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Donald Rumsfeld Revealed

The Unknown Known

a film directed by Errol Morris


In my confirmation hearing…the best question I was asked was: What do you worry about when you go to bed at night? And my answer was, in effect, intelligence. The danger that we can be surprised because of a failure of imagining what might happen in the world.
—Donald Rumsfeld to Errol Morris, The Unknown Known
Charles Ommanney/Contact Press Images
Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the Oval Office, 2003

It is a striking thought: night after night, the secretary of defense of the world’s most powerful country retires to his bed haunted not by some threatening, well-armed foe but by “a failure of imagining what might happen in the world.” There is something at once heroic and pleasingly humble about it, with hints of the tragic: the great hero haunted by the boundaries of his own imagination, struggling with all his vast strength to do nothing more than escape the net of his own ignorance.1

As Donald H. Rumsfeld speaks those words in Errol Morris’s film the familiar burning battleships in Pearl Harbor take shape on the screen before us. “People were chasing the wrong rabbit,” he says, in a typically homespun trope that will recur near the film’s end, directed at the filmmaker himself. “That one possibility was not something that they had imagined was likely.” In the mind’s eye the burning ships dissolve into two great New York skyscrapers collapsing against a bright September sky: Rumsfeld’s Pearl Harbor. “Was it a failure of the imagination,” Morris asks, “or a failure to look at the intelligence that was available?”

It is the film’s most telling question, and though it passes quickly, for just an instant the entire elaborate scaffolding of tricked-up epistemological skepticism, promoted in the title of Rumsfeld’s memoir and now with lethal irony in that of Morris’s film, trembles and wobbles, exposed as the bare rhetoric of self-exculpation. Twice in the film, and with undisguised pride, Rumsfeld offers us this philosophy:

There are known knowns, the things we know we know. There are known unknowns, the things we know we don’t know. There are also that third category of unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know. And you can only know more about those things by imagining what they might be.

To Rumsfeld, it is axiomatic that the attack on Pearl Harbor and those on New York and Washington six decades later have in common that they arose from “gaps in our knowledge, but gaps that we don’t know exist.” As he tells us bluntly in the author’s note that serves as overture to his enormous memoir:

Nineteen hijackers using commercial airliners as guided missiles to incinerate three thousand men, women, and children was perhaps the most horrific single unknown unknown America has experienced.

An engaging, even alluring idea and one that Rumsfeld is fond of linking to the analysis of the Harvard economist Thomas Schelling, who attributed, in a famous essay, the success of the Pearl Harbor attacks to a “poverty of expectations” on the part of American officials. “There is a tendency in our planning,” Schelling wrote in 1962, “to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.”2

But is this really what happened on September 11, 2001? Throughout that fateful summer, across the reaches of the country’s vast intelligence universe, “the system,” as Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet put it, “was blinking red,” and Tenet himself was said to be running about with his “hair on fire.” Meantime, the counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, newly demoted from Cabinet level, desperately struggled, as he had since January, to persuade his superiors in the new Bush administration to schedule a “Principal’s Meeting” on al-Qaeda. Panicked, he finally took to shouting angrily in meetings and e-mailing the national security adviser warning of “hundreds of dead in the streets.” He finally got his meeting—on September 4, 2001, a week before the attacks. But that was a month after the president had received this:

Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US
Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Ladin implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and “bring the fighting to America.”
After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington….
An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told an [redacted] service at the same time that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative’s access to the US to mount a terrorist strike….
Convicted [millennium] plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport [in 1999] himself, but that…Ladin lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own US attack….
We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [redacted] service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft….
Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York….3

This notorious document is not some random intelligence report that was floating around the bureaucracy and brought out after the fact. It is a Presidential Daily Brief, which means it is “finished intelligence” of the highest priority—thought vital enough to be read directly to the president of the United States at his vacation home in Crawford, Texas, on August 6, 2001. It was also distributed to senior national security officials of the US government, including Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

In the fewer than five hundred words that have been made public—extracted from the understandably reluctant Bush administration with enormous difficulty by the 9/11 Commission—we find several mentions of bin Laden agents within the United States, a confirmation of surveillance of federal buildings, not one but two mentions of their determination to hijack US aircraft, and other quite specific intimations of the attack that was to come less than five weeks later. And it is reportedly only one in a series of Presidential Daily Briefs, dating back to early May, that had carried specific warnings of “imminent” attacks planned for within the United States.4

What would have happened had the president upon hearing those words immediately ordered a full National Security Council meeting, discussed the brief with all of his national security officials, ordered increased surveillance at airports, directed the secretary of transportation to issue a threat warning to all civilian pilots, and generally put the various security agencies of the US government on a high alert of the sort that the Clinton administration had ordered before the millennial celebrations?

Would, for example, the memorandum sent that July by the FBI special agent in Phoenix who worried over Middle Eastern flight students training at American flight schools have been taken seriously? Would those students—among whom were the September 11 pilots—have been identified and tracked? Would permission have been handed down from the Justice Department in response to desperate appeals from the FBI to search the laptop of Zacarias Moussaoui—the flight student and supposed “twentieth hijacker” who was arrested in Minnesota on August 16—and the September 11 plot itself thereby discovered? Would Moussaoui have been connected to Mohammed al-Qahtani, another supposed “twentieth hijacker” who had been turned away from the Orlando airport in early August? Would the CIA have alerted the FBI earlier to the two September 11 “muscle” hijackers who had been living openly in San Diego for more than a year, and the plot been foiled?

We will never know the answers to these questions. We do know that the senior officials brought in by President Bush, unlike their predecessors in the Clinton administration, did not consider al-Qaeda or the threat it posed one of their highest security concerns. Despite the increasingly panicked and exasperated warnings of Clarke and Tenet, among others, the “principals” preferred to focus their attention on the threat of Saddam Hussein and the challenge of a rising China. Indeed, some senior officials, including a number in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, suspected that “bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein” and they exhorted the White House not to be “fooled.”5 In the midst of this flurry of warning, the secretary of defense, as was his wont, wrote himself a memorandum, “Subject: Pearl Harbor Post-Mortem.”

In some future hearing I am going to say that I do not want to be sitting before this panel in a modern day version of a Pearl Harbor post-mortem. Who didn’t do what, when, where, and why? None of us would want to have to be back here going through that agony.

The date was July 23, 2001. There had been several Presidential Daily Briefs warning of imminent attacks; “Bin Laden Determined To Attack in US” would come two weeks later. “It would be wrong,” Rumsfeld tells Morris of his memo, with scrupulous humility, “to think that someone who wrote it—namely me—was prescient. I wasn’t. I simply had read enough history that I worried.”

And these worries led him…to write a memo. So far as we know, they did not lead him, even in the face of very specific warnings, to do anything, or push for any action. Nor did President George W. Bush himself, after sitting impatiently through his briefing on August 6, 2001, call an immediate National Security Council meeting or indeed move to take any other decisive action. Instead he gazed evenly at the briefer, paused, and uttered the imperishable words, “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”6

Did the September 11 attacks truly arise from “gaps in our knowledge, but gaps that we don’t know exist”? To use Rumsfeld’s parlance, we knew what we knew: that terrorist attacks “in the US” were likely being planned, that they might well involve hijackings and target federal buildings. And we knew what we didn’t know: precisely when the attacks might be carried out, what the targets would be, how they would be attacked—though in truth even here there were clues, among them al-Qaeda’s obsession with the World Trade Center (the 1993 attack is mentioned in the Presidential Daily Brief) and an Islamic terrorist group’s earlier hijacking of a commercial airliner and its failed attempt to fly it into the Eiffel Tower.

What exactly were those “gaps that we didn’t know existed” that made the September 11 attacks, in Rumsfeld’s words, “the most horrific single unknown unknown America has experienced”? Was the failure to stop the attacks truly a failure of the imagination or was it a failure, as Morris says, to look at the intelligence that was available? And if it was the latter—a failure by senior leaders to look at and take seriously enough and act upon what was actually known—then the success of the attacks stemmed not from some universal human “failure of the imagination” or “poverty of expectations” but from the arrogance and willfulness of certain people to whom the country had entrusted the highest responsibility.

  1. 1

    See my “ Rumsfeld’s War and Its Consequences Now,” The New York Review, December 19, 2013, the first in this series of articles. 

  2. 2

    See Thomas Schelling, “Foreword,” in Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford University Press, 1962), p. vii. 

  3. 3

    See “The Presidential Daily Brief, August 6, 2001,” in The 9/11 Investigations, edited by Steven Strasser (PublicAffairs, 2004), pp. 293–294. 

  4. 4

    See Kurt Eichenwald, “The Deafness Before the Storm,” The New York Times, September 10, 2012. 

  5. 5

    See Eichenwald, “The Deafness Before the Storm.” See also Eichenwald’s 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars (Touchstone, 2012). 

  6. 6

    See Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine (Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 2. 

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