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Rumsfeld Looks Back — and Ahead

Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006, kicked off the book tour for his memoir, Known and Unknown, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on February 9. Historian Michael Beschloss, the author of eight books on American presidents, moderated the event.

The title “Known and Unknown” is a wink and nod to Rumsfeld’s much-ridiculed answer about Iraqi plans to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. At a press conference in 2002, Rumsfeld said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

In a private conversation with Rumsfeld as he signed my book, I asked him for his current thoughts about Israel in light of the recent monumental changes in the Middle East. He said, “If I was Israel, I would be worried with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Rumsfeld, who is 78, spent much of the public part of the program defending Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. He acknowledged that Bush never directly asked Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice or himself if he should invade Iraq. “He knew that if we thought he was wrong, we would have voiced our objections,” said the former “Sec Def,“ who also held that role in the 1970’s under President Gerald Ford.

“The Iraqi army had fired more than 2,000 missiles at American and British planes that were patrolling the no-fly zone,” Rumsfeld said in defense of the invasion. “What if they had killed someone?”

On his list of good results from the Iraq invasion, Rumsfeld revealed for the first time, “Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya told the United States that he abandoned his nuclear program after the United States invaded Iraq.”

He surmised that el-Qaddafi did not want to suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein. “He even offered us the opportunity to inspect his nuclear arsenal,” stated Rumsfeld. Despite the Bush administration’s insistence in 2002 that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and must be stopped, Rumsfeld also mentioned that the Dark Winter smallpox experiment, led by Johns Hopkins University, influenced the decision to go to war. According to him, the study found, “If smallpox virus was released into three locations that 800,000 would die and many more would be infected.”

An audience member requested that Rumsfeld, who served in a variety of elected and appointed government positions since the 1950’s, explain the difference between the Iraq and Vietnam Wars. Rumsfeld replied, “We never feared that the Vietnamese would attack America.” Rumsfeld ignored my question: What is the role of the country’s intelligence-gathering services, now that they have been proven horribly wrong about 9/11, Iraqi WMDs and uprising in the Middle East?

When asked by Beschloss about Bush’s intelligence, Rumsfeld first went into a long tangent about the fact that the public considers all Republican presidents from Eisenhower to Bush stupid. He reminded the audience that Ford, possibly the finest athlete ever to reside in the White House, was considered clumsy.

“Bush is intelligent. He asked penetrating questions. He worked his way with foreign leaders so that they would do constructive things for the U.S.,” he finally answered.

He applauded Bush for implementing the surge in Iraq at a time when Congress was ready to vote the war out of existence. “When the rebels saw the additional troops, they knew that Bush meant business and was not going to give up. They fell into line.”

The audience also learned an interesting statistic about the Department of Defense: it employs 10,000 lawyers, Rumsfeld disclosed. The Defense Authorization Act ballooned to 574 pages in 2006 from 74 pages in 1976, when he was Secretary of Defense the first time.

Rumsfeld, a Republican, mentioned only Democrats as political heroes: Franklin Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson.

Rumsfeld left the crowd wanting more. Many complained that Beschloss was much too deferential to Rumsfeld. He did not ask questions about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, or waterboarding. Said Beschloss, “After he served as secretary of defense, Robert McNamara never spoke in public again for thirty years. I also wanted to cover different ground than the Diane Sawyer interview,” which aired Feb. 7.

There was only one protester outside of the National Constitution Center. She had to stand about 100 feet from the entrance of the building. Maybe the below-freezing weather chilled dissent.

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