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Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with The Washington Post

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
December 31, 2003

(Interview with Mark Leibovich, The Washington Post.)

 

     Q:  I'm doing a piece on the Vice President and I'm talking to people who have known him over the years in any number of capacities and you're obviously someone who has and who's perspectives I would value a great deal.

 

     I know we're pressed for time, so why don't I get right down to business.

 

     One of the things I'm trying to help readers do is understand what it's like to really be in a room with Dick Cheney.  What it's like to communicate with him, what it's like to work with him, and try to maybe flesh out a picture for readers more beyond what has been a fairly entrenched persona of him certainly in the media over the years, whether correct or incorrect.

 

     So I guess just by way of my own, to sort of start off, how often do the two of you, meaning you and the Vice President, communicate these days?

 

     Wolfowitz:  You mean direct, as opposed to sitting in meetings together?

 

     Q:  Well, sitting in meetings, either one-on-one conversations, phone conversations, e-mails, what have you.

 

     Wolfowitz:  Certainly no e-mails.

 

     No, you've got to bear in mind that we're in an organizational structure and I have a boss who is very much in charge of this department and is a close friend of the Vice President.

 

     Q:  What would you possibly be talking about?

 

     Wolfowitz:  Right.  (Laughter.)  And by the way, I want to come back to this because both of them are people who are very, very conscious of the importance of good process and that also means that where I had a sort of informal relationship with the Vice President during the eight years before President Bush took office, it's a much more structured thing now, as it ought to be.

 

     So I see him often in principals meetings or NSC meetings where I sometimes go as the principal if the Secretary's not here, or more often will go as his so-called plus-one.  So I get to see him in those more formal settings.

 

     He will from time to time call me directly because some senior member of Congress has lobbied him on an issue that is within the sort of management responsibilities of DoD and therefore he's calling me as Deputy.  That always gets your attention. 

 

     Q:  Right.

 

     Wolfowitz:  It's not just the Secretary announces the Vice President -- (Laughter.)

 

     Q:  I gotcha.

 

     Wolfowitz:  The things that come to my mind in thinking about both when he was Secretary of Defense and also more recently, he has a very calming influence on any meeting that he's in, even if it's a difficult one.  Sometimes he's chairing the meetings.  I mean that's my word.  But the recollection from when I worked for him here or he's participating in a meeting if it's currently.  But calmness and clarity are the words that come to my mind.

 

     I remember years ago before I'd ever met him when he was this what, 32-year-old White House Chief of Staff --

 

     Q:  Thirty-four.

 

     Wolfowitz:  Bob Goldwin who was Scholar in Residence in the Ford White House and whom I'd known for many years, I was having lunch with him and he said there's this remarkable young guy who's the White House Chief of Staff and he just has this phenomenal ability to organize things and to budget time.  And he has that, and to me what is even more unusual, although he shares this I think with his former boss and my current boss, Mr. Rumsfeld, is that a lot of people who are efficient in that neatly organized way never go below the surface.  That's how they remain efficient.  And I actually have had the privilege of working for three people -- George Schultz is the third -- who have this ability to be very disciplined about the use of time, very clearly organized, but also they set aside a certain amount of time at appropriate junctures to dig deeply into a problem to really understand it and don't believe that you can delegate everything, and don't believe particularly you can delegate your strategic thinking.

 

     So it's a very rare ability to balance thought and action.

 

     Q:  If the Vice President wanted to delve deeply into say Issue A or Issue B, how would he go about doing that?

 

     Wolfowitz:  One thing he loves, which I don't know if I can claim credit for introducing him to it, I got the idea from George Schultz actually so it's not mine, but Schultz would from time to time say I'd like to set aside two hours on a Saturday to just brainstorm some issue. In fact the first such thing he did was not a normal Saturday it was, well, I won't go into the Schultz thing, it's a longer story. 

 

     But when Cheney came on-board at Defense we suggested the same device to him and he loved it.  He particularly found it helpful in thinking through what was the impending demise of the Soviet Union.  We would have these Saturday morning basically seminars with mostly outside academics -- outsiders.  I mean sometimes they were from the CIA or inside government, but experts on the Soviet Union just kind of in a general sort of discussion of the sort that many practical people would say it's, I don't know what -- it had a very academic quality to it.  But he would be sitting there just soaking it up and he would from time to time say let's round up the usual suspects and have another morning on the Soviet Union.

 

     I think he does similar sorts of things as Vice President with outsiders, although I haven't been privy to them.

 

     Q:  In a meeting such as this, how would Dick Cheney conduct himself?  This is obviously a very different kind of meeting than a principals meeting that you would all be attending together.

 

     Wolfowitz:  He's a terrifically good listener, which sometimes people think that just means you don't talk.  It means you listen and you remember and you lock in on important ideas and important facts.  The way you know a George Schultz or a Dick Cheney is a good listener is three months later they will pull out of their memory bank that was precisely, exactly the point that was made back then.  And he asks very good, probing questions.  That calmness.  He also has a way of challenging people and still getting the best out of them without sort of making them get defensive.

 

     He likes people who push back at him.  Let me go on background with this because it's about me and I don't want my name in this particular part of it.

 

     But he said to a mutual friend sometime after we all left the Pentagon that one of the things he liked most about me was the was I would keep coming back at him if I thought I was right about something and it was important.  I'm happy to take the compliment, but the more important thing is what it says about him, that he had the patience for that sort of thing.  More than patience.  That he, like the President and again actually like Rumsfeld, encouraged people to debate issues and kept an open mind even while -- You can't obviously revisit decisions where you're already well embarked on a certain course, but kept an open mind to listening to things.

 

     One example that partly fits that, I mean it fits something else too which is I think a truly humane side of the man.  When we were pulling out of Iraq after the first Gulf War, a reporter phoned in with information that -- actually Michael Gordon of the New York Times -- that our troops were being told to leave the refugees behind.  There were some 20,000 plus in this zone that we were controlling.  And that generally speaking our mid-level commanders were very unhappy with that instruction but that was their instruction.

 

     Gordon phoned me from Safwon, and I went to Cheney and Cheney immediately without any hesitation said we can't do that.  When I took his instructions over to the White House it became clear that this was from the perspective of some people at the NSC of a bit of a change, because the push-back I got was well I thought you people wanted to get out as quickly as possible.  Which I said well, as quickly as possible consistent with doing the right thing.

 

     But it's the kind of, even though it went a little bit against the flow and clearly against Schwarzkopf's inclination, it wasn't something that he needed five minutes of debate about to resolve.

 

     Q:  Can we go back on the record?

 

     Wolfowitz:  Yes.

 

     Voice:  That was all on background.

 

     Q:  Exactly.  I gotcha.

 

     You've been around Washington a long time, you've been around Cheney a long time.  How would you characterize Cheney's style as being unique to Washington or atypical of Washington?  Meaning his, what people at least objectively talk about is his silence, whether he's listening or being intimidating or what have you.  But it's very rare that someone who is as low key, at least externally, as the Vice President is, to get as far as he has and to have been as successful as he has.

 

     How, sort of within the realm of Washington, how would you characterize his style, his personality, what have you?  And how he's been able to succeed over the years?

 

     Wolfowitz:  I guess I've seen him in two roles.  As Secretary of Defense I think he just inspired total confidence that here was a guy who would be thinking things through carefully and strategically, who would be putting the national interests first and foremost and would be calm in the middle of a crisis.

 

     I remember actually a discussion with him about who they ought to look for as a Secretary of Defense.  I pointed out to him, you want somebody who you can rely on if there's another war.  I had no idea we'd be in two more, but --

 

     Q:  This is in this Administration.

 

     Wolfowitz:  Yeah.  But it's a job in which you need to have the utmost confidence in the individual's abilities.  He did that job superbly.

 

     I think in his present role you have to say that the reason he has the position he has is because this President decided that it was more important to have somebody who would be a wise counselor and manager of the process if he were elected than somebody that would get him critical electoral votes, of which the Vice President likes to joke that the President needed those three votes from Wyoming.  (Laughter.)

 

     Q:  Exactly.

 

     Wolfowitz:  And I may have said this already, he really believes in good process.  He believes, by which I guess I think two things.  One is clear, open debate of the issues before you make decisions so that the decisions can be as well informed as possible.  And secondly, clean, clear execution where the agencies and individuals who are responsible for acting have the authority to act which is why he does not get into the game of micromanaging our department or any other department.

 

     One of the first things that happened when he was Secretary of Defense was we had to do an evacuation, a so-called non-combatant evacuation from the embassy from Lebanon and there were all kinds of people on the staffs in this department who thought they could give Jack Galvin useful advice.  I remember Cheney pushed everybody away and said Galvin's got the responsibility.  He needs to be in charge of this.  He made it clear that he'd seen too many cases where, as Rumsfeld would put it, multiple hands on the steering wheel ended up with the car in the ditch.

 

     So I think somehow along the way the President intuited that this was a person who could help him, help make the government work best and put that criterion first and foremost as opposed to any of the political qualities usually sought in a Vice President.

 

     So if he's unusual, I think you have to credit President Bush with that fact.

 

     Q:  Is the calmingness, I wonder if you could basically talk more about the calmingness you described or mentioned in a meeting.  I imagine that his silence or his listening can be somewhat intimidating to people.

 

     Wolfowitz:  I think he makes people feel pretty comfortable.  Certainly those outside academics, for example, who could easily be intimidated by a Secretary of Defense.  If anything, what comes across actually is here's this incredibly powerful man and he's very humble and unassuming and projects a genuine modesty about himself.

    

     So yes, if he thinks you're misstating something he may drill in on you reasonably hard, but it's not easy to tell when he's angry.

 

     Q:  Really?

 

     Wolfowitz:  Yes.

 

     Q:  Do you have any clues or things you've arrived at over the years that --

 

     Wolfowitz:  I don't think he gets angry easily, to begin with.  I think the calmness is there.  If you worked for him before you could tell when the tone got a little sharp.  It was usually done in a way too that the whole room didn't sort of turn on the poor victim and laugh, which can happen with the sort of screaming types.

 

     Q:  Would you describe the Vice President, and this is a bit of --

 

     Wolfowitz:  He really does empower his subordinates.  Again, I'm blending -- Just so we're clear on this point.  I really know him from the time I worked for him here, so a lot of what I'm dredging from my memory is from that period.

 

     Q:  From the time you worked with him in the first Bush Administration, do you remember him having an interest or talking about weapons of mass destruction back then in the context of a terrorist threat?  Not the Soviet Union.

 

     Wolfowitz:  In the first Bush Administration?

 

     Q:  In the first Bush Administration.  I mean terror was on his radar well before 9/11.  I'm wondering if this is something you ever remember having any discussion with him about.

 

     Wolfowitz:  He's had an abiding concern about the destructiveness of weapons of mass destruction going back I think long before I met him.  It's very clear that when he was Secretary of Defense he put enormous attention into the whole issue of how you manage our nuclear weapons to prevent accidents and keep them secure and all of those things.

 

     And he spent a lot of time when he was still a member of Congress in these exercises on continuity of government, the purpose of which was in part to deter the use of nuclear weapons by making sure that we weren't vulnerable at that point.  That's been an abiding concern.

 

     My recollection of sort of in the summer of 2001 when we were working on the Quadrennial Defense Review before September 11th, that he and his staff were pushing very hard on making homeland defense a major new priority of the department, which in fact is what the Secretary had already decided to do before September 11th. That's where I remember his influence.

 

     Q:  Your department you're talking about.  DoD.

 

     Wolfowitz:  It was DoD.  The Quadrennial Defense Review that was actually pretty much finished by September 1st, had made homeland defense one of the priorities of the department which it had not been before, and that was mainly Rumsfeld's leadership.  But I know when the Vice President or his office interacted on the QDR that was a question they were constantly talking about.

 

     Q:  I guess one sort of, this is a little bit vague to wrap up on but I'll try it anyway.  How would you describe the Vice President on the continuum of whether he's optimistic, pessimistic, realistic?  Again, I'm dealing with some vague terms but I'm wondering if you have a vague sense of what his [inaudible] might be in that context.

 

     Wolfowitz:  Realistic certainly comes to mind strongly.  He is somebody who really does believe in confronting the facts and making sure that you follow the facts and don't try to simply follow your hopes or what you'd like to believe.

 

     There is also with that, and I don't think these two qualities are contradictory the way many people often like to put them.  There is a strong dose of idealism.  Like so much else about I guess people from the American West which is very much -- It's a common characterization of Cheney and I think it's accurate.  They don't wear that idealism on their sleeve but they feel it very deeply.

 

     I remember being struck very much years ago, I think it was '92, when we were talking about the policies that eventually led to NATO enlargements and various people on his staff were making the arguments that enlarging NATO would extend the stability that NATO's brought to Western Europe into Central and Eastern Europe and coming up with all kinds of security-oriented arguments for going in that direction.

 

     I remember the then Secretary of Defense said you should never underestimate the idealism of the American people.  And that they need to understand that this is about securing democracy and freedom as well as just security.

 

     I think, again he's a very balanced individual and I think he balances that idealism with a constant looking at the facts, but the idealism is very much there.

 

     Q:  Mr. Deputy Secretary, I really appreciate your time and I hope you have a happy new year.

 

     Wolfowitz:  Thanks.  When do you think this will come out?

 

     Q:  I'm guess about a week and a half realistically.  Idealistically.  (Laughter.)  We'll see.  I'm taking off to Iowa for about a week and a half for the other party, but I'm going to hopefully finish --

 

     Wolfowitz:  When are the caucuses?

 

     Q:  The 19th of January.  I assume you're all very, very nervous about any --

 

     Wolfowitz:  We are worried about the Buchanon --

 

     Q:  They kicked him out of the woodwork.

 

     Wolfowitz:  Okay.  Happy new year.  Have a good trip.