Thursday, December 19, 2002

Larry and Rummy, kissy-kissy. Here's my favorite exchange from Larry King's on-his-knees interview last night with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:

KING: Morale is high?

RUMSFELD: Excellent, just excellent.

Of course, it's too easy to make fun of King. You can't deny that there's value in letting someone like Rumsfeld talk unimpeded for the better part of an hour. You might even learn more than you would if an interviewer with an agenda kept trying to steer the interview in his direction. Given Rumsfeld's refusal to answer any questions about the inner workings of the administration, it's easy to see how someone other than easy-going Larry would have turned the entire hour into a testy exchange over the Defense secretary's penchant for secrecy. Okay, but he's still not going to answer the question.

But even given King's low standards, I was nevertheless stunned that he failed to ask about the single biggest Rumsfeld story of the week. Veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has a piece in this week's New Yorker on Rumsfeld's controversial efforts to push the military into carrying out smaller, faster operations aimed at taking out terrorist cells -- operations that his critics call "assassinations."

Hersh is often criticized for becoming a prisoner of his sources, but this piece is better balanced than some of his previous efforts. I came away impressed with how dangerous it is to carry out operations like the recent missile attack in Yemen, where Al Qaeda leader Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi and five other men were killed. Hersh's sources make it clear that Rumsfeld risks (a) making mistakes and killing innocent noncombatants and (b) elevating assassination to the status of a legitimate tool of warcraft that can just as easily be used against the US.

Yet Hersh also takes note of the danger of not acting as well. He quotes a "Pentagon adviser" on Rumsfeld's frustrations in dealing with his cautious -- overly cautious? -- generals: "The idea of not wanting to go after the senior leadership of a paramilitary group that has declared war on you is such a perversion that it's mind-boggling. The problem of a peacetime military is that they cannot conceive of doing what they are paid to do. 'Going after the leadership of Al Qaeda -- that's a serious problem.' My God!"

It's an important and fascinating look at one of the most momentous debates going on inside our government, and Larry had an hour to interview one of the principals. Too bad he didn't ask him about it.

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