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Rumsfeld defends the Iraq War

In an interview, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talks with NBC's Andrea Mitchell about the U.S. decision to invade Iraq.
/ Source: MSNBC

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sat down with NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell to discuss the current situation in Libya, the Iraq war and his new memoir.

Read the excerpts below:

NBC's ANDREA MITCHELL: He was both the youngest Secretary of Defense and oldest during two separate tours of duty as Secretary. Donald Rumsfeld went from being an afternoon cable star for his cognatious daily briefings with the press to a lightning rod later for fierce criticism of his war policies in Iraq and then Afghanistan. He also served as White House Chief of Staff for President Ford and a member of Congress from Illinois among other posts. The former Secretary of Defense is now the author of his memoir, ‘Known and Unknown’ and joins us right here. A lot to talk about, but first, let me ask you about your book and some of the controversies.

ButI  wanted to ask you about Moammar Khaddafy because today, he is defiant, he is saying he will attack his own people if necessary. He’s not going to give up power. You have said in your book, you criticize previous administrations for letting Khaddafy off the hook, for Pan Am 103 and other acts of terror. Wasn’t it though the George W. Bush administration that took him off the terror list and normalized relations with Khaddafy?

FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: It was after Saddam Hussein was captured and pulled out of that spider hole and incarcerated by the Iraqi people and later put to death, Khaddafy looked at that and decided he did not want to be the next Saddam Hussein. he had a nuclear program that was well advanced, developing nuclear weapons and he decided he would give it up and he invited inspectors in, dismantled the entire program and it was in exchange for that, that the rest of the world, many countries in the world, began to reestablish relations with Libya.

MITCHELL: Did we get enough for that? Were we on the short end of that bargain though, given the way he is behaving now? Has he really given up his terrorist stripes?

RUMSFELD: I don’t know that he evern gave up his terrorist stripes. What he did was he gave up his nuclear program and said he would give up his terrorist activities. And i don’t know of terrorist activities he had been involved in since that time. And certainly it’s much better in that part of the world to not have a nuclear arms race among those countries.

MITCHELL: Let’s talk about Iraq. You said that the decision to go to war, that two weeks after 9/11, President Bush sat down with you and said we ought to be looking over plans to attack Iraq.

RUMSFELD: He didn’t say plans to attack Iraq, I don’t recall. He said do you have a plan, a contingency plan for Iraq. And the answer was we did, but it was stale. Of course, the Iraqis were shooting at our aircraft over 2000 times almost every day during that period.

MITCHELL: At the same time, there are contemporaneous notes on the very day of 9/11, within hours, about 1:45 in the afternoon, you had gone out, you were praised for your courage in going out and trying to rescue some of the people after the attack on the Pentagon, and then at 1:45 there are log notes where you turned to some of your advisers and said ‘my intent is to hit Saddam Hussein at the same time, we ought not to only look at OBL.’ Osama bin Laden. Didn’t you make up your mind to go after Iraq before there was any evidence to connect him – and without any evidence to connect him to al-Qaida and 9/11?

RUMSFELD: Absolutely not. No, there was not. Although he was one of two or three countries of all the countries in the world that made negative remarks about 9/11.

MITCHELL: That’s not enough reason to go to war.

RUMSFELD: Of course not, I didn’t suggest that it was. What we were talking about was that he had been shooting at our aircraft. He was giving $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers and he had rejected some 17 U.N. resolutions and the question was raised logically, who in the world is engaged. Saddam Hussein had been on the state department’s terrorist list for years prior to that.

MITCHELL: That’s not a reason to go to war.

RUMSFELD: and no one suggested going to war. What we were talking about the contingency plans, that’s what the president asked about. We had plans for lots of countries.

MITCHELL: Contingency plans are very different of course from going to war. There’s been a lot of accusations that the evidence, we know there was no weapons of mass destruction - that the evidence was trumped up.

RUMSFELD: The Delphi report suggested there were weapons of mass destruction capabilities.
MITCHELL: Capabilities is not the same as weapons.

RUMSFELD: Of course not, I didn’t say weapons. I said that the Delphi report after the war said that the people were there and the precursors were there and they had the ability to rapidly increase supplies of weapons of mass destruction. This is a man that already used those weapons on his own people and used them on the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war. You used the word, trumped up. There was nothing trumped up. Colin Powell believed every word he said at the United Nations. The president believed every word he said. Everyone in the administration believed it. Other governments believed it. Those in Congress who looked at the intelligence believed it - Democrats and Republicans alike. You’ve read their statements.

MITCHELL: One of the key factors was this source ‘Curveball.’

RUMSFELD: How do you know it was one of the key factors?

MITCHELL: From all the reports, from all of the writing, the point was that without Curveball, Colin Powell said without being told this man a single source, that he would not have made the speech that he made to the United Nations.

RUMSFELD: Right, and that’s fair. The intelligence people, these are honorable people - George Tenet and John McLaughlin -

MITCHELL: And all them in the pentagon in your office of special plans.

RUMSFELD: They had nothing to do with it. They were not intelligence gatherers. They did not have anything to do with Curveball at all. It would be a mistake to connect them. The people, the intelligence community gathered information from all kinds of people. Curveball was one of hundreds I am sure. I’m not in the intelligence business so i can’t say precisely -

MITCHELL: You actually created for the first time a special unit, this office of special plans. It has been described as an intelligence –

RUMSFELD: The policy office created it.

MITCHELL: On your order.

RUMSFELD: Not on my orders at all. I was advised they did that and there was nothing wrong with that. There were a handful of people in there, 2 or 3 people, interpreting intelligence. They weren’t creating it, they weren’t gathering it. And I think the implication of your question I think isn’t consistent with what I understand to be the facts.

MITCHELL: According to subsequent reports, Inspector General’s reports, that intelligence unit, that analysis unit in the Pentagon was stove piping information – intelligence information.

RUMSFELD: What does that mean? Stove piping?

MITCHELL: Mr. Secretary, you know what stove piping means. It was keeping intelligence information away from other units. Not permitting people in the CIA -

RUMSFELD: Oh, not at all.

MITCHELL: And not permitting Colin Powell to know all of the factors.

RUMSFELD: That is not true. That is factually not true.

MITCHELL: Tyler Drumheller, the former CIA analyst who has written -

RUMSFELD: Never heard of him, Tyler Drumheller. but I do know is that when I heard about this office and what they were doing and they briefed me once – once is all as I recall, I said, you should brief George Tenet and they did. There was no secret about it – there was nothing mysterious.

MITCHELL: You were only briefed once?

RUMSFELD: To my recollection. By this group. i was briefed every day by the CIA.

MITCHELL: But Doug Feith and the others who reported directly through.

RUMSFELD: Policy. In terms of this office, I remember one briefing. My immediate reaction was, I’m not in the intelligence business, go brief George Tenet, and they did. No mystery about it at all.

MITCHELL: You don’t take any responsibility for what for the fact that information was there was misleading information that got to Colin Powell?

RUMSFELD: Absolutely not. Colin Powell has, probably had more experience dealing with intelligence products than anyone in the government at a senior level.

MITCHELL: He has said he was basically blind-sided, that there was information, pressure from the vice president. There was pressure from Pentagon officials on the CIA.

RUMSFELD: There was no pressure from Pentagon officials. I don’t believe he said that. I’ve never heard him say that.

MITCHELL: He has said that.

RUMSFELD: That there was pressure from the Pentagon?

MITCHELL: That there pressure within the NSC.

RUMSFELD: That’s different. That’s quite different than the Pentagon. I don’t believe he’s ever said that. To my knowledge, he’s never said it to me, but he clearly felt he was not aware that that Curveball person was the single source and I think that’s correct. And he felt as a result that he would not have given his speech. And I don’t blame him.

MITCHELL: You have also written that "the media image of Powell battling the forces of unilateralism and conservatism may have been beneficial to Powell in some circles but did not jibe with reality. The reality was that Powell tended not to speak out at NSC or principals meetings in strong opposition to the views of the president or of his colleagues."

RUMSFELD: That’s my recollection of the meetings. He was very professional in his handlings. He’s a fine man and I enjoyed working with him.

MITCHELL: You weren’t aware of his opposition to the war?

RUMSFELD: Not in any meetings that I attended or even in our lunches. I just didn’t ever hear that. That’s a fact.

MITCHELL: You have written sharply of Condi Rice. "Rice seemed to believe that it was a personal shortcoming on our part if she had to ask the president to resolve an interagency different. She studiously avoided forcing clear cut decisions that might result in one cabinet officer emerging as a ‘winner’ and another as a ‘loser’."

RUMSFELD: She, I think the way to characterize it as I did in my book, and tried to do it in a very accurate, balanced way and I think you’ll find that its fully supported on my website where I have the memos that describe these things. She tried to blend different opinions and of course, there’s always going to be differences of views. You’ve been in this town a long time and you remember George Schultz and Weinberger and Brzezinski.

MITCHELL: In this case, do you think it was RUMSFELD and Cheney who prevented Condoleezza Rice from becoming more powerful NSC advisor?

RUMSFELD: Of course not. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that?

MITCHELL: You’ve never heard anyone suggest that you and Dick Cheney were an alliance against Condoleezza Rice?

RUMSFELD: No, absolutely not. I’ve never heard anyone other than you say that. It wasn’t that way. She liked to try to take differing views, which is understandable, and try to merge them.

MITCHELL: You’ve never read ‘State of Denial’ Bob Woodward’s book?

RUMSFELD: Neither were involved at all. They were on the outside listening to people two or three levels down.

MITCHELL: Mr. Secretary, you write there was no disagreement among those “responsible for the planning of the war about troop levels for the deployment.” General Shinseki testified that several hundred thousand would be needed post topping Saddam and immediately afterwards, Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz slammed him. You ended up announcing his replacement a year before his retirement.

RUMSFELD: Let’s get the facts right. Factually wrong. I did not announce his retirement a year before.

MITCHELL: his replacement.

RUMSFELD: I did not announce his successor a year before. That is a myth that’s been built up and many people have pointed out -

MITCHELL: Were you trying to send a signal to undercut General Shinseki?

RUMSFELD: I certainly was not.

MITCHELL: So that people would know they could not dissent about what some would argue –

RUMSFELD: That’s absolute nonsense Andrea, it just didn’t happen.

MITCHELL: What about the decision to disband the Iraqi army?

RUMSFELD: What about it?

MITCHELL: Do you take responsibility for that? You seem to be implying that Jerry Bremer was responsible for that. It could not have happened without your concurrence though.

RUMSFELD: You have a lot of conclusions that come from people not involved. I tried to write about it in an accurate way. I’ve got documentation on the website that supports it. The Iraqi army in large measure disbanded itself because you had something i think 11,000 Sunni generals.

MITCHELL: They were defections, but there was a decision made.

RUMSFELD: Just a minute. And a group of Shia conscripts many of whom just went home. There’s no question but that the coalition provisional authority, Jerry Bremer, made an announcement and is it a wrong decision? I don’t think so. I think he probably, its - there’s arguments on both sides.

MITCHELL: It wasn’t his decision though unilaterally?

RUMSFELD: He talked to other people, to the NSC. I’ve spent a good deal of time in the book and supplied documentation explaining exactly how those decision were made, who made them and to what extent they were discussed. Both have been criticized. I happen to think that the debathification decision was generally right, although its implementation was imperfect. And I think that Bremer then changed the person who was implementing it.

MITCHELL: You worked under a lot of presidents. One was a very special friend, Gerry Ford, because you had served together in Congress. I want to ask you about something, David Letterman raised this. It was Sarah j. Moore in San Francisco. She took a shot at President Ford. You were standing right behind him at the time. Tell us what happened that day.

RUMSFELD: This woman, I didn’t see her, but she apparently had a pistol, picked it up and brought it into full view. A man next to her moved it slightly, I think. And the bullet went right by the president’s head, right by the secret serviceman’s head.

MITCHELL: We’ve got the picture there in the foreground. In that picture that we just showed was the Secret Service agent, there you are with the glasses, behind him. What happened when the bullet missed, thankfully? The president was thrown into the car what happened next?

RUMSFELD: The Secret Service man and I pushed on top of him, and we’re on top of him, of course the policy for the Secret Service is to assume there might be more than one attack, and they immediately moved very rapidly out of the city. We were a number of blocks down the road and you could hear a muffled voice from the president say, come on, Rummy, get off, you guys are heavy.

MITCHELL: You were on top of him?


MITCHELL: There’s so much more in the book about your long life in politics. I wanted to ask you about one rather startling admission, an encounter with Elvis.

RUMSFELD: Tt was very funny. I ended up in his dressing room after - he came out in a sequined, white sequined jumpsuit.

MITCHELL: You were in Las Vegas with Sammy Davis Jr.? I still can’t get that together in my head.

RUMSFELD: Sammy was helping out with the Office of Economic Opportunity Advisory Board, and I happened to be there giving a speech.


RUMSFELD: Probably. He said come to dinner. so we went to dinner and he took us to hear, and Elvis was terrific. We went into the dressing room and for some reason he got me in a corner somewhere wanted to talk about the United States Army. He was proud of his service in the Army. He served in Germany. We had a long discussion. And Joyce kept looking around for me and finally saw me in the corner and he had me up against the wall asking me all kinds of questions about the Army.

MITCHELL: Before I let you go, I wanted to ask about Don’t ask, don’t tell. You’ve changed your view on that?

RUMSFELD: It was the law. The law has changed. It seems to me it’s an idea that’s come. Now the task is the ground commanders, commandant of the Marine Corps and Chief of the Staff of the Army said we’ve got to figure out a way to do it and do it in a way that does not damage unit cohesion. and I’m sure that people will be thoughtful and careful in administering it.

MITCHELL: You think it’s time has come?

RUMSFELD: Indeed, it has. The law’s been changed.

MITCHELL:The book ‘Known and Unknown: A memoir.’ thank you, Donald RUMSFELD.