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The Unknown Known: Errol Morris tries to trip up Donald Rumsfeld – and fails

20 March 2014

3:14 PM

20 March 2014

3:14 PM

Before getting onto the film I should make a few disclaimers. There is a popular view that Donald Rumsfeld was a catastrophic US secretary of defence. I do not share that view. There is also a view that his most famous phrase – about known knowns, known unknowns and so on – was a display of laughable ignorance.  I think it one of the best descriptions anyone has ever produced of the challenges posed by intelligence. And finally I suppose there is a school of people out there who shudder at the name. I’m not among them. As well as being a great public servant – both the youngest and oldest defence secretary in US history – I regard Donald Rumsfeld as an unusually likeable person.

I say all that because Errol Morris’s latest film is almost certainly not aimed at people like me, but rather at that public who hold the consensus view which recalls Rumsfeld chiefly for his undeniably hubristic power-height of 2001-4.

They will chiefly go to see The Unknown Known in the hope that somewhere in it Morris has managed to get Donald Rumsfeld to do what he got an earlier US defence secretary (Robert McNamara) to do in his well-timed 2003 film The Fog of War: that is, deliver a moving mea culpa. In fact when The Fog of War came out it was hard not to view it as a pre-emptive parable about Donald Rumsfeld, with McNamara standing in for him and the Vietnam war standing in for Iraq. But any folks expecting such a replay will leave The Unknown Known disappointed.

From the 33 hours of interviews which Morris conducted with Rumsfeld for the present film, there are, in the final edit, perhaps two moments when Morris trips Rumsfeld up – and at least the same number of occasions on which Rumsfeld bests Morris. I’d be willing to bet that more examples of the latter found their way onto the cutting-room floor than did the former. Rumsfeld is a formidable verbal pugilist who takes an unusual pleasure in the well-crafted sentence and relishes the syntactically satisfying reply. In fact it was one such moment from 2003 that sticks in my mind as the moment when I feared he was a goner.


The initial invasion of Iraq had worked superbly and for a now forgotten moment Rumsfeld was regarded with near unanimous admiration, if not love. Then, with Saddam Hussein and the WMD still missing, a journalist asked him if it was possible that, since allied forces had not found them, the WMD did not, after all, exist? Though I can’t locate the clip, Rumsfeld replied along the lines of, ‘Well we haven’t found Saddam Hussein yet either, and no one’s saying he never existed.’ And then, to someone off camera he added, ‘Does that work? I like that.’ I don’t want to generalise, but I would say that it isn’t possible to survive hubris of that height.

Anyhow, Morris regrettably doesn’t include that moment in his film, but he does include other interesting archive footage. Beautifully made, like The Fog of War, Morris aims to travel deeper than the simple agitprop documentaries of, say, Michael Moore. Morris skips through Rumsfeld’s early life and tries, though fails, to land some blows on Rumsfeld for his service in the Nixon and Ford administrations.  I may be wrong, but I think Rumsfeld comes out of this just fine. Though other viewers may feel that there are enough lingering shots of Nixon with Rumsfeld and Kissinger to persuade them to come away with the general feeling that Rumsfeld mixed with a bad crowd.

But of course it is the recent history that people are interested in. So what of that?  Morris manages again to elicit regret and apologies over the appalling loss of military discipline in Abu Ghraib prison that caused Rumsfeld to twice offer his resignation to the president – and twice have that offer refused. He also gets some confusion from Rumsfeld over what was and was not claimed about Saddam Hussein and WMD in the run-up to war in 2003. Here his subject enters alleyways of what his opponents will certainly regard as deliberate circumlocution: ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ etc.

Yet where Morris is trying to elicit his subject’s views – rather than trip him up – the film is genuinely fascinating. Rumsfeld’s account of his single meeting with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s is superb, as are his views on Hussein’s deputy, Tariq Aziz. Of Hussein he says that anybody who surrounds himself with pictures of himself and statues, and lives the life of a proper dictator risks some day believing the image they have themselves put up. Of Hussein, Rumsfeld says, ‘He was living his image of himself. Which was pretend.’ There are several other outstanding moments of pure Rumsfeld-ism. For instance, ‘How do you think they got away with 9/11?’ Morris asks him, in full goading mode. ‘It seems amazing in retrospect.’ To which Rumsfeld replies cooly, ‘Everything seems amazing in retrospect.’ Elsewhere, did any of Nixon’s successors take the same step as Nixon in recording everything that happened in the Oval office? Not that Rumsfeld knew of.  In his experience, he says, presidents ‘don’t fall into the same potholes as their predecessors. More often than not they make original mistakes. We all do.’

At the very end Morris asks Rumsfeld why he has agreed to be interviewed for this film. It is a good question, to which Rumsfeld says he’s darned if he knows. But it comes at an interesting moment. It comes immediately after Rumsfeld has corrected the public perception of what so-called torture techniques were in fact used, and more importantly has also provided the inevitable moment of welling-up. But this is not Rumsfeld doing a McNamara. It comes as he is telling the story of a visit to a hospital for US servicemen wounded in Iraq.

He relates how on one occasion he went into a ward where the doctor told him that it would take a miracle for one particular young man to make it. Rumsfeld wells up as he describes meeting the man’s family and young wife beside the bedside. It seems as though perhaps the former defence secretary is about to perform the mea culpa that Morris is hoping for. But then Rumsfeld describes how he went back a few days later and the miracle had occurred. The young soldier had survived and pulled through. Rumsfeld takes inspiration from this and what it shows about America.

It is a magnificent moment. It is also Rumsfeld sticking two fingers up to Morris. It is an anti-McNamara moment. Knowing what Morris has come for he gives him something else. Of course he knows what he is doing. As he does by appearing in this film. He has weighed things up and on balance decided there is more to gain than lose from subjecting himself to this. From my watching of it – and to the evident chagrin of Errol Morris – I think Rumsfeld may be proved right.

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Show comments
  • LazyBones

    “There is a popular view that Donald Rumsfeld was a catastrophic US secretary of defence. I do not share that view.” Perhaps it is a popular view because he is a convicted war criminal (albeit in absentia when the trial in Kuala Lumpar was conducted in 2012) who flagrantly ignored Geneva Conventions, and was directly responsible for the loss of thousands of innocent lives, all in the name of “The War on Terror” (read capitalist and imperial interests)? I think most people in their right mind would consider that catastrophic. I would accuse you of “trolling” Mr Murray, if not for the fact that I feel you truly believe the grossly insensitive nonsense that you write.

  • Daniel Maris

    My gripes with Rumsfeld are (a) that he, Cheney and others at the top failed to have ready an occupation plan as good as the one after WW2 and (b) didn’t press on to Tehran immediately, given that Iran had a sworn intention to destroy the USA – casus belli enough.

  • Brassdoff

    Agree with your assessment of Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ riff. I remember being puzzled at the howls of ridicule it provoked in the Lefty media at the time. My own view was, and remains, that if those words had featured in, say, a Pinter play, they would have been hailed (rightly) as insightful, witty and wise.

    • Daniel Maris

      Very true and I think even some lefties have come grudgingly to accept that.

  • Albanov

    A salient point omitted by Douglas Murray is that Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and Co felt they had to lie to the US public for the reasons of invading Iraq, just as Blair did in Britain. Of course, had they stated from the outset that the real reason was regime change (in line with Bill Clinton’s 1998 Iraq Liberation Act), the question must be asked whether general consent for what turned out to be an horrific disaster would have been accepted – especially by the media. I find it particularly loathsome that Mr Douglas makes capital out of the ‘magnificent moment’ of Rumsfeld welling up on seeing a wounded US soldier. This dreadful man still has bucketfuls of tears to shed for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, the 2.7 million internally displaced, and the 2.3 million forced to flee their country. Still, with ‘democracy’ now well and truly entrenched in Iraq, I suppose we can say it was ‘Mission Accomplished’ and move on to the next target.

  • edlancey

    Rumsfeld, on a smaller scale than Hussein, started to believe his own hype as well.

    The folksy press conferences, talking about America in the 1950’s with one eye on the silver-haired ladies who apparently found him attractive, were beyond embarrassing.

    Still, Bush 43’s biggest mistake was to just get in Nixon retreads who were determined to re-fight the Cold War until 9/11 intervened and they could indulge in their ahistorical democracy fantasies.

    Being a skilled in-fighter who is great at stabbing colleagues and competition in the back is the hallmark of a great public servant, not this scheming, bright man who was hopelessly wrong about the most important gamble in his life.

  • Teddy Bear

    Excellent article Douglas and I agree 100% with your estimation and respect for Rumsfeld. Also those that scoffed at his known knowns…merely demonstrated their own poor mental agility.
    Regarding the Iraq war, we may never know the real reasons for it. But if we think outside the box, and stop allowing the media to think for us, and consider what are the KNOWN KNOWNS, we can deduce credible and very important reasons to have done so.
    I would first suggest reading The High Cost of Peace by Yossef Bodansky to first understand what was going on in the Islamic world prior to 9/11, and in fact had predicted it, though Clinton chose to look the other way.

    There were many figures using Islam to lead the Muslim world to dominate the West. Bin Laden was one of many, and Saddam was a much more powerful figure in that regard.
    It’s fair to say that Bush didn’t have a clue about it when he came into office, but he had plenty of advisers who did, among whom was Bodansky, Post 9/11 Bush realised it was really a war on terror, and he needed to make a statement to ALL of those seeking to bring the West to its knees that they will be toppled. Saddam was picked to be the prime target, with the unspoken objective to the rest to watch what happens to him, because that’s what will come your way. Most will remember that almost immediately Gaddafi became a ‘good boy’, as just one example.

    The problem for Bush was the blinkard media pilloried him instead of thinking outside the box. That’s why we have the real idiot Obama in his place. That’s why our leaders are so dim and dhimmi in the way they tackle Islamists today. We have made the world a far worse place in our present approach to it, and it’s unlikely to get better without those really prepared to tackle it openly and with strength.

  • sarah_13

    I will definitely see the film. I read his book, its fascinating. He talks about Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the 80’s and Lebanon etc. What Rumsfeld hasn’t done isn’t worth knowing about. As Murray says he’s had a very long career and interestingly a long and very happy marriage. And I also agree with Murray; known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns is brilliant and more importantly very true.

    • Rockin Ron

      There are 4 categories:

      – Known knowns – Saddam was widely known as a violent dictator, for example

      – Known unknowns – Saddam was known to be unpredictable but we did not know to what degree

      – Unknown knowns – We did not know the detail of Saddam military supplies, but we knew he had substantial military capability

      – Unknown unknowns – No one knew Saddam was lying about having WMD, but at the time it was a safe assumption that he did have WMD and he was prepared to use them.

      Thanks for this article Douglas. About time Mr Rumsfeld was re-assessed.

  • NickG

    Great perceptive and inciteful piece Douglass, thanks.

  • allymax bruce

    “Rumsfeld is a formidable verbal pugilist who takes an unusual pleasure
    in the well-crafted sentence and relishes the syntactically satisfying
    Quite; Rumsfeld’s ‘Known unknowns’, are a brilliant example of metric personification; where the rhythm of an exegesis delivery, finds ‘worth’ in the social isogesis of meaning understood. That is, even though Rumsfeld’s known-unknowns sounds ridiculous, it’s brilliantly perfect in its reasoning, and brilliantly constructed for everyone to understand from their own individual/social perspectives.
    It always seemed to me Cheney & Rumsfeld were only along for the ride with W to implement The Patriot Act; all else was Bush’s work. Having said that, The Patriot Act was all about utilising & implementing total global surveillance.

  • ianess

    The quote that Rumsfeld is famed for (‘unknown knowns’ etc) did not originate from him. If I recall correctly ( from Cockburn’s bio of the loathsome, reptilian, hubristic Rumsfeld), it was used in IBM.
    Your pathetic efforts to justify an illegal war that was sold to the US public as a reprisal for Al Queda’s attack on NY, inter alia, are risible.

    • tastemylogos

      illegal? What is your qualification in international law, then?

      • allymax bruce

        No! What is yours?
        It seems you have no ‘qualification’ under International Law, other than ‘Tony Bliar says he’s got secondary evidence fae a lying taxi-driver, who just became a millionaire. And, you’re either with us, or against us’.
        Now, why is this door locked? I had better not keep pulling at this locked door, it only makes me look like a muddle-headed sock puppet. (at that point, Bush’ Press Advisor stood up from the audience and pointed in the opposite direction; ‘mouthing the words’, ‘the exit is that way’), Ahh! I remember now, I came through the doors over there; I’d better smile for the camera.

        • tastemylogos

          I am not stating anything as fact though. So your, ‘What’s your qualification’ nonsense is just stupid really, isn’t it? Do think before you type, mate.

          Re: the rest: What the hel l are you banging on about? You are quite mad.

          • allymax bruce

            The time when W gave his ‘determined/right direction’ speech about war; about how it was absolutely necessary to go to war, even without a qualification under International Law. He came in from the doors on his left, but when he finished his speech, he attempted to leave by the doors on his right; of which were locked. But he kept pulling on them for a good (laugh) 5 seconds. Pure genius theatre; a script writer couldn’t have written it better.
            Thanks W, for that one; makes tears stream doo ma face everytime I think about it. Ally.

            • tastemylogos

              It seems to me that you resent going to war, and this is something I agree with. The difference between me and you, however, is an intellectual honesty which does not require throwing every plausible excuse for that reasoning into the fire.

              Going to war in Iraq was not only repugnant but stupid too. Whether it is legal is at once an irrelevence and a distraction but also secondary to the main issue of our ‘rights’ in undertaking such a hubristic decision.

              Everytime I read people like you coming out with such idiocy I resent agreeing with your underlying position. You make our argument look shallow and childish in the face of rather dangerous neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. Just stop it.

              • allymax bruce

                Seems to me your ‘logos’ has given you a heightened sense of God-botherer; get lost you stupid cow.

                • tastemylogos

                  Knew it wouldn’t take long before logic forced you into banal name calling. That really the best you got? Dear oh dear.

                • allymax bruce

                  No, my dear, ‘logos’. Here comes the good bit; for me anyway. Mark 23:23-24,31. And, I will write the best; “Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city.” (Mark 23:34.)
                  I’ve been rattling some windows, and pushing on lots of ‘doors’, but now I’ve found what I’ve been looking for. It’s all a matter of having faith, listening to God’s Spirit, and certainly not using ‘logic’. But you are right about one thing; the banal name-calling is nothing; it doesn’t mean anything other than to develop the argument in a certain direction.

                • tastemylogos

                  you write an awful lot to say nothing at all. You have no idea whether it was illegal. End of story. If you are over 18 and still believing this tripe then I feel for you. Ignorance is bliss though so fair enough.

                  You can have the last say. I’m done with ya. We aren’t conversing on the same level here. Ta taa.

              • ianess

                ‘Intellectual honesty’? Give over. Trolling buffoon, more like. The legality or not of going to war is ‘an irrelevance’? Hardly.

                • tastemylogos

                  Clearly it is an irrelevance. unless you are an expert on international law then you come across as a little childish. There are far more substantial sticks to beat the Iraq war with than legality’, a ‘legality’ that is contested and a ‘legality’ that without a judge is impossible to conclude.

                  You would know this if you weren’t stuck in your student union days.

      • ianess

        I do have a law degree and have, also, read most of the salient opinions on the legality, or otherwise, of this incursion. What are your particular qualifications?

        • sarah_13

          As a lawyer i’m sure one doesn’t have to tell you that much of the law is about argument and reasoning, there will be very different opinions on the legality of the law as we saw from Tony Blair’s legal advisors.

        • tastemylogos

          You have a law degree? Ha. That is funny. But you’re not a lawyer…. international law???? Naaaah thought not. To say it was illegal is just the standard vacuous cliche thrown around by numbskulls. You have no idea whether it was legal or not, it just sounds right.

          • ianess

            I ask again – what’s your particular qualification to pontificate on this? I note you have yet to offer any reason why this invasion and subsequent regime change would be considered ‘legal’. Goldsmith, himself, was leant on to change his considered opinion on its legality.

            • tastemylogos

              Serious question: Are you stupid? I have answered this twice. I have absolutely no qualification to make a judgement as to whether this was legal or not.. The difference between me and you is that I am not making that judgement. I have no idea whether it was legal or not. But then again… neither do you. It just sounds ‘right’, right?

              Do grow up. The Iraq war was a disgrace. The idea that we should undermine the territorial integrity of other countries makes mes sick. Illegality 1) has nothing to do with it and 2) is contentious.

    • sarah_13

      He never said unknown known, he must have said that for the film. In his memoir, which is extremely interesting, we find the full quote, known knowns, known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. Its clear, logically and semantically impeccable. Its actually brilliant. That does not mean one agrees with him or that one doesn’t just that its brilliant and to say otherwise is simply not true.

      • ianess

        Apols for jumbled typo. My point was that he was not the originator of this quote.

  • Chris Bond

    I always got the lingering impression that Leo Strauss tried to dress up Neo-Conservatism as something new by claiming the influence was Plato, Heideggar, Nietzsche and Hegel et al instead of admitting it was a reworking of Mussolini and Hitler, only minus the overt obviousness of Mussolini, and the anti semitism of Hitler.

    Neo-Conservatism, is for me basically Fascism. Same Socialist routes. Same love of the state. Same militaristic obsession. Same acknowledgement that class warfare is a joke, and subsequent disposal of this element of Marxism. I think the general forced aversion of analysis of Hitler and Mussolini on the basis that “we shouldn’t legitimize them’ as pushed by Socialist terrified of being found out to be kith and kin with them, has resulted in Strauss being able to exploit this to rework Fascism.

    Not that Modern Liberal are that far away either. Same end point, minus the militarism.

    Hayek was spot on.

  • zanzamander

    The fact remains that US invaded Iraq illegally, overthrew one person who managed to glue the country together and replaced him with a civil war that is still killing hundreds every week. Same in Afghanistan, where the deaths in vain of hundreds of thousands soldiers and civilians and tens of trillions in cost have managed to achieve zero. Taliban and Pakistan are still calling the shots, women, non-Muslims and opponents still being tortured and killed.

    The fact remains that US behaves like a bully, instigates coups, arms Islamists terrorists, meddles in other countries’ internal affairs, spies on people and kills innocent people in drone attacks – all with total impunity.

    History will show that US has been on the wrong side of decency on nearly all its interactions with other countries. Don’t care much for Rumsfeld, Obama or Errol Morris.

    • Martin Adamson

      “The fact remains that US .. overthrew the one person who managed to glue the country
      together and replaced him with a civil war that is still killing
      hundreds every week”

      Never mind what you thing about the US, what larger conclusions do you draw about the Arab world if you think that only psychopathic dictators can prevent it from sinking into a state of permanent civil war? If what you believe is true, what relations should we in the West have with the Arab world?

      • Jules Wright

        That’s a genuinely interesting point Martin Adamson – thank you. From my experience of the middle east – limited but precise, significantly more that the vast majority and one that leaves a conflict of emotions and perceptions, most of them bad to a logical, educated western democrat – I would just say this. Let’s frack like our lives depended on it; let’s get the hydrogen fuel cell to mass-market; let’s deliver nuclear fusion; let’s deliver green energy that actually works and doesn’t break the bank. And then let them duke it out the way they wish. We have the technology and the treasure to sweep the floor, salt the ground and finesse a rebirth less toxic.

    • tastemylogos

      > on orders from Saudi Arabia

      If you say so, mate.

      • allymax bruce

        taste yer own logos.

    • allymax bruce

      There you go again; you just ‘have’ to get President Obama’s name in to every sleight of Bush Cheney Rumsfeld war-mongering office; Obama wasn’t even mentioned in the article. Heck, Obama hasn’t even started any wars! But you still, somehow, managed to get his name into your criticisms. I think you’re a racist Troll !

      • ADW

        Didn’t he start Libya (and wash his hands of it after a couple of weeks, leaving it to the French who needed the oil) and get rather closer than one would like to starting one in Syria?

        • allymax bruce

          ‘No boots on the ground’. President Obama hasn’t started any wars, while President Bush started at least two major wars; costing the American tax-payer $12 trillion.
          President Obama will go down in the history books as the best USA President for 70 years. He’s the only USA President to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize. The only USA President to have stemmed the economic crash/100% debt-to-GDP that was inherited from the previous President Bush. And the only USA President to bring all UN Security Council permanent members back to the table all in accord. The world is a safer place under President Obama, than it was under any President in the last 70 years. I really can’t praise President Obama high enough for his brilliant Presidency. The way he’s managed all this, even under the intense pressure of the Zionist war-machine, is testament to his genius. I said it before, and I’lll say it again, President Obama is the culmination of all the good things brought to this world by two of this world’s great peoples; Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. God Bless President Obama.

    • Guest

      moronic, ignorant, utterly abysmal comment