On September 10, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a man out of time. Pursuing his madcap missile-defense strategies, proposing to radically downsize and reshape the American military, sending out “blizzards of snowflakes,” as his memos were called, and dreaming of regime change in Iraq, he was either a pest or an irrelevance, depending on where in the chain of command you happened to sit. But the attacks reoriented the arc of his career, giving his iconoclastic ideas a power they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Soon, Special Forces on horseback in Afghanistan were calling in bombers to drop massive “daisy-cutters” that killed everything in a three-mile radius. Rumsfeld had displayed conspicuous nervelessness after the plane hit the Pentagon, and before the week was out, he was urging the president not to let the crisis go to waste, to use it as an opportunity to remake the world by ousting Saddam Hussein.
For a while, Rumsfeld was a new man—“a damn fine secretary of war,” said one of his generals who had previously disparaged him. He was also one of the great press-conference artists and bureaucratic poets of all time, speaking of “known unknowns” and “untidy” freedoms and talking rings around his interlocutors—no doubt, he was one of the smartest, wittiest men in Washington. But the years after 9/11 made some of his ideas seem loopier than they had been before—the failure at Tora Bora gave the lie to his “revolution in military affairs.” And the long slog in Iraq, still not over, put him in the same conversation as Vietnam mastermind Robert McNamara, despite Rumsfeld’s assurance that “I don’t do quagmires.” McNamara eventually apologized.
Q: Is there any evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to or is willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction? Because there are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.
RUMSFELD: 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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. And so people who have the omniscience that they can say with high certainty that something has not happened or is not being tried, have capabilities that are—what was the word you used, Pam, earlier
?Q: Free associate? [laughs]
RUMSFELD: Yeah. They can. [chuckles] They can do things I can’t do. [laughte
r]Q: Excuse me. But is this an unknown unknown?RUMSFELD: I’m not—Q: Because you said several unknowns, and I’m just wondering if this is an unknown unknown.
RUMSFELD: I’m not going to say which it is.
Source: Department of Defense news briefing, February 12, 2002