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Newsmaker: Donald Rumsfeld

March 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And now to our newsmaker interview with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Secretary, welcome.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: At these 9/11 hearings yesterday, as I reported in the News Summary, and everybody knows now the counter terror, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, said to the families of the 9/11 victims, “Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. I failed you.” As secretary of defense, do you have any sense of failure concerning what happened on 9/11?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, I hate to separate myself as secretary of defense. 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 coast lines, we have other organizations of government, but certainly as a citizen, when we suffer the worst attack in our history, your heart breaks for the friends and families of the loved ones of the people that were killed, and 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 anything.

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?

JIM LEHRER: What I was just wondering, you had been in office seven and a half months. Have you done — you’ve said soul searching. Have you gone back just for your own satisfaction, not for a commission or anybody else, to say 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, something, you’re part of the national security team, whatever. Have you done that?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Oh, sure. The department has done that and we’ve had meetings and discussions, and we very quickly re-casted along the lines I suggested. We said to ourselves, “Alright, we are where we are, and let’s assume an attack takes place six months from now.” We said this shortly after Sept. 11. 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 — that worked there.

JIM 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-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. I’m talking pre-9/11 now. Now, since 9/11, looking back, having done the process that you just say you went through, do you have any second thoughts about that?

DONALD 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 the lives of whoever is 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 question 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 can bounce what’s there, but — but certainly bombing them or putting Cruise missiles on them once, particularly if they are a high-value target there, or you feel there’s a concentration of people there, is a worthwhile thing to do.

JIM LEHRER: But you said that at the hearing that that was your judgment before 9/11. Have you — have you gone back and said, well, maybe bombing them again and again and again, John Kerry — I mean, Bob Kerrey, 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 it’s the right decision and that’s that.

DONALD RUMSFELD: You know, no one has perfect knowledge whether it’s looking ahead or looking back. 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 forward. I personally believed, and I think others did, that 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?

DONALD RUMSFELD: 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. The only way we dealt with al-Qaida finally was to go into that country, put people on the ground.

JIM LEHRER: But that was after 9/1.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: Now what do you say to Clarke’s criticism that — that your administration, the Bush administration, did not give urgent priority to al-Qaida prior to 9/11?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I — 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 a person, a human resource, in the al-Qaida 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, fair enough. But in terms of intelligence that expressed concern during that summer period, you bet there was concern. And 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, 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. Whatever he recommended, did he ever recommend invading Afghanistan and going in there and taking out the al-Qaida, and he said no, so I don’t know, you know, quite what –

DONALD RUMSFELD: That kind of answers the question I think.

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

DONALD 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 commissioner’s time, not staff time, but commissioners’ time, to 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 — 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.

JIM LEHRER: What about looking back the other way for responsibility, not for dereliction of duty but for people or organizations that made bad judgments?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Whatever.

JIM LEHRER: You think that’s okay.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Oh, I do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with the premise — both Tom Kean, the Republican who is the chairman, and Lee Hamilton, who’s a Democrat, is the vice chairman, said essentially in the last two days that whether or not — there are a lot of good people in government, 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?

DONALD 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 — and — now, what does that mean?

It could tell you various things. You could lead to the conclusion that there was a terrible failure. It could also lead to the conclusion that free nations by their very nature, they require the ability to be free and to go where they want and to 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’re 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, take them 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 — it’s physically impossible to defend at every place in our country, to protect every person against every conceivable kind of attack every minute of the day or night. It cannot be done.

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

DONALD RUMSFELD: No, people didn’t go up and say it wasn’t our fault, really. People went up there with feeling — heartbreak for the people that 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.

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

DONALD RUMSFELD: I saw what she said and put yourself in her shoes. I mean, I 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 the 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 — you do ask yourself what else might have been done, but to finish the thought –

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DONALD 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 are willing to give their lives, that’s not hard. So suggesting or implying that it is possible to defend in every place at every time is wrong. It isn’t. The only way to deal with terrorists is to go out after these terrorist networks and find them where they are and stop them.

JIM LEHRER: Back to the responsibility and accountability issue. You remember Lord Carrington, 1992.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Knew him well, the minister of defense.

JIM LEHRER: And the foreign secretary — Falklands thing, he resigned because he said, I made a misreading, I misread the intentions of the Argentine government.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Right.

JIM LEHRER: James Reston — Scotty Reston, you remember him, he was writing a column for The New York Times and he said — let me read you what he said. “We deal with failure somewhat differently in Washington. Nobody ever says like Lord Carington I’ve been responsible for the conduct of a policy that failed so I resign. It’s hard to remember around here when anybody ever quit in such circumstances.” Was he right?

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

JIM LEHRER: Yeah.

DONALD 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 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 were the people when someone breaks the law, they go out and stop them.

So you have this arrangement in our society 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 — 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’re not able to go out and equip these people. So you don’t go from here to there in one minute, particularly when you have all the protections and checks and balances we have.

JIM 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, “By invading Iraq the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.” Do you disagree?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Oh, sure, he’s wrong.

JIM LEHRER: In what way is he wrong?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, there’s no logic pattern that supports that contention. It is — it just isn’t valid. First of all, we’re still attacking al-Qaida and Taliban around in the Afghanistan area. Our arrangement with Musharraf, he’s working against the al-Qaida 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.

JIM LEHRER: He — another thing. He writes about White House discussions immediately after 9/11. 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-Qaida. 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.”

DONALD 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.

JIM LEHRER: We talked about it on this program.

DONALD RUMSFELD: We have. Second, the only place in the world that we were being shot at, that our planes were being shot at, our people, aircrews were being shot at, was from Iraq. Every week our aircraft were being shot at by the Iraqis as we enforced U.N. 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, so we looked at that and we said how can we better protect these pilots and these air crews 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 so the idea that — take what he said, set it over there and then asked what did we do?

We invaded Afghanistan. We don’t know anything about Iraq on Sept. 11 or Sept. 12th or October 7. So you set it aside. First of all, I don’t remember anything like that happening. I was amused. Someone showed me a clip where he said that he was in a meeting with the National Security Council on Sept. 4, I think he said, and Rumsfeld looked distracted and was following the Wolfowitz line. I wasn’t in the meeting.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Here’s another one.

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

JIM LEHRER: No, no, I’ve just read his book.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I haven’t.

JIM LEHRER: He also said and you’ve admitted to this “Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan.” In other words, you’ve said that.

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

JIM LEHRER: And he said “that we should consider bombing Iraq which he said had better targets. At first I thought Rumsfeld was joking, but he was serious.”

DONALD RUMSFELD: How does he know? 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 — someone said “are you running out of targets?” And I said “Afghanistan is 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-Qaida 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, 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.

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

DONALD RUMSFELD: Thank you.