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Journalist and Author Andrew Cockburn on Donald Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy

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It’s been almost one year since the first of six retired U.S. generals began calling for the departure of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Andrew Cockburn is the author of the controversial new biography, “Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.” Cockburn talks about Rumsfeld’s role in the Iraq War, his links to the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, his time as a pharmaceutical executive, and his tenuous relationship with George H.W. Bush. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been almost a year since the first of six retired U.S. generals began speaking out against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, calling for his departure. Their criticism helped to ignite or may well have been ignited by public scrutiny of Rumsfeld, who was confronted during speeches around the country.

RAY McGOVERN: I would like to ask you to be upfront with the American people. Why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary and that has caused these kinds of casualties? Why?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, first of all, I haven’t lied. I did not lie then. Colin Powell didn’t lie. He spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence Agency people and prepared a presentation that I know he believed was accurate, and he presented that to the United Nations. The president spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence people, and he went to the American people and made a presentation. I’m not in the intelligence business. They gave the world their honest opinion. It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.

RAY McGOVERN: You said you knew where they were?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were, and we were —

RAY McGOVERN: You said you knew where they were, “near Tikrit, near Baghdad, and northeast, south and west of there.” Those were your words.

DONALD RUMSFELD: My words — my words were that — no, no, no, wait a minute! Let him stay one second. Just a second.

RAY McGOVERN: This is America, huh? Go ahead.

DONALD RUMSFELD: You’re getting plenty of play, sir.

RAY McGOVERN: I’d just like an honest answer.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I’m giving it to you.

RAY McGOVERN: We’re talking about lies and your allegation that there was bulletproof evidence of ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Was that a lie, or were you misled?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Zarqawi was in Baghdad during the prewar period. That is a fact.

RAY McGOVERN: Zarqawi, he was in the north of Iraq, in a place where Saddam Hussein had no rule. That’s where he was.

DONALD RUMSFELD: He was also in Baghdad.

RAY McGOVERN: Yeah, when he needed to go to the hospital. Come on, these people aren’t idiots. They know the story.

DONALD RUMSFELD: You are — let me give you an example. It’s easy for you to make a charge, but why do you think that the men and women in uniform every day, when they came out of Kuwait and went into Iraq, put on chemical weapon protective suits? Because they liked the style? They honestly believed that there were chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons on his own people previously. He had used them on his neighbor, the Iranians. And they believed he had those weapons. We believed he had those weapons.

RAY McGOVERN: That’s what we call a non sequitur. It doesn’t matter what the troops believe. It matters what you believe.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst, questioning Donald Rumsfeld last year. And there were other moments.

HEATHER HURWITZ: Mr. Rumsfeld, you are a war criminal.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: This is a question to [inaudible], explain to me how the war on terror ends.

HEATHER HURWITZ: You have been accused of crimes against humanity by And thousands are coming this weekend to drive you out of office, you and your whole administration.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Secretary Rumsfeld, I’m sorry that your First Amendment rights were not respected at the National Press Club.

HEATHER HURWITZ: Step down, Mr. Rumsfeld! Bush administration, step down! And take this program with you. You are torturing people! You are signing off on torture! It’s happening! This world needs to wake up and stop this war, this criminal war! You are a war criminal!


DONALD RUMSFELD: We’ll count her as undecided.

AMY GOODMAN: That was protester Heather Hurwitz at the National Press Club, confronting and then being taken out as she was confronting the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. When we come back, we’ll be joined by the author of a new book called Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy, Andrew Cockburn. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a new book by investigative journalist Andrew Cockburn, which goes behind the scenes to reveal never-before-told stories about Donald Rumsfeld, relying on sources that include high-ranking officials in the Pentagon and White House. It chronicles Rumsfeld’s early career as an Illinois congressmember to his rise in the Nixon White House. From his tenure as CEO of pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle to his decisions as Defense Secretary in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is called Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy. The author, Andrew Cockburn, joins from us Washington, D.C., writer and lecturer on defense and national security affairs and author of five nonfiction books. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Andrew Cockburn.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Hey, good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. As we talk about Scooter Libby and whether he was the fall guy for a higher-up, namely Vice President Dick Cheney, why don’t we start off by talking about Rumsfeld’s relationship with Dick Cheney?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, it’s a very — you know, it’s a key relationship in the history of our times. It goes back to the Nixon White House, when Cheney went to work for Rumsfeld, when Rumsfeld first moved over there from the Congress. And he was regarded in those days by anyone who encountered them as very much Rumsfeld’s flunky. And he rose with Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld put him out to pasture when he went off for a job in Europe for a couple years, but then brought him back as his deputy in the Ford White House.

But then, actually, interestingly, I discovered, to my surprise, that during the years in the relative wilderness for Rumsfeld, when he was out of office and decided to run for president, which he always thought he was the person most fitted for that job, in 1988, he called on Cheney and said, you know, “Report for duty, Cheney.” And Cheney, by this time, had his own political career and refused. And Rumsfeld took tremendous umbrage at this and went into a deep sulk and actually wouldn’t speak to Cheney for some years. And then, of course, the partnership was reforged with disastrous effect this time around.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Rumsfeld’s relationship with George Bush Sr.? Why did the president, the former president, dislike Rumsfeld so intensely?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Because it goes back to — they were basically rivals, first of all, at the court of Richard Nixon, because they were each sort of proteges of Nixon, and each found ways to court Nixon’s favor. But then, in the Ford administration, they were rivals for the slot. They both wanted to be picked by Ford to run with him in 1976. And Bush suspected, entirely correctly, that Rumsfeld had sabotaged his chances by getting him made head of the CIA, which was thought — I mean, wrongly, as it turned out — but was thought to have politically neutralized Bush for the rest of his career.

And the loathing continued. I mean, Rumsfeld used to give very sort of cruel imitations of Bush. He would entertain dinner parties with his renditions of Bush’s style of speaking. And then, when Bush was elected president, Rumsfeld applied for a job as ambassador to Japan. And Bush wrote across the letter, “No. This will never happen. G.B.” So, it’s — you know, it’s endured.

AMY GOODMAN: So what does it say about George W. Bush, that one of the few men who were in that circle that, as you put it, the former president and George W. Bush’s father, of course, despised, that he made one of his top key people in his own administration, George W. Bush?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, isn’t that very interesting? I mean, it tells us a lot about the relationship between the two Bushes. You know, we’ve heard this before, that there was an antipathy certainly on the younger Bush’s side towards his father. I mean, who knows? Unless we get him on the couch one day, we’ll not really find out where this came from. But it’s certainly there. I mean, you know, there’s so much anecdotal evidence of him expressing resentment — I mean, his famous remark that he didn’t pay attention to his own father, but he answered to a higher father, as he told Bob Woodward. So it’s there. And how can one not assume that the appointment selection of Don Rumsfeld to be his defense secretary was, in a way, one more jab by the son toward the father?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back, before we go forward and talk, for example, about Rumsfeld and the torture memo, to something that most people may not be aware of and that’s a very significant part of Rumsfeld’s life, which is being the CEO of the pharmaceutical company Searle and his links to as aspartame. Tell that story, Andrew Cockburn.

ANDREW COCKBURN: OK. Well, when Rumsfeld left office with the Ford administration in January 1977, he signed on first as a consultant and then as CEO with G.D. Searle, which was then — it’s since disappeared — but it was then a very major pharmaceutical company and was owned and run by people he had been to school with, the Searle family. And the company, at that time, was in desperate trouble. I mean, the belief on Wall Street was that it was going under, because they had been rather badly managed, and they were facing a major grand jury investigation for what — I mean, just to put it in kind terms — was misleadingly reported drug tests on new products. So the grand jury was about to open fire on them.

So they appointed Rumsfeld. And the only ray of light for the company was this artificial sweetener called aspartame, which they discovered actually by accident, but seemed to have great potential. But there was, again, a problem, which was that the FDA was responding to the views of certain — of a lot of scientists who thought that it gave people brain cancer. So it was not releasing it. So Rumsfeld’s major mission while he was in that job was to get this stuff released — approved for release for sale to the public, which he finally managed to do, but only after the Reagan administration came in, whereupon the FDA commissioner was promptly fired, and someone more obedient was put in, who, of course, approved release. So that’s how Rumsfeld made his money and earned his reputation, you know, as a capable businessman, which a lot of people dispute.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn now to the key issue of torture. Talk about how Donald Rumsfeld got involved with condoning, laying the groundwork for the memos around torture, Andrew Cockburn.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, I mean, if you really want to go back to the beginning, I think it’s that he’s a rather harsh individual. But you have to remember, in that job he was in alliance with the neoconservatives, who had been saying for years that we must take the gloves off with terrorism, not let the rule of law interfere — I mean, Doug Feith had been saying that for years — so that right from the beginning, once — you know, after the September 11th attacks, there was a predisposition to go down this route.

And we can see it very early on in Afghanistan, when, for example, when they captured the unfortunate John Walker Lindh, the American youth who had joined the Taliban. Instructions arrived from Washington immediately from the Office of the General Counsel at the Pentagon, who was Rumsfeld’s lawyer, essentially, saying take the gloves off in interrogating this young man, which they certainly did.

Then on, you see there’s a paper trail, most significantly or most vividly, perhaps, a December 2, 2002, memo signed by Rumsfeld that approved a whole bunch of — well, I mean, torture techniques is exactly what they are. They call them, you know, counter-resistance techniques, and there’s all sorts of euphemisms for them, which — you know, stress positions, sleep deprivation, harsh noises, all the sort of dreary or the repellent sort of litany of things they’ve used that have become famous since, particularly at Abu Ghraib. He approved them.

We know that, actually, this was specifically intended for the use against one particular prisoner, Qahtani, who was in Guantanamo, who they thought was the 20th hijacker. And we know from, you know, an internal investigation later that Rumsfeld was personally involved in monitoring the torture — I mean, the interrogation, which was a torture interrogation, of this one particular prisoner.

So then, of course, when Abu Ghraib — when Iraq — after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, these same techniques were then transposed there on Rumsfeld’s direct order. Not only that, we know from court testimony — or as I describe, court testimony in the case of the lower-ranking people, who are the only ones who have been tried on this matter, that Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who’s done his best to tiptoe away from all this but was very much involved, were actually in regular contact with Abu Ghraib, with the prison, to see how the interrogations were coming on. So, you know, his footprints — and I chart this — or fingerprints, I should say, are all over this repellent practice.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Cockburn, I wanted to go back to an excerpt of an interview we did last November. We talked to Mohammed al-Qahtani’s lawyer Gita Gutierrez. She’s one of the attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights that filed a war crimes lawsuit in Germany against Rumsfeld and other high-ranking U.S. officials for their role in the torture of prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo. She described what Mohammed al-Qahtani said happened to him at Guantanamo.

GITA GUTIERREZ: Specifically, he was subjected to approximately 160 days of isolation, 48 days of sleep deprivation, which was accompanied by 20 hour-long interrogations, consecutively. He would be permitted to sleep for four hours, between 7:00 a.m. and 11:00, in order to disrupt his sleep patterns and wear him down psychologically.

During that period of time, he was also subjected to sexual humiliation, euphemistically called “invasion of space by a female,” at times when MPs would hold him down on the floor and female interrogators would straddle him and molest him.

He was subjected to religious humiliation and was forcibly had his beard and hair shaved, which, of course, is a violation of his faith.

He was physically abused, had medical professionals in the room during his interrogations monitoring him and at times doing medical procedures on him in conjunction with the interrogation.

So, he was put through quite a number of tactics, in and of themselves which would constitute torture, but certainly in combination had a tremendous and severe psychological and physical effect on him.

AMY GOODMAN: Gita Gutierrez, speaking to us from Germany, where the Center for Constitutional Rights had gone to file suit against Donald Rumsfeld, other high-ranking officials, including Alberto Gonzales, General Sanchez and General Miller, as well, who headed Guantanamo, then went to Abu Ghraib to, as they say, “Gitmo-ize” Abu Ghraib. Andrew Cockburn, the significance of this, how Rumsfeld responded to this, how he dealt with questions from President Bush over this?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, of course, he denied it. I mean, he’s always tried to deflect, you know, blame for any of this often on the ranks of subordinates, which is what he tends to do. And when there was an investigation in response to complaints from FBI men at Guantanamo at the treatment of many including Qahtani, Air Force Lieutenant General Schmidt, who actually interviewed Rumsfeld on this specific issue of Qahtani, Rumsfeld actually sort of joked about it. I mean, it’s absolutely disgusting. He said, “Oh, did I really give orders to put a bra on this man’s head and make him dance with another man?” to which Schmidt replied, “Yes, you did, sir.” You know, it’s Rumsfeld all over. He will, time and time again, I found that he will order something, he will call something to happen, and then when he’s questioned on it, he will seek to blame others.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Rumsfeld after the attacks of September 11th?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, he sort of became famous. He was in decline at that point. He was doing very badly at the Pentagon. Then, on September 11th, he was, you know, famously advertised as having gone out, rushed out to help the wounded. Well, what actually happened was that the plane hit the building — the planes that hit in the — you know, there had been the attacks in New York, Rumsfeld actually had gone on, rather like Bush listening to My Pet Goat, he had gone on with his normal day. His bodyguard had realized that something actually was up and was waiting outside his door to take him somewhere, to some bunker somewhere.

When the plane hit the Pentagon, Rumsfeld emerges from his office and sets off, without a word to anyone, without telling any of his command staff where he was going, to have a look. They wander through the building, and eventually they find the place, you know, the crash site. He does help push one gurney, one stretcher, across the grass for a minute or so. And then it dawns on him that, you know, maybe he’s in the wrong place. Meanwhile, the radio, the guard’s radio, is erupting with messages saying, “Where’s the secretary? Where’s Mr. Rumsfeld?” because, you know, he was the secretary of defense. The country was under attack. He actually had a job to do. But, of course, they couldn’t go back, get back, because those frequencies were jammed, to say, well, he’s here. So during these — for 20 minutes, he was completely out of touch.

Meanwhile, Cheney, in his bunker under the White House, was busily ordering passenger planes to be shot down all over the place. So, I mean, he contributed materially to the whole dysfunctional reaction to the attacks, and then finally wandered back, got to his command post, actually only 50 minutes after the plane had had hit the Pentagon, and finally began issuing what turned out to be totally irrelevant orders. So really, I’d say, it was rather a typical day for Rumsfeld. He was in the wrong place. You know, he didn’t do his duty and concerned himself with irrelevant matters.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Cockburn, why did you choose to write this book? And, as you did it, what surprised you most?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, I did it because, I mean, it was clear to me that this man, even beyond what we generally thought, was — you know, had this immense power. I mean, for years, there he had been. He had been one of the most powerful people in the world. And really, beyond a few sort of impressions and some myths peddled by himself, like helping the wounded on 9/11, we really didn’t know that much about him. I mean, one senior White House person I talked to about him, I said, “Well, is he really that powerful?” He said, “Are you kidding? He gets to spend half the discretionary budget of the United States government, and he has a total veto on foreign policy. How powerful is that?”

What surprised me most — I really wasn’t thinking — was how incompetent he was. I mean, what a poor manager. You know, among the myths peddled about him was he was this, you know, no-nonsense efficient CEO, an American business hero, basically on the basis of peddling this — of, you know, his time with the drug company, where he had functioned more as a lobbyist than anything else. So what I found time and time again was how sort of useless he was, that he couldn’t — you know, he sprayed memos everywhere — he called them snowflakes — ordering people to do this, that and the other thing. But, actually, after a while, the bureaucracy realized that if you paid no attention, nothing much happened to you, because there was never any follow-through. And he used to send out a hundred a day, so, of course, he had no time to find out if anyone had paid attention.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2006, you write that George W. Bush said to his father, “What’s a neocon?”

ANDREW COCKBURN: That’s right. One of the rare moments of sort of communication between the two. Bush said to — they were out at Kennebunkport, and Bush Jr. says, “Can I ask you a question? What’s a neocon?” And the father says, “Do you want names or a description?” The president says, “I’ll take a description.” He says, “I’ll give it to you in one word: Israel,” which is interesting on all sorts of levels, including the confirmation that our president doesn’t really read the newspapers.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean when you say that. And how do you know that this conversation took place at their vacation home?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, I can’t really say who told me, but it’s someone who was — I have absolute confidence in both in their — that they’re telling the truth and also in their position to be aware of this conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 40 seconds. You had Rumsfeld playing a war game after George H.W. Bush became president, playing the president. End there.

ANDREW COCKBURN: He played numerous war games. When he couldn’t become president himself, he decided to act the part, so he took part in secret high-level Pentagon war games, where they rehearsed what happens when there’s a nuclear attack. And other parties, other players noticed that Rumsfeld, instead of getting on with what he was meant to be doing in this game, which was reconstructing the country, reconstituting the government, he was all for blowing up the world. I mean, he was all for instant massive retaliation to incinerate the Eastern Hemisphere, is what he really liked doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Cockburn, I want to thank you very much for being with us. His book is Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.

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