Donald Rumsfeld enjoyed a decades-long career in Washington. He served as a Republican in Congress from Illinois in the 1960s. He was appointed as a counselor to President Richard Nixon, then White House chief of staff and later defense secretary under President Gerald Ford in the 1970s. After a corporate career, he returned to D.C. to serve as secretary of defense under President George W. Bush. He manned that post during 9/11 and its militaristic aftermath, helping launch the forever war in Afghanistan while also misdirecting the American thirst for revenge into the United States’ bloody multitrillion-dollar misadventure in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s campaign against Saddam Hussein began on 9/11 itself, when he reportedly pushed to invade Baghdad, proposing to the National Security Council: “Why shouldn’t we go against Iraq, not just Al Qaeda?”
Covertly, Rumsfeld ginned up his own intelligence unit to look for links between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Publicly, he falsely insisted that the terrorist group had a footprint inside Iraq, calling it “accurate and not debatable.” He also lied that Hussein had “amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons, including VX, sarin, and mustard gas.” In pressing for an invasion, Rumsfeld assured the American public that the Iraq War would be short: “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.”
Rumsfeld was also implicated in America’s abusive detention practices, from the opening of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay — which he insisted, falsely, was full of “committed terrorists” — to signing off on interrogation practices widely condemned as torture, including “the use of scenarios designed to convince the detainee that death or severely painful consequences are imminent for him and/or his family.” Rumsfeld offered to resign after the revelations of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. “These events occurred on my watch as secretary of defense,” Rumsfeld said. “I am accountable for them.” Bush declined, and Rumsfeld stayed on beyond the 2006 midterm elections, long after the conflict in Iraq had become a quagmire.
Rumsfeld often appeared emotionally disconnected to the human toll that his war advocacy wrought. In one of many scandals that marred his tenure, he was caught signing condolence letters to the families of fallen soldiers with an autopen, a machine that creates a facsimile of a human signature.
But Rumsfeld embraced the politics of showmanship, acting as the Pentagon’s chief of public relations. He had a stern, unflappable bearing, and he liked to hear himself talk — as in his infamous riff about “known unknowns,” which was a deflection about a lack of evidence concerning Iraq’s link to terrorist groups: “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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, the filmmaker Errol Morris spoke at length about Rumsfeld, the subject of Morris’ film The Unknown Known. He said of Rumsfeld’s strained relationship to the truth that “lying sort of presupposes this mental element. It suggests that you’re deliberately telling an untruth, knowing that it’s an untruth. I’m not sure that I’d say that he’s lying. He’s never reflected deeply enough to actually consider whether what he’s saying is the truth or a lie.”
Morris continued: “If you say the absence of evidence is an evidence of absence, it gives you license to conjure any kind of horror, threat, or menace — and act on it. It gives you license to imagine that Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons when he doesn’t. It allows you to imagine that he’s in league with terrorist organizations when there’s no evidence. It allows you to say whatever you feel like saying, sell it to the people, and act on it. To me, that’s not about democracy. That sounds very, very, close to fascism.”
Rumsfeld backed Donald Trump for president in 2016.
He was 88.