Jewish World Review August 9, 2002 / 1 Elul 5762

Clarence Page

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Jousting with Rumsfeld's fog of wit | OK, lets put the big question of the day to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld right up front: Are we, the United States, going to invade Iraq?

His eyebrows arch. He casts a classic Rumsfeld squint at me from his end of the aircraft-carrier-sized conference table in the Pentagon. Sitting around the table and waiting for his answer are members of the National Journalists Roundtable, a Washington forum that promotes increased access between top officials and black reporters.

Slowly, with a mix of annoyance and amusement in his voice, Rumsfeld mock-admonishes me like a wise professor to an imprudent student: "You know that you're in the Pentagon, not the White House, don't you, Clarence?"

He smiles. I laugh. Some of the reporters laugh, too. This is part of what I have come for, Rummy's zingers.

Unlike most other top officials in the secrecy-obsessed Bush administration, "Rummy," as his friends have called him for decades, seems to delight in the art of jousting with journalists. He often conducts news briefings himself. Like other top honchos, he cleverly sidesteps most of what we really want to know, but at least he entertains us with a fog of folksy charm and wit.

So, yes, I am tweaking him a bit. I know better than to expect a straight answer to the big question that everyone from here to Baghdad is wondering about. But, it is worth a try, just to hear what answer he's going to give this time.

No, he does not know exactly what the administration is going to do to bring about the "regime change" that congressional leaders and the White House want in Iraq, Rumsfeld says. Then he disparages the effectiveness of just about everything that we are trying, short of invasion, from diplomacy to no-fly zones.

One headline that comes out of our meeting is his dismissal of two peacemaking invitations: one to talks at the United Nations and another to members of Congress to tour suspected biological, chemical and nuclear weapons sites.

"I can't think of anything funnier than a handful of congressmen walking around (in Iraq)," Rumsfeld says. "They'd have to be there for the next 50 years trying to find something. It's a joke."

Although he tells us that "I have no idea what caused this recent frenzy about Iraq in the last four or five days," more than a little of it seems to have bubbled out of a frenzy of backstage activity here in the Pentagon.

Pentagon lawyers reportedly have advised the administration to find some connection, any connection, between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to justify further military action. Intelligence agents reportedly have been dispatched to find such evidence.

Possible war scenarios have leaked to major media. Rumsfeld is particularly upset over a July 5 New York Times story about classified planning options for an invasion of Iraq from three directions. He reveals to us that he has asked the FBI to track down the leakers.

Would Rumsfeld agree to lie detector tests for Pentagon officials?, I ask, wondering how far he is willing to go. That's up to the FBI, he says, but the leakers "ought to be in jail."

Rumsfeld then pauses, as if to correct himself. "I have been told that I shouldn't say that…," he admits, then adds with a wry smirk, "It ought to be addressed by the criminal justice system. Let me put it that way, rather than predict an outcome."

He smiles. I chuckle, but not comfortably. After all, as every reporter knows, one person's dastardly "leaker" is another person's heroic "whistleblower." If one or two of them are actually hauled off to jail for the crime of letting the public know what its government is up to, it probably won't be funny.

That's why I ask the defense chief whether the disclosures by the New York Times or any other media actually have put American lives at risk. He avoids giving me a direct answer, but Pentagon spokespeople earlier had said the answer is "No."

With that in mind, Rumsfeld's newly emerging concern over leakers reveals an old and troubling tendency by government officials to turn, when things are not going well, to waging a war on leaks.

Instead of trying to put a lid on information that lets the public in on the Iraq debate, I'd like to see the administration give us more information. Otherwise, they should not be surprised if we sometimes wonder what they are trying to hide.

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