Rumsfeld On Abandoning Geneva: ‘All Of A Sudden, It Was Just All Happening’

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Donald Rumsfeld has finally said he’s sorry. Sort of.

In an interview with biographer Bradley Graham, the former secretary of defense says he has regrets about the administration’s controversial detainee policy.

The twist is that Rumsfeld doesn’t regret the policy itself — specifically the abandoning of the Geneva Conventions for detainees picked up in Afghanistan. Rather, he regrets how the policy was formulated.“All of a sudden, it was just all happening, and the general counsel’s office in the Pentagon had the lead,” Rumsfeld told former Washington Post journalist Bradley Graham, as quoted in By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld. “It never registered in my mind in this particular instance–it did in almost every other case–that these issues ought to be in a policy development or management posture. Looking back at it now, I have a feeling that was a mistake. In retrospect, it would have been better to take all of those issues and put them in the hands of policy or management.”

Primarily at issue is the Bush Administration’s decision — in which Rumsfeld played a key role — to not grant prisoner-of-war designation to detainees from Afghanistan. In the Department of Defense, which had authority for Gitmo, the policy initially took the form of a since-declassified January 2002 memo, written by Rumsfeld, that said Al Qaida and Taliban detainees “are not entitled to prisoner of war status” under the Geneva Convention.

This memo, as Graham puts it, “effectively nullified half a century of U.S. military adherence to the [Geneva] conventions.”

But Rumsfeld, whose own memoir will hit the shelves in 2010, still sees the problem as one primarily having to do with process.

Here’s the relevant section from Graham’s book:

With the passage of time, Rumsfeld has come to recognize that he made a mistake, although he sees the error as one of process, not basic judgment. He faults himself for taking too legalistic an approach initially, saying it would have been better if senior Pentagon officials responsible for policy and management matters had been brought in earlier to play more of a role and provide a broader perspective. As he explained in an interview in late 2008, policies were developing so fast in the weeks after the September 11 attacks that he did not follow his own normal procedures. “All of a sudden, it was just all happening, and the general counsel’s office in the Pentagon had the lead,” he said. “It never registered in my mind in this particular instance–it did in almost every other case–that these issues ought to be in a policy development or management posture. Looking back at it now, I have a feeling that was a mistake. In retrospect, it would have been better to take all of those issues and put them in the hands of policy or management.”

Further, Rumsfeld conceded, more should have been done to engage Congress in drafting the new policies on detainees–something he said that White House officials had opposed. Although Congress did eventually get involved, he noted that this occurred “in duress” after the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 against the administration’s original approach.

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