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Secretary Rumsfeld Television Interview with MSNBC

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
March 28, 2002

(Television Interview with Brian Williams, MSNBC TV)

Williams: Secretary of Defense, Secretary of War.

Rumsfeld: We're not running out of targets, Afghanistan is.

Williams: The president's point man at the Pentagon. A candid exclusive interview.

Rumsfeld: We've got thousands of al Qaeda been trained, they're all over the world.

Williams: And, an extraordinary look at a Washington veteran facing the challenge of his life.

Rumsfeld: When it's all over, either you did a good job for the country or you didn't.

Annoucer: Brian Williams reports: Rumsfeld at Defense. Here is Brian Williams.

Williams: Thank you for joining us. He presides over a war like no other, and he has become arguably more than anyone else the public face and voice of that war. An experienced insider who late in life has been thrust into new and uncharted territory. He is Donald Henry Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defense.

Before September 11th, many Americans may not have known or cared for that matter who ran the Pentagon. Since then, of course, it has come to mean a great deal as the Secretary has taken a central role in a drama still unfolding. But who is Don Rumsfeld?

Despite the burdens of his job, he may be the most confident man in America, the oldest ever Secretary of Defense, he was also the youngest. A man tapped by presidents who once had presidential ambitions of his own, a skilled political in-fighter devoted to public service, whose blunt talk has touched a nerve and found an audience.

Rumsfeld: We're looking for them, we intend to find them, and we intend to capture or kill them.

Williams: Over the next hour, Donald Rumsfeld close-up. Where we're headed in the war on terrorism, and a look back at Rumsfeld's path to power, and some perspective from his predecessors, six former secretaries of Defense, and the president who put him at the Pentagon the first time around, President Gerald R. Ford.

But we begin with Donald Rumsfeld himself reminding us how our world has changed.

Rumsfeld: Our margin for error has shrunk enormously. When you think of the power and reach of weapons, and the fact that the weapons of mass destruction can kill not thousands as we had with the attacks on the Pentagon here in this building where we sit, and also in New York, but tens of hundreds of thousands of people can be killed. We don't have a big margin for error. We have to be right. We have to see that we go after these folks where they are.

Williams: If we all knew what you know, would we be more or less nervous about daily life in the United States?

Rumsfeld: Oh, my goodness. I don't know that it serves any useful purpose to be nervous about things. It's a difficult world. It's a dangerous world. There are a lot of people who have been trained to kill, and to terrorize. They're located in 40 or 50 countries in cells today as we talk. And they are willing to sacrifice their lives to kill other people. Can we deal with that? Sure. Is it likely there will be another terrorist attack? Sure, it is true.

Williams: You just said almost in passing, will there be another terrorist attack, sure. Boy, that's a long walk from where we were September 10th.

Rumsfeld: Oh, I guess for the general population maybe. I was sitting in this room on the 11th with a group of Congressmen and had just finished saying to them that there would be another event of some type in the next six, eight, ten, twelve months, they could be reasonably certain there would be some event in the world that would make them proud that they were willing to be wise enough to invest in our military capabilities. And a note came in saying a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. So, I mean, you don't have to be omniscient to figure that out. That's the nature of the world we live in.

And the response in the country has been wonderful. It really has. And, of course, we have called up some 72,000 reserves and guard who are on active duty today, left their family, left their jobs, and are serving.

Williams: Do you worry at all that America has gone back to normal too quickly?

Rumsfeld: No, not a bit. The American people have really a wonderful center of gravity, and if you look over our 250, 60, 70, 80 years, whatever it's been now, on big issues, and this is a big issue, the people of this country have been right. They've been right over and over and over again. And they're not going to be wrong on this. They know the risks.

Williams: As wars go, this has been such a hypodermic needle as opposed to a hand grenade. The first boots on the ground were CIA. It's been mostly special ops, very few of the traditional 101st, 82nd, what we've all come to know as war.

Rumsfeld: Well, there was not a Taliban or al Qaeda army, so one is unlikely, nor is there a Navy, nor is there an Air Force. Rather, there were a large number of terrorists and supporters of terrorists, and well-armed, effective, well organized, and well financed. And, therefore, what we had to do was to recognize there was no road map for this kind of war. And, of course, the problem is, you had the Taliban and the al Qaeda arrayed in caves and tunnels, and dug in spots all across a ridge line, and we had the Northern Alliance with our Special Forces folks trying to get them to surrender or stop fighting, and they refused. The only thing you can do is to bomb them and try to kill them. And that's what we did, and it worked. They're gone. And the Afghan people are a lot better off.

Williams: The United States didn't get them all. They are gone. Do you worry that too many of them got away?

Rumsfeld: Oh, goodness. I worry that they're all over the world. You bet. There were thousands trained in those training camps, but there is no question if it's not an army, a navy, or an air force, all they have to do is just meld into the mountainside, go into a cave, go back into their village, go across one of those porous borders of Afghanistan. They've transited, we know, they've gone through Iran down into ships, and headed -- tried to get into Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, and various other Middle Eastern countries. All you can do is keep after them, keep putting pressure.

Williams: I have to ask you, though, the bin Laden question. I'll try to ask it in an inventive way. I had a general say to me on the air back in about October, Osama bin Laden will be dead by Christmas. Are you in your heart of hearts surprised, disappointed that he's not dead, or is he? Is he a pile of bones in one of the many caves that American forces have reduced to rubble, and how to know that?

Rumsfeld: Well, we don't know whether he's alive or dead or where he is. We think he's probably alive, and we think he's probably in Afghanistan. But, I'm not surprised in the slightest. When this began in early September, I, from the very outset, suggested that it would be unwise to personalize this into the single person, as for example the Gulf War was personalized into Saddam Hussein. Wrong for a lot of reasons. Wrong because no one person is determinative in this. I mean, Saddam, if Osama bin Laden died today, there probably are four, five, six, eight, ten people who can step in and manage that apparatus in a reasonable, competent way. Certainly we know of three or four who could. Would it be nice to catch him? Sure. Do we think we will? Sure. But do I get up every day and think that that's the single most important thing in the world we're doing? Goodness, no. We've got thousands of al Qaeda have been trained; they're all over the world. We have to go find them.

Williams: How much of an effort is underway to do DNA matching to see if that pile of bones in that corner could be him?

Rumsfeld: Oh, there's no question but that as we go into caves and do various things, and look for remains, why, that people are aware that there are DNA ways to do that.

Williams: So there are teams, and it is their job to try to do a match based on remains?

Rumsfeld: It's not a Department of Defense responsibility, and I'm not very knowledgeable about it.

Williams: And it would be better to announce that his remains were found than the contrary?

Rumsfeld: If they were found. And if they aren't, life will go on. We'll keep doing our job.

Williams: Much more still to come with Donald Rumsfeld, including the nuclear terror threat, how real is it? And in a visit to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a fascinating exchange about the Oval Office habits of his boss.

Rumsfeld: President Bush wears a coat in the office because he respects the Office of the President.

(Commercial break.)

Williams: Welcome back. September 11th made it painfully clear that terrorism against American targets is not the distant threat that many of us might have once thought. Hijacked jetliners fully loaded with fuel flying into office buildings took care of that. But is there an even greater, more deadly threat to come? Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. We asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld: There is no question but the terrorists and terrorist organizations want weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons, however, are more difficult to handle and manage, more difficult to detonate, more difficult to transport, and if I were asked, among those nuclear, chemical and biological, which did I think was the more likely and the more worrisome to me at the moment, I probably would say biological. It can be done in relatively small places with dual use equipment, and there are a variety of delivery mechanisms. Some biological weapons involve contagions, and that's a terribly dangerous thing.

Williams: How much do you worry about that for the United States, and on a very local level for members of your own family, your grandfather?

Rumsfeld: Well, I think about it, about our country, and we do a lot of intelligence gathering on it. We do a good deal of investing to see that we have some capability to deal with those kinds of problems. And we have to recognize that those countries that are developing biological, chemical and nuclear weapons pose a very serious threat to the world.

Williams: How hard is it for you to overcome what must be a temptation, to use the phrase someone used in the Vietnam War, to go over and pave that area overseas?

Rumsfeld: Oh, goodness. I don't know that I have much trouble resisting that. I think that we live in a complicated world, and sometimes there are solutions that are simple, neat and wrong. We need to be wiser and more thoughtful about what we do.

Williams: And doesn't this conflict fit nicely with your design of redesigning the military. You've got drones flying pilotless, which a lot of people in this building do not like because it means there are pilots out of work as we speak.

Rumsfeld: Oh, they're learning to like it. People change. It's not easy to change for people, but this building has really accomplished a lot in the last 12 months in terms of transformation.

Williams: American forces are in countries, as we speak, that you probably never dreamed they'd be deployed in when you started this job. Where does it end?

Rumsfeld: Well, I think we have to keep the pressure on, and we can't allow Afghanistan to be stopped as a haven and a sanctuary and simply have some other country become the sanctuary and the haven. So what we have to do, as the president said, is go after the terrorists where they are, but also make sure that other countries are not creating a sanctuary for terrorists, as a substitute for Afghanistan. So we're trying to help train some folks in Yemen, we're trying to help train some folks in the Philippines, and relatively small numbers of people, in the hundreds, not in the thousands.

Williams: You have no concerns that we're in too many places right now?

Rumsfeld: Look, my concern is that the al Qaeda will find a country where they can find a sanctuary and a haven, and continue their attacks on the United States, on our friends and allies, and on our deployed forces, and on our interests. And we can't let that happen.

Williams: Will we have several months notice if the United States goes into Iraq? That's not the kind of thing you can decide on a Thursday and execute on a Friday, is it?

Rumsfeld: Big things take time, but I guess those are issues that the president has to worry about, and I have to advise him. And I'm old fashioned, I tend to give my advice in private.

Williams: We don't get to see the president like you do. What would people be most surprised to know about George W. Bush?

Rumsfeld: Well, I think they're getting to know him. I did not know him well at all. I of course was a contemporary of his father's. And his father was at CIA when I was Secretary of Defense the last time. What I have found is that he is exactly what he seems to be. He is a very well rooted individual, well centered. He's got an easy sense of humor. He has a very strong will. He listens very well, makes a decision, and it's just a delight to work with somebody who if he's there today he will be there tomorrow, and a week later, and two weeks later. And I think people can sense that, he is a determined individual, and that's a good thing for a president. He also looks at the big picture. He directionally knows where he wants this country to go.

Williams: He knew enough, apparently, to hire a bunch of professionals.

Rumsfeld: I guess.

Williams: Our conversation about the president continued as we paid a visit to the Secretary's office, where we were shown some favorite Rumsfeld memorabilia, and given a close up look at that famous stand up desk of his. George W. Bush may be 14 years Rumsfeld's junior, but the Secretary admires the president's emphasis on dignity and respect in the White House.

Williams: Because he runs an Oval Office where you've got to wear a suit and tie?

Rumsfeld: What's wrong with that?

Williams: We've just gone through an administration where jogging shorts were welcome. What does decorum count for?

Rumsfeld: It's recapturing something that's important, and if you think about it in the Congress they refer to each other as the distinguished gentleman. Now, why do they do that? They do that because civility is important. President Bush wears a coat in the office, because he respects the office of the President, and for the American people. It's an institution that he values, reveres.

Williams: And a little of that doesn't hurt on occasion?

Rumsfeld: Sure doesn't.

Williams: Nor, apparently, does it hurt to be the target of Saturday Night Live, something else the Secretary and this president have in common. When we come back we'll hear what Secretary Rumsfeld thinks of this.

(Video clip.)

(Commercial break.)

Williams: Are you amazed at the interest in Donald Rumsfeld generally, in his shirts and ties and suits every day, and his glass frames, and his face, demeanor, and answers to questions?

Rumsfeld: I'll tell you, it is kind of funny. My wife teases me about it once in a while, but I don't think about it a lot, to be honest. I've got so much to do, I get up about 5:00 in the morning, I'm in here about 6:30, and I guess last night was about average, I got home at about 7:30, and then I worked another hour, hour and a half at home. And I've been doing that six, seven days a week. You don't have a lot to time to muse about those things. I saw one thing on Saturday Night Live, I think it was, which I must say made me laugh.

(Video clip.)

Williams: Tell me you knew what Saturday Night Live was before that aired.

Rumsfeld: I did. I'd heard of that. I'd not seen it, but I'd heard of it.

Williams: There was a published report that this was a first for you.

Rumsfeld: Watching it on video, goodness gracious, I don't stay up that late.

Williams: Yes, they've been doing it for 26 years.

Rumsfeld: I know, but I haven't made it.

Williams: It's axiomatic that that now affords you icon status that you've been parodied on that broadcast.

Rumsfeld: Is that right?

Williams: Yes. Did they do a good job.

Rumsfeld: Well, who am I to say, I don't have anything to compare it with except me.

Williams: Well, what did your kids think?

Rumsfeld: Well, it made me laugh, it made them laugh.

(Video clip.)

Williams: Are you that mean a briefer downstairs?

Rumsfeld: No, not even close. I like the people in the press. They do their job, I do my job, and they're good professionals.

Rumsfeld: That characterization is so far from the mark that I am shocked, sort of.

Rumsfeld: I do those briefings because I really believe, and am told, I have to. And the reason you have to is because you're dealing with multiple audiences. You've got all the men and women in uniform that you need to communicate with, you've got the other elements of government, the Congress, you have the rest of the world that is wondering what it is the United States is doing.

Williams: How often are you forced to shave the truth in that briefing room, because American lives are at stake?

Rumsfeld: I just don't. I think our credibility is so much more important than shaving the truth. So when I don't know something I just say I don't know it. If it's something I'm not going to talk about, I just say I'm not going to talk about it. If it's advice I give the president or the National Security Council I just tell them I don't get into that. If it's an intelligence matter I say that we don't discuss intelligence. There isn't a need for anyone to do that in the Pentagon.

Williams: The United States did use misinformation in World War II liberally. And a recent attempt in this building to maybe engage in a little misinformation you received some unshirted hell from people, and kind of took it back. Mistake?

Rumsfeld: I don't know. There's no question we have to do information operations. For example, if the Taliban is telling people that the food we're delivering is poisoned, we have to tell them it's not. If they're saying this is a war against Moslems, we have to tell them it's not, that that's not true. And so we had a radio program that we were beaming there, and that is not misinformation, that is not disinformation, it is information. And that is what we were doing. And the information operations activities that the Pentagon was planning to do in the Office of Strategic Information were perfectly appropriate.

For whatever reason, the implication was drawn that they were going to do things that were not appropriate. So what do you do? Well, I said, let's close up the shop. Since that's what the perception is, let's close it up. We'll go ahead and do what we have to do anyway. I said that at the press briefing, and we will. We'll do exactly what we have to do to protect the lives of the men and women in uniform, and to see that our country is successful, but it doesn't involve lying.

Williams: The word swagger has been used involving Donald Rumsfeld from time to time. Is that a pilot thing? Is what you have a pilot thing?

Rumsfeld: I don't think so. My wife Joyce tells me I walk like a sailor, because I kind of walk from side to side. But, I don't think of it as a swagger. I think of it as the way I walk.

Williams: Well, there's a certain -- there's a bearing, that once you've been tested, taken a few risks, pushed the edge of the envelope as they like to say, that fewer and fewer things scare you in life. Does anything scare you anymore?

Rumsfeld: The only thing I really worry about is doing a good job. I worry that the decisions we make have to be the right ones, because people's lives are at risk, and therefore you have to -- when you make your judgment you have to think it through carefully, and you have to recognize that you've got to have a darned good reason for doing something.

Williams: More of our conversation with Secretary Donald Rumsfeld coming up. And when we continue, making a career of being useful to presidents. And how it was once thought that Donald Rumsfeld might just be a presidential contender himself.

(Commercial break.)

Williams: Returning to Washington was an adjustment for Rumsfeld. He soon learned that things had changed.

Rumsfeld: It's a different town, Washington, D.C. I came here in 1957, fresh out of the Navy, and it was a relatively small town, Eisenhower was president, and we've had wars, and assassinations, and the press corps has grown, and television has come of age. It's a different feeling here. The Congress is a different place than it was when I served there in the 1960s. The one thing that is the same is the men and women in uniform. The people who serve our country, who voluntarily risk their lives to defend our country are very much the same kinds of people that I knew 25-30 years ago in the armed forces.

Williams: What does your life story teach young people? It must strike you that you're a long way from Winnetka when you can't walk through an airport unrecognized. What does that mean about the American Dream?

Rumsfeld: Well, I guess my dream was to be a Navy pilot, and I did that for a while and loved it, but I guess the only person more surprised that I'm back here after being gone for, what, 25-26 years was my wife, and that the two of us still just muse at funny turns life takes, because I had no intention of coming back into government, but given what's happened, I'm very pleased I'm here, and anxious I can -- pleased that I can contribute.

Williams: Is there a metaphor here with JDAMS that you can take -- you can take an old-fashioned steel gravity bomb and slap new technology on it, and suddenly you have a new weapon. Are you a new weapon?

Rumsfeld: Well, I hope so. I hope so. It's true. You know, there's always a risk that people will be wedded to the past. On the other hand, perspective can be valuable. And I've seen an awful lot of people fall in an awful lot of potholes, and to the extent we can avoid some of those, why, that's a good thing for the country, and a good thing for the men and women in the service.

Williams: Who keeps you honest?

Rumsfeld: Oh, my goodness, there's a mob of press people down there who work over me every once and a while, and I guess at my age I don't know that I need a lot of help keeping me honest. I'm not running for anything. I'm just trying to serve the country.

Williams: To use a military metaphor, is it safe to say you're a guy who's flown his missions, and satisfied with your lot in life, and others can take it or leave it?

Rumsfeld: I'm afraid that's the way I feel. I just want to do a good job.

Williams: Donald Rumsfeld wasn't counting on a war on terrorism, nor was the president he serves, but like George W. Bush, Rumsfeld finds his role transformed since September 11th. Again, he's a man who has flown his missions, and sometimes there is no substitute for that.

I'm Brian Williams, thank you for joining us.

(End of program.)

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