April 1, 2006  

Who is Steve Cambone?

A look at Rumsfeld’s right-hand man

On a Tuesday afternoon in January, Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, sat in his spacious but Spartan E-ring office in the Pentagon, contemplating very carefully his answer to my question: Is it true he drives a beat-up car?

Actually, I said “modest,” but he caught my drift.

“I did,” Cambone admitted, and began describing his “little foreign import,” a mid- to late-’80s Mazda Festiva. He drove it 130,000 miles until, as he lamented, “it literally died at the front gate of the Pentagon one morning in late 2003. It expired in the line of duty.”

Who would have thought Dr. Stephen Cambone, widely regarded as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s right-hand man, could have a sense of humor? Apparently, not many. “Unpleasant,” “deeply unpleasant,” “doesn’t joke much” and “Rumsfeld without the personality” are just some of the ways other reporters and analysts (who asked to remain nameless) describe the undersecretary.

One academic went further, calling him “incompetent.” Peter Ogden of the Center for American Progress wrote that Cambone’s “only qualifications for the post are a fierce loyalty to Donald Rumsfeld and an unshakeable right-wing ideology.” According to Ogden, Cambone’s nomination to the position of undersecretary of defense for intelligence was “the culmination of Rumsfeld’s efforts to politicize intelligence gathering and analysis. … Cambone is despised by many within the Pentagon for his attempts to steamroll all opposition to Rumsfeld’s military transformation projects and is widely perceived as a pompous ideologue who cannot be trusted to bring the requisite objectivity to intelligence matters.”

Can the No. 3 man in the Pentagon be that bad? Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, thinks not: “[Cambone] gets a bum rap in some sense. It makes me feel a little bad that he is seen as sort of the prince of darkness or Rumsfeld’s dark side, depending on who you talk to.”

In fact, says O’Hanlon, “He is actually a very gentlemanly and fair-minded scholar. I’ve always found him to be one of the more polite people I knew and actually one of the less assuming, less presumptuous people, even before he was in government, and so he is a pretty dignified guy in my judgment.”


So what do we actually know about Stephen Cambone? We know he grew up in Highland, N.Y. (population 2,500) in the mid-Hudson Valley, three miles across the river from Poughkeepsie. He graduated from Catholic University in 1973 with a degree in political science. By 1982, Cambone had earned a master’s and a doctorate in political science from the Claremont Graduate School. “When I received it,” Cambone said, “there were very few teaching jobs. And a friend of mine was working at Los Alamos [National Laboratory]. He asked me if I wanted to look at a job up there, and I said sure.”

After four years on the staff of the office of the director at Los Alamos and a stint at SRS Technologies, Cambone entered the first Bush administration in 1990 as director for strategic defense policy at the Pentagon. He spent the Clinton years as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he could have easily remained were it not for the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States.

In 1998, a Republican-controlled Congress asked a panel of five Republicans and four Democrats to address the growing threat of nuclear proliferation from rogue states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The panel was chaired by Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense under President Ford.

Cambone was introduced to Rumsfeld through a mutual friend, Bill Schneider — one of the five Republicans (along with Paul Wolfowitz, William Graham and James Woolsey) who served on what became known as the Rumsfeld Commission.

“They were looking for a staff director,” recalled Cambone. “I had followed the missile defense business for a long time” — missile defense having been his portfolio under the elder Bush and, specifically, under Stephen Hadley, now national security adviser. Rumsfeld asked Cambone to draft a program of study for the commission, and when the two went over the proposal, “the first thing [Rumsfeld] asked me was if I realized the paragraph I’d written somewhere on the third or fourth page was, I think, 73 or 78 words long.”

The remark impressed Cambone: “That right there told me that anybody who is going to take that much care and attention is going to be an interesting guy to work for. … He obviously was an interesting fellow, and it’s been a lot of fun ever since.”

Not exactly the reaction some of us might have, but it worked.

“Cambone passed the Rumsfeld test,” writes Rowan Scarborough in “Rumsfeld’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Anti-Terrorist Commander.” “He was smart and willing to work long hours on tough problems.”

As chief of staff for the commission, Cambone helped draft the 300-page report that stated, “The threat to the U.S. posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community. … The U.S. might well have little or no warning before operational deployment.”

The Rumsfeld Commission’s key to success, however, lay in its unanimously endorsed findings — including all four Democrats. As Newt Gingrich told Scarborough, “By getting it unanimous, it changed the landscape. It’s an example of [Rumsfeld’s] ability to strategically understand what’s necessary and then discipline himself to get it. What he wanted to do was get to the hardest unanimous report he could get to, and that was an art form. I think it’s a really great work of leadership.” And thanks in no small part to the commission’s chief of staff.


With the election of President George W. Bush in 2000 and Rumsfeld’s return to the Pentagon, Cambone was tapped as a special assistant to the secretary and deputy secretary of defense. In July 2001, he was confirmed as principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, a position that would require some deftness in implementing the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs.

To assist in the military’s technological leap forward, certain cutbacks would have to be made. It didn’t take long, as Scarborough points out, before “Cambone was demanding force structure cuts, with briefing charts that showed how the Army could cut two divisions, about 40,000 soldiers. The Navy could afford two less carrier battle groups. Maybe the Air Force didn’t need the new F-22 stealth fighter.”

O’Hanlon considers some of the Rumsfeld team’s early decisions “frankly … not all that well thought through. I actually worry that [Cambone] and some others got caught up a little bit in the Rumsfeld revolution thinking and discarded some of their better judgments because these tend to be fairly cautious and smart people in some ways, but obviously they saw a value to being bold, and I just think they did it on some of the wrong issues and some of the wrong ideas.”

There would also be resistance from within, including the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, and Lt. Gen. Kevin Byrnes. “Byrnes and Cambone had a number of heated exchanges,” notes Scarborough. “Byrnes argued that the Army had gotten busier since 1997. He came to meetings prepared with charts and studies. Word got back to the secretary that Byrnes was uncooperative. Rumsfeld rarely forgets what he considers a slight.”

Indeed, when Byrnes later spoke to Rumsfeld in private, the secretary allegedly was harsh and resisted promoting him. Byrnes eventually became head of Army Training and Doctrine Command but was abruptly relieved of his duty last August.

Cambone helped end billion-dollar programs such as the Comanche helicopter and the Crusader artillery vehicle. “As time goes on,” he explained, “those things that might have made sense 10 or 12 or 15 years ago when they were first envisioned may not make as much sense when you look out 10 or 15 or 20 years. … I think if you ask the chief of staff of the Army, he finds that the dollars freed up by the Comanche decision have gone a long way toward fixing other more pressing problems he has, where ‘pressing’ is now defined as the changed environment in which he’s operating. It’s not a battlefield that’s full of surface-to-air missile batteries and radars where he has to have a stealthy helicopter to operate.”

The cause of this changed environment was, of course, Sept. 11, 2001. Cambone remembers that day well: “I was in the building. I was principal deputy undersecretary for policy” with a fourth-floor office nearer to the Potomac River. “When the first plane went into the Trade Center building, I thought it was an accident. I had asked to have everyone downstairs in the Executive Support Center. We had just finished the staff meeting and I turned around to go back to my office and several minutes later the second tower was hit, and it was clear it was no longer an accident. So we immediately went downstairs and were convening around the 9:30 timeframe … and the plane went into the building here. So I was in the ESC, and the whole building sort of shook.”

Cambone spent the rest of that day with Rumsfeld (after the secretary had returned from helping the injured) and even dropped him off at home later that night.

Looking back, Cambone said he believes “9/11 was about anticipation. It was a failure as much of imagination as of analysis. There had been enough examples of … terrorists hijacking airplanes, trying to hijack airplanes, attacking large buildings and so forth. There probably might have been more attention to it than there was. … The real issue was insufficient imagination to envision someone doing something like that. But taking terrorism seriously and then undertaking the necessary measures to prevent that terrorist or organization from carrying through on those plans as best one can was also missing. So the failures, such as they were, extended over the preceding decade before, in the way in which the country — and not a particular administration — but the country approached terrorism. And, consequently, the terrorists had sufficient freedom to operate that they could put that plan together and execute it.”


On March 7, 2003, Cambone was confirmed again by the Senate, this time as the country’s first undersecretary of defense for intelligence. But he is quick to point out that his office is not itself an intelligence agency. “It doesn’t do collection. It doesn’t do analysis. It doesn’t do production. It doesn’t do dissemination,” he said. “It will evaluate how well those things are being done. It will help the secretary to adjust where he might recommend that DoD resources be put with respect to intelligence capabilities. It will help him to propose where the DNI [director of national intelligence] might choose to distribute the national intelligence program funds. It will help him think through with his combatant commanders what the best organizational structures are and how best to move the information. It’s here to support the secretary with respect to his responsibilities for the department’s intelligence capabilities and his role in support of the DNI on the one hand and to ensure that the war fighter gets what he needs when he needs it in the format that is useful to him so that he can act on it.”

Others, however, hope the undersecretary will do more. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, vented his frustrations to me recently: “We’re now 13 months after the signing of the intelligence reform bill and we don’t have the intelligence community that we have to have. I didn’t expect it to get done in 13 months, but the key questions that will determine [whether] that legislation was successful or not are still unanswered. … Do we have an integrated intelligence community being directed by the DNI? That question has not been answered yet. The integration of the military components in the intelligence community has been extremely difficult, extremely complicated, and it’s not complete.”

Hoekstra continued, “I’m not going to assess whether or not Steve [Cambone] is facilitating or impeding that process. There are people who would make the assertion that Steve is impeding that process, that he doesn’t want it to be successful. But he has continually assured me that he shares the same vision I have of an integrated intelligence community directed by the DNI with, of course, the caveat that says Department of Defense prerogatives … are protected. So we have a ways to go.”

So how would Hoekstra grade the undersecretary? “I give him an incomplete.”

Having said that, the congressman takes Cambone “at face value that he is doing everything he can to make that process successful.” Like the undersecretary, Hoekstra said he sees an intelligence community that needs to be “agile, flexible, quick, … one that hasn’t become overly bureaucratic.” But he said he believes “we have a tremendously long way to go on that. I continue to be very concerned that parts of the intelligence community have more bureaucracy and they’re focused on bureaucracy, they’re focused on process, and they are not focused on results. And I’ve got it in the civilian agencies and I see that in defense agencies that are under Steve’s direction. That is why I say again I think we share the same vision for what we want in an intelligence community, but we are not there. And too often our requests for information from various parts of the intelligence community under DoD command are just too bureaucratic and too slow. And they’re not focused on getting information. They’re focused on process and I am extremely frustrated by that, and so we’ve got some work to do to get that done.” (Not that the undersecretary isn’t putting in his hours — Cambone usually arrives at his office at 6:15 a.m. and stays until between 7 and 8 p.m.)

A year into his new job, Cambone found himself sitting before the Senate Armed Services Committee, testifying on the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., asked: “Were you encouraging a policy that had military police officers enabling interrogations, which created the situation … ?” Cambone cut him off with a definitive “no.” But there was no denying wrongdoings occurred, and the undersecretary spoke openly about it.

“The Iraqi detainees are human beings, they were in U.S. custody, we had an obligation to treat them right, and we didn’t do that,” he said. “That was wrong. … To those Iraqis mistreated by the U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was un-American and it was inconsistent with the values of our nation.”

“You’ve had time to reflect on this,” said Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the chairman. “In simple and plain words, how do you think this happened?”

“With the caveat, sir, that I don’t know the facts, it’s, for me, hard to explain,” replied the undersecretary. “I spent a good deal of time over the last 10 days to two weeks looking at the various elements of this issue. And I think what we did have here was a problem of leadership with respect to the 372nd Battalion, that was the MP unit.”

In other words, the scandal was local and did not (much to the disappointment and disbelief of some) go all the way to the top.


But Abu Ghraib was just a battle and not the war for Stephen Cambone. A seemingly larger conflict may be over the undersecretary’s penchant for forward thinking. As the war on terrorism is being fought on the ground at this very moment, some believe Cambone’s efforts and resources are being frittered away on high-tech gadgets not to be seen this decade.

“This war is being fought with assets, intelligence or otherwise, that for the most part were purchased 10 or 15 years ago — whether it’s tanks or airplanes,” Cambone said. “And if they weren’t purchased that long ago, they were certainly designed 20 years ago or more. Now given those kind of cycle times, unless you start to think about what you’ll need 20 years from now and begin putting in place those changes, we will, 20 years from now, be looking back at systems which are 40, 50 or 60 years since their design. In all cases that’s not bad. But for things like the technical means for having the situational awareness that you want to have, the revisit times that you would like to have, the ability to cue, when able, to track and to hand off military targets to military forces on the battlefield, you have got to start making those investments today.”

“Take space systems,” Cambone elaborated. “If your readers knew that a new airplane designed to do some of the things that a space radar might do, but is unable to do other things a space radar can do, would cost three-quarters to a billion dollars each, that begins to put in proportion what we’re talking about here in making trades among future systems. So the question you have to keep facing on space programs is whether or not we’re on the right side of the curve with respect to cost versus utility. And as microprocessors and all the rest of the materials and so forth that go into making up that capability change in their cost, the question is ‘can you get value for that and is space the right place to try to execute the mission?’ For some things it is, for some things it’s not. But if you don’t start making the investment now, you’re not going to see them 20 years from now.”

Cambone’s fixation on making the right investments isn’t limited to his job at the Pentagon. Take his Mazda Festiva. “As I told people, and it was true, replacing that car cost me four times what I paid for it,” he said. “And until that car proved to be incapable of being used,” he added, “I was perfectly happy to stick with it. But at a certain point, you’ve got to move on.”

Speaking of moving on, does the undersecretary know what he’ll do when this is all over? “Sleep. I have no idea. I haven’t looked that far ahead. It’s a long way off.”

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.