The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Nothing ever ends’: Sorting through Rumsfeld’s knowns and unknowns

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld at a Pentagon news conference in June 2006. He died Tuesday at 88. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Into the Great Unknown, then, goes Donald H. Rumsfeld, who died Tuesday at 88, and whose tenure as George W. Bush’s defense secretary was a monument to both ramrod certainty and tactical equivocation, the twin dogmas of Washington. He was a paradox in spectacles, an exacting presence who helped to produce inexact outcomes.

“There are known knowns — there are things we know we know,” Rumsfeld said in February 2002, when asked for evidence that Saddam Hussein tried to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. “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.”

A journalist followed up: Is this alleged link between Hussein and other terrorists an “unknown unknown”?

“I’m not going to say which it is,” Rumsfeld replied with a grin. Perhaps he knew and wasn’t telling. Perhaps he didn’t know. Perhaps he believed that he knew, and that was enough — for him, if not for the country, which would be drained of blood and treasure by catastrophic interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I don’t look at Donald Rumsfeld’s smile as insincere,” the filmmaker Errol Morris said later, to the Guardian, about the subject of his documentary “The Unknown Known.” The smile “was like a tell in a poker game. A smile of someone enormously pleased with himself.”

Rumsfeld was Navy man, a former wrestler, an early adopter of the standing desk (read into this if you must). It’s easy to forget that Rumsfeld’s nearly six years in the Bush administration were a coda to his career in public service, which initially ran from his enlistment in 1954 to his appointment as Ronald Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East, where he famously smiled and shook hands with Hussein about 19 years before overseeing the invasion of his country. Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon at age 68 to “transform” the department that he’d first helmed 25 years prior, and found bureaucrats standing in his way.

“Nothing ever ends,” Rumsfeld told The Washington Post on Aug. 22, 2001. He was referring to congressional oversight and meddling, but he was also producing another Washington proverb. “There’s no sunset on things. And it all happens a little bit at a time.”

At 2:27 p.m. on Sept. 10, 2001, he sent a memo to one of his deputy assistant secretaries that consisted only of a quote from Winston Churchill: “Nothing surpasses the experience of being shot at . . . and missed.” Eighteen hours and 19 minutes later, American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

What followed was a seemingly endless parade of known and unknown unknowns — phantom WMDs, invisible IEDs, uncertain surges and endless insurgencies — resulting in these known knowns: tens of thousands of Americans dead or wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians killed and maimed, several trillion dollars spent.

All the while, Rumsfeld produced his proverbs, doodling mystic marginalia in the pages of history, reducing war and torture and other awful realities into blunt queries and gruff turns of phrase.

“Freedom’s untidy,” Rumsfeld said a month into the invasion of Iraq, as the country convulsed, adding, “Stuff happens.”

“I stand for 8-10 hours a day,” he wrote underneath his signature to approve “counter-resistance techniques” for Guantánamo detainees. “Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

“The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” he wrote in one of the 20,000 memos he produced during the Bush administration. “Snowflakes,” these notes were called, because there were so many of them, swirling around the Pentagon, a literal paper trail of Rumsfeld’s effort to be precise. Some of his memos merely requested the dictionary definition of certain terms, as if to steady the chaos around him (or to gird a legal case for it).

“Please give me a good definition for terrorism and some elaboration as to what it is and what it isn’t,” Rumsfeld wrote to the Pentagon’s general counsel a month after Sept. 11.

What something is, and what it isn’t. What is known, and what is unknown. It sounds sort of Buddhist, until you see how the dogma is applied.

He titled his 2011 memoir “Known and Unknown,” but hindsight produced no regret. He knew enough knowns to outweigh any unknowns. Rumsfeld called this reporter in 2015 because he felt that the Times of London had attributed regret to him, by misquoting him saying that Bush had been wrong about Iraq.

Rumsfeld, on the phone, practiced both his certainty and his slipperiness. “What I said from the beginning was the goal in Iraq is to have Saddam Hussein gone,” he said, and on those terms he succeeded. If that’s only what is known, he was right.