Donald Rumsfeld Talks About Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq War, and Myths About Dick Cheney

With his new memoir hitting bookstores, the former Defense secretary talked with John Barry about how great Gitmo is, his "parade of horribles" memo on Iraq, and the myths about Cheney.

Donald Rumsfeld. Credit: AP Photo

The battle is joined. After a long silence, Donald Rumsfeld opened both barrels Tuesday, releasing his memoir, Known and Unknown . Early leaks of the book's defiant take on his life, times, and conduct of the Iraq War drew howls from some of the targets of his score-settling—notably John McCain, who proclaimed "Thank God he was relieved of his duties." But Rumsfeld battles on, taking his unapologetic account to the public in an interview with Newsweek's John Barry.

Rumsfeld, Defense secretary during the 9/11 attacks and architect of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, takes the title of his memoir from one of Rumsfeld's most famous remarks, when at a Pentagon briefing in 2002 he addressed uncertainties about Saddam Hussein's links to terrorism by launching into the distinction between known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

It's surely close to a "known known" that Rumsfeld's 815-page volume [Sentinel, $36] is not going to silence debate and recrimination about the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein's disappearing WMD, Guantanamo, and the global war on terror.

But Rumsfeld was clearly determined to write the most detailed and documented account of those years offered so far by a Bush administration insider. The project took him four years, a personal staff of 17, a trawl through several hundred thousand pages in his personal and official archives, supplemented by interviews with 21 senior military, some still serving, who had worked with Rumsfeld in his six years in the Pentagon under President George W Bush. To buttress his account, Rumsfeld has begun to place a selection of his papers on a website,, which, he writes, "accompanies and supports this memoir."

The site contains some startling additions to the public record across administrations. Take for example this never-before-released glimpse backstage at the White House, circa fall 1975, as Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney administer tough love to President Ford, whose administration was listing from management troubles within and a feisty primary challenger named Ronald Reagan.

“We had members of Congress savaging what was going on down there [at Gitmo],” Rumsfeld said. “And it was not true. That prison is a world-class operation.”

The brash aides' directive: Clean up the White House operation, or accept their resignations.

Or this memo, sent to Richard Nixon as Rumsfeld's attempt to urge the president to do more to help minorities—combating an unfavorable perception of Nixon on this score that persists to this day.

Or this, a memo Rumsfeld wrote upon first meeting George W. Bush, in which Bush apparently sought to "sell" himself to Rummy, and prove that he was not "born with a silver spoon in his mouth."

What follows are excerpts of Rumsfeld's Newsweek interview, conducted in New York City.

Newsweek: We live in a confessional culture. I'm not going to do an Oprah Winfrey on you…

Donald Rumsfeld (laughing): But I am…

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Newsweek: …but I want to know: What did you write this hoping to achieve ? What do you want to convey?

Rumsfeld: I wanted to give an interested reader, a serious person, an opportunity to see the complexity of the decisions, to have a chance to look at the actual documents, to hopefully feel they are there where decisions are being made and to be able to look at some analysis of some of those decisions. Some of which turned out well; some of which didn't. Some of which I feel good about; some of which I wish might have been done somewhat differently. And also because I've lived a third of the history of our country so that gives a sweep that puts this time in perspective with earlier times.

Newsweek: So you're battling in the memoir against the accepted versions that have come out so far.

Rumsfeld: Right, the narrative that has been fashioned by people who weren't there, but who are vested in that narrative.

Newsweek: A theme in the memoir is what a lousy job you think the media do in constructing a narrative of events. You refer to it as the media's opera: good guys, bad guys, clashes, denouements. Why? What is it, in your view, that we kept getting wrong in the events you lived through?

Rumsfeld: First of all, this was the first war of the 21st century. You're old enough to think back to World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. There wasn't even television back in World War II or Korea. There was television in Vietnam. But the Iraq and Afghanistan struggles have been taking place in the Information Age for the first time in history where people have 24 hours—they have videocameras and Sony cameras and emails and instantaneous communications. The communication channels that are available today are vastly different from the earlier period. And for whatever reason the premium is on speed as opposed to accuracy. I understand that. A lie, an inaccuracy, can race around the globe three or four times before, as I think Mark Twain said, the truth gets its boots on.

Second, we are dealing with a totally different set of problems. We are not dealing with nation states competing with each other in a fairly orderly way with armies, navies and air forces. We are dealing with non-state entities; we are dealing with having to conduct warfare in countries that we are not at war with, and in ungoverned areas.

These are new things for people, and it takes time for us to have our inner gyroscopes adjust to those things. And that may be very well true in your profession. It certainly is true in government. Our government has not refashioned our institutions to fit the 21st century and the Information Age.

Newsweek: Run through some of the big myths that you want to dispel.

Rumsfeld: You know, I really didn't write the book to dispel myths. I wrote it to try to say what I thought took place, and to document it for the first time. The books that have been written in large measure have either been written by people who weren't there—they were outside looking in—or they were written by people who gave a rather cursory view without a lot of documentation. I had the time and the good fortune and the archive that I could take my time and provide what I suppose is like anyone else's: It's my slice of history. It's what I saw. And I've tried to put it forward in a way that's analytical and honest. I had, I am going to guess, 50-60 people come in and talk with me about what took place in my business career or my early years or in Afghanistan or Iraq or whatever. And then we transcribed it and discussed it, and it stimulated my thinking and their thinking.

I've read memoirs over the years where I was involved in things and what I read wasn't my perspective. I remember saying to George Shultz, "I don't think I want to write a book because I've read other people's books and I see that it's their slice." And he said, "That's true, it's always going to be that way. But you should have your slice there, too. How it looked from your perspective." So I've enjoyed doing that.

Newsweek: Wars aside, we've been bad at grappling in non-kinetic fashion with Islamic extremism. If anything, it's spreading. Why?

Rumsfeld: We were as an administration as sensitive as anyone else to the risk of discussing and being accused of being negative about a religion. And we don't want that because we are not negative about a religion. But there is a big difference between the Muslim religion and radical Islamists. And we need to be engaged in a battle of ideas, a competition of ideas.

They have a conviction and they're promoting it and they're recruiting people and they're killing people. And we were cautious about discussing that, and the current administration is even more cautious than the last administration by a factor of 20.

Also, first of all, we don't know how to do it well. A government is nowhere near as far along [as the extremists] in adapting to the Information Age. We are still basically on an eight-hour, 12-hour day and one news cycle. But the world is just going so much faster than government is. So that was a problem for us, and it still is today.

Newsweek: Did decisions made at the time—Guantanamo, interrogations, the litany—did they worsen the image of America in the Arab world, do you think?

Rumsfeld: I'm not part of the Arab world, and it's hard for me to know precisely what their image was and how it's been adjusted. But if you have the media and even members of our own administration and members of Congress day after day leaving the impression that Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was engaged in torture and was doing bad things to people it was our responsibility to detain, eventually that water treatment takes hold in the world.

That happened. It was false. Guantanamo Bay prison is one of the best-operated prisons on the face of the earth. We invited members of Congress down there; 150, I think, went down. We invited the press down over and over. The International Committee of the Red Cross was there regularly. We invited international observers. A woman from Belgium came back and said it was so much better operated than any prison in Belgium, she couldn't believe it. But we had members of Congress savaging what was going on down there. And it was not true. That prison is a world-class operation. They have done a terrific job. And the men and women down there have been terribly abused through the media by others using the media who contend that it was a stain on America. And it ought not to have been. Now eventually does that take hold in the world and some people believe it? I'm afraid they do, even though it's not true.

Newsweek: Abu Ghraib did rocket around the world.

Rumsfeld: Oh my goodness yes. The pictures. A picture is worth 1,000 words and they were devastating. And so despicable and deviant and disgusting. It just was a heartbreaker to see that.

Newsweek: Let me turn to Iraq. Two questions. What was the hurry? And what were our options when we got there? The option you favored—I knew at the time—was to go in, overthrow Saddam, set up some sort of interim government, and get out as fast as we could. The other option was to stay there and try to turn the place into a democracy of some kind, which is what we eventually chose. Personally, I've always been amazed we stayed. Discuss that.

Rumsfeld: There is no question that within the administration there were differing views as to the pace at which we should do things. I happened to be among those who believed that we would be best off not making a career out of it. That we would be best off trying to find, as we did in Afghanistan, a way of having Afghans develop a government of sorts, develop a constitution of sorts, assume responsibility. I was pushing for that.

There were others within the administration who were concerned that you shouldn't go too fast. That it [an interim government] would lack legitimacy was the argument that was made in the National Security Council. These are tough issues, and there are good arguments on both sides.

I looked at Afghanistan and the idea that we are smart enough or wise enough or have the patience to take a country devastated by 12 years of Soviet occupation, drought, a civil war—landlocked, with difficult neighbors—and turn it into a modern democracy I think is a reach. A lot of countries have tried to impose their will on it. And it's also not clear to me that our particular template is right for every other country at every moment in their evolution. So there was that debate. And it's easier to delay something than to make something happen, so things tended to elongate rather than abbreviate.

Newsweek: Iraq?

Rumsfeld: Same, even more so. There was an argument as between whether or not some externals—people who were Iraqis but not living there, were in many cases in the U.S. or London or European countries—what their role ought to be. Would they be seen as legitimate? As opposed to internals: people who were there. Of course Saddam Hussein tended to repress or kill most of his opponents. So, looking around for a set of George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons among the internals: They didn't leap up. And so my view from the beginning was that we should have a mixture of internals and externals and begin to have them assume responsibility. But there were others in the administration who differed on that.

Newsweek: So we ended up with the Coalition Provisional Authority and Paul Bremer's long march to democracy.

Rumsfeld: He had a tough job, no question about it. And I suspect he was getting different views from the president, from the State Department, from the National Security Council, as well as from me.

Newsweek: Come to that issue of multiple voices. You devote a whole chapter to the problems with the way the National Security Council worked. In your view, Condi [Rice] wasted a lot of everyone's time trying to get consensus among competing views. Whereas, in your view, those should have gone to the president to decide. But there are those who say—were saying at the time—that President Bush didn't like to have to adjudicate those disputes. By that argument, Condi was doing what the president wanted.

Rumsfeld: I think your characterization is imperfect, in this sense: Condi of course is a very accomplished person. She had a terrific close relationship with the president. She was in a tough job.

I know two things. And I know I don't know a couple of things. I know that she unquestionably believed she was carrying out the president's views. She was not a freelancer. She had a very close relationship. She was with him every day and I was not. So there is no question but that she was attempting to serve him truly, accurately.

Second, I know that on any number of occasions I would meet with the president and he would be served up different views—two or three views within his National Security Council process—and he was perfectly comfortable asking questions, probing questions, and making a decision and going forward.

I know I don't know precisely why some things were not served up to him for clear crisp decisions. Whether it was him or Condi? I just don't know the answer to that question. But I know that on any number of occasions he was perfectly willing to make decisions and on any number of occasions, on important issues. I think that's a very fair, accurate representation.

Newsweek: Did the drift you saw materially affect outcomes?

Rumsfeld: I don't know. The road you didn't travel is always smoother. Who was it once said: Wars are a series of catastrophes concluded by victory? They are. There isn't any war that's smooth. The enemy has a brain. They watch what you are doing. They look for your weaknesses. They adjust and you've got to adjust. So whether something would have been better. You can have your opinion but you can't know that.

I sat down [before the invasion of Iraq] and listed all the things I could think of that could go wrong in the war. I called it "the parade of horribles" memo, and I mention some of them in the book. I even said in there we might not even find weapons of mass destruction.

Now a lot of things that we anticipated could go bad didn't. A lot of things we anticipated could go bad, did. And at the bottom of the memo, I said: You know, we could equally write a memo like this and say: What if you don't go in? What could happen that would be bad? Or good ?

One of the good things that no one ever mentions is that fact that because we went in, [Libyan leader Muammar] Ghaddafi—with a nuclear program well under way—made a conscious decision to give it up, because he didn't want to become another Saddam Hussein.

Newsweek: We've now been at war in two countries for almost 10 years. Did you remotely think it was going to take that long? And if you had thought that, would you have said 'Let's go ahead anyway'?

Rumsfeld: You know, you know intellectually that you can't know how long something is going to last; how much it's going to cost; how many lives are going to be lost. You can't know that, and I knew I couldn't know that. I was needless to say hopeful. And I recognized the fact that free people have limits to their patience.

So, if you are asking me, at the outset did I make a suggestion that it could last a long time? I did make that suggestion in my memos. Did I think it would be that long? No, but I said it could be; and I said the American people could lose patience, or problems could crop up elsewhere in the world. Was I prescient? No. I just came up with a list of things that we at least ought to have in our heads before the president made that decision.

Newsweek: But were the circumstances so exigent that those decisions would have been much the same had someone said at the time: Look, this is going to take 10 years, going to cost a fortune, and thousands of lives.

Rumsfeld: Let's take them separately. There clearly was no choice on Afghanistan. When you have taken the hit you have taken, and you know the lethality of the weapons [al Qaeda was believed to be seeking nuclear weapons] and you know the determination of al Qaeda and their hosts the Taliban. There was no war plan; there was no guide book. But the president, wisely in my view, decided you can't play defense against terrorists. We saw what happens when you do that. You have to go on the offense and you have to put pressure on them everywhere in the world and make everything they do harder, full stop.

Iraq: If you go back and think about it, in the '90s Congress voted the Iraq Liberation Act and announced that it was the policy of the United States for regime change. It was passed overwhelmingly by a Democratic Congress, and President Clinton signed it. The United Nations was engaged; after 17 resolutions, the U.N. was moving toward the position of the League of Nations… it was being seen as ineffective. It wasn't accomplishing anything with respect to Iraq. And there were some members [of the Security Council] that were I think leaving the Iraqis with the impression: Well, not to worry; we will look out for you at this end.

There were earlier suggestions that Iraq was in a box. I think it was increasingly apparent to most clear thinking people that [Saddam] wasn't in a box, that the 'oil for food' program was a catastrophe, a scandal, and he was doing just fine, and clearly not in a box.

When I arrived in the Pentagon in January 2001, the only country in the world that was shooting at our airplanes and the British airplanes almost every day—over 2,000 times—was Iraq, in the northern and southern no-fly zones that our aircraft, and French aircraft for a period, were patrolling on behalf of the United Nations.

Now, at that point too you look at the lethality of weapons [of mass destruction], and the growing conviction—the broad consensus that existed in the Congress, in the intelligence communities of many European countries as well as the United States—that Saddam possessed them.

Is the world a better place with Saddam gone? I believe it is. Can I answer your question any better than anyone else? No. Does anyone have to regret the loss of life? You bet—and frankly be inspired by the courage and dedication and patriotism and the pride of the men and women of the Coalition countries.

Newsweek: So to your old friend Dick Cheney, by popular account the Darth Vader of the Bush administration…

Rumsfeld: That was just nonsense. What was distinctive about Dick Cheney is he didn't aspire to be president. He didn't run around trying to make people think he was smarter than other people, or wiser, or in control. He decided he would serve the president, that he would not spend his time trying to politically feather his own nest and get ready to run for president, that he would not spend his time trying to curry favor with the press and make himself look good. He was going to serve the president, serve the administration. He did it in an honorable way. He asked very good questions. He preserved the president's options.

He never undercut the president. I don't even know what advice he gave the president on most issues. But I know in National Security Council meetings he was thoughtful, experienced, constructive, and supportive of the White House in preserving the president's options. What advice he gave privately is between the two of them.

Newsweek: So you don't buy the notion that he was the power behind the throne, as it were.

DR: Look. I am 78 years old. Almost every Republican president in my lifetime was characterized by a lot of people in the East and the media and the elites as not being very swift. That was the case with Ronald Reagan. It was the case with Gerald Ford. It was the case with Dwight Eisenhower [and his] poor syntax. And certainly it was the case with George W. Bush.

Now, if that's the case, what's going on? If he's not very swift, then it must be Dick Cheney who is the evil force. Well that's nonsense. These narratives evolve and get developed and reinforced. But what I've tried to do in my book and the website is to put up the documentation that I think was actually what took place. I admit there are a lot of people invested in the narrative that you have characterized. That doesn't make it so. They weren't there.

John Barry joined Newsweek's Washington bureau as national security correspondent in July 1985. He has reported extensively on American intervention in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Somalia and efforts for peace in the Middle East. In 2002, he co-wrote "The War Crimes of Afghanistan" (8/26/02 cover) which won a National Headliner Award and was a finalist in the ASME National Magazine Awards for public service and a finalist in the SPJ Deadline Club Award for investigative reporting.