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Pentagon deleted Rumsfeld comment

The Pentagon deleted from a public transcript a statement Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made to author Bob Woodward suggesting that the administration gave Saudi Arabia a two-month heads-up that President Bush had decided to invade Iraq.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Pentagon deleted from a public transcript a statement Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made to author Bob Woodward suggesting that the administration gave Saudi Arabia a two-month heads-up that President Bush had decided to invade Iraq.

At issue was a passage in Woodward's "Plan of Attack," an account published this week of Bush's decision making about the war, quoting Rumsfeld as telling Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, in January 2003 that he could "take that to the bank" that the invasion would happen.

The comment came in a key moment in the run-up to the war, when Rumsfeld and other officials were briefing Bandar on a military plan to attack and invade Iraq, and pointing to a top-secret map that showed how the war plan would unfold. The book reports that the meeting with Bandar was held on Jan. 11, 2003, in Vice President Cheney's West Wing office. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also attended.

Pentagon officials omitted the discussion of the meeting from a transcript of the Woodward interview that they posted on the Defense Department's Web site Monday. Rumsfeld told reporters at a briefing yesterday that he may have used the phrase "take that to the bank" but that no final decision had been made to go to war.

"To my knowledge, a decision had not been taken by the president to go to war at that meeting," Rumsfeld said. "There was certainly nothing I said that should have suggested that, and any suggestion to the contrary would not be accurate."

Eight questions and answers deleted
Woodward supplied his own transcript showing that Rumsfeld told him on Oct. 23, 2003: "I remember meeting with the vice president and I think Dick Myers and I met with a foreign dignitary at one point and looked him in the eye and said you can count on this. In other words, at some point we had had enough of a signal from the president that we were able to look a foreign dignitary in the eye and say you can take that to the bank this is going to happen."

The transcript made it clear that the foreign dignitary Woodward was discussing was Bandar, although Rumsfeld would not say that. "We're going to have to clean some of this up in the transcript," Rumsfeld said in the omitted passage. "We'll give you a — I mean you just said Bandar and I didn't agree with that so we're going to have to — I don't want to say who it is but you are going to have to go through that and find a way to clean up my language too."

All told, the Pentagon transcript omits a series of eight questions and answers, some of them just a few words each. Yesterday Rumsfeld described the deleted passages as "some banter."

Larry DiRita, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, said the deletion was an honest disagreement and defense officials were reviewing the passage to determine whether to restore it to the published version.

"I had discussions with the author about passages that would be excluded from the transcript by mutual agreement, and this passage was one of those sections," he said. "It was excluded specifically because the secretary was not in a position to validate or confirm the details that the author was raising."

Woodward said: "As the transcript shows, it was not off the record. I was surprised that it was deleted because it obviously dealt with a critical issue and was important corroborating information for the book. I asked DiRita to restore it on the Pentagon Web site."

Rumsfeld's comments came on a day when fallout from the book's many disclosures continued to dominate conversations throughout Washington. Rumsfeld, who gave Woodward two lengthy interviews after Bush asked his Cabinet to cooperate, was a rare dissenter in an administration that has embraced the book despite the mixed portrayal it offers of Bush's campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein.

Promoting the book
Stephanie Cutter, communications director for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, said the book "raises serious doubts about the president's planning for war with Iraq, and what his war cabinet knew or didn't know."

But Bush's closest aides, who typically resist efforts to pull back the Oval Office curtains, are actively promoting sales of the book.

"We're urging people to buy the book," White House communications director Dan Bartlett said. "What this book does is show a president who was asking the right questions and showing prudence as well as resolve during very difficult times. This book undermines a lot of the critics' charges."

An official involved in the negotiations said the administration cooperated so completely that Bush asked Cheney to grant Woodward an interview, which Cheney did, although he is not named as a source. Woodward writes in the book that information came from "more than 75 key people directly involved in the events," most of whom spoke on the condition that they not be identified.

The Pentagon posted transcripts of both Woodward interviews with Rumsfeld, and they show that Rumsfeld was more recalcitrant than other administration figures. He complained about Woodward's questions in a past meeting, saying that "almost everything you asked me was premised with an assertion that was either incomplete or wrong." Woodward is quoted as gently reminding Rumsfeld that the president "wants me to do this."

At Rumsfeld's briefing yesterday, he said that he remembered the session in Cheney's office with Bandar but that it was not unlike others "we had with any number of neighboring countries as the buildup towards the — to support the diplomacy, the flow of forces was taking place.

"We had the obligation to try to do it in the most cost-effective and responsible way, and the way that would best fit General [Tommy R.] Franks's plans, in the event that he did in fact ultimately have to go to war," Rumsfeld said, referring to the former head of the U.S. Central Command. "That meant we had to talk to the countries in the region and work out things at ports or airfields and that type of thing."

After being handed a note later in the briefing, Rumsfeld returned to the transcript and said that it might omit "some discussion about a totally unrelated topic, and some items that were agreed between us . . . that were off the record."

"But I can say of certain knowledge that nothing was taken out that would naysay what I just indicated in my response to the question," Rumsfeld said.

"No 18-minute gap?" a reporter asked, referring to the notorious deletion from a Watergate tape.

Amid laughter, Rumsfeld said: "You can take that to the bank."

Mark Malseed contributed to this report.