Rumsfeld to remain as defense secretary; Thompson leaving HHS

Saturday, December 4th 2004, 10:26 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush expressed no alarm Saturday about a warning from his outgoing top health official that the U.S. food supply is vulnerable to terror attacks but would not deny the assessment and assert that the nation's food is safe.

Bush was questioned, after an Oval Office meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, about comments by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson about the vulnerability of the U.S. food supply. Thompson spoke Friday as he announced his coming departure from the Bush administration.

``We're a large country with all kinds of avenues where somebody can inflict harm,'' Bush said. ``We're doing everything we can to protect the American people. There's a lot of work to be done.''

Thompson had said he worries ``every single night'' about a possible terror attack on the food supply, and despite dramatic increases in inspections of food imports, only ``a very minute amount'' of food is tested at ports and airports.

``For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,'' Thompson said. ``We are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that.''

Thompson was the latest of eight members to quit Bush's 15-member Cabinet as the president moves into a second term.

Bush himself decided that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would not go, ignoring criticism about Rumsfeld's handling of Iraq and giving the secretary a strong vote of confidence to remain at the Pentagon. That decision, sealed Monday in an Oval Office meeting with Bush but not announced until Friday, settles one of the last major questions about who in the Cabinet goes and who stays.

Besides the eight members whose departure has been announced, Treasury Secretary John Snow has not received a public endorsement of continued service, even though White House officials have described him as a valuable member of the president's economic team.

Snow, who has been in the job less than two years, declined in an appearance Friday on CNBC to reveal whether he has submitted or offered to submit his resignation.

Rumsfeld's tenure has been marked by unanticipated postwar violence in Iraq and more than 1,250 U.S. deaths, as well as enormous increases in spending on the military after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Despite controversies, the hawkish, sometimes acid-tongued Rumsfeld has kept Bush's confidence.

Rumsfeld also has a long history of influential support from Vice President Dick Cheney from their days together in the Ford administration in the mid-1970s.

Rumsfeld has a full plate: continuing military operations in Iraq, focused now on securing the country ahead of January elections; the ongoing effort in Afghanistan and a plan to modernize the military.

Bush believes Rumsfeld is ``the right person at this moment in our history in fighting the war on terror to lead our armed forces,'' a senior administration official said in describing the president's decision.

The secretary's future had been the subject of much speculation, after revelations about abuses at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. Though Bush steadfastly backed his defense chief _ one of the more hawkish members of his administration _ Rumsfeld had many detractors in Congress and the military.

It had been widely believed at the Pentagon that Rumsfeld wanted to stay on, at least for a time, in order to oversee the continuing transition in Iraq and shepherd his plan for a fundamental transformation and modernization of the U.S. military.

Rumsfeld, 72, is the oldest person to serve as secretary of defense. He also was the youngest when he ran the Pentagon for President Ford.

Rumsfeld took intense criticism from members of Congress last spring when the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal became public. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would quit if he thought that would help, but not simply to satisfy the administration's political enemies.

Rumsfeld said he would take the blame for the scandal. After the completion and publication of several in-depth investigations, the pressure for him to resign abated during the summer.

In recent interviews, Rumsfeld had refused to talk about his future, except to say he remained committed to transforming the military to make it more capable of fighting wars of the 21st century.

Many have criticized him for failing to foresee the insurgency that has taken thousands of Iraqi lives and killed hundreds of American troops since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in April 2003.

Rumsfeld has acknowledged that the strength and resilience of the insurgency was underestimated.

It was not clear how long Rumsfeld's top deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and chief policy adviser, Douglas Feith, would remain. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said Friday that Feith told his staff he intended to stay for a while.