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Council on Foreign Relations
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Harold Pratt House, New York, New York, Friday, February 17, 2006

KENNETH CHENAULT:  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to today's luncheon with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

I want to extend a particular welcome to our members participating via teleconference, and of course, an especially warm welcome to Secretary Rumsfeld.

Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for taking time to be with us today.

Approximately, half our program will consist of the secretary making remarks on an important topic, specifically, the changes our government and military need to make in the way they communicate.  In the second half, we will open the floor and the airwaves to questions on this or any other topic.  Both portions of the meeting are on the record.

Secretary Rumsfeld is one of the most experienced and dedicated senior public officials in our nation's modern history.  Many Americans know that this is his second tour of duty as secretary of Defense.  The first undertaken in a radically different period in the mid-1970s.  But many are unaware that he also served as White House chief of staff, U.S. ambassador to NATO, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and as a four-term congressman.  He also managed over the course of his career to make his mark on the world that I know best -- as CEO of two outstanding companies, G.D. Searle and General Instrument Corporation.

I think you would agree that he needed all of this experience and more to prepare him for the extraordinary challenges he has faced from virtually the beginning of this tour as secretary of Defense, beginning in January 2001.

Over the last five years, he has prosecuted two wars -- in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and dealt with terrorist threats all over the world.  Simultaneously, he initiated and is in the process of executing wholesale changes in the way our military is organized in order to adapt it to the needs of the new century.

Now, we will get to some of these subjects during our Q&A session.  But now, without further delay, let me present to you the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD:  Thank you very much, Ken.  Ladies and gentlemen.  Richard.  My old colleague in Congress, John Brademas -- nice to see you, sir.

I'm pleased to be back.  I've had the pleasure of meeting with this group on a couple of occasions recently, in the last few years.  I thank all you members of the council for playing a valuable role in -- over many, many years in encouraging an exchange of ideas about our country and the world.

As Ken indicated, we are meeting today in what is the beginning of the sixth year in which our nation has been engaged in what promises to be a long struggle against an enemy that in many ways is unlike any our country has ever faced.  And in this war, some of the most critical battles may not be fought in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq, but in the newsrooms in places like New York and London and Cairo and elsewhere.

Consider this statement, quote:

"More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.  We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of Muslims."

The speaker was not some modern-day image consultant in a public relations firm here in New York City.  It was Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri.

I mention this because I want to talk today about something that at first might seem obvious --but really isn't obvious.  Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but for the most part we -- our country -- our government, has not adapted.

Consider that the violent extremists have established “media relations committees” -- these are terrorists and they have media relations committees that meet and talk about strategy, not with bullets but with words.  They've proven to be highly successful at manipulating the opinion elites of the world.  They plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communication to intimidate and break the collective will of free people.

Go ahead and answer the phone.  What the heck.  (Laughter.)

They know that communications transcend borders -- and that a single news story, handled skillfully, can be as damaging to our cause and helpful to theirs, as any other method of military attack.  And they're doing it.

They're able to act quickly.  They have relatively few people.  They have modest resources compared to the vast -- and expensive -- bureaucracies of western governments.

Our federal government is really only beginning to adapt our operations to the 21st Century.  For the most part, the U.S. Government still functions as a “five and dime” store in an E-Bay world.

Today we're engaged in the first war in history -- unconventional and irregular as it may be -- in an era of:

  • E-mails;
  • Blogs,
  • Cell phones,
  • Blackberrys,
  • Instant Messaging,
  • Digital cameras,
  • A global Internet with no inhibitions,
  • Hand-held video cameras,
  • Talk radio,
  • 24-hour news broadcasts,
  • Satellite television.

There's never been a war fought in this environment before.

I just came back from Tunisia and Algeria and Morocco.  In Tunis the largest newspaper, I'm told, has a circulation of about 50,000.  It's a country of 10 million people.  But even in the poorest neighborhoods are satellite dishes on building after building after building.  Balconies.  Rooftops.

A few years ago in Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, an Iraqi could have his tongue cut out if he was found in possession of a satellite dish or used the Internet without government approval.  Today, satellite dishes are ubiquitous in that country as well.

Regrettably, many of the news channels being watched through these dishes are extremely hostile to the West.

The growing number of media outlets in many parts of the world still have relatively immature standards and practices that too often serve to inflame and distort -- rather than to explain and inform.  And while al Qaeda and extremist movements have utilized this forum for many years, and have successfully further poisoned the Muslim's public view of the West, we in the government have barely begun to compete in reaching their audiences.

In this environment, the old adage that "A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has its boots on" becomes doubly true with today's technologies.

We saw this with the false allegations of the desecration of the Koran last year.  Once it was published in a weekly news magazine, it was posted on websites, sent in e-mails, repeated on satellite television, radio stations for days, before the facts could be discovered.

And, in those first days, the false story incited anti-American riots in Pakistan and elsewhere.  Human beings were killed in the those riots.

Once aware of the story, the U.S. military, appropriately and of necessity, took the time needed to try to ensure that they had the facts before responding -- having to conduct interviews, pored over countless documents, investigations and log books, and finally determined that the charge was not correct.

But in the meantime, some lives had been lost and damage had been done to our country.

What complicates the ability to respond quickly is that, unlike our enemies, which propagate lies with impunity -- with no penalty whatsoever -- our government does not have the luxury of relying on other sources for information -- anonymous or otherwise.  Our government has to be the source, and we tell the truth.

These new realities have placed unprecedented challenges on the members of the press as well.  Today's correspondents are under constant pressure in a hypercompetitive media environment to produce exclusives and breaking stories.  Daily or weekly deadlines have turned into updates by the hour, even by the minute -- to feed a constant news crawl that now appears on most cable channels.  And the fact is that the federal government -- at the speed at which it operates -- doesn't always make their job much easier.

The standard U.S. government public affairs operation was designed primarily to respond to individual requests for information.  It tends to be reactive, not proactive -- and it still operates for the most part on an eight hour, five- or six-day-a-week basis, while the world events, and our enemies, are operating 24-7, across every time zone.  That's an unacceptable dangerous deficiency.

The government is, however, beginning to adapt.

In Iraq, for example, the U.S. military command, working closely with the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy, has sought nontraditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people in the face of aggressive campaign of disinformation.  Yet this has been portrayed as inappropriate -- for example, the allegations of someone in the military hiring a contractor, and the contractor allegedly paying someone to print a story -- a true story -- but paying to print a story.  For example, the resulting explosion of critical press stories then causes everything, all activity, all initiative, to stop, just frozen.

Even worse, it leads to a “chilling effect” for those who are asked to serve in the military public affairs field.

The conclusion to be drawn, logically, for anyone in the military who is asked to do something involving public affairs is that there is no tolerance for innovation, much less for human error that could conceivably be seized upon by a press that seems to demand perfection from the government, but does not apply the same standard to the enemy or even sometimes to themselves.

Consider for a moment the vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the allegations of unauthorized detainee mistreatment.  Some additional photographs have come out just this week.  This, of course, was an event where the policy of the president and the policy of the government was for humane treatment and was against torture.  And there were some people on a night shift who engaged in mistreatment of detainees.  So this week, again, out of Australia, I guess, some same pictures -- similar pictures, same event -- of people on the night shift, one night shift in Iraq, who did some things that they have since been punished for under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

But weigh the numbers of column inches and hours of television involving that event, for example, against the discovery of Saddam Hussein's mass graves, which were filled with literally hundreds of thousands of human beings, innocent Iraqis who were killed.

That's the reality of the world in which we must operate, and in which our forces are fighting.  The terrorists are trained -- we've seen the so-called Manchester manual -- they're trained to lie.  They're trained to allege that they've been tortured.  They're trained to put out misinformation, and they're very good at it.

Looking ahead, a number of changes are under consideration.

First, government at all levels will need to make communications planning a central component of every aspect of this struggle, what will be a long struggle and a difficult one.

Despite best efforts, for example, it took many months to put in place an effective communications operation in the post-major-conflict Afghanistan and in Iraq.

In some cases, military public affairs officials have had little communications training and little, if any, grounding in the importance of timing, and rapid response, and the realities of digital and broadcast media.

We've become somewhat more adept in these areas, but progress is slow.  And importantly, public affairs posts have not proven to be career enhancing in the military.  Quite the contrary.  Anyone who looks at those careers and recognizes the near-instantaneously public penalty that is imposed on someone in the military who is involved in anything that the media judges instantaneously to be imperfect or improper and that then requires a long time to figure out what actually took place, people are -- you know, military people are intelligent, they'll move away from those careers.

We need to get better at:

  • Engaging experts from both within and outside of government to help communicate;
  • To rapidly deploying the best military communications capabilities to new theaters of operation,
  • Developing and executing multifaceted media campaigns -- print, radio, television and Internet.

But let there be no doubt -- the longer it takes to put a strategic communication framework into place, the more we can be certain that the vacuum will be filled by the enemy and by news informers that most assuredly will not paint an accurate picture of what is actually taking place.

There are some signs of modest progress.  Within the past year and a half, the U.S. military's Joint Forces Command has developed a rapidly deployable communication team.  They are organized and focused on specific geographical areas of the world.

For example, soon after the devastating earthquakes in Pakistan, I had occasion to fly over the areas where entire sides of mountains had collapsed because of the quake, and entire cities and villages were gone and just rubbled, where the roofs had all just collapsed down to the ground and there were no walls left.  One of these newly fashioned teams -- military teams went along with our very sizable military forces into the disaster area.

And operating in conjunction with other federal agencies and the U.S. Embassy, they worked directly with the commander who was in charge of the humanitarian effort, there to help focus the attention on the U.S. government's truly extraordinary commitment to helping the Pakistani people.

Public opinion surveys taken by private groups in Pakistan, before and after the earthquake, suggest that public attitudes in that country regarding the United States changed dramatically because of the new awareness by the Pakistani public.  Indeed, it was not long before the favorite toy in Pakistan was a small replica of a Chinook helicopter, they were just everywhere in that country -- because of the many lives that our helicopters saved, and the mountain of relief supplies that they delivered.  The communications team was attached to it and rapidly deployable and needed because, frankly, we were concerned about our troops' safety.  Given the number of people in that country that do not favor the West and the potential difficulties that occurred, we were uncertain as to what the reception would be.  The reception over time was terrific.

Second, government public affairs and public diplomacy efforts are slowly beginning to reorient staffing and schedules and culture to engage the full range of media that are having such an impact today.

Our U.S. Central Command, for example, has launched an online communications effort that includes electronic news updates and a links campaign that has resulted in several hundred blogs receiving and publishing CENTCOM content.

The U.S. government will have to develop an institutional capability to anticipate and act within the same news cycle.  That will require instituting 24-hour press operation centers, elevating Internet operations and other channels of communication to the equal status with the traditional 20th Century press relations.  It will result in much less reliance on the traditional print press, just as the publics of the U.S. and the world are relying less on newspapers as their principal source of information.

And it will require attracting more experts in these areas from the private sector to government service.

This also will likely mean embracing new institutions to engage people across the world.  During the Cold War, institutions such as the U.S. Information Agency and Radio Free Europe -- just to mention a couple of examples -- proved to be valuable instruments for the United States.

We need to consider the possibility of new organizations and programs that can serve a similar valuable role in the war on terror in this new century.

What, for example, should a U.S. Information Agency, or a Radio Free Europe for the 21st Century look like?  We remember -- John Brademas, I'm sure…, and I do -- I think it was -- USIA was highly criticized because they did a film on President Kennedy going to India, if my memory serves me correctly, and that film was then used in the United States.  And the argument was, of course, that it was taking taxpayers' dollars, creating a film that was promoting a person running for public office in the United States and propagandizing the American people.  Of course, when you speak today, there's no one audience; there are multiple audiences.  So -- we can't avoid communicating -- whatever it is we communicate inevitably is going to be heard by multiple audiences.

So I don't know the answer.  But I do think we ought to ask ourself the question:  What should a U.S. Information Agency or a Radio Free Europe for the 21st century look like?  These are tough questions, and I suggest that some humility is in order.  There's no guidebook for this, there's no roadmap that says here's what you ought to do when you get up in the morning, if you're in the government of the United States.  These are tough questions and it's tough to find the answers for them and to do it right so that we can tell our hard-working folks what to do to meet these challenges.  We're trying to figure it out as we go along -- the country is trying to figure it out.

I noticed this week that Secretary of State Condi Rice offered a proposal to support the democratic aspirations of Iranian people through expanding broadcasting, the Internet and student exchanges.  Personally, I think she deserves support in those recommendations.  I don't know quite how it ought to be done.  But I notice that she is meeting a lot of resistance and criticism in Congress about that.  I suppose that's because it is new, it's different, and people need time to adjust and adapt to new ideas.

For the past minutes, I've been commenting on the challenges facing our country -- not just our government -- but our country -- in fighting a war in this new media age.  And while the enemy is increasingly skillful at manipulating the media and using the tools of communications to their advantage, it should be noted that we have an advantage as well: and that is, quite simply, that the truth is on our side   and ultimately, in my view, truth wins out.

I believe with every bone in my body that free people, exposed to sufficient information, will, over time,  find their way to right decisions.

Throughout the world, advances in technology are forcing a massive information flow that dictators and extremists ultimately will not be able to control.  Blogs are rapidly appearing even in countries where the press is still government-controlled.

Pro-democracy forces are communicating and organizing by e-mail, pagers and blackberrys.

Today, in Iraq, an energetic media has emerged from the rubble of Saddam's police state, with nearly 300 newspapers, over 90 radio stations and more than 40 television stations.  Iraqis are now accessing the Web in their homes, as well as in Internet cafes that have sprung up in towns and cities across the country.

We are fighting a battle where the survival of our free way of life is at stake.  And the center of gravity of that struggle is not simply on the battlefields overseas.  It's a test of wills, and it will be won or lost with our publics and with the publics of other nations.  We'll need to do all we can to attract supporters to our efforts, and to correct the lies that are being told which so damage our country, and which are repeated and repeated and repeated.

In the early years of the Cold War -- another "long twilight struggle," -- President Eisenhower made a very perceptive observation.

He said -- and I understand there's enormous differences between the Cold War and the struggle we're engaged in today -- but he said something that has resonance even today.

He said, quote:

“We face a hostile ideology -- global in scope….ruthless in purpose and insidious in method.  To meet it successfully [we must]… carry forward steadily, surely and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle -- with liberty the stake.”

For nearly 50 years, we did just that as a country through successive administrations of both political parties with our allies in Europe.  We'll need to show the same perseverance in the long struggle we face today.

I thank you, and will be happy to respond to questions on this subject or other subjects.  Thank you very much.

For Questions and Answers, please visit:
http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2006/tr20060217-12538.html