Book review: ‘Known and Unknown’ by Donald Rumsfeld

Los Angeles Times

Donald Rumsfeld has served as White House chief of staff and twice as secretary of Defense, the youngest and the oldest man ever to hold the post. He has been a trusted diplomatic envoy and successful private sector executive. Throughout it all — indeed, for most of his 78 years — he has borne with courage and almost preternatural fortitude the burden of always being the smartest guy in the room.

It’s wearisome always being right, particularly when so many others are so wrong, so often — at least that’s the impression a reader is most likely to draw from Rumsfeld’s exhaustive, exasperating but vigorously written memoir, “Known and Unknown.”

The title derives from a frequently parodied Rumsfeld response to a reporter’s question about whether there actually was evidence of any link between Saddam Hussein and terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction. The Defense secretary responded: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

It is, of course, a logical fallacy to multiply categories beyond necessity, but it’s one Rumsfeld has rhetorically mastered to create a self-conscious reputation as a fearless questioner of received truths, one he’s amplified with a flair for impenetrably gnomic aphorisms. That, plus a cloying — but purely verbal — deference to questions of institutional loyalty are calculated to conceal as knife-sharp a set of elbows as any accomplished bureaucrat ever swung.


One might suppose, for example, that the “unknown” Rumsfeld intended to explore in these memoirs would be unrevealed facts about the six years during which he ran the Defense Department for President George W. Bush — particularly since nearly two-thirds of the book deal with that relatively brief period in the author’s life. But, as Rumsfeld writes, he’s “never much of a handwringer, I don’t spend a lot of time in recriminations, looking back or second-guessing decisions made in real time with imperfect information by myself or others.” As seems typical of so much here, that’s partially true; the author has no taste for self-criticism or second-guessing himself.

Masterful bureaucratic survivor that he was until he ran out of room to maneuver, Rumsfeld delivers a memoir that is all about shifting blame and settling scores.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, later secretary of State, are two colleagues who come in for a particular bashing — the former chairman of the joint chiefs as a self-interested operator, Rice as ineffectual and inexperienced. Rumsfeld’s contempt for her ability to function effectively as National Security Council chief is thoroughgoing, and he implicitly attributes some of Bush’s poor decisions to the fact that Rice was usually the last person to whom the president spoke. Powell’s closest deputy, Richard Armitage, also comes in for his share of knocks. In fact, according to Rumsfeld, at one point Bush had to intervene when Powell and the Defense secretary got into a spitting match about which of their deputies — Armitage or Paul Wolfowitz at Defense — was leaking the most damaging stories about the other’s boss. The president, we’re assured by Rumsfeld, took his side.

Rumsfeld takes particular offense at Powell’s contention that he was misled by faulty intelligence into making the public case for the invasion of Iraq. “Powell was not duped or misled by anybody,” Rumsfeld writes. “nor did he lie about Saddam’s suspected WMD stockpiles. The president did not lie. The vice president did not lie. [ CIA Director George] Tenet did not lie. Rice did not lie. I did not lie.…The far less dramatic truth is that we were wrong.”

Even so, Rumsfeld — who does reveal that Bush asked for Iraqi invasion plans within days of 9/11 — argues that removing Hussein was the right thing to do. He denies, however, that putting more troops on the ground there would have prevented the murderous chaos that engulfed Iraq, and he blames civilian administrator Paul Bremer’s decision not to quickly turn control over to Iraqi civilians as well as the abrupt dissolution of Hussein’s army for that. (In one of his rare forays into critical retrospection, Rumsfeld remarks in passing that he might have been able to stop that.) Rumsfeld flatly denies that any of his military commanders ever asked for more forces and categorically rejects the stories that Gen. Eric Shinseki was forced to retire for testifying to Congress before the invasion began that hundreds of thousands of troops would be required.

Tenet and Gen. Tommy Franks also come in for criticism over their handling of the Afghan fiasco at Tora Bora, where the United States botched its last known opportunity to apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden. Both the CIA director and the commander have said they were denied additional U.S. forces to seal off the area and prevent Bin Laden’s escape. Rumsfeld has a different memory. He writes that he sent Tenet a memo saying that “we might be missing an opportunity” and wondering if more troops were needed. Rumsfeld alleges that he later learned a CIA agent on the ground had requested just that, but adds: “I never received such a request from either Franks or Tenet. And cannot imagine denying it if I had. If someone thought bin Laden was cornered, as later claimed, I found it surprising that Tenet had never called me to urge Franks to support their operation.”

Rumsfeld’s explanation? “Their recollections may be imperfect.”

While the author goes out of the way to stress his loyalty to Bush and to express admiration for his personal qualities, he employs his best more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone to describe a president who too often failed to demand the best information, made decisions precipitously and then failed to see that they were wholly carried out.

The one colleague who is spared Rumsfeld’s disapproval is Vice President Dick Cheney, with whom he served in Gerald Ford’s White House. Apart from the observation that Cheney almost surely was the most influential vice president in recent history, he hardly appears in these pages. It’s an odd omission.

Ultimately, Rumsfeld casts his net over a herd of scapegoats large enough to include his own family. He attributes his preoccupation in the days preceding 9/11, for example, to worry over his son Nic’s relapse into drug addiction. His flippant, controversial dismissal of concerns over the looting of Baghdad’s antiquities museum was, similarly, the consequence of distraction over his wife’s ruptured appendix.

There is one unintentionally revealing anecdote from the tragic hours of 9/11 that actually serves as kind of coda to these recollections. The Pentagon, of course, had been attacked. Late that night, the dead still were uncounted and fires still burned. About 11 p.m. — 12 hours after the plane had slammed into the Pentagon — Torie Clarke, the veteran assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs, asked Rumsfeld whether he’d called his wife of 47 years? He admitted that he hadn’t.

“Clarke looked at me with the stare of a woman who was also a wife. ‘You son of a bitch,’ she blurted out.

“She had a point.”

She did, indeed.