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Document Friday: On Morning of 9/11 Rumsfeld Warned of Ballistic Missiles, Not Terrorism

October 29, 2010

Rumsfeld inspects a ground based interceptor missile at Fort Greeley, Alaska.

On the morning of 11 September 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with Republican lawmakers to make his case as to why they had to fully support President Bush’s Missile Defense Program in the upcoming defense budget.  According to recently declassified talking points from the breakfast meeting, Rumsfeld argued that the Republican congressmen must act to “defend ourselves, our friends and allies against the real and growing threat of ballistic missiles.”  One of Rumsfeld’s arguments bemoaned that: “The United States spent approximately $11 billion last year on counter-terrorism efforts, nearly twice last year’s missile defense research costs.”

As the meeting was coming to a close, Rumsfeld recalled that “someone walked in and handed [me] a note that said that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.”  Terrorism, not a ballistic missile attack was the more pressing danger.

On 19 September 2003, Rumsfeld sent a snowflake entitled “Regarding 9/11/01 Meeting with [Congressional] Members.”  It’s unclear what exactly prompted the Secretary of Defense chose to re-review his meeting on missile defense more than two years after it occurred.  But in a 2007  interview with Larry King, Rumsfeld tried to re-frame the meeting by omitting that it was about missile defense.  Instead, Rumsfeld claimed to King that at the meeting he presciently predicted that soon “there would be an event that would occur in the world that would be sufficiently shocking that it would remind people again how important it is to have a strong healthy defense department.”  (We’ll see what the former SECDEF’s writes about the meeting in his forthcoming memoirs.)

The 2003 response to the snowflake listed eleven house members whom Rumsfeld met with.  Rep. Porter Goss –who later became the director of the CIA– was invited, but apparently did not show.  But Rep. Randy “Duke,” “Louis-Philippe Commode” Cunningham –who was later imprisoned for accepting bribes for appropriation contracts– was able to make the breakfast.  Rumsfeld received a profile of each Representative which stated which military bases were in their districts.

Rumsfeld carrying a stretcher shortly after the attack on the Pentagon. (CNN)

To bolster his case for why the Republican Representatives should support increased funding for an unproven missile defense program, Rumsfeld cited the threat of a ballistic missile attack from “Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, China, and Syria.” (Gee, I wonder why Rumsfeld listed the countries in that particular order.)  Of course, the only country on that list that currently possess ICBM capability is China.

Even as President Obama pushes ahead with a modified version of Bush’s Missile Defense Program, questions remain about the Program’s viability.  According to officials such as Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Army Lieutenant General Patrick J. O’Reilly,  director of the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency, a “salvo attack” of more than a handful of missiles could “rapidly overwelm[]” the missile defense system.  The fundamental problem remains that it is much easier to launch missiles than to intercept them.

But as 9-11 clearly showed, even if the United States possessed a missile defense system that could stop ballistic missiles 100 percent of the time, Americans would not be safe.  The frightening irony is clear: the United States and its allies were (and remain) more vulnerable to terrorism –possibly involving a WMD– than to a ballistic missile attack.

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