the pullout by 2014, Rumsfeld said he saw grounds for worry but he was not precise about his reasons. He said the U.S. approach could set in motion forces "potentially adverse to the government of Afghanistan."
It was the Iraq war that led to Rumsfeld's demise at the Pentagon; he resigned in November 2006 as Democrats regained control of the Congress and the outlook for success in Iraq appeared increasingly grim. Robert Gates took over at the Pentagon and Bush sent a surge of combat forces to Baghdad, setting the stage for an eventual turnaround that now has U.S. forces poised to leave Iraq by year's end.
In the interview, Rumsfeld defended the Bush decision in 2008 to agree to have all forces out this year.
"The government of Iraq is eventually going to have work with the Iraqi people and fashion various accommodations so that they can go forward and govern the country," Rumsfeld said. "And being aimed in that direction starts them along that road, and that's basically a good thing."
Asked about his future plans, he was noncommittal, saying he might write another book. Asked what subject he had in mind, he said, "I do have a couple of ideas, but they've not gelled to the point that I want to discuss them."