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Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with Newsweek

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
January 14, 2002

(Interview with Evan Thomas, Newsweek. Also participating was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke.)

Thomas: This is trying to be a different story. It will be hard to believe, but a journalist's story that's not about conflict, but the absence thereof. The lack of conflict between the principals.

To be honest with you, I'm not sure I can pull it off because we normally write about conflict, but I have a feeling the fresher story here coming out of the fall is about how the principals managed to get through a difficult time without there being endless stories in the newspaper about them fighting with each other or their staffs fighting with each other.

Rumsfeld: We're on the record?

Thomas: Yeah. I mean we can go off the record if you want. It's whatever makes you comfortable.

[Off the record portion deleted.]

Thomas: That's what reporters do. It's our constitutional obligation to find division between --

Rumsfeld: It's so pedestrian to try to personalize everything.

Thomas: But there's a lot of precedent, Mr. Secretary. Think of all the epic battles that were fought between Schultz and Weinberger and between the National Security --

Rumsfeld: Schlesinger and Kissinger.

Thomas: Sure, it goes way back.

Clarke: -- obituary.

Thomas: And Rumsfeld and Kissinger. No wonder we're looking for it.

Rumsfeld: You can't find it, I'm afraid.

Thomas: That's what I want to explore.

Rumsfeld: You'll have to get a transcript from Torie where I admitted that there are -- we were at a press conference in Australia and this woman, I've forgotten her name.

Clarke: Curlesk, Jean Curlesk.

Rumsfeld: Okay. Asked a question. I wouldn't know her -- some woman.

Clarke: It was some woman, front row, and because there had been a story in the New York Times suggesting there were differences between you and Colin Powell.

Rumsfeld: And Colin was sitting next to me and the prime minister of Australia and the foreign minister of Australia, the defense minister of Australia and Rumsfeld and Powell, for the 50th Anniversary of ANZUS. This woman said, "Mr. Secretary," to me, "are you and Secretary Powell on different sides of the North Korean issue," or whatever it was. I thought here we go.

I said -- you can get the transcript, it's very funny, and this is an enormous roomful of people. I said look, Secretary -- he's sitting right here -- Secretary Powell and I agree on every single issue that has ever been before this administration except for those instances where Colin's still learning.

The room broke up laughing. He broke up laughing.

But it is an administration that -- I guess it begins with leadership of the president. He decided who he wanted and he asked them to come into the administration, and it happened that three of us knew each other pretty well, and -- the vice president and Colin. And indeed, most of us knew Condi. I'm trying to think who else in the mix -- but had worked with each other on various occasions. Enjoyed each other, respected each other, and I've been in several administrations, this is the fourth, I guess, in one way or another, and it is -- there is a notable absence of not disagreement, not differences on substantive issues, but disharmony, if you will. I don't know if that's the right word, but conflict. The president stepped in and is decisive and decides things. And once the president decides something, it's decided. Then you get about it and go after it. He gives people a fair chance to make their case and say what they think and is perfectly comfortable hearing different views, and he's also perfectly comfortable making a decision which then ends any further discussion about it or any further debate about it.

Thomas: Did he ever make it clear to you in any way, convey to you in any way, that he didn't want to read in the newspapers about you fighting with each other? Did he ever say that? Was that unspoken, or did he ever explicitly say I don't want to see disharmony?

Rumsfeld: I can't remember whether he did. I know there have been discussions about leaks of classified information in the administration which is understandable because of the violation of criminal law.

Thomas: I'm not talking about that. I'm not talking about security leaks. I'm talking about leaks that go to how the top people are getting along with each other and making policy. Did he ever say anything about that even off-hand? A joke, a reference to it.

Rumsfeld: I just don't recall.

Thomas: So certainly nothing that stuck in your mind. Okay.

Is it something that goes without saying? Because you guys have been doing this so long?

Rumsfeld: It is so unhelpful to a president and an administration and a substantive position or direction or goal that you're trying to achieve for the country to have the distraction of what has taken place in earlier administrations become the subject of debate as opposed to the substance of the issue.

Thomas: Why do you think it became, it was the norm? Why was it, certainly perceived to be the norm. I mean you mentioned yourself going in a list, even Rumsfeld/Kissinger.

Rumsfeld: But it was very little Rumsfeld/Kissinger.

[Off the record portion deleted.]

Thomas: You're a student of this. Why was it the norm? Why is it the expectation of people who --

Rumsfeld: Because the press loves it. They enjoy that. That's what sells newspapers. Somebody doesn't like somebody else. It's a lot easier for a person who doesn't know a lot about the issues to talk about the personalities, so it's an easy job for someone to write that.

And look at what's happened on Osama bin Laden and Omar. Or Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. There's a natural tendency for things to become personalized, and the Saddam Hussein thing, I suppose people in government contributed to that. I've tried to avoid that with respect to UBL or Omar, simply because their networks go on regardless of whether they are. Plus it's so enormously difficult to find a single person.

Thomas: Why do you think, some pretty sophisticated principals in the past have fallen into this trap. I know the press has a desire for it, but why have the principals --

Rumsfeld: My guess is it's for the most part not the principals but it's probably down a layer. Someone comes back from a meeting and talks to someone under him. I don't even like the subject of the story you're writing, frankly. It hypes the issue. And I don't know that I'm enamored of it.

But I would guess that most of the principals are probably fairly professional, and they probably come back to their office and they start, where's this department, where's that department. Each department has a statutory responsibility and they have a different perspective so it's natural that they're going to look at things somewhat differently. They come back from meetings and say something, and the next thing you know someone in that meeting says something out to the press or to somebody else and it ends up in the newspapers that this department's position is that and that department's position is something else.

Thomas: So how have you managed to keep that under relative --

Rumsfeld: I've talked to my people about it. I really think it's unhelpful to the president of the United States and I think it's unhelpful to the country for that to be the focus. And I want people to keep things on a professional basis and on the substance. And strengthen their own substantive arguments if they feel they've got something that's the right position and some other department or agency has a different position. And win on the merits rather than winning by subterfuge.

Thomas: I don't mean to get too much off on this institutional thing, it's just a backdrop. I'm more interested, actually, in the way you relate to, talk to, know the other main figures.

Rumsfeld: It's an easy relationship. I hired the vice president in 1969 and we worked very, very closely together. He was my top assistant and then later my deputy as chief of staff of the White House, so he worked with me in the Office of Economic Opportunity, worked with me on the Economic Stabilization Program, worked with me in the White House, then I was over here and he was still there. It's an easy, comfortable relationship. The same thing is true, Colin Powell knows this department. I've been an ambassador so I know something about that department. And there's good humor.

I would never had said what I said in that Australian press conference if there hadn't been a very good relationship. Some yahoo in the audience, in the press audience, wrote it as serious, suggesting that I was taking a crack --

Clarke: It was not a U.S. yahoo.

Rumsfeld: No, it was not a U.S. yahoo. (Laughter)

Thomas: An important distinction.

I assume that you tease each other and joke with each other.

Rumsfeld: Sure.

Thomas: This is extremely hard to get at, and giving me an example where it happened in public, where you did it in public. But I am interested if I can get at other examples where you used humor or affectionate teasing to deflate something or to get on -- I know this kind of thing is hard to do on demand because it's spontaneous and it's natural, but it is part of the relationship. It doesn't take many examples, but if I had a couple of examples where you were able to disarm something or diffuse something, or just how you inter-relate --

Rumsfeld: These are in private meetings. But I can remember sitting there one day in a National Security Council meeting just as it was beginning and made some, I got very serious and I said that "Colin, you are the Secretary of State of the United States of America. You are the senior diplomat. You are the spokesman for our policy. Everyone listens to you and you are causing enormous confusion in the world because the president is saying Kabul and I am saying Kabul and the vice president is saying Kabul, and you are saying Kabool [ph]. Now at what moment are we going to get this sorted out?" Something like that. But it's that kind of thing that is just -- it's kind of -- what did he do to me today?

[Off the record portion deleted.]

Thomas: Is that routine, your teasing each other?

Rumsfeld: Sure. It's not a routine, but it's just our nature.

Thomas: I don't mean "a" routine, but a natural part of every --

Rumsfeld: It's generally a not unpleasant experience to be in close proximity to the vice president or the secretary of state or the president. He's as bad as anybody, or as good.

Thomas: Does Dr. Rice share in this?

Rumsfeld: Absolutely. And George Tenet. It's a very compatible group.

Clarke: From a staffer's perspective, having been in the presence of principals for a long time, it's very clear they enjoy being in each other's presence, and in terms of what does happen institutionally in this town, I think that's one of the reasons it doesn't happen. You see people who clearly respect one another, like one another, work together so easily. That tends to have a good ripple effect going down.

Rumsfeld: Also what the president's said. The fact that he likes to hear different views and perspectives and pros and cons, and is comfortable with that, comfortable making a decision. Everything doesn't have to be pre-chewed like baby food before it comes to him.

Thomas: Do you speak to each other in a kind of shorthand born of experience? Are your conversations more efficient because you've had so many discussions over the years with each other you sort of know what each other are saying? Is that a factor?

Rumsfeld: It's fairly -- I don't know. I would suspect it probably is fairly efficient. Certainly when you know -- when you go through what we've just gone through and you're together that much, every day, more than once, and on the phone more than once, inevitably you're going to end up with an ability to communicate with each other that doesn't require a lot of elaboration.

Thomas: Was there a learning curve even within the course of the fall? I know you've known each other for a long time, but did it get more efficient as the fall went on?

Rumsfeld: I suspect so. I mean if you're in a situation like we've been in where you're heaved together so continuously, either on the phone or on video or in person, it's bound to be the case.

Thomas: What are the mechanics of this? Just very briefly. Do you see each other literally every day?

Rumsfeld: We generally have a 7:15 phone call and --

Thomas: Who's on that call?

Rumsfeld: Colin and Condi and me. The three of us. Then I was having an every Friday lunch with George Tenet. This was before the war. I was having a lunch every Wednesday I think with Colin and Condi and the vice president. And we were having at least one or two principals committee meetings a week. We were having at least an NSC meeting a week. Before the war. Since then we've been having almost daily, six days a week, NSC meetings and principal committee meetings. I just came out of one.

Thomas: Daily? Physically you're in the same room?

Rumsfeld: Most of the time.

Thomas: What room do you --

Rumsfeld: We were today. The presidents or the principals committee meeting? We use the situation room in the basement of the White House. And today the vice president was there, and Tenet and Colin and Condi and me and Steve Hadley and the NSC staff. The president was not on because it was a principals meeting as opposed to an NSC meeting. But Saturday we were on with the president on whether -- I think he was in the room. He was. Colin didn't have a necktie on, and he was teasing him about his dress code. But he was in a sport coat at the end of the table, I was there in a sport coat. So Saturday we had a meeting early. And by then I'd already been on the phone with the CINC.

Thomas: Does the president use nicknames with the principals?

Rumsfeld: He tends to call me Don and he tends to call Cheney Dick, and Colin, Colin.

Clarke: Except when he's calling you matinee idol. (Laughter)

Rumsfeld: Whoa.

Clarke: No, I meant that in terms of he seems to have nicknames for his staff. Like Ari is Ari-bob. But he doesn't have nicknames for his Cabinet secretaries, but he does --

Thomas: Thank you, Torie.

So much of this is about confidence. All life is, but I just, this is an exceptionally confident group of men and women. Yes, people who get to that position generally are, but even measured by the standards of Cabinet officials it seems to me watching TV and knowing, I know Powell a little bit, the vice president a little bit, and I've watched you on the tube, that there is a greater level of visible confidence that I'm familiar with. Do you think that's true? And how important is that to the mix?

Rumsfeld: We're old, and age helps you -- (laughing) -- a long time. I hadn't thought about that, really. I think we have confidence in each other and confidence in the president, and one would hope he has confidence in each of us. He certainly acts like he does. That kind of confidence -- oh, you were referring to self confidence.

Thomas: Yeah, self confidence. Both. And they're related, but I really was thinking about self confidence. There are various elements of this. Being old, one way I know that's sort of you have nothing else to lose. You're not --

Rumsfeld: I'm not running for anything and neither is the vice president.

Thomas: Right.

Rumsfeld: Basically you want to do a good job for the country, and in the case of the Department of Defense you want to do a good job for the people in the service. What they do is so important and so noble, if one thinks about it, voluntarily risking their lives. You need to do things as well as is humanly possible or you put them at risk.

Thomas: It's also a group that I would say is pretty, not known for whining. You can often hear the sound of whining in Washington, people complaining about --

Rumsfeld: I hadn't thought about that, yeah. That's not what we do. I rarely see any hand wringers at that level. I hadn't thought of that, but I suppose you're right.

Thomas: The only time I recall there being anything in the press that was at all interesting was early in the game Elaine Sciolino did a piece that Wolfowitz was out there on Iraq and there was a conflict, a coming conflict between Wolfowitz and the people around him and the Defense Department, and you're sort of floating in this unidentified. And Powell and the State Department. This got some ink in September and then it sort of went away.

Do you recall that? And when that came up, how did you deal with that? Or did you just not give a damn?

Rumsfeld: No, I do care. I think it's important for people who work for a president to not box the president in, to not say and do things that limit his options. And I can remember when that flared up and I don't know what caused it or how except that Paul and I had signed a letter I think on Iraq, and so had Rich Armitage and --

Thomas: Right. And Perle was --

Rumsfeld: Yeah. And we had signed a letter and -- but sure we talk about it. We said this isn't helping the administration. We all want to know what we think, we ought to work on what we think, we ought to argue what we think, but we ought not to try to do it the way that it ends up affecting his freedom of action. I'm for arguing and discussing and debating and questioning things internally. If you're in a position of responsibility, because you do report to the president.

Thomas: How free is that? How heated and free is that internal -- you can be acerbic and certainly forceful. When you're sitting around with the other principals do you go at it if you disagree? Or are you in some ways careful to modulate your opinion?

Rumsfeld: I think that you don't get very far in this crowd by raising your voice. It's the power of your argument, the persuasiveness of your argument, not the shrillness of your communication.

Thomas: But you can be blunt-spoken in public. Are you that way with the principals, or do you sort of not need to be? It's hard to visualize. I can see you in a Pentagon briefing being blunt and teasing and giving a hard time when people get into a stupid question, you let it be known that it's a stupid question. Everybody has a certain nervous laugh.

I mean are you, if you think somebody's just off-base when you're meeting in a smaller forum privately, do you let them know or not?

Rumsfeld: For one thing, these are smart people. These are people who are experienced. These are -- it's rare when somebody in that group would say something that you could, certainly people say things you wouldn't agree with, but in terms of saying something that is thoughtless or without thought or without basis. I'm more inclined to ask questions as to why in the world somebody would think that or say that or believe that or come to that conclusion and try to figure out what's behind it than sticking it, simply because you have enough respect for the other person to know you haven't walked in their shoes and they've done things you haven't done and they've been talking to people or had briefings you haven't had, and so I'd be more inclined with that group to say my goodness gracious, why in the world would you say that? I saw this, this and this and the other thing that led me to the opposite conclusion.

If you begin with a basic respect for other people's judgment and other people's knowledge you're not, you do things in good humor, but that's --

Thomas: I have a theory about General Powell, let me try it on you. That is that he has an institution which has a strong institutional point of view which is sometimes in conflict institutionally with the Defense Department or the White House, but that Powell's own personal style is such that he doesn't let himself become a creature of the institution. He's not ideological, he doesn't carry fixed ideas. He has a kind of a nimbleness for a big man especially. He's not wedded, he's sort of more practical and he's not going to let him get sucked into whatever it is the State Department bureaucracy is pushing that day. It's just sort of not his nature. And that is one thing that alleviates potential tension amongst the principals, that Powell is not speaking for the institutional State Department, per se. He is able somehow to detach himself from that and have some perspective on it. Is that a fair generalization?

Rumsfeld: If people are going to be persuasive they had best have thought something through and have reason for their position. That is to say a reason other than that is what the institution happens to think today.

And you're quite right. He does, he is more practical as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to something. But I think that's true of anyone in that group. I don't think any one of us comes into something simply because that's what the conventional wisdom on something is.

Thomas: As I recall the principals meetings are often just the principals, nobody else.

Rumsfeld: Sometimes, sometimes not. Today they weren't. Today we had plus one.

Thomas: Is that significant that you're meeting in a smaller forum, so to speak than generally has been the practice?

First of all, the threshold question, are you meeting as a small group more often than was typical in earlier administrations?

Rumsfeld: Yes, we are.

Thomas: How did that come about?

Rumsfeld: Those are frequently breakfasts or lunches or phone calls, and -- mostly, I'll bet you three out of four are plus one's. I had Doug Feith with me today, and I'm trying to think -- one of the problems with having a lot of people is then nobody gets any work done. If there are going to be that many meetings, as there are, and more than one person is doing it, then that means that one additional person isn't doing something here. That's fine if you're in the White House on the National Security Council, which is what you do with those things interagency. We've got a department to run. And Colin has a department to run. Now Armitage was there today, but --

Thomas: Isn't it also to hold the information more tightly though? And doesn't it give you a greater freedom of expression?

Rumsfeld: Sometimes it is. Sometimes it's because we're trying to figure out what our priorities ought to be and talking about looking ahead a month or two or three. How we wanted to sequence things. It varies. But a lot of the time I think they ask Paul not to come simply because, or I've not gone and Paul goes. Simply because there's just so much work here. It's an enormous institution.

[Off the record portion deleted.]

Thomas: There were reports that you had to sort of push General Franks early in the game to come up with creative plans, this is 680th Special Forces on the ground. That has become a cliche in the reporting about the war and I want to hear you address that.

Rumsfeld: General Franks is the combatant commander. I've got a relationship with him that is once or twice a day on the phone at some length discussing next steps and where we're going. He is a military commander in charge. He's doing a darn good job. It seems to me the way to think of it is that, I am the civilian leadership, he is the military commander. We talk through everything so that I can give my advice to the president and so that General Myers can give his advice to the president, and the three of us are on the phone, either Myers or Pace and Rumsfeld and Franks, or DeLong, his deputy, at least twice a day. And it is -- I don't remember that I've ever thought of anything original in my life. I go around with people who are smarter than I am, that know more than I do and have done things I haven't done and asked questions and talked to them and figure out what I think. And when I figure out what I think, I will then talk to other people about it. And we end up on the phone and I'll say what about this, what about that, what about this, what about that, and he'll have ideas and we'll talk about things and ultimately out of that iterative process comes what happened. And trying to -- it's like trying to take a rubber band ball and a string knot and say how do you follow it through as to where something came from. I don't know where it came from. I know that I did talk to the president either before I was sworn in or immediately afterwards and told him that I believed that the best interests of our country required that the United States strengthen the deterrent so that the rest of the world got out of their mind this idea that every time we lost a life or got popped we'd pull back.

And when you think back, when three people strayed across the line and we pulled back three kilometers. When the ship goes into Haiti and someone fires a shotgun at it, it leaves. And the Somalia pull-out. I just said that it is clearly out there, that the United States is at risk, a dear friend of mine, (name inaudible) in France, was ambassador to NATO when I was ambassador to NATO 25, 30 years ago. I had dinner with him before this administration came in, and he said there's a problem. The world believes your country is risk averse and you won't do anything that -- there's nothing that's worth the loss of a life. There's no cause that's that important.

Thomas: Who told you this?

Rumsfeld: I don't know if we should use his name. His name is (name inaudible). He's 92 years old now. We had dinner about a year and a half ago.

Thomas: Who is he?

Rumsfeld: He was the French ambassador to NATO when I was ambassador to NATO in 1974, '73, '72. Whatever. Wonderful man, thoughtful man. And he said you really have to think about that, your country does.

I talked to the president about it, and I said I want you to know that I feel that way, that I think we're risking the greater loss of life by seeming to not be, by seeming to be risk averse. And bomb them from 20,000 feet, and announcing before a conflict you're not going to put troops on the ground, for example, which demystifies it for the other side. They then know you're not going to put troops on the ground, in which case it's free play for them.

So we talked about this. The president said you're exactly right, I agree completely. I said, so I want you to know because when something happens, and it's going to happen sometime in your term, that we're going to have a conflict and there's going to be a need for a decision, and I want you to know that I'm going to be coming at you and telling you that I believe our country has to lean forward and not back, or else we're going to be encouraging others to do things to us. And all anyone has to do to get their way is to take a pop at us and we'll pull back. We have to disabuse them of that.

Thomas: This conversation with the president took place before or after you -- about the time that you were being sworn in?

Rumsfeld: Exactly. Somewhere in that period when he was either asking me in late December if I'd be willing to do this, or shortly after that, either before or after I was sworn in, but in that 30 day period. And we had a good talk about it. He agreed completely. He has exactly the same instinct.

Thomas: Did you have to remind him after September 11th of this?

Rumsfeld: No, sir. He was leaning forward and he didn't rule out anything. There was no, we won't use ground troops or we won't do this or we won't do that. He said by golly, we're going to go at the terrorists where they are, and he was very decisive and very firm and he's been exactly that ever since.

Thomas: Thank you.

Rumsfeld: Thank you.