Snowflakes reappear in the Pentagon: Rumseld’s musings have life again

Snowflakes reappear in the Pentagon: Rumseld’s musings have life again

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at his Pentagon desk, writing a "snowflake." (Open Source photo by Christopher Lydon)

WASHINGTON — Very few things send Washington into a tizzy like a forecast of snow. But those palpitations are nothing compared to the tsunami shudder that coursed through the Pentagon at the thought of a ”snowflake” circulating up and down its more than 17.5 miles of hallways.

That would be a Donald Rumsfeld snowflake — the nom de plume for the often short, well-crafted memos the former Defense secretary would send to staff, colleagues and anyone else he thought needed his guidance or prodding — notes that would send fretting subordinates into an intellectual swoon as they grappled with an unanswerable question sent by the former collegiate wrestler.

Like the rare D.C. snowstorm, it is snowflake time again — thanks to the unsealing of dozens of the former Defense secretary’s missives.

Some are well-known and previously reported, such as declaring the Pentagon bureaucracy the biggest threat to the U.S., in a snowflake on Sept. 10, 2001 — the day before four airplanes crashed into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and the Pennsylvania countryside.

Other memos are being seen for the first time, adding to the robust context many who have chatted, communicated or parried with Rumsfeld carry in their memories.

The Sept. 10 memo is one page out of an estimated 59,000 pages the Pentagon has begun to provide in segments to George Washington University’s National Security Archive in response to its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The Archive is then making public the snowflakes.

Rumsfeld made public some of the snowflakes to publicize his 2011 memoir Known and Unknown; the title is a riff on one of his more famous responses to a reporter’s question.

They run the gamut and the gauntlet.

Donald Rumsfeld did two stints as secretary of Defense. (

In early 2001, he questioned the use of the word “homeland” as a strange word that “sounds more German than American. Also it smacks of isolationism.” This snowflake came before the 9-11 attack; the Office of Homeland Defense was created afterwards.

He ordered a change in condiments after a visiting dignitary was squirted by lemon, and also asked about oil — the kind in the ground — and world locations that may be useful for the U.S. in acquiring the resource — “anywhere we think it may exist and how it fits into our strategies,” he wrote. And it was in a snowflake that he uttered one of the more famous phrases of his tenure, referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “a long hard slog” in October 2003.

Later, he complained about bothersome red tape, asking a deputy secretary, “What do we do about the Pentagon bureaucracy?” — one of many, many snowflakes on the subject. That spring he also wondered why it took 40 hours of maintenance to keep F-16s flying and way only the Marine Corps outsource their mess (food) service, among many other things.

In June 2001, he scolded that he does not want people “to use initials (in memos) that I don’t understand. I don’t want them to use acronyms I don’t understand, and I want them to date everything! I have to ask questions about every third piece of paper I receive. There is no reason for that.”

It apparently did not work since he was back at it in November of that year: “Please tell people to stop using only their titles and start using their names in addition to the titles on correspondence. Here is a memo. I don’t know who these people are.”

On Aug. 16, 2001, Rumsfeld acknowledged: “The United States does not today have the ability to defend against ballistic missiles.”

On Sept. 24, 2001, he tried to set clear directions for people to think through issues properly.  “One of the problems between State and Defense, we have to make sure that none of your people at the levels below you folks end up clearing things and then getting it up to you and you not agreeing and then we have to go back and undo the clearance with State and NSC,” he wrote.

Rumsfeld served twice as Defense secretary: under President Gerald Ford from 1975 to 1977, and again from 2001 to 2006 under President George W. Bush. Those stints resulted in him being the youngest and the oldest person to hold the post. The snowflakes are from his second tenure.

Donald Rumsfeld, then White House chief of staff, left, and Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, right, meet with President Gerald Ford at the White House in April 1975. Rumsfeld was named secretary of Defense in November of that year. (David Hume Kennerly/Wikimedia Commons)

After leaving the Pentagon he said of the memos in advance of his book; “In the digital age it was much easier to keep the originals on file so I could track their progress. They quickly grew in number from mere flurries to a veritable blizzard.

“They were all conceived individually and I had never considered them as a set until I started work on the memoir.  I then found that when reviewed together, they give a remarkable sense of the variety of topics that are confronted by a secretary of defense,” he wrote.

No one or topic seemed off limits. For example, in October 2001 he detailed the correct pronunciations of “Islam” and “Muslim” and suggested it be shared with everyone, including President Bush. “It’s got to be with an ’S’ instead of a ‘Z’,” he wrote.

He included himself as a snowflake recipient on July 17, 2001, in outlining his goals: Move missile defenses forward to defend people and forces; move $10 to $20 billion of waste into weapons and improve the efficiency of how DOD operates; prepare the U.S for the asymmetrical threats of the future terrorism, homeland defense (using the word he decried), cruise and ballistic missile defense and cyber attack, and improve intelligence — presumable military intelligence.

Rumsfeld constantly bemoaned a calendar that was either not to his liking or jammed with must-dos that left him no time to do what he really wished. And his annoyance with those who could not keep his hectic pace often showed. “What do you think about having a rule that if people cannot get to a meeting on time, they shouldn’t come,” he wrote in an October 2001 snowflake. There are written comments on the memo of those who agree.

In December 2001, he told Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to “get a team together” to “make our next case on anything we do after Afghanistan.” In another December 2001 snowflake, he said: “We need to think through what presence we want in Central Asia when the war on terrorism is over.”

Those directives appear to be follow-ups to an Oct. 23, 2001, missive noting that, “I have been waiting and waiting For a report on what we plan To do for the rest of the world. I have pushed, I have sent memos, and I have begged and pleaded. There must be some kind of an interim report someone can give me. Thanks.”

There was none.

Perhaps that is why Rumsfeld was philosophically reflective in a November 2001 snowflake, opining — one of his preferred words — “We ought to think through what are the bad things that could happen, and what are the good things that could happen that we need to be ready for.”

Real snow is projected for Washington, D.C., this week as well.

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