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The Rumsfeld Uncertainty Principle

Into the great unknown with Errol Morris and Don Rumsfeld, the Cheshire Cat of 9/11.
Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known.

When you look at someone's face through Errol Morris's Interrotron, a camera whose lens is tucked behind a video image of Morris' face—it aims to simulate a frank, eye-to-eye conversation—you can get the feeling that you're staring deep into their soul. (I tried to simulate the effect when I interviewed Morris, to pathetic effect.) There's a similar kind of intimacy promised by Donald Rumsfeld's weapon of choice, the Dictaphone, which allowed him to be frank and immediate in recording the thoughts that comprise his estimated 50,000 Pentagon memos, the little musing "snowflakes" that amount to a kind of atlas to modern wars that never end.

And yet, while these gadgets might encourage intimacy, they don't automatically create it. This might serve as one summary of Morris' new portrait of Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known: evidence of intimacy doesn't mean intimacy of evidence.


Here the former Secretary of Defense comes across, if nothing else, as the most interesting person in the Bush administration. That's partly because of his unflappable approach to disaster ("I don't do quagmires," he said in 2003), and partly because of his unfailing ability, in the midst of disaster, to get philosophical.

The film's title refers to Rumsfeld's famous evasion, during a press conference, to a question about evidence surrounding WMDs in Iraq, the so-called "known knowns" that led to a US invasion in 2003.

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns. These are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.

In one go, Rumsfeld demonstrated his capacity for both martial metaphysics and mansplaining sophistry. And though he never answered the question, his reply, from an epistemological perspective, is accurate and fair. To be generous, it was an important philosophical point.

Morris, who once studied under the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, told me his central operating question was also the central question of philosophy: what to do next? But it's also about how to do it. It's the asking of those questions that have no answers.

That is what Rumsfeld was doing during that press conference; interesting, sure, but not very helpful in response to a question about a thing like that.


Rumsfeld would add another relevant, telling category later: "Subject: unknown knowns, that is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not." The kind of thing you think you know, based on information that seems solid but which in reality isn't very solid at all. This kind of known sounds like an easy trap for the metaphysician—the kind of person, like Rumsfeld prone to question, even as a diversion, the very definition of truth. ("All generalizations are false, including this one," he wrote in a memo. "There it is!" he tells Morris.) Implicit in Rumsfeld's array of epistemology, there is always a very fine line between the known known and the unknown known.

How did a philosopher with a postmodernist's fascination for language (often in his memos he's grabbing a dictionary) get into the Pentagon, and what effect did he have there? It's not uncommon to find metaphysicians in the military; lots of generals like to philosophize and write books with titles like Art of War and Duty. Rumsfeld called his memoir Knowns and Unknowns.

Forgive any of us if we get lost trying to read through all of this stuff, and in the style of Morris, in the stuff about the stuff, in the hopes of coming to a coherent idea of who this Rumsfeld guy is and what he's about. (Rumsfeld himself has even made a valiant WikiLeaks-like effort at doxxing himself, compiling many of his memos on his website, though it's not quite complete.) And bear with Errol Morris as he attempts to continue a psychoanalysis of Rumsfeld and his process in a four-part blog exegesis of his own film. Rumsfeld's memos amount to an "epistemology from hell," Morris writes. Summing up his close reading of those memos, he compares Rumsfeld's grins to the ineluctable grins of the Cheshire Cat, and Rumsfeld himself to a turtle.


he lacked the ability to discriminate between truth and fantasy. That over the years he had developed a gobbledygook philosophy that—seemingly paying lip service to empiricism—devalued evidence and made a mockery of logic. Alas, if you believe that you are 100 percent right, then your beliefs are like a hard, impenetrable, protective shell, like the carapace of a turtle.

Or don't bear with it. On the face of it, Rumsfeld is a simple read, and Morris has, to use Rumsfeld's phrase, gone down another rabbit hole. An exhausted commenter on the Times site boiled it down, "While interesting to read, this series amounts to over-thinking. It's pretty clear to everyone that the Bush Administration wanted to invade Iraq. The lack of clear information about WMD was exploited to justify the invasion."

But nothing is over-thought for Morris. And Rumsfeld seems to embrace Morris' stare, satisfied with the prospect of chronicling his contribution to American history (a theme emphasized in the video introduction on his website). Or perhaps his ego is already too stroked to notice the parallels Morris is implicitly drawing with Robert McNamara, the apologetic secretary of defense who presided over Vietnam, and whom Morris interviewed in The Fog of War.

"He never, almost never, rarely, tells the truth." An excerpt from The Unknown Known (Via the Daily Beast)

Did Rumsfeld see that film? When Morris asked him if he had, according to Fred Kaplan in the Times, "Mr. Rumsfeld said that he disliked it because McNamara, who spent much of the film regretting past mistakes, had nothing to apologize for."

But that's not quite true, according to Morris himself, writing in the same newspaper, five days prior:


But it was never clear to me whether he had watched it. Notwithstanding, he told me, “that man [McNamara] had nothing to apologize for.”

I imagine Morris would be tickled by this basic known unknown, and by its distortion in the paper of record; and why not, when little bends like this—he might have seen it, he saw it; there could be WMD; there's definitely WMD—can be decisive in the kinds of decisions that remake the world. It was after all Pulitzer Prize-winner Judy Miller's exclusives on the front page of the Times (riddled with little 'known knowns' via the now disgraced Ahmed Chalabi) that carried Rumsfeld's vision for remaking the world to the public most convincingly.

A vision of regime change was already on Rumsfeld's mind in September 2001, when he wrote a memo to himself describing a war that was already a foregone conclusion:

If the war does not significantly change the world’s political map, the US will not achieve its aim. There is value in being clear on the order of magnitude of the necessary change. The [US government] should envision a goal along these lines: New regimes in Afghanistan and another key State (or two) that supports terrorism…

And then there's this memo, written in November 2001, in preparation for a meeting with CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks in Tampa, Fl. Here, Rumsfeld imagines how to topple Saddam:

Rumsfeld isn't apologetic about what's happened, any more than he's willing to admit a flaw in the profound logic system that led us to where we are now. I think of his snowflakes as the pieces of that system, a kind of Rumsfeldpedia.


By ingesting Rumsfeld's thought-blizzard into lines of code, a clever programmer could probably fashion a Rumsfeldbot which would be able to offer Rumsfeldian drips of advice on command. This is how Morris described Rumsfeld's mind map to Motherboard's Whitney Mallett last year:

It's like a maze or a labyrinth. I kept thinking of the guy in “Funes, the Memorious,” who remembers everything and hence remembers nothing. Or maybe it's its own fable. The guy who surrounded himself with memos of his own life. So many, many, many—let me do it a couple more times—many, many, many memos that he really successfully obliterated the world around him. It became his own private solipsistic crazy world of his own devising and he was powerful enough to make it stick.

Morris says that the phrase “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” has been attributed to Martin Rees, O.M., astronomer royal, former master of Trinity College, and ex-president of the Royal Society, who used the phrase with Carl Sagan when discussing the possibility of intelligent life in the cosmos.

Some brains may package reality in a fashion that we can’t conceive. Others could be uncommunicative: living contemplative lives, perhaps deep under some planetary ocean, doing nothing to reveal their presence. There may be a lot more life out there than we could ever detect. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The 1977 "Wow" signal, which has been claimed as possible evidence for intelligent life in the cosmos

An inability to read the facts wasn't the problem, no: a failure of imagination was to blame, Rumsfeld said. He lifted this, he said, from an essay by Thomas Schelling. In his memoir he recounted a memo from July 23, 2001: “I do not want to be sitting before this panel in a modern day version of a Pearl Harbor post-mortem as to who didn’t do what, when, where and why,” I wrote. “None of us would want to have to be back here going through that agony.”

I sometimes remarked that the only thing surprising is that we continue to be surprised when a surprise occurs. In 1962, Harvard economist Thomas Schelling wrote a foreword to a book on Pearl Harbor that captured this idea perfectly. “We were so busy thinking through some ‘obvious’ Japanese moves that we neglected to hedge against the choice that they actually made,” [Schelling] wrote. “There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.” I was so taken with his piece that I sent a copy to President Bush during our first month in office as well as to many members of Congress.


Schelling—who never actually wrote the words "failure of imagination"—tells Morris doesn't see the same parallels between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 that Rumsfeld sees: in both cases, there wasn't a lack of intelligence. There was a failure to acknowledge the intelligence. At Pearl Harbor, two operators of a Naval radar didn't really know how to respond to the blips on their screens, and shrugged them off as American planes. In the summer before 9/11, the intelligence people who had been tracking the plot lost it amidst bad cooperation and a lack of interest by higher-ups. In the wake of 9/11, that inability to read the intelligence properly, to be led by some kind of doctrine, led to other mistakes.

In a memo written a few days later, on July 27, 2001, Rumsfeld warned about the looming threat of Iraq, specifically due to the dangers American pilots faced as they patrolled the no-fly zone, which was established after the first Iraq war. He wasn't obsessed with ousting Saddam, he tells Morris; he was taking "a very measured nuanced approach."

"We see what we are prepared to see," writes Morris. "The problem was not an absence of evidence. There was a glut of evidence. The problem was how to interpret it, how to see it."

The bit about known knowns and unknown unknowns might have come from Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan economist, who delivered a presentation on uncertainty at the Pentagon shortly before Rumsfeld's press conference. Rumsfeld says "known unknowns" came from a NASA administrator, William R. Graham, when he and Rumsfeld served together on the Ballistic Missile Threat Commission in the late 1990s, a group that effectively promoted the build-up of missile defense, despite the lack, found later, of any credible threat, even to this day.


Members of our bipartisan commission were concerned that some briefers from the US intelligence community treated the fact that they lacked information about a possible activity to infer that the activity had not happened and would not. In other words, if something could not be proven to be true, then it could be assumed not to be true. This led to misjudgments about the ballistic missile capabilities of other nations, which in some cases proved to be more advanced than previously thought.

In many cases however, they didn't. Maria Ryan, of the University of Nottingham (Morris writes "Birmingham"), responds: "In sum, although intelligence gathering may always be an inexact science, policy makers would do better to concentrate on what we do know rather than fantasise about what we do not."

In 1983, Rumsfeld met his arch enemy in Badgdad during the Iran-Iraq war when the Reagan White House was more sympathetic to Iraq

It reminds me of Mulder, the dogged X-Files investigator who embraced a motto that was both honest and self-defeating in his quest for the paranormal truth: I want to believe. Belief you ride as a kind of defensive surfboard above the Sargasso Sea of knowns and unknowns, with a wetsuit made of epistomological speculation.

To Rumsfeld's philosophical wetsuit, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek added another definition of the "unknown known," after the revelations about abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The revelations followed months of complaints from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which were systematically ignored by the Pentagon, and were vividly illustrated by a set of cruel frat-initiation-torture photography that became the subject of another of Morris's probing films.


Zizek flips Rumsfeld's definition of the "unknown known" on its head, drawing instead from Freud's idea of the unconscious, what Lacan called the "knowledge which doesn't know itself."

If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the "unknown unknowns", that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the "unknown knowns" – the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.

Not the things you thought were true but weren't, per Rumsfeld: the things you know but don't or can't think about. These disavowed knowns are the ones that govern the dark edges of our societies—the waterboarding, the black jails, the covert assassinations, the pervasive surveillance. The "dark" symbolism comes from Washington by the way: Dick Cheney said it would be necessary to "go to the dark side" to fight terrorists, and the FBI refers to its prospective NSA-style wiretapping abilities as "going dark."

An apparatus like this thrives on the Rumsfeldian approach. In this context, even leaking details about violations within the system elicits shrugs—either of the "I told you so" kind or the "so what" kind, as if it was naive to think that things were otherwise—or the indignant evasive response of, say, a defense secretary dismissing some knowns in favor of other unknowns. Tom Scocca identified this sort of response in his essay on smarm, which has spread like a viral blog article across the Internet:


Talk about something else, smarm says. Talk about anything else. This young man is in possession of secret official computer files that document the routine lawlessness and boundless intrusiveness of the American surveillance state. An unaccountable power is monitoring the entire global flow of information—which amounts, in contemporary practice, to monitoring thought itself. Illegally. Smarm says:

- Edward Snowden broke the law.

- Edward Snowden is a naif, who has already foolishly betrayed his nation's most vital secrets.

- Edward Snowden is an unstable, sensation-seeking narcissist.

- Edward Snowden isn't telling us anything we don't already know.

- Edward Snowden is a traitor. So what if Snowden is telling the truth? Just look at the way he's telling it.

In the style of Rumsfeld, let's call the other kind of "unknown knowns" the necessary evils (but what's evil anyway?).

One of Rumsfeld's snowflakes—notably not included in the archive on his website

Rumsfeld believed, in spite of all the doubts and criticisms, in the rightness of invading Iraq because the evidence he and the administration assembled supported that belief. Regardless of how beneficial it is to go to "the dark side," for the future of the Middle East and the U.S. and the world, remember that a broken assembly of the "known knowns" helped lead us this way. The intelligence failures of 9/11 are all the more unfortunate given the intelligence failings after 9/11. This was the vortex of knowledge we were in, at least in Pentagon press conferences: Rumsfeld warning us about intelligence while also undermining intelligence: It can be hard to see all the unknowns beneath the "knowns." By the time Colin Powell went to the UN to make the case for war, the knowns had been turned into slides and props, reported the Times:

On two big screens, [Secretary Powell] showed satellite photographs of what he said were chemical and biological facilities, and drawings based on witnesses' descriptions of trucks and rail cars converted into mobile laboratories for lethal materials, allegedly intended to evade detection…


In the last several days, Mr. Powell held hours of meetings at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., where the director of Central Intelligence, George J. Tenet, and others went over the materials unveiled today… The result was an extraordinary public revelation of the C.I.A.'s tools: defectors, informants, intercepts, procurement records, photographs and, unusually, comments of detainees seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere since Sept. 11.

At many times, Mr. Powell said items of information from different sources corroborated one another. For example, he said, ''we have first-hand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails.''

On the long-term value of the war itself, Powell sounds as sanguine these days as the secretary of defense ("I guess time will tell," Rumsfeld told Morris blithely.) That the invasion of Iraq may be a very good thing from some angles—that question will remain up for debate.

But should we have gone in there even if we knew at the time that our arguments for war were erroneous? The way you answer that question relates not just to how much of a role you have in driving the course of the future, but just as importantly, how much do you want to write history?

Evidence: Colin Powell at the UN, holding a vial of "anthrax," with slides. Photos: Wikimedia

The deterministic belief in the evidence that supported this particular course of action was so infectious, that despite the same blind spots Rumsfeld warned about, Colin Powell also believed what he was telling the UN that day. This wasn't just information that he believed in, he told Al Jazeera in 2011. "It was information that the president believed in. That the United Kingdom and other nations believed… It was evidence that persuaded Congress to pass overwhelming a resolution of support… "

But it turned out as we discovered later that a lot of the sourcing that had been attested to by the intelligence community, was wrong. Imagine how I felt the day they finally came in and said to me, well we don't have four independent sources for that biological warfare van; It's one guy and he's loopy and he's in a German jail, and we've never talked to him. Hello? I felt terrible! And six months later the intelligence community is still standing behind that original judgment although nothing has been found. … it is a blot on my record. All I can say is, I gave it the best analysis that I could of all the information that was there.


Look at the Times the following day, February 6, 2003. The other top story on the front page, about the then-mysterious disintegration of Space Shuttle Columbia five days earlier, also displays the whole spectrum of known knowns and unknown knowns. "Range of theories but none that seem to fit all the facts," reads one subhead, which at another time might have applied to the bigger story that day.

"It just does not make sense to us that a piece of debris would be the root cause for the loss of Columbia and its crew," said the shuttle program manager in the days after the disaster. "We don't believe it's this chunk of foam. It's got to be something else that we don't know about."

The demise of Space Shuttle Columbia over Texas was the result of a hole in one of its wings that filled with hot gas, a hole that had been caused by a piece of insulating foam that fell off the fuel tank. But five days later, NASA still didn't think that the foam was to blame—it simply couldn't be, was the thinking, according to the Times piece (which is worth reading in full if you're interested in how those theories were developing "in real time"):

…today, Ron D. Dittemore, the shuttle program manager, said that he and other NASA officials did not believe that the lightweight insulating material could have caused sufficient damage to be a primary cause of the shuttle's disintegration. "Right now, it just does not make sense to us that a piece of debris would be the root cause for the loss of Columbia and its crew," Mr. Dittemore said at a briefing this afternoon at the Johnson Space Center here. "We don't believe it's this chunk of foam. It's got to be something else that we don't know about."


As Rumsfeld pointed out, when you don't see something that fits with your previous knowledge base, you might be likely to dismiss it. Or you might see things as they "must be" rather than as they actually are. The NASA managers were biased by their past experience—there had been tile damage before but "all that is well within our experience base, and for all these 112 or 113 flights, we have never identified damage that would be a safety-of-flight concern," Dittemore said.

While acknowledging it was within the realm of possibility, the shuttle bosses didn't see any evidence that would have suggested a problem during liftoff—which is to say, a problem that the shuttle bosses should have identified and actually tried to solve many days earlier. What they were seeing was in line with what they had wanted to see: no evidence that they had made any mistakes themselves:

He showed still photographs of the shuttle just before and just after the debris impact during liftoff. He acknowledged that they were not high-resolution pictures, but said that analysts had not seen "anything that would cause us concern." "So we're looking somewhere else," he said. "There's got to be another reason."

The shuttle program manager actually says "got to be" twice. Of course the solution to the mystery wasn't a matter of what it's "got to be." After the doubts and shoulder shrugs at NASA about that measly piece of styrofoam that "burst in a cloud of dust" when it hit the wing after liftoff, the answer to the mystery came from simple Newtonian physics. As Dittemore plainly states at the end of the Times piece, given the speed the shuttle was traveling, the math showed that the foam piece—"the largest piece of insulation ever to become detached and strike a shuttle in 113 flights"—was estimated to be traveling at 1,500 feet per second, or 1,020 miles an hour, more than fast enough to blow a hole through the shuttle's wing.


That bit of evidence wouldn't matter as much until a live demonstration was performed, in which a piece of styrofoam was fired at a simulated wing. (Video here.) "Before last week's test, many engineers at NASA said they thought lightweight foam could not harm the seemingly tough composite panels, and privately predicted that the foam would bounce off harmlessly, like a Nerf ball. But [G. Scott Hubbard, the director of the Ames Research Center at NASA] said the experiment showed that 'people's intuitive sense of physics is sometimes way off.'" However much evidence we may have, and no matter how skeptical we may be now about visual evidence, seeing is believing. No wonder Colin Powell argued for war with a PowerPoint.

Rumsfeld prefers to invert this logic: believing is seeing. Rumsfeld doesn't accept reality other than as evidence of the way he sees the world. As he tells Morris:

Barack Obama opposed most of the structures that President George W. Bush put in place: Guantánamo Bay, the concept of indefinite detention, the Patriot Act, military commissions. Here we are, years later, and they’re all still here. I think that has to validate, to some extent, the decisions that were made by President George W. Bush.

The "to some extent" is honest and crucial—you can call it validation or you can look at the evidence and call it lock-in, a set of policies that don't exactly lend themselves to easy exit strategies. In the aftermath of the history he shaped, is there any response more elegantly descriptive of Rumsfeld's world view than his other famous line, in response to looting after the Iraqi invasion, that "stuff happens"?

The nonchalance of that dismissal echoes Rumsfeld's own account of his ascension through the ranks of power. Like his own "imagination" of the facts, his ascent looks masterful by Morris' telling, if not on the order of House of Cards, at least enough to lead Nixon to call Rumsfeld "a ruthless little bastard.”

As Mark Danner observed at NYRB, to Nixon's suggestion that “we’ve done a hell of a lot for Rumsfeld…, he’s ready to jump the ship,” H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, replied: "No, I don’t think he’s ready to jump. And I doubt if he ever would, just because it serves his interests more not to. But I sure don’t think he’s ever going to be a solid member of the ship, except when it’s floating high."

When the ship crashed into the Watergate, Rumsfeld was already at a safe distance, having inserted himself into an appointment as ambassador to NATO, before returning to the White House as Gerald Ford's chief of staff and "the youngest secretary of defense in history,” as he points out to Morris, and the oldest. (Stuff happens.) From there, Rumsfeld didn't have to worry about the White House ship. He ended up steering it, and getting a "mission accomplished" banner on top.

Rumsfeld's arguments today for bigger military spending originate with President and former WWII Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Which is ironic, because he is the same president who warned in his farewell address about the threat of the defense department and its collusion with private interests. It was against this threat that he hoped citizens would remain alert, especially at a time of heightened fear. It was almost a Fog of War moment, the distinguished general sounding a note of hesitancy.

We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

The efforts to fight those abuses, through reporting of information, public and otherwise. But the abuses haven't abated. Journalists are subpoaned and monitored. Political leakers get pardoned; Whistleblowers get locked up. There is some truth to both sides of any argument, perhaps, but when one side can make up new truths in a black box, it can make up new justifications too, and it can do things that no one can do or say much about, because what can be said about an unknown unknown or—just as bad—an unknown known?

What can be said, for instance, about the findings of a Congressional report on CIA's post-9/11 detention and interrogation practices—practices that Donald Rumsfeld also endorsed? The report, which has been kept under wraps for nearly two years, appears to find the CIA may have overstated its "known knowns."

The report, built around detailed chronologies of dozens of CIA detainees, documents a long-standing pattern of unsubstantiated claims as agency officials sought permission to use — and later tried to defend — excruciating interrogation methods that yielded little, if any, significant intelligence, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed the document.

“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” said one U.S. official briefed on the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

Maybe we could say something trollish like, what's "actually true"?