Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris joins us to talk about his new film, "The Unknown Known," based on 33 hours of interviews with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The title refers to an infamous press briefing in 2002 when Rumsfeld faced questions from reporters about the lack of evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. "The Unknown Known" is Morris’ 10th documentary feature. He won a Best Documentary Oscar for his film "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara." His other films include "Standard Operating Procedure," about alleged U.S. torture of terror suspects in Abu Ghraib prison, and "The Thin Blue Line," about the wrongful conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a Dallas policeman. The release of "The Unknown Known" comes in a month marking 11 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, leaving an estimated half a million Iraqis dead, along with at least 4,400 American troops.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Excerpts of "The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld," a song cycle of actual Rumsfeld quotes by composer Bryant Kong and vocalist Elender Wall. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this month marks 11 years since the United States invaded Iraq, and the legacy of that invasion is staggering. At least half a million Iraqis are dead, along with at least 4,400 American soldiers. Thousands of civilians and soldiers have been left maimed and continue to suffer from mental trauma. One Harvard study estimates the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined will cost the United States as much as $6 trillion.
Well, we spend the rest of the hour looking at a key architect of the Iraq War: former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He’s the focus of a new documentary by Oscar-winning director Errol Morris called The Unknown Known. The title refers to an infamous press briefing in 2002 when Rumsfeld faced questions from reporters about the lack of evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This is the trailer.
ERROL MORRIS: Let me put up this next memo.
DONALD RUMSFELD: You want me to read this?
ERROL MORRIS: Yes, please.
DONALD RUMSFELD: "All generalizations are false, including this one." There it is.
NEWS ANCHOR 1: Rumsfeld survived Watergate with reputation intact.
NEWS ANCHOR 2: Possible vice-presidential running mate with President Ford.
NEWS ANCHOR 3: Questions about Rumsfeld are whether he’s too ambitious playing second fiddle to Reagan.
DONALD RUMSFELD: The credit belongs to people who are carped at and criticized and said, "Oh, my goodness, you’re warmongers." And we need to understand how we got to where we are. Who do we want to provide leadership in the world? Somebody else?
ERROL MORRIS: When Shakespeare wrote history, the motivating force was character defects, jealousies, etc., etc., etc. Maybe Shakespeare got it wrong.
DONALD RUMSFELD: Maybe he had it right.
Governor Reagan decided to have George Bush to be vice president.
ERROL MORRIS: It seems to me that if that decision had gone a slightly different way, you would have been future president of the United States.
DONALD RUMSFELD: That’s possible.
ERROL MORRIS: How do you think that they got away with 9/11? It seems amazing, in retrospect.
DONALD RUMSFELD: Everything seems amazing in retrospect.
Stuff happens. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And you have to pick and choose. Well, to the extent you pick and choose and you’re wrong, the penalty can be enormous.
Subject, unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know, that it turns out you did not.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the new documentary, The Unknown Known. Its director, Errol Morris, joins us now. This is the 10th documentary feature he has made. He won an Oscar for Best Documentary for his film Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, which is about another secretary of defense, this time in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His other films include Standard Operating Procedure, about alleged U.S. torture of terror suspects at Abu Ghraib, and The Thin Blue Line, about the wrongful conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a Dallas policeman, the movie credited with leading to Adams’ exoneration. Film critic Roger Ebert called Morris’s first film, Gates of Heaven, about the pet cemetery business, one of the 10 best films of all time. He was also one an executive producer of the Oscar-nominated film, The Act of Killing. Errol Morris is a regular contributor to The New York Times opinion pages, where he is currently in the middle of a four-part series titled "The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld."
Errol Morris, welcome to Democracy Now! Why Donald Rumsfeld? Why did you choose him to be your subject of this film?
ERROL MORRIS: Things take on a logic of their own. I had made The Fog of War about Robert S. McNamara, a central figure, for me, as a young man, because of the war in Vietnam, one of the great disasters in American history. And I made the movie because of questions about that war. How did we get into such an incredible mess? Fifty-eight thousand American soldiers dead, millions of people in Southeast Asia dead. Call it the salt-and-pepper shakers or the bookends, but another disastrous war, another secretary of defense, and I decided that I wanted to do it again. Also, I had made a movie about Abu Ghraib, so there are a whole number of issues which are of great interest to me.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But the interesting thing is McNamara was sort of the reluctant warmonger, whereas Rumsfeld, in your film, is so certain about everything that he does. How did you first get him to agree to sit down, not just for an hour or two hours, for 33 hours of interviews, and to reveal so much about his own thoughts to you?
ERROL MORRIS: The simplest answer is because he wanted to. He wanted to explain himself. He wanted to provide an account of what he had done. Very early on, our first meeting—
AMY GOODMAN: Did he call you, or you call him?
ERROL MORRIS: I called him. I sent him a copy of The Fog of War in a letter. And I was told by his lawyer, Bob Barnett, that he would never, ever, ever speak to me. He said, "Forget about it. This is never going to happen." But he did call me. I went to Washington. We met. And this film is the result.
AMY GOODMAN: In that trailer we just played, he talked about the possibility of having become president. How would that have happened?
ERROL MORRIS: Could have happened in a whole number of different ways. He was extraordinarily successful at a very young age—four-term congressman from Illinois and then a whole number of Cabinet-level appointments in the Nixon administration.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: He was the youngest secretary of defense in the history of the country, right?
ERROL MORRIS: Eventually, in the Ford administration, one of the youngest chiefs of staff, if not the youngest, before his assistant, Richard Cheney, took his place, and then the youngest secretary of defense. He has that distinction of being the youngest and the oldest secretary of defense, first time around for Ford and, of course, second time around for George W. Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: He wrote like 20,000 memos?
ERROL MORRIS: They were called "snowflakes," because there were so many of them, probably more—
AMY GOODMAN: And they were on white paper.
ERROL MORRIS: Probably more than 20,000.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn back to the film, Unknown Known.
ERROL MORRIS: How about "a lot"? We’ll call them—he wrote a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: Donald Rumsfeld talking about those memos that he wrote on Iraq.
DONALD RUMSFELD: If you look at the range of my memos, there might be one-tenth of 1 percent about Iraq. The reason I was concerned about Iraq is because four-star generals would come to me and say, "Mr. Secretary, we have a problem. Our orders are to fly over the northern part of Iraq and the southern part of Iraq on a daily basis with the Brits, and we are getting shot at. At some moment—could be tomorrow, could be next month, could be next year—one of our planes is going to be shot down, and our pilots and crews are going to be killed, or they’re going to be captured. The question will be: What in the world were we flying those flights for? What was the cost-benefit ratio? What was our country gaining?" So you sit down, and you say, "I think I’m going to see if I can get the president’s attention, remind him that our planes are being shot at, remind him that we don’t have a fresh policy for Iraq, and remind him that we’ve got a whole range of options"—not an obsession, a very measured, nuanced approach.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known. Our guest, the Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris. We’ll be back with him in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest this half of the show is Errol Morris, the director of the new documentary, The Unknown Known. He has won an Oscar for Best Documentary for his film The Fog of War. That was Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. This film is about Donald Rumsfeld. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in this clip from The Unknown Known, our guest, Errol Morris, asks Rumsfeld about the torture memos that authorized techniques such as waterboarding against prisoners captured by the United States.
ERROL MORRIS: What about all these so-called torture memos?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, there were what? One or two or three. I don’t know the number, but there were not all of these so-called memos. They were mischaracterized as torture memos, and they came not out of the Bush administration, per se; they came out of the U.S. Department of Justice, blessed by the attorney general, the senior legal official of the United States of America, having been nominated by a president and confirmed by the United States Senate overwhelmingly. Little different cast I just put on it than the one you did. I’ll chalk that one up.
ERROL MORRIS: Was the reaction unfair?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, I’ve never read them.
ERROL MORRIS: Really?
DONALD RUMSFELD: No. I’m not a lawyer. What would I know?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Errol Morris, talk to us about that exchange you had with him.
ERROL MORRIS: Strange, looking at the clips, even here. They’re clips, of course, that I’m more than familiar with, having spent so much time with Donald Rumsfeld and having spent so much time edited this movie. Things surprised me in the interview and still surprise me. Someone asked me, "Is he completely insincere?" And I said, "No, the problem is he’s completely sincere." When he tells you he never read those torture memos, I don’t think he did. When he reads the laundry list of enhanced interrogation techniques, a.k.a. torture, he himself seems surprised by what he’s reading, as if he had never really carefully read them before. He suddenly says, "Good grief, that’s a pile of stuff." There’s this odd disconnection between these policies and what he thinks he’s doing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about his—there are two things that struck me in the film. One is his periodic smile, that this—
ERROL MORRIS: The grin.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The grin of complete certainty about everything that he’s saying. And then the other thing is his relationship to language and his use of language. It’s certainly—he always seems to believe he has a better command of the answers than—clearly, than anyone asking him the questions.
ERROL MORRIS: I would put it differently. Orwell, George Orwell, wrote about how language could be used by people in power to control others. Often, I think this is a new twist on the story. He’s controlling others, hiding things from others, and also hiding things from himself. The end of the story, he retreats into a kind of strange Looney Tunes world of language, where he thinks if he can just find the right set of words, everything will be OK.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, but I just want to ask him about that grin, the smile. Your sense of it?
ERROL MORRIS: My wife calls him the Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland. Alice says about the cat, "I’ve often seen a cat without a grin; I’ve never seen a grin without a cat." It’s this strange, disembodied grin almost, this look of self-satisfaction, of pleasure, the cat that swallowed the canary. This is one of the strangest and most disturbing interviews I’ve ever done.
AMY GOODMAN: Of those tens of thousands of memos, what most shocked you? I mean, you’re bringing us, as you did with Fog of War, the war—then Vietnam, now Iraq—from the perspective of the person who’s running that war, or one of them.
ERROL MORRIS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the question is: What about at the target end? Do you have a desire to make a film from a victim’s perspective?
ERROL MORRIS: I had a desire to make a very specific kind of film. I call it history from the inside out. This was also true of McNamara, Fog of War. How do they see the world? The memos, the oral history is a way in. I didn’t interview 15, 20 people. I interviewed one person.
AMY GOODMAN: Though you did interview many people; you just used one in the film, right, around this film, asking them their thoughts about Rumsfeld?
ERROL MORRIS: I interviewed only one person on camera. I actually interviewed two people on camera, but I knew I wasn’t using the second interview. It was an interview with his wife Joyce, who I very much liked.
But you asked me a question about whether there was one memo among these tens of thousands of memos that stood out among others. And I would say, yes, the most disturbing of the disturbing memos, of Rumsfeld’s greatest hits. Here’s a man of slogans and epithets and rules, etc., etc., etc. "Weakness is provocative." "Pearl Harbor is a failure of the imagination." But the most nefarious of them is: "Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence." And he said this to—guess who—the president of the United States. I see him reading this memo. Where does it come from? From the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It was used by the British astronomer Martin Rees and by Carl Sagan. We’re looking for intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. Universe is a very big place. We haven’t found evidence, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not out there. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, he’s talking about weapons of mass destruction.
ERROL MORRIS: This gets transferred over to—guess where—Iraq.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the—I want to play an exchange—
ERROL MORRIS: Where it makes no sense, I might add.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to play an exchange from the Pentagon briefing in 2002, the infamous briefing when Rumsfeld first described his ideas about the known unknown to the public. He was questioned by NBC’s Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski.
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: Could I follow up, Mr. Secretary, on what you just said, please? In regard to Iraq, weapons of mass destruction—weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, 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.
DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: The reports that say there’s—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?
PAM HESS: Free associate?
DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: Yeah, they can—they can do things I can’t do. Barbara?
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: Excuse me, but is this an unknown unknown?
DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: I’m not—
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: There’s several unknowns, and I’m just wondering if this is an unknown unknown.
DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: I’m not—I’m not going—I’m not going to say which it is.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Donald Rumsfeld back in 2002. But Donald Rumsfeld has been back in the news this week. During an appearance on Fox News, he said a trained ape could do a better job in Afghanistan than President Obama.
DONALD RUMSFELD: Yeah, our relationship with Karzai and with Afghanistan was absolutely first rate in the Bush administration. It has gone downhill like a toboggan ever since the Obama administration came in. Now, take for example the fact that we have status of forces agreement probably with 100, 125 countries in the world. This administration, the White House and the State Department, have failed to get a status of forces agreement. A trained ape could get a status of forces agreement. It does not take a genius.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Errol Morris, your reaction to this latest statement by Don Rumsfeld?
ERROL MORRIS: Horrified. We all know that the various officials of the Bush administration, George W. Bush himself, will never be held accountable for most, if not all, of the things that happened under their watch. They can now sit back and crow about one thing or another and indulge in one form of partisan politics after another. Maybe that’s the most disturbing thing about this story. If they took us to war for no good reason, shouldn’t they be in some way held accountable for that fact? Isn’t that important to our democracy, that we just don’t simply sweep the past under the rug, that we deal with it in some fashion?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, interestingly, in your interview with Rumsfeld, one of the—one of the mistakes he believes he made was not resigning after the Abu Ghraib revelations, even though he hastens to add that it was overblown as a systemic problem rather than a problem with a few guys, a few bad apples in the military on a night shift.
ERROL MORRIS: He tendered two resignations, neither of which were accepted by the president. He often wants to have it both ways. He will provide some gesture suggesting that he takes complete responsibility and on the other hand take none.
AMY GOODMAN: Does he ever apologize?
ERROL MORRIS: That word is not really part of his lexicon. No, there are no apologies.
AMY GOODMAN: What most shocked you in your 33 hours of conversation with Donald Rumsfeld?
ERROL MORRIS: So many things. The fact that he unendingly says things which are not true, about—he unendingly says things that are false. Does he even realize it?
AMY GOODMAN: So you say he lies throughout?
ERROL MORRIS: Lying—
AMY GOODMAN: We have two seconds.
ERROL MORRIS: —depends on a conscious element. Who the hell knows what’s going on upstairs. I most certainly don’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Errol Morris, I want to thank you for being with us, the director of the new documentary, The Unknown Known. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 2nd.