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.


David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Donald Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet, Washington, D.C., 2002


When you say, “How can you know?” the answer is, you can’t. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see around corners—have our imaginations anticipate every conceivable thing that could happen, and then, from that full array and spectrum, pick out the ones that will happen?

—Donald Rumsfeld to Errol Morris, The Known Unknown

How could Donald Rumsfeld, as he stood at his Pentagon desk on the morning of December 2, 2002, and scrawled his name on one of the hundreds of Action Memoranda he saw, “anticipate every conceivable thing that could happen”? Plainly, he could not—not even the fact that the memorandum, which asked him to approve certain “Counter-Resistance Techniques” to be used on detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was destined to be the most controversial document he would sign.

By now, of course the “war on terror” had been at full boil for more than a year; failure of the imagination had become an unbounded terror of what might happen next. Morris has the striking idea of having his subject read out the list of eighteen “enhanced interrogation techniques” he approved that December morning, and so we hear Rumsfeld’s disembodied voice intoning the odd phrases, one dissolving into another, offering the viewer a strange and haunting litany in which one bureaucratic euphemism falls softly over the next:

Yelling at the detainee; techniques of deception; multiple interrogator techniques; interviewer may identify himself as a citizen of a foreign [country] with a reputation for harsh treatment….

Stress positions, like standing, for a maximum of four hours; falsified documents or reports; the use of isolation facility for up to thirty days; deprivation of light and auditory stimulus; a hood placed over his head during transportation and questioning; twenty-hour interrogations; removal of all comfort items, including religious items; removal of clothing; forced grooming (shaving of facial hair); using detainees’ individual phobias, such as fear of dogs, to induce stress….

At the end of the list Rumsfeld looks up, gazes at Morris with feigned or real surprise, and exclaims: “Good grief, that’s a pile of stuff.” Indeed, it is. Which makes one wonder what led the secretary of defense to scrawl in his own hand, after signing his name on the “Approved” line:

However, I stand for 8–10 hours A day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours? D.R.

Though he tells Morris that during his six years as secretary of defense he dictated 20,000 memos—the famous “snowflakes”—it would be possible to argue that these fifteen words are the most celebrated he wrote during his tenure. In my experience people react to them with instinctive shock or repugnance—and Rumsfeld is plainly sensitive to this, volunteering to Morris:

I remember one of the things required that he stand for three or four or five, six hours. When I approved it, I wrote down that, you know, “I stand for eight or ten hours a day.” I forget what I said, but something like that. Needless to say, I did not intend that my memo would then be sent back down the chain of command.

In his memoir Rumsfeld is a bit more specific:

My offhand comment was a statement of fact. I used a stand-up desk and spent much of the day on my feet. The note received enormous attention when detainee abuse became a major public issue. It was a mistake to make that personal observation to my general counsel. It certainly was not a signal to the Department that it would be okay to stretch the rules, as some have suggested.

But what exactly was Rumsfeld’s “personal observation” meant to signal? What could the secretary of defense have meant in comparing his daily work at a stand-up desk in his vast office—signing memoranda, reading reports, drinking coffee, taking phone calls, meeting with subordinates, running off to lunch—to the experience of a hooded, shackled man standing naked, bolted to the floor in a freezing room, deprived of sleep for day after day, bathed in light or cloaked in darkness, forced to listen to an endless loop of ear-splitting music, or white noise, or screaming, at an offshore prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba?

We know a lot now about what went on in those rooms. We have, among many other documents, the minute-by-minute interrogation logs for Mohammed al-Qahtani, the supposed “twentieth hijacker” who was turned back at Orlando airport in August and later captured in Pakistan. It was Qahtani for whom Rumsfeld’s eighteen “counter-resistance techniques” were specially devised, and during his fifty-four days of interrogation he was subjected to nearly all of them: prolonged sleep deprivation—he endured forty-eight twenty-hour interrogations—forced nudity; prolonged stress positions; unremitting, almost unbearable noise; and humiliations of various kinds, sexual and otherwise. He was forced to wear woman’s underwear, and to appear nude in front of female interrogators. He was made to wear a leash and bark and perform “dog tricks,” and forced to endure enemas and intravenous drips. The log, scrupulously compiled by the military interrogators, charts Qahtani’s reactions in mind-numbing and often revolting detail.7 Here are some of Qahtani’s responses:

Detainee began to cry… Visibly anxious… Very emotional… Detainee cried… Disturbed… De- tainee began to cry… Butted SGT R in the eye… Bit the IV tube completely in two… Started moaning… Uncomfortable…Moaning… Began crying hard spontaneously… Crying and praying… Began to cry… Claimed to have been pressured into making a confession… Falling asleep… Very uncomfortable… On the verge of breaking… Angry… Detainee struggled… Detainee asked for prayer… Very agitated… Yelled… Tired… Agitated… Yelled for Allah… Started making odd faces … Near crying… Irritated… Annoyed…Detainee attempted to injure two guards… Became very violent and irate… Attempted to liberate himself… Struggled…Made several attempts to stand up… Screamed.8

If Rumsfeld was not suggesting by his note—“However, I stand for 8–10 hours A day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”—that some of the techniques he had approved did not go far enough, then what exactly was he suggesting?

Rumsfeld tells Morris that “some of the things that were done to [Qahtani] were not approved, and the interrogation plan involving the duration and the combination of the techniques was not proper.” He remarks in his memoir that “any technique that is legal and humane on its own could conceivably be applied in ways that are not legal and not humane if, for example, it is done repeatedly, over long periods of time or used in an inappropriate combination with other techniques.”

There is an implication that he wasn’t informed of the “interrogation plan”—that things had gotten out of hand down there in Cuba and when he found out about it he put a stop to it. And yet Pentagon investigators of detainee abuse at Guantánamo later concluded that Rumsfeld was in fact “personally involved” in Qahtani’s interrogation plan, that he spoke at least weekly to the general officer in command of it.

Indeed, when he had met in his Pentagon office with this commander’s predecessor at Guantánamo he had told him, “General, I want you to call me every morning.” After the meeting he remarked to an aide, according to Bradley Graham’s By His Own Rules, “I’ve found that when you take on something so sensitive it could come back and bite you, it’s best to keep it firmly in hand yourself until you gain confidence and can delegate it to somebody else.”

All the available evidence, including a series of insistent memos quoted in Morris’s film, suggests that Rumsfeld kept high-level interrogations at Guantánamo “firmly in hand.” But before signing off on these techniques he had required only a legal review—in the event, a shockingly cursory one—and ordered no policy review at all. Like other Bush officials when it came to “enhanced interrogation,” he’d asked only what could be done, not what should be done.9 It was a failure of the moral imagination. Much later, according to an army investigator, Lieutenant General Randall M. Schmidt, who interviewed Rumsfeld twice during the investigation, he “expressed puzzlement” that his approval could have led to the abuse. “My God,” Rumsfeld told Schmidt, “did I authorize putting a bra and underwear on this guy’s head?”10

Did he? What might it mean to “use detainees’ individual phobias…to induce stress”? What might follow, if you authorize removal of clothing, “forced grooming,” “deprivation of light and auditory stimulus,” hooding during questioning, which could last twenty straight hours a day, day after day? What effect might this have on—in the words of one experienced interrogator—“the gravitational laws that govern human behavior when one group of people is given complete control over another in a prison,” where “every impulse tugs downward”?11


When the [Abu Ghraib] pictures came, it had an impact that was well beyond anything that I had experienced…. What it showed was people engaging in acts of abuse that were disgusting and revolting…. They were engaging in sadistic things and there was nudity involved.

I knew that it would create an advantage for the terrorists, for al-Qaeda, and for the people in the insurgency who were out recruiting…. It worked against everything we were trying to do.

—Donald Rumsfeld to Errol Morris, The Unknown Known

Here, as with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War a decade ago, Morris is interested in history and how it is made, how it feels to make it. “When you’re in a position like secretary of defense,” he asks Rumsfeld, “do you feel that you actually are in control of history, or that history is controlling you?” The politician/philosopher is blithe, dismissive; affects modesty: “Oh neither,” he says. “Obviously, you don’t control history. And you are failing if history controls you.” The lessons of the defeat in Vietnam? “Some things work out. Some things don’t. That didn’t.” And yet the Vietnam War had coincided with his rise as a politician and as a leader; he had witnessed the helicopters fleeing the roof of the US embassy in Saigon from the Oval Office, at the side of President Gerald Ford. Had he nothing more to say about it than this?

Though he had a startling political rise, attaining the highest positions—White House chief of staff, secretary of defense—when he was in his early forties, history will likely remember Rumsfeld as the man who presided over a disastrous lost war in Iraq. In this he resembles Robert McNamara, another man of great early achievement, vast ambition, and impatient, restless, domineering take-no-prisoners intelligence, undone by a war he could not win. And as McNamara’s war will likely be forever symbolized by the images of those helicopters fleeing the US embassy roof, Rumsfeld’s will be known by the grotesque images of twisted naked bodies at Abu Ghraib. Both men were intelligent enough to know this and willful enough to reject it. Before Morris’s camera, in their different ways, they fight and struggle, Laocoöns in the coils of the sea serpent, at the unfairness of a life of such high-gloss achievement reduced to a single, monumental failure.

Morris mostly lets them enact this struggle on the screen. As much as McNamara is tortured, tearful, pleading, Rumsfeld is—as he tells us—“cool…and measured.” His arguments course beneath the surface in the form of a self-serving philosophy of what can be known and what cannot. Too often this near mysticism about history and its causes seems meant to obscure lines of responsibility that aren’t in the end obscure at all. Mostly the technique is indirect, a shadow play; but we see it in full light in the film’s most striking sequence, which begins with Morris pointing out that “there’s a claim that the interrogation rules used in Guantánamo migrated to Iraq, where they led to incredible abuse.” The verb here, “migrate,” is carefully chosen, as Morris, who created a film about Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure, plainly knows. With some heat Rumsfeld leaps at the bait:

The evidence is to the contrary. There were twelve investigations that looked at these issues—some by civilians, distinguished people like Dr. Harold Brown and Dr. James Schlesinger, former secretaries of defense, others by military officials. To suggest that the procedures from Guantánamo migrated over to Iraq is to suggest that the procedures in Guantánamo would have encouraged the kind of unbelievably bad, illegal, improper behavior that took place at Abu Ghraib. And there was nothing that would have permitted anything like that. Anyone who reads the investigative reports knows that’s not the case.

But Morris has read the investigative reports and he is waiting for him. He has to hand the relevant quotation from the Schlesinger report and reads it out to Rumsfeld:

Changes in DoD interrogation policies between December 2, 2002 and April 16, 2003 were an element contributing to uncertainties in the field as to which techniques were authorized. Although specifically limited by the Secretary of Defense to Guantánamo…, the augmented techniques for Guantánamo migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq where they were neither limited nor safeguarded….

It is a classic so-called “gotcha” moment, atypical in Morris’s films, and it is immensely revealing, for Rumsfeld is not only shown to be diametrically wrong but proved to be so with a direct quotation drawn from the very document he cited. Techniques did “migrate” from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib. Decisions he made, behind his stand-up desk, were embodied in those grotesque images of naked, tortured detainees at Abu Ghraib. Confronted with the actual words from Schlesinger, he does not grow angry or embarrassed, does not demand with outrage to see the text. Instead he says imperturbably, even helpfully, “Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.”

It is a startling moment. Rumsfeld had commissioned the Schlesinger Report, and would have been familiar with its most important findings. He would have been aware that the report he was citing proved precisely the opposite of what he said it did. It is not the first time he has tried to win an argument in this way, but perhaps the first time he’d been called out on it. After all, who reads those reports anyway? Caught by Morris, he is not embarrassed or nonplussed. Nor does he acknowledge that he’d been wrong, or indeed engage Morris’s question—the question about his own responsibility—at all. We get only a blank stare, and the same mild serious attentiveness. The dogged indomitable wrestler will not admit that he has been prevaricating. The filmmaker, determined to pierce the opacity, persists:

Morris: Are you saying stuff just happens?

Rumsfeld: Well, we know that in every war there are things that evolve that hadn’t been planned for or fully anticipated, and that things occur which shouldn’t occur.

Morris: Wouldn’t it have been better not to go there at all?

Rumsfeld: Well, I guess time will tell.

We have reverted here to the bureaucratic passive voice that attained its true fame in the mouth of Rumsfeld’s mentor, Richard M. Nixon: “Mistakes were made….” He will not go deeper. Responsibility is shrugged off, abandoned to the fates, bespeaking a strain in him of deeply political self-protectiveness that must have its roots very far back indeed. If his scrawl at the bottom of that memo or the images that followed haunt him, there is no sign of it—only, at bottom, tenacious ambition, here embodied in the unrelenting determination to make his case, to win and to conquer. Perhaps this is Donald Rumsfeld’s true “failure of imagining what might happen in the world.”

This is the second in a series of articles.
The first part can be read here.
The third part can be read here.