United States Department of Defense United States Department of Defense

News Transcript

Press Operations Bookmark and Share


Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with Jim Lehrer, “The News Hour”, PBS

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
March 25, 2004 6:00 PM EDT
Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with Jim Lehrer, “The News Hour”, PBS

JIM LEHRER:  And now to our newsmaker interview with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.


Mr. Secretary, welcome.




MR. LEHRER:  At these 9/11 hearings yesterday, as I reported in the news summary and everybody knows now, the counterterror – former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke said to the families of the 9/11 victims, quote, “your government failed you.  Those entrusted with protecting you failed you.  I failed you,” end quote.


As secretary of defense, do you have any sense of failure concerning what happened on 9/11?


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Well, I hate to separate myself as secretary of defense.  Secretary – the Department of Defense, of course, is oriented to external threats.  This was a domestic airplane that was operated by people who were in the United States against a United States target, which makes it a law enforcement – historically a law enforcement issue. 


The Department of Defense’s task is one that deals with external threats coming into the United States, and that’s what the Department is organized, trained, and equipped to do.  Indeed, the posse comitatus law has kept the Department of Defense away from law enforcement and policing type activities.  We don’t do the borders.  We don’t do the coastlines.  We don’t – other organizations of government, but certainly as a citizen when we suffer the worst attack in our history, one, your heart breaks for the families and the loved ones and the people that were killed and you – everybody involved in any position of responsibility for security has to search their soul and say, what else might have been done and is there any – and even more important for all of us is not only what might have been done then, which is what the commission is looking at, but what ought we to be doing today so that six months from now when another attack is attempted – and it will be attempted, we know that.  I mean, terrorists can attack any time, any place, using any technique, and free people are vulnerable to those kinds of asymmetric attacks.


So we have to be asking ourselves every day, what can we do?  How can we connect the dots before the fact without the benefit of those hearings and –


MR. LEHRER:  Well, that’s what I was just wondering.  You had been in office seven and a half months.  Have you done – you said soul-searching.  Have you gone back just for your own satisfaction, not for a commission or anybody else, and said was there something you missed – some memo you misread or something you might have done as secretary of defense?  I know you’re talking domestic, but there are a lot of other things – that simply you’re a part of the national security team or whatever.  Have you done that?


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Oh, sure.  The Department has and we had meetings and discussions and we very quickly recast it along the lines I suggested.  We said to ourselves, all right, we are where we are and let’s assume an attack takes place six months from now.  We said this shortly after September 11th.  What do we need to be doing every day, every week, every month to see that we can either prevent it – the Good Lord willing – or mitigate it.  And those – that’s the kind of impetus that one has having experienced what we experienced.  We lost hundreds of people in the Pentagon – friends, people that worked there.

MR. LEHRER:  You said in your testimony to the commission on Tuesday that you thought it would be counterproductive to bomb again, or a missile – use missiles to attack the al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.  I’m talking pre-9/11 now.  Now since 9/11, looking back to having done the process that you just say you went through, do you have any second thoughts about that?


SEC. RUMSFELD:  I don’t – I can’t quote precisely what I said, but the context, I believe, was this: there are only so many times you can bomb a terrorist training camp if it is essentially a place where people come and go, where there are tents, where there are obstacle courses, where there are firing ranges, where there are cheap buildings that they use to practice on, and you can bomb them or put cruise missiles on them once and it costs a – the lives of whoever’s there, and that’s a good thing because you’ve prevented that X number of terrorists, but they get warnings and they tend to be able to move. 


And the questions is, well, a month later would you want to bomb the same place?  And the answer is probably not because you wouldn’t have accomplished much.  You could bounce what’s there, but certainly bombing them or putting cruise missiles on them once, particularly if there are high-value targets there or you feel there’s a concentration of people there, is a worthwhile thing to do.


MR. LEHRER:  But you said that at the hearing that that was your judgment before 9/11.  Do you – have you gone back and said, well, maybe bombing them again and again and again – John Kerry – I mean, Bob Kerry, as you know one of the commissioners, challenged you on this and said even after you left in another context that – why not try other things?  But in other words, you’re saying you’re clean on that one.  You think that it’s the right decision and that’s that.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  You know, no one has perfect knowledge whether it’s looking ahead or looking back.  The – I had a feeling, which – when I came into office, that the United States ought not to do things that reassure terrorists.  We ought not to do things that lead them to believe that we are leaning backwards, not forwards, and I personally believed, and I think others did, that it would – if we’re going to go do something, it should be decisive; it should not be token.  It should be serious, purposeful, and probably have to include people on the ground. 


You could start lobbing cruise missiles in any country in the world and the question is, well, what happens next?  They go to school on you.  They see what you’re doing and then they start planning and arranging themselves so that doesn’t work.  But the only way we dealt with al Qaeda, finally, was to go into that country – put people on the ground.


MR. LEHRER:  But that was after 9/11.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Exactly.


MR. LEHRER:  Now, what do you say to Clarke’s criticism that your administration – the Bush administration did not give urgent priority to al Qaeda prior to 9/11.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  I agree with your clip from Secretary Powell, which he – you showed at the beginning of the show.  Clearly, Director Tenet, as he said in his own hearing, didn’t have the – a person – a human resource in the al Qaeda that could have told us what they were going to do and when they were going to do it.  He didn’t have that.  Our country didn’t have that.  And fair enough, but in terms of intelligence that expressed concern during that summer people – period?  You bet there was concern, and we – the Defense Department sent out warnings to our forces around the world, we scrambled ships and planes so that they wouldn’t get hit in ports, we reacted – increased force protection, increased alert levels around the world.  So did the Department of State for the embassies.

Now, I wasn’t working in the White house there.  I didn’t know this gentleman.  I met him, I think, a couple of times, but – so I can’t comment on what his perception was.  I did notice that he also said, I think accurately, that nothing he recommended would have prevented 9/11 in his judgment.  He answered Slade Gorton: no, it wouldn’t have – anything he’d recommended.  Did he ever recommend invading Afghanistan and going in there and taking out the al Qaeda?  He said, no.  So I don’t know, you know, quite what – that kind of –


MR. LEHRER:  Sure.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  – answers the question I think.


MR. LEHRER:  Do you think what the commission is doing in going back and trying to identify what happened or what didn’t happen prior to 9/11 is that healthy and good exercise?


SEC. RUMSFELD:  I think it can be.  I think that it is possible for a commission to do something that people in government cannot, and that is to focus on one thing and to really invest commissioners’ time – not staff time, but commissioners’ time – invest the time to look at one thing thoroughly and see what we can learn out of that.  What threads can we pull out that we might be able to, as a country, as a people, as a government, better arrange ourselves and better manage ourselves so that we have a better chance – not a certainty, but a better chance – of preventing another attack like that.


If they do that – if they approach it with that seriousness of purpose and make recommendations that come out of insights that they gain from that much effort, then I think it can inform our future behavior in a way that might be constructive and helpful.


MR. LEHRER  And what about looking back at the other – looking back the other way for responsibility?  Not for dereliction of duty, but for people or organizations that made bad judgments?


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Whatever.


MR. LEHRER:  You think that’s okay?




MR. LEHRER:  Yeah.  Do you agree with the premise – both Tom Kean, the Republican who is the chairman, and Lee Hamilton, who is a Democrat and is the vice-chairman, said essentially in the last two days that whether or not – there are a lot of good people in government – all, you know, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration before, but the fact of the matter is the number one job of government is to protect the American people and it failed.  Do you agree with that as a premise?


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Well, clearly the first responsibility of government is to provide for the security of the people – that’s the first responsibility.  And in this case we suffered the worst attack in the history of the country in terms of the number of people killed – worse than Pearl Harbor. 


And now, does – what does that mean?  It could tell you various things.  It could lead to the conclusion that there was a terrible failure.  It could also lead to a conclusion that free nations – by their very nature they require the ability to be free and to go where they want and say what they want and not be hiding in bomb shelters and not be afraid to go outside.  Free people, by their very nature, are vulnerable. 


We are vulnerable to a terrorist.  It does not take a genius to go out and kill people.  We know that.  They can do it with relatively little money and they can use all of our technologies, taken right off the shelf.  For a few hundred thousand dollars, terrorists can kill – can beat a defense that costs billions of dollars. 


Now why is that?  It’s because you can’t – it’s physically impossible to defend at every place in our country against every – to protect every person against every conceivable kind of attack every minute of the day or night.  It cannot be done.


MR. LEHRER:  What do you say to the woman in our clip also from ABC this morning – a survivor of somebody killed in the 9/11 attacks and says that the reason Clarke was so refreshing and so different is that up till then everybody who had gone – I guess she’s including you – talked about, no, it wasn’t our fault.  In other words it wasn’t –

SEC. RUMSFELD:  Oh, now they – people didn’t go up and say it wasn’t our fault. 


MR. LEHRER:  Well, I –


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Really, I mean, people went up there feeling heartbreak for the people who were killed and heartbreak for their loved ones, and agonizing over what in the world else might have been done, retrospectively, and what ought to be being done today –


MR. LEHRER:  I’m just telling you what she said.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  I saw what she said.


MR. LEHRER:  Okay.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  And put yourself in her shoes.  I mean, I’ve talked to one of the mothers who had a poster of her daughter hanging around her neck – a lovely young woman who worked in the World Trade Center, had gone to Princeton, and her mother came up and talked to me about the fact that I’d gone to Princeton and her daughter was dead and your heart breaks for them.  And you do ask yourself, what else might have been done?  But to finish the thought –


MR. LEHRER:  Sure.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  If a terrorist has the advantage of being able to attack, they – the defender has to be right every minute of the day for every interest we have as a country.  The attacker only has to be right once, and if they’re willing to give their lives – that’s not hard.  So suggesting or implying that it is possible to defend at every place at every time is wrong.  It isn’t.


We’ve – the only way to deal with terrorists is to go out after these terrorist networks and find them where they are and stop them.


MR. LEHRER:  Back to the responsibility and accountability issue.  You remember Lord Carrington, 1982 –


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Knew him well.  He was a minister of defense.


MR. LEHRER:  You’re right, and foreign secretary.  Falklands thing – he resigned because, he said, I made a misreading – I misread the intentions of the Argentine government. 




MR. LEHRER:  James Reston – Scotty Reston, you remember him.  You knew him.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Knew him.


MR. LEHRER:  He was writing a column for the New York Times at the time and he said – let me read you what he said: “we deal with failure somewhat differently in Washington.  Nobody every says, like Lord Carrington, I have been responsible for the conduct of a policy that has failed, so I resign.  It’s hard to remember around here when anybody every quit in such circumstances,” end quote.  Is he – was he right?


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Well, they have a different system of government that we do, and obviously the person responsible in – ultimately, is the president of the United States and we don’t have presidents resigning.  That’s not a good thing for the country.  In – were there an instance where an individual or an entity had responsibility, for example, for a significant failure and you could say, well, that was a flawed behavior pattern and the individual should resign, you might very well have a resignation.


MR. LEHRER:  Yeah.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  But here, our country wasn’t arranged that way.  I mean, if you think about it, we didn’t have a Department of Homeland Security, which would be the responsible agency as it would be today.  We didn’t have domestic intelligence.  We frowned on that.  We thought that’s not a good idea so we won’t let the Department of Defense intelligence or the Central Intelligence do any domestic intelligence.  We’ll leave that to the FBI and the FBI was basically law enforcement.  They’re the people who when someone breaks the law they go out and stop them. 


So you have this arrangement in our society and under our constitution where we considered ourselves basically at peace in a dangerous and untidy world, but not at war as a society.  And, indeed, I will say this: we’re still functioning with peacetime constraints.  We’re trying to train and equip the Iraqi army to use them to defend their own country instead of our forces to defend their own country, and we can’t get the funds and we can’t get the authorizations and we have to bid in a contract process that is subject to the kind of peacetime rules that we have and the contract gets challenged and it gets delayed for three or four months, and while that’s happening we are not able to go out and equip these people.  So it – you don’t go from here to there in one minute, particularly when you have all the protections and checks and balances we have.


MR. LEHRER:  Let me go back to Mr. Clarke for a moment.  He said in his book – said it yesterday and he said it in his book, quote, “by invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism,” end quote.  Do you disagree?


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Oh, sure.  He’s wrong.


MR. LEHRER:  In what way is he wrong?


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Well, there’s no logic pattern that supports that contention.  It is – it just isn’t valid.  First of all, we are still attacking al Qaeda and Taliban around in the Afghanistan area.  Our cooperative arrangement with Musharraf – he is working against the al Qaeda and the foreign terrorists there.  The foreign terrorists are in Iraq and we’re working them at the same time.  The efforts in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the world haven’t stopped.  The idea that the world has stopped is just inaccurate.  The effort goes on.  We’re still cooperating with 90 nations across the globe, sharing intelligence, freezing bank accounts, arresting people, interrogating people.  It’s just inconsistent with the facts.


MR. LEHRER:  He – another thing: he writes about White House discussions immediately after 9/11. 




MR. LEHRER:  And he says this: “I walked into a series of discussions about Iraq.  At first I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting al Qaeda.  Then I realized with almost sharp, physical pain that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq,” end quote.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Well, you know, the reality is that when I came into office my agenda was the president’s agenda and it was to transform the Department of Defense.  You know that.  We’ve talked –


MR. LEHRER:  We’ve talked about it on this program.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  We have.  Second, the only place in the world that we are being shot at – that our planes were being shot at – our people, our aircrews were being shot at – was from Iraq.  Every week our aircraft were being shot at by the Iraqis as we enforced UN resolutions in the northern No-Fly Zone and the southern No-Fly Zone, so clearly Iraq was an interest to us. 


As secretary of defense, that’s my responsibility and so we looked at that and we said, how can we better protect these pilots and the aircrews?  And what would we do if one was shot down?  And what would we do if they were shot down and captured?  How would we deal with that?  So we developed plans for that, but the idea that – I mean, take what he said, set it over there, and then ask what did we do?  We invaded Afghanistan.  We didn’t do anything about Iraq on September 11th or September 12th or October 7th, so just set it aside.  It – first of all, I don’t remember anything like that happening.  I was amused.  I was – someone showed me a clip where he said that he was in a meeting with the National Security Council on September 4th, I think he said, and Rumsfeld looked distracted and was following the Wolfowitz line –


MR. LEHRER:  But –


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Just a minute.  I wasn’t in the meeting.


MR. LEHRER:  Wasn’t in the meeting.  Okay.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  I wasn’t in the meeting.


MR. LEHRER:  All right.  Here’s another one.  Secretary –


SEC. RUMSFELD:  You really like this stuff.  You’ve fallen in love with this, Jim.




MR. LEHRER  No, I’ve just read his book.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  I haven't.


MR. LEHRER:  Okay, but he also said – and you’ve admitted to this – that Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan.  In other words, you’ve said that.  And –


SEC. RUMSFELD:  I said that publicly in a press briefing.


MR. LEHRER:  Right.  Exactly.  Now he adds, “and that we should consider bombing Iraq, which he said had better targets.  At first I thought Rumsfeld was joking, but he was serious.”


SEC. RUMSFELD:  How does he know?  I mean, I don’t think I’ve met this person two or three times in my life and I did say the truth, and the truth was – I think what I said was Afghanistan is – the – someone said, are you running out of targets?  And I said, Afghanistan’s running out of targets.  And the reason was we needed people on the ground and we needed to – target designators that could help us with the Taliban.  If you bombed Afghanistan much without people on the ground able to point out targets, you would end up hurting the Afghan people rather than hurting the al Qaeda or the Taliban. 


Now, it’s true I made that comment, but I never said, to my knowledge, unless it was humorous, that there are a lot better targets in another country like Iraq, because we were looking for targets there because we had the fact that our planes were being shot at and we did response options.  One – response options two and three, and we picked out targets in Iraq that we would respond to when they fired at our aircraft, but I think it’s just a misunderstanding on his part.


MR. LEHRER:  I’ve got a lot more quotes to read you here form the book, but I’m going to let you go.  Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.


SEC. RUMSFELD:  Thank you.

Additional Links

Stay Connected