Tuesday, June 26, 2001
(Interview with Tom Gjelten, National Public Radio, as broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition, hosted by Bob Edwards.)
Edwards: At age 68, Donald Rumsfeld is the oldest Defense secretary the United States has had. When he had the job the first time, under President Gerald Ford in the 1970s, he was, at 43, the youngest Defense secretary in the country's history. Rumsfeld is drawing on his experience to oversee what he says will be the transformation of the US military establishment; preparing it for the threats of the 21st century. This week, Rumsfeld heads to Capitol Hill to argue the Bush administration's case for the biggest increase in defense spending in 15 years. NPR's Tom Gjelten spoke with Rumsfeld about the challenges he faces.
Gjelten: President Bush's amended budget for next year includes $18.4 billion in new defense spending that was not anticipated in the first version of the budget drawn up four months ago. This would mean the biggest defense spending increase since Ronald Reagan was president. But then, George W. Bush ran for president on a promise of rebuilding the defense establishment, and Donald Rumsfeld acknowledges that some Pentagon insiders were hoping the White House would find still more money for the military.
Rumsfeld: I think basically what we're looking at is the tension that inevitably exists between various ways that taxpayers' money can be invested. And the president had several priorities. One was a tax cut, one was Social Security, another was education and very high on his list was defense spending, obviously. It received $ 18.4 billion.
Gjelten: Rumsfeld says he and his team, in his words, 'made our case' to the White House for an even bigger Pentagon budget. The argument: An aging air and naval fleet, shortages of spare parts and rundown facilities.
Rumsfeld: The infrastructure of the defense establishment has to be replenished every year. If you don't, then it gets in trouble. And the roof leaks and you end up with repairs, and then you start damaging other things that are inside the structure. If you have a grate on a runway that isn't repaired -- it may cost $120 to repair it, but if you don't repair it, you could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars if an airplane goes into the grate and it breaks.
Gjelten: Rumsfeld's challenge now is how to figure out how to fulfill President Bush's promises to rebuild the US military, improve pay, housing and health care for the troops and develop a national missile defense, all without spending more money than he has available. Since he last served as Defense secretary under Gerald Ford, Rumsfeld has acquired years of experience as a corporate manager, and his direction of the Pentagon reflects his business background. 'We're going to have to make tradeoffs,' he says.
Rumsfeld: The other thing we're going to have to do is manage this place just one heck of a lot better than we're doing it. We're going to have to go to the Congress and make a case that the system isn't working. I've never seen an organization where you couldn't save 5 percent or 10 percent if you were allowed to manage it properly. And, you know, 5 percent of this building is a lot of money. It's $15 billion. And we certainly ought to be able to do that if we can get the freedom to do it.
Gjelten: In his first five months since returning to the Pentagon, Rumsfeld has made many senior military officers nervous. Some have complained he doesn't consult them enough; others have groused that in his eagerness to plan for the future, he's not taking current threats seriously enough. But Rumsfeld says he plans to serve a full four years as Defense secretary, and he has begun to assemble a civilian and military team around him who will support his agenda. A key appointment will be the selection of a new military chief. The current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, is due to step down in October, and Rumsfeld is already thinking about his successor.
Rumsfeld: Clearly, it would be a helpful thing to have a chairman who is comfortable with the idea that simply hanging on to what one has may not be the wisest thing to do at a point in history where we have this opportunity to make some changes, because we're not pressed. And certainly, a partner in that process who understood it and agreed with that thought and was comfortable with it, enthusiastic about it, would be a help.
Gjelten: It's up to the president to select a new chairman, and Rumsfeld won't talk about his top candidates. Among the officers said to be under consideration are some well-known reformers who could endorse Rumsfeld's attempts to shake up the defense establishment. Other likely prospects include two Air Force generals who have directed the U.S. Space Command, a unit likely to get more attention in Rumsfeld's Pentagon.
Rumsfeld: Today, the United States is unquestionably the country that is the most vulnerable because of our extensive dependence on the use of space. So one has to think about how you can assure that you have the ability to function and communicate and have the eyes and ears that are necessary to be a global factor. And unless you have some ability to protect those assets, why, you're at risk.
Gjelten: Rumsfeld sees the challenge of space as characteristic of what the United States needs to be thinking about in the 21st century. But he's made this point before. A newspaper account of Rumsfeld's defense advice on the last day of his service under President Ford concluded with this observation. Quote, "Rumsfeld said outer space could become a new battleground, and recommended a number of programs to protect American communications and reconnaissance satellites." That was back in 1977. Reminded of the old quote, Rumsfeld chuckles. 'I have thought about these issues a long time,' he says. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, the Pentagon.