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Digital National Security Archive (DNSA): Donald Rumsfeld's Snowflakes, Part II: The Pentagon and U.S. Foreign Policy, 2004-2006

About this Collection

Donald Rumsfeld’s Snowflakes, Part II: The Pentagon and U.S. Foreign Policy, 2004-2006 augments the Digital National Security Archive’s already substantial snowflake collection with 3,994 documents and 24,473 new pages of material from the controversial defense secretary’s tenure in office. Beginning with the final year of Bush’s first term through Rumsfeld’s resignation after the mid-term elections of 2006, these documents chronicle the concerns, both large and small, that occupied Rumsfeld’s daily administration of the U.S. Defense Department.

Number of documents by year

Time Span                                  Number of Documents

2001-2003............................................   103

2004...................................................... 1,624

2005...................................................... 1,319

2006......................................................   948

More about the collection

This was how Donald Rumsfeld described the “snowflakes” on his Web site: “They quickly became a system of communication with the many employees of DoD, as I would initiate a topic with a short memo to the relevant person.” Having received a direct instruction from their boss, Department of Defense (DOD) staff “would in turn provide research, background, or a course of action as necessary.” The approach, he claimed, made it easier for the would-be Pentagon reformer to keep tabs on the innumerable tasks that needed doing. “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.”

In 2011, immediately after Rumsfeld published his memoir, Known and Unknown, which included a relatively small subset of these unique records, the National Security Archive filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the entire corpus of documents. But for six years not a single flake materialized, despite regularly prompting in meetings with officials from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Eventually it became clear that the legally required clearance review was being held up inappropriately, leaving the Archive no choice but to file a lawsuit against the Department of Defense. At the very first court hearing, where the Archive was represented by the law firm of Skadden Arps, the DOD attorney admitted agency delays had been excessive, adding: “all I can do is fall on our sword.” Judge Tanya S. Chutkan agreed that six years was “unconscionably long.”

Finally, the government began to release thousands of pages of records in tranches. The original estimate was 95,000 pages but as DOD officials combed through file cabinets at the Pentagon the actual figure turned out to be 60,669 with about 400 additional items produced as recently as 2020. The full collection represents a critical historical resource, a sort of ultimate Pentagon chronology charting a turbulent period that encompassed 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. An indication of their value can be found in the fact that the Archive’s collection featured prominently in the Washington Post’s massive exposé on the Afghanistan war, “The Afghanistan Papers” published on December 9, 2019. (See also “Research Value of the Set,” below.)

In addition to Rumsfeld’s musings about defense spending, government bureaucracy, political appointments, and office etiquette, the collection includes substantive responses to his inquiries from high-level civilian staff members and military commanders on significant national security topics, such as manpower needs in the prosecution of two wars, reconstruction and democratization in Iraq and Afghanistan, and modernization of the U.S. military. These responses are attached to the snowflake that generated them, allowing researchers a direct view of policymaking in the Defense Department.

Research Value of This Collection

Donald Rumsfeld’s snowflakes at times give virtually an hour-by-hour chronology of everything on his agenda as secretary of defense during one of the most momentous periods of U.S. national security decision-making since the Cold War. They cover topics such as the Global War on Terror, mounting public opposition to continued military interventions abroad, the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, and relations with the White House, State Department, and intelligence community under their second term leadership.

The documents also provide a unique portrait of the more mundane daily issues facing the defense secretary, from personnel and promotion choices, to the administration of military mess halls, to controversial advice from outsiders like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to recommended readings Rumsfeld had no time for. Taken together, the snowflakes and the responses to them from the uniformed military and the civilian bureaucracy represents an unprecedented documentary record of every major decision and a myriad of minor fleeting thoughts at the highest level of the U.S. military.

Among the important topics covered by these documents are:

  • the prosecution of the Iraq War and the Afghan conflict;
  • reconstruction and democratization in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • the trial of Saddam Hussein;
  • the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists;
  • the Global War on Terror;
  • controversies over torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay;
  • relations with Congress, the news media, and the public;
  • concern about rising opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • Defense Department relief efforts in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and other natural disasters;
  • defense contracting practices and the Boeing aerial tanker scandal;
  • day-to-day operations of the Pentagon;
  • modernization of the U.S. Armed Forces;
  • “jointness” or the move toward cross service cooperation in all aspects of the military;
  • the military budgeting process and efforts to rein in defense spending;
  • military planning, procurement, and expenditures;
  • nuclear issues – weapons, proliferation, safety;
  • decision making on military wages, benefits, tours of duty, and veterans’ issues;
  • military intelligence;
  • Defense Department relations with the CIA and Department of Homeland Security;
  • Rumsfeld’s relations with the State Department and National Security Council;
  • U.S. relations with NATO;
  • U.S. military relations with Russia, former Soviet republics, and other countries.