WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials scrambled yesterday to downplay the disclosure by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld that he was not briefed about a White House effort to coordinate the stabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan. But national security specialists said the incident indicates that Rumsfeld's influence is waning.
Speaking Tuesday morning to a group of foreign reporters in Colorado Springs, Rumsfeld said that he had not been told about the new organization before its creation. He downplayed its importance and expressed surprise that it was receiving attention and that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had discussed it with the media.
Defense specialists said Rumsfeld's remarks were striking not simply as an uncharacteristic glimpse into the tight-lipped administration, but for the fact that the secretary, whose public popularity has ebbed recently, was left out of the decision-making loop.
"It's the grist for a classic Washington analysis of who's up and who's down . . . and Rumsfeld has no one to blame but himself," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert with the liberal Brookings Institution. "How can he make that comment if he doesn't want us to spend the next week looking at his status in the Bush administration?"
In the Tuesday interview with the Financial Times and three other European news organizations, Rumsfeld said he had not been briefed before Rice issued a classified memorandum officially creating the Iraq Stabilization Group, a coordination effort within the National Security Council. But he characterized it as keeping with the council's mission.
The New York Times first reported the creation of the group Monday, quoting Rice. Rumsfeld expressed surprise that it received press attention and that Rice apparently gave background information to the newspaper.
"It's yet to be determined exactly how these elements will operate," Rumsfeld said. "They've been there, basically the way I think she backgrounded it, for a year and a half, pretty much the same I'd say. So I don't know what the purpose of the backgrounding was. . . . The only thing unusual about it is the attention."
Asked repeatedly why Rice would write a memorandum codifying a process already in place, Rumsfeld responded: "I said I don't know. Isn't that clear? You don't understand English? I was not there for the backgrounding."
Since the early days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Rumsfeld has emerged as an administration point man, with a quick, acerbic wit featured in press conferences during the Afghan and Iraq wars. But increasing public concerns about the occupation of Iraq -- which has been run by the Pentagon -- have tarnished him.
Some national security specialists and Washington veterans viewed the creation of the Iraq Stabilization Group as an effort to spread some authority to other agencies -- or at least to give that appearance.
"There's no reason to have this sort of public hiccup between the White House and Rumsfeld if your effort was really . . . to appear to be changing your policy," said Owen Cote, with MIT's Security Studies Program. "I see this as the White House really telling Rumsfeld, `Look, you've had this baby all to yourself up `til now and it's not going to happen any more.' "
White House press secretary Scott McClellan reiterated that the president still supports Rumsfeld. "The Pentagon continues to be -- has been and continues to be -- the lead agency overseeing our efforts in Iraq," McClellan said. "And Ambassador [L. Paul] Bremer, in his role as the civilian administrator for the Coalition Provisional Authority, is overseeing the reconstruction efforts."
Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, insisted that the new National Security Council role does not diminish the power of the Department of Defense. "It makes no changes in the unity of command, the structure under which this business is conducted in Iraq," he said.
Robert Schlesinger can be reached at email@example.com.