On Tuesday, I was pleased to have an opportunity to interview former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about his new book Known and Unknown: A Memoir.
Donald Rumsfeld is an incredibly accomplished man. He has been in the Navy, he’s been a congressman, he’s been a CEO, and he’s served twice as Secretary of Defense. He was our youngest Secretary of Defense when he served in the Gerald Ford Administration and he became the oldest Secretary of Defense when he served in the Bush Administration. He also has a knack for churning out fantastic quotes.
Given that Donald Rumsfeld had such an extraordinary career and was so involved in our foreign policy decision-making during a crucial point in our nation’s history, right after 9/11, being able to ask him a few questions was a terrific opportunity.
What follows is the transcript of our conversation, edited slightly for the sake of grammar and readability. Enjoy!
To begin with, George Bush explicitly said in the run up to the war that he hoped that a democratic regime in Iraq would inspire the people of other nations in the region to move towards freedom. Today we’re seeing people rise up in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and other countries in the region. Do you think that’s a result of what we did in Iraq and how do you think we should be dealing with this rapidly changing environment in the Middle East?
Of course, it’s a difficult thing to know with certainty, but it’s not surprising to me that a number of people are suggesting what you’ve just suggested. Namely that…Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly Iraq (are) an example for other countries in the region. You know people look at it and think, “Well, Iraq’s imperfect,” and that’s true.
If you look at the United States of America and trace our history, it’s been a bumpy road. We had slaves into the 1800s. We had a vicious Civil War with so many people killed and women didn’t vote until the 1900s. So we didn’t arrive this way. We started out quite differently and we’ve evolved and that’s what’s taking place in the case of Iraq.
If you think of the people in that region, a large, young population with major unemployment, and they look around the world, what do they see? Increasingly in the information age and the 21st Century, they’re seeing through Twitter and Facebook how other people live, and it’s no accident that people all across the globe are lined up at the U.S. Embassy trying to come to the United States of America. The reason is because there are so many opportunities here and there aren’t opportunities in countries that have dictatorial systems and command economies. The people in those countries aren’t doing well and so they’re reaching out and trying to find something different.
The risk, of course, is that you’ll have it happen like in Lebanon, where you have the Cedar Revolution, and then you end up with Hezbollah, a terrorist organization running the country. Then in Iran, you end up with a popular revolution and you end up with a handful of Ayatollahs dominating the country in a repressive way – and that’s possible in Egypt. I mean you could end up with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is a terrorist organization, taking over because they are better organized. Even though they’re a very small minority, they’re better organized, disciplined, and ambitious.
One criticism we’ve frequently heard about the war in Afghanistan is that we’ve allowed Osama bin Laden to get away because we didn’t have enough troops on the ground. What are your thoughts on that? If we had more people there, would we have caught him?
Oh, I don’t think so – who knows, you know? The Department of Defense isn’t organized to do manhunts. If you look at the FBI Most Wanted list, some of those people are on there for ages because it’s hard.
Now, it would be nice to have captured or killed Osama bin Laden, but what’s really important is that thanks to the structures that President Bush’s Administration put in place, we’ve not had a successful attack on the United States of America in close to a decade and that’s an amazing accomplishment that no one would have begun to speculate that it could be done.
How is it done? Well, even though Osama bin Laden was not captured or killed, the way it was done is that the conscious decision was made that we can’t simply defend. A terrorist can attack at any time, at any place, using any technique. It’s physically impossible to defend at every moment of the day or night in every location against every conceivable technique of attack. So we had to put pressure on the terrorists wherever they were and make everything they do more difficult.
So the Bush Administration put together a 90 nation coalition that traded intelligence, that worked together and tracked bank accounts and made everything that terrorists tried to do considerably more difficult. It made it harder for them to communicate with each other, to move from place to place, to raise money, to recruit, to train. It made it more difficult for them to find countries that were hospitable to terrorist organizations because host countries knew that they would be targets as well.
So, there are people who speculate we might have caught him with more troops. We might not have — and certainly there was a major effort to catch him. Our Air Force and Navy forces bombed the Tora Bora area until the rubble was bouncing. We had Special Forces tracking him there — and without success thus far.
As someone who’s supported the war from beginning all the way to the present, there’s one thing I found particularly disappointing and puzzling. In the run up to the war, the Bush Administration really didn’t do much to prepare the public for the idea that we’d be spending blood and treasure fighting an insurgency there for years to come. How did that come to be the case?
Well, first I would say that the intelligence assessment did not suggest that would be the case. As a result, the people involved did not raise that to the public as a high likelihood. George Tenet, in his book, acknowledges that fact and says that had they thought that was a high probability, they would have presented it as a serious probability and put it in the executive summary to make sure that it was considered and evaluated.
If one goes to my Web site Rumsfeld.com and looks up the memo that since then is described as the Parade of Horribles…I sat down before the war and wrote down a series of things that could be serious problems. One of them I included would be not to find weapons of mass destruction stockpiled. I put down the fact that the war could last eight to 10 years because of exactly what you’ve said. There’s a list of about 20 or 30 other things that people can go and see. I sent it to the President and sent it to the members of the National Security Council — so people were thinking about those problems. They just were not considered high probability.
David Limbaugh had a question he wanted me to ask you and it’s one I’ve heard often from conservatives over the last few years. There was an ocean of lies, smears and slander being fired off at the Bush Administration over the war and although conservatives were defending the war, a lot of times the administration came across more like a punching bag. There just wasn’t a lot of pushback coming from the Bush White House. So why didn’t the Bush Administration more vigorously defend itself, especially in the second term?
I have no idea. I know Karl Rove was a very smart man. He wrote a book and said that he considered one of the biggest failures of the Bush Administration to not push back. I watched it from afar during the presidential election, since I wasn’t involved in politics — where both candidates, McCain and Obama, attacked the Bush Administration — and the White House not only did not defend the Bush Administration, it asked people not to either.
I guess the President must have decided he didn’t want to be blamed for McCain’s defeat. So, they just took it like a punching bag, as you say, which I think is a mistake. I mean if you do things and you believe in what you’re doing, you darn well ought to be willing to stand up and defend them. I think Karl Rove felt that way and I suspect, in retrospect, that President Bush might even feel that way.
Before the war there was a number of Democrats including Hilary Clinton, John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi who sounded exactly like the Bush Administration on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. They stated unequivocally that he had them. Then when it turned out we didn’t find any post Gulf War WMD’s, those same people turned around and claimed that the Bush Administration lied and misled them somehow. So here’s the question: were they able to have the same access to our intelligence agencies and the information you had?
Absolutely. In the military, there’s a phrase for people like that. You wouldn’t want to be in a fox hole with them. But these people saw the same intelligence that President Bush and Secretary Powell did. They made statements that you correctly characterized as being deeply concerned about Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities and then later on shifted their positions. In fact, some of their comments — I remember I think it was Senator Rockefeller talked about an imminent danger.
(Hawkins’ note: “Saddam’s existing biological and chemical weapons capabilities pose a very real threat to America, now. …There has been some debate over how “imminent” a threat Iraq poses. I do believe that Iraq poses an imminent threat, but I also believe that after September 11, that question is increasingly outdated. It is in the nature of these weapons, and the way they are targeted against civilian populations, that documented capability and demonstrated intent may be the only warning we get. To insist on further evidence could put some of our fellow Americans at risk. Can we afford to take that chance? We cannot!” — John Rockefeller, October 10, 2002)
How they’ve gotten away with it, too, seems to me, unfortunate — but the important thing to remember is that, in fact, the Congress in the 1990s passed legislation to have Saddam Hussein’s regime changed and President Clinton signed it. The Iraqis were shooting at our aircraft, 2,000 times plus. They were the only country in the world that was firing at our aircraft on a regular basis. They rejected some 17 U.N. resolutions and when the war was concluded, one of the former U.N. inspectors, Mr. Duelfer, went in there and concluded that while he did not find the large stockpiles, they did find the people who would be developing weapons of mass destruction through nuclear, chemical and biological, still there, still organized. They found duel use facilities where they had the precursors, where the Iraqis could within very short order, in a matter of weeks or months, develop stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Yet even that was not something that was widely understood in the country.
And of course, there was a chemical facility where we found traces of Ricin, Potassium Chlorate, chemical protective suits and Arabic language documents — manuals as to how to develop these things. To prove a point, the U.S. military put on chemical protective suits because they were convinced there was going to be the use of chemical weapons. Saddam had already used them on his own people. He used them on his neighbors.
….And when I traveled around the world, I talked to the leaders and Iraq’s neighbors. They said you can be certain Saddam is going to use chemical weapons on your troops when you get close to Baghdad. So it was broadly believed in our intelligence community, in friendly countries, coalition intelligence communities, and in the Congress. I think the President, given the information he had, made the right decision. The idea that he lied or that Colin Powell in his presentation to the United Nations lied, is just unfair, inaccurate and irresponsible.
Now let me ask you a related question to that. You mentioned in your book that if there hadn’t been a weapons of mass destruction threat, you don’t think we would’ve gone to war. So why didn’t Saddam Hussein just destroy what he had, open it up to inspectors, and he would have remained in place? He might still be in place today if he’d done that. Why do you think he didn’t do it?
I have no idea. I think he wanted to bluff it. I think he was maintaining the capability to rapidly expand and develop the stockpiles he wanted to have because he felt that was something that made Iraq and him more dangerous to others and more respected probably. I just don’t know the answer to what happened to the stockpiles that did exist or why, if he did destroy some of them, why he didn’t admit it. There are reports where an Iraq general said some of them were moved to a neighboring country, but I just never have been able to verify that.
Now, there are a lot of complaints I’ve heard from people who are still serving in the military about the overly restrictive rules of engagement and the fact that in some cases, you have to get lawyers to sign off on some of these attacks. There are even claims, I don’t know how true they are — you probably do, although I don’t know if you can say — that we’ve had some high value targets, including Osama bin Laden, who’ve gotten away because we couldn’t get lawyers to sign off on the attacks fast enough. Your thoughts?
Well, when I served as Secretary in the 1970s, it was quite a different department. When I arrived back in 2001 I found 10,000 lawyers in the Department of Defense. They’re there at every level. We live in an enormously litigious society and the Congress contributes to that. As a result, there’s practically no step that’s made by anyone in the Pentagon and in the Department of Defense where they do not take into account the legal implications and consult lawyers about it. Now, that’s fact one.
Fact two, you’ve got to take with a grain of salt, people down the chain of command, who said, well, we had somebody in our sights and we weren’t allowed to do it. I’ve heard that speculation about Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora and it’s never been verified. People have written books and where you stand depends on where you sit. I’m sure they believe what they said.
But the fact of the matter, from everything I’ve been able to determine, is it has not been determined conclusively that he was there. There was certainly a major effort to try to get to Osama bin Laden as the Afghan war proceeded. Our Air Force and Navy planes were bombing Tora Bora until the rubble bounced and we had Special Forces there that were with Eastern Alliance troops that were pursuing him.
I can remember one day watching a predator drone television feed come into my office and seeing a tall person who looked just like Osama bin Laden, surrounded by people who he always was surrounded by — people that had similar white robes. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind or anyone else’s mind that was Osama. The combatant commander, who had obviously the ability to go in and attack him was getting ready to do it and all of a sudden — I think probably what happened is the people we thought were Osama and his entourage must have gotten the clue that there was a drone overhead — because all of a sudden they broke into a run and the guy ran like he was an 18 year old track star. It wasn’t Osama. It was later verified it wasn’t Osama. And I looked at it, and everyone else looked at it, and we were convinced it was Osama. So, people in good faith can be wrong on things like that.
But, you’re quite right. There’s a pattern in the department, at the top level, the chairman and the chief and the Joint Chiefs will recommend some rules of engagement for a certain circumstance. It will then be sent down the chain of command and it will get to the next command level, maybe the combatant commander, and the combatant commander will look at it, and then he will not want to violate it. So he might take a little tuck in it. And then it goes down to the next level. And it’s got now it’s in a country commander. And he looks at it and he doesn’t want to break the rule so he takes a little tuck in it. You end up with four or five layers down there taking tucks and you end up with some rules of engagement that don’t look like what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the Joint Chiefs of Staff or even the combatant commander intended. Now why is that? Well, it’s fear. It’s because of our litigious society. It’s because of Congress overseeing things and having hearings.
I remember being one time with a commander out, way out in the fringes near the border in Iraq, and he was giving me a report. He told me that his people had been attacked from the Syrian border and then he very proudly said that he responded proportionately. I remember going back and talking to General Casey in Baghdad and saying, “George, here’s a man who thinks that he’s doing the right thing by responding proportionately. Now what’s that mean?”
……That if you are on the Iraq side of the border and there are some people on the other side of the border firing at you with mortars, rockets, automatic weapons, RPGs, you name it – and he thinks his job is to respond proportionately? That means eventually, some of our people are going to get killed. The people shooting are already in a defensive position. So if you respond proportionately, they fire three things, you fire three things back. Does that make any sense?
It makes no sense to me. You ought to kill them. You ought to go after them. Otherwise some of our people are going to get killed. And Casey agreed with me and indicated that that’s just part of the modern day circumstance. They hear things, they want to take, as I say, a little tuck in what their authorities actually are — and it’s a problem.
Over a quarter of Democrats believe that the Bush Administration had foreknowledge of the 911 attacks and deliberately allowed it to occur as an excuse to go to war. There are even people, some of them famous, who insist that the World Trade Center was demolished with explosives and a plane didn’t hit the Pentagon. You were Secretary of Defense during the 911 attacks. You were in the Pentagon when the plane hit. What do you say to that conspiracy theory which sadly has become fairly mainstream on the left in America?
There was a book that was a best seller in France on that subject. That was the essence of the book and it spread across the globe. Now how does that happen? Well, there are people who want it to happen. That would not happen unless there were people who were actively determined to fundamentally discredit the American Administration, the Bush Administration, by telling a horrible, vicious lie like that.
How often was it told that ultimately people begin to believe it? And it’s inexcusable, it’s irresponsible, it’s beyond comprehension that people on the left or the center wouldn’t stand up and say, “That’s not true. That can’t be true. There’s no evidence of that. There’s not a single scrap of evidence to suggest that.”
I mean, there was one lawsuit I got that was contending that I had advance knowledge that 911 was going to occur and I was negligent in not evacuating the Pentagon before the plane hit. Where does this screwball stuff come from? Well, all I can tell you is it doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s not just made in the ether out there. There are people who want to discredit our government and they perpetuate lies like that with purpose.
Last question. You’ve had a lot of experience dealing with foreign leaders and world opinion in other countries. What message do you think the world sees when the American president bows to other world leaders? Does it engender good will? Do our enemies view it as weakness? What do you think they see?
I think the words and actions of an American president are just enormously important. I think the impression that one gets is that for whatever reason, this president came into office believing that America was part of the problem in the world and that, therefore, it needed to be apologized for in some way.
I’m proud of our country. I think that the proof is in the pudding and the tasting — and the fact that people are lined up at our embassies, all around the world, trying to come here ought to tell us something. What it tells me is that the United State of America is the land of opportunity. It is an exceptional country and we do stand for something important, that a great many people across the globe aspire to and regrettably, don’t have.
If you look down on Earth from outer space you can see the countries that are doing well, where the people are doing well, are countries that have free political systems. My favorite photo is the photo of the Korean peninsula taken from a satellite. You have the same people in the north and the south, the same resources north and south, and at night the south is just booming with electricity. The South Korean people have something like the 13th largest economy on the face of the earth. Up in the north, they’re starving. There’s no light except for a pin prick of light in Pyongyang. They’re taking people in the North Korean military who are around five feet tall and weigh 100 pounds because of starvation. So, the message is clear. This is not a country that we need to apologize for. Are we perfect? No. Do we make some mistakes from time to time? Sure. But, by golly we ought to be proud of what we are and not feel we have to apologize for it.
Mr. Rumsfeld, I really appreciate your time.
Once again, Donald Rumsfeld’s new book is called, Known and Unknown: A Memoir.