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Rumsfeld's Tenure Marked by Accomplishment, Controversy


President Bush announced Wednesday that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is leaving the administration. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin reports on the man and his career.

Wednesday started like any other day at the Pentagon. Officials say Secretary Rumsfeld was in early. They report he had a regularly scheduled video teleconference with his top commander in Baghdad and other senior generals.

He did not tell them of the dramatic announcement President Bush would make just a few hours later.

"Now after a series of thoughtful conversations, Secretary Rumsfeld and I agreed that the timing is right for new leadership at the Pentagon," said President Bush.

The president said Rumsfeld will serve until his replacement, former CIA director Robert Gates, is confirmed by the Senate.

The president implied that will not be until next year, saying Rusmfeld will become the longest-serving defense secretary in U.S. history. According to the Pentagon, that will happen on December 29, when he passes the record set by Robert McNamara, who served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s.

Rumsfeld has served nearly six years under President Bush, and he served as defense secretary in the 1970s under President Ford. He was then the youngest person ever to have the job. Now, at age 74, he is the oldest.

Rumsfeld's main initiative in his second tenure was defense transformation, an effort to reorganize the U.S. military to be more effective at fighting modern wars. But the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, overshadowed that effort. Rumsfeld was popular in the immediate aftermath of September 11, and through the successful overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

President Bush recalled those days on Wednesday.

"Few will forget the image of Don Rumsfeld as he helped rescue workers carry the victims from the rubble of the Pentagon on September the 11th, 2001," he said.

The president credited Rumsfeld with directing the creation of what he called 'one of the most innovative campaigns in the history of modern warfare' to oust the Taliban.

But after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Rumsfeld was sharply criticized by politicians, analysts and even former military officers. He was accused of not sending enough troops to secure Iraq early in the war, and of not anticipating or effectively fighting the insurgency when it emerged. He was blamed for the rising tide of U.S. and Iraqi casualties.

Rumsfeld said he relied on his generals for advice on military tactics, and that violence continues in Iraq because the insurgents adapt to whatever efforts the coalition makes.

On Wednesday, he said he felt this was a good time for what he called 'fresh' leadership at the Pentagon. He also implied that he wanted to avoid even more criticism in the remaining two years of the president's term. He said there will be a 'different environment' and 'a lot of partisanship' with the new congress at least partially controlled by the Democratic Party and the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.

At a White House ceremony, Rumsfeld spoke of a 'little understood' and 'unfamiliar' war. He was apparently referring to the broader war on terrorism.

"It is not well known," said Donald Rumsfeld. "It was not well understood. It is complex for people to comprehend."

Rumsfeld's supporters describe him as a hard-working patriot, and cite his long hours and commitment to fight terrorism and to supporting U.S. troops.

But many Democrats and some Republicans had long called for Rumsfeld's resignation or ouster. In addition to problems in Iraq, he was blamed for a variety of controversies during his tenure, including allegations of torture and other mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers, most notably the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad in 2004. Rumsfeld said he offered to resign at that time, but President Bush told him to stay on.

On Wednesday, Rumsfeld joked about the criticism with a paraphrase of Winston Churchill.

"I have benefited greatly from criticism, and at no time have I suffered a lack thereof," he said.

Rumsfeld also has a reputation as sometimes abrasive and impatient, often giving terse answers to questions from members of congress or reporters. He gave this answer at a news conference last month.

"I don't know. I don't know. No," he said.

Secretary Rumsfeld spoke frequently about his commitment to fighting terrorism and his respect for U.S. troops. He showed a bit of emotion speaking of the troops at Wednesday's White House ceremony.

"Their patriotism, their professionalism, their dedication is truly an inspiration," noted Donald Rumsfeld. "They have my respect. They will remain in my prayers always. Thank you."

During his government career, Donald Rumsfeld also chaired two presidential commissions, and as a young man in the 1960s he was elected a member of congress four times. In between his two stints as defense secretary, he held top jobs at two large corporations, where he earned a reputation as a tough manger who got things done and made a profit.

Officials could not say what Rumsfeld might do after he leaves office.

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