Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
Interview with Georgie Anne Geyer of Universal Press Syndicate
The Pentagon
Arlington, Virginia
October 17, 2001

GEYER: -- but you've been doing a spectacular job.

RUMSFELD: We're trying hard. I'll tell you, it's an amazing process. Everything is just different.

GEYER: Tell me about anything you want, I've got a million questions.

RUMSFELD: We were talking about the question that -- there's so many things you have to do that are immediate. You're in the box and the phone's ringing and there's an NSC meeting and you've got to go deal with the CINC Tommy Franks about something. Then there are other things. There are things like how do you get the case made and set right at the beginning so that you don't end up in a cul de sac down the way unintentionally. And how you set it in the public mind and in the mind of the world is going to determine how successful you're going to be. And how you set it in the mind of the people in the institution is going to determine the extent to which they track in the right direction, because no one can manage anything mechanically, if you will. They have to see the direction and then track there and come up with ideas that reinforce and move us towards the goals.

So sitting back and thinking about those things are really important and require a lot of thought and discussion and consideration and testing.

Then the other thing you have to say to yourself is assuming the worst, transport yourself three months or a year out and assume, just picture the television when there's been a nuclear or a biological or a chemical mess of considerable proportion. Not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of people. And ask yourself what is it one would want to do, knowing that's coming, to help deter it from happening, to conceivably be able to defend against it, and to be prepared to cope with it in the event it were to occur either here or with deployed forces or friends or allies.

When you're dealing with the immediate all the time you have to kind of just force yourself to step back and look at issues like those that are not the kinds of things that are going to end up in your in-box. No one's going to ask you those questions. They don't come at you, they've got to come out of you.

GEYER: But you must have had that in you before. You wouldn't have time once it happened. You've been thinking through these things all your life.

RUMSFELD: I suppose yeah, you do.

GEYER: Or else what did you draw --

RUMSFELD: Yeah, that's true in most of these jobs. You pretty much have what you come in with. You get so busy with them that you have to know three-quarters of it pretty well to have time to learn the last quarter. There are a whole bunch of new acronyms. (Laughter)

GEYER: I've wondered since the beginning -- you know what I've written and what I generally feel. I'm amazed at the sophistication of the whole -- I've never seen anything like this that I've covered. Not Vietnam, certainly not the Balkans. Who comes up with the idea? Is it culturally -- it's very sophisticated on all levels. Who actually comes up with it? I know there's not one person, but how do you mesh it all together? Did you just kind of know this from previous experience, or --


GEYER: How did you do this? All these different, including the cultural, the informational, the --

RUMSFELD: I suppose it's like some of those Rumsfeld rules. You know, you don't need to fall in the pothole that other people have fallen in previously. You want to find your own. (Laughter)

But you hang around long enough and you look at all the things people do. You can start out with a perfectly plausible premise that's flawed but plausible, then proceed perfectly logically to a flawed conclusion. And the other thing that is always a risk in something like this is grabbing an argument of convenience because it's supportive and helpful and attractive early on, but down the road it becomes a burden because it was the premise for what you were doing and it garnered support, but it doesn't stand the test of time. Then pretty soon your support withers away.

So I think by getting it set that we did not have a single coalition here, for example, but recognized that countries are going to help us in different ways at different times depending on their --

GEYER: -- coalition and --

RUMSFELD: Yeah, where they live and which neighborhood they live in and what their perspective is and what their political sensitivities might be, and to have tried to fashion a single coalition for something that's going to take a sustained effort over a long period of time and involve most of the continents of the world clearly wouldn't have worked. You had to have it structured at the outset as floating coalitions with people helping in various ways, and with a very high tolerance level for what they do and what they don't do, and also for the extent to which they want to publicize what they're doing or not doing.

GEYER: Yeah.

RUMSFELD: A lot of these countries know what's right and what ought to be done, and they want to help and they do help, but they also have some problems internally and they have to manage those problems, and they do.

So just by way of an example, that is one thing that had to be done.

The other was getting everyone into it. It became so clear that the culprits, the terrorists, the people who brought this havoc on our country are not living in tall buildings or having navies or armies or air forces. Therefore, there isn't any way that the Defense Department all by itself in a conventional way could deal with it. And it had to from the very beginning include the law enforcement, the covert financial, economic, diplomatic, as well as the overt military.

And I think it's working. I think the pressure that's being applied through the financial and through the law enforcement. There's been a lot of people who have been arrested, and who have given reason to, within their countries, wherever they may be, to be investigated and interrogated and questioned. Out of all of that information and exchange of that information by dozens and dozens and dozens of countries have come more and more names, and more and more arrests, and more and more information. And drying up the bank helps complicate life.

So anything that we can do individually or collectively that raises the cost for them makes life more difficult, reduces the number of recruits, dries up their money, makes a country less likely to want to have them in there. It all helps. It isn't very visible, but we're seeing it in Afghanistan, just watching the intelligence information and the scraps of information we're hearing from the ground that that is in fact happening. That people are, some people are deciding they don't want to be as active on behalf of the Taliban as they have been. People are saying that they want to not only not be active, but they want to defect, go over to the other side. An action that's not unique in the history of Afghanistan. Those people have moved around from side to side before. And I don't submit for a second that it's necessarily permanent. (Laughter) But at least you get a little motion going the right way.

GEYER: Yeah.

RUMSFELD: And there's no question but that the air war has, while it in a classical sense has had limited effect because they have limited assets to have effect on, a portion of -- it's not been trivial. It's been significant. And when you've got that many people on the ground that are against them. The Northern Alliance faction, the tribes in the south to some extent, as well as people within Taliban who weren't enamored of al Qaeda, all of that adds up to some motion, some progress.

GEYER: Where would you say we are now? Would you say a third -- what stage --

RUMSFELD: -- in the very beginning. It's a big world. There's lots of terrorist networks. Al Qaeda alone has got 50 or 60 around the world. And there are many others, and they're linked and they have state sponsors. The Afghanistan piece is really a relatively interesting one because of its complexity and its immediacy, but you could put a bubble around Afghanistan today and the problems of the world would still be there.

So to the extent the thing tends to get personalized into a couple of names or into a single network, it probably is misleading to people. It's not like you could deal with Afghanistan, take a great big sigh and say well that takes care of that, because it just doesn't. The problem of weapons of mass destruction and their availability is just too immediate and too urgent and there's too many countries that have harbored and financed and encouraged and facilitated terrorist networks that have weaponized biological weapons and chemical weapons and actively seeking nuclear material.

GEYER: -- countries that have --

RUMSFELD: Too many countries that are on the terrorist list that have been involved with terrorism, that have harbored terrorists and financed them and facilitated them and tolerated them, that in addition to doing that have themselves weaponized chemical and biological and have actively sought nuclear material. To not know -- I shouldn't say know, but it doesn't take a genius project yourself out and make the assumption that there's going to be a nexus between the terrorist networks and the countries that have supported them having those weapons. At some point reasonable people have to assume that that's the case. And that is a prospect that is so significant and changes things so dramatically.

I mean one thing that changed dramatically is that our country experienced a major terrorist event and that hasn't been our experience. Other countries, yes. Other parts of the world, yes. But the United States, no. Friends on the north and south, oceans to the sides. So that was different for us and significant, a major impact on the American people.

Take that one step farther into weapons of mass destruction. The first thing you realize is you have a degree of vulnerability where our strength of being a free people is used against us and our technology is used against us. Here's an American Airlines plane filled with Americans, killing hundreds of people. And United I guess it was in New York killing thousands.

GEYER: Were you surprised when it happened?

RUMSFELD: I was sitting here and the whole building shook. You bet I was surprised. When I got up that morning it hadn't crossed my mind that a bunch of Americans would be killed flying into the Pentagon.

On the other hand, I'd been at breakfast next door with a group of congressmen and they were talking about the --

GEYER: The lock box.

RUMSFELD: I beg your pardon?

GEYER: Wasn't that the lock box conversation?

RUMSFELD: That's right. They were talking about the social security lock box and we were talking about the need for additional defense money to deal with the new threats, the asymmetrical threats, the cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism. They said we've got this problem and these folks are up for reelection. That's the biggest problem we have is to get the votes that we know you need is because they're concerned about the social security lock box.

I said, very simply, I said since I chaired the Ballistic Missile Threat Commission we've had a [Gauri] ballistic missile launch in Pakistan; we've had the [Shahab 3] ballistic missile launch in Iran; we had nuclear weapons fired in India; a nuclear weapon fired in Pakistan; we've had the Taipo Dong II missile launch out of North Korea. I said as sure as we're all sitting here there's going to be another significant event of that type that's going to occur and when that happens people will be more worried about that than they will the lock box.

I walked out of there and two minutes later someone came in and said turn your television on, a plane went into the World Trade Center. Then I sat down here with my briefer, and the whole building shook.

We knew that before it happened. That's why we spent the year talking about the risk of asymmetrical threats. Clearly no one anticipated that degree of asymmetry.

GEYER: Yeah.

RUMSFELD: Imagine plastic knives and an American Airlines transport as a missile. It's beyond comprehension. But that's the world we live in.

GEYER: How much has it changed our lives? We see the (inaudible) coalition, I think the Russians (inaudible) for the West; Arafat making -- can we even begin to judge how much it changed the world? I see foreign papers talking about a global command against terrorism.

RUMSFELD: We've been looking at -- the problem, if you think about it, when you're dealing with a problem that's truly global, is if you're arranged geographically and you look at it in a stovepipe in one region you don't see the connection cross-ways, and so we're trying to figure out a way to look at it globally. We haven't quite landed on exactly how to best do that, but we are looking at the command structure right now.

Of course we've never had a CINC US, a combatant commander for the United States since the Civil War, when we had two -- one for each side. (Laughter)

But all of a sudden we find, my goodness, we do need a person, a military person, who has the responsibility for force protection here in the United States, whose responsibility is to assist in the supporting role for first responders at the state and local level. We've got literally dozens and dozens and dozens of requests. We're flying airplanes around, combat air patrols up in (inaudible) areas. High asset targets for the United States. And (inaudible) borders. (inaudible)

GEYER: Yeah.

RUMSFELD: So we're looking at commands and how we're organized to try to think that through.

You know, I keep reading these articles, why do they hate (inaudible). And one other thing we tried to do from the very beginning is to keep reminding that this is not against a religion, it's not against a country or it's not against the people.

It's hard, because we deal with free press, and frequently they're dealing with controlled press. How do you get that message out in a way that's plausible for people to hear that it's true. The fact that we defended Kuwait; the fact that we were on the side of (inaudible) in Kosovo and Bosnia; we (inaudible) Somalia; and we were the biggest food donor in Afghanistan before September 11th, 170 million pounds. And to suggest that there's anything anti-Islam about anything we're doing --

On the other hand, the other side is very good at what they do, and they are propagandizing and lying and using mosques for headquarters. (inaudible) won't strike them. He's taking advantage of holidays for movement hoping we won't strike them. Lying to young people about that their goal in life ought to be.

(inaudible) in here the other day, and I don't know who said it, but "before the thugs come the liars." Someone must have said that. And it's true, if you think about it. Hitler had to fashion a concept, a big lie about racial superiority or something; and the communists had to have their theory of economic socialism. Then behind it of course come the dictators and the people who want to control and repress people. And did.

I think how the -- that religion is being twisted in a way, in the words of the leaders of these terrorist groups for gaining recruits. That is worrisome.

GEYER: It is kind of mass hysteria. It's just like (inaudible). Even the Serbs in the Balkans, they had that (inaudible).

RUMSFELD: There was some of that.

GEYER: A lot of it. A lot of it. I was covering that.

RUMSFELD: That's right. So we've got to know what we're doing is right.

The other problem with it is, you know normally you would be defending yourself in a way that would look like defense. When you're dealing with very powerful weapons and you're dealing with terrorism, you can't defend against terrorism because they can strike anywhere at any time using any technique, and it's physically impossible to defend everywhere all the time against any conceivable thing.

I remember being in Beirut and they drive a truck into the Marine barracks and kill 241 Marines, so we put big barricades around the building. Then they started lobbing rocket-propelled grenades over the top of the barricade and blowing up the buildings. Finally they hung a big wire mesh over the embassy down in Kornish in Beirut to bounce back the rocket-propelled grenades. Then of course they went after soft targets, going to and from work.

So you can't do this on a visibly self-defense basis. You must attack. The only way to deal with terrorists is to take it to them. And that must be done. And it looks -- it does not look like self-defense. Of course a lot of people use the word revenge or retribution or anger as though what you're doing is getting mad and getting even, and that is not what you're doing. What you're doing is you're stating the truth, that they have attacked our way of life. We're free people. And either we're going to be free or we're not going to be ourselves. And therefore, the only choice we have is to attack. That is to say, to defend ourselves by taking the effort to do that.

Yet the image of your taking that to them is not one of self-defense. So we've got to find the words and the ways to help the world understand that.

GEYER: Was that your idea originally?

RUMSFELD: I've never had an original idea in my life. I just go around with people smarter than I am and listen and learn and grab this and grab that.

GEYER: That's interesting. I haven't heard that kind of --

RUMSFELD: I never have said it before, I don't reckon, have I?

GEYER: No. Good.

RUMSFELD: I don't know. I just was sitting here thinking about it. I mean it is a challenge to do that.

The thing is that you have to figure out how to do is to help other people think of these kinds of things as something that starts and stops in a relatively short timeframe. This can't. It has to be sustained. You don't have a big margin for error when you're talking about very powerful weapons.

So you can't sit back and way well, I've taken are of that, and if I'm wrong it will just be a little thing and then I'll have to go do it again. It isn't a little thing maybe next time. Maybe it's a big thing. And maybe it's bigger than ever before. So you would --

If you thought you had warning time, which gives you the ability to go do something, preempt, you could behave one way. You've got to assume you don't have warning time.

Therefore you ought not be surprised if you find you did not have warning time because you're on notice that you don't have warning time. Therefore the only thing that ought to be surprising is if someone's dumb enough to be surprised when it happens, because we ought to know that now, that it could happen. Therefore we ought to be doing the kinds of things that we're now trying to do.

I don't see that you have any choice. And you have to be able to sustain that. Of course that means that people who naturally want to get about their lives and don't want to be inconvenienced have to have a balance in their minds that they're willing to have this go on for a period because the risk is not trivial, it's sizeable, and it's worth the effort and the time.

GEYER: Uh huh. What about what you said in the very beginning, looking down the road it could be a biological or chemical attack on 100,000 people. Is there anything special we can do on that or on the anthrax threat? Or is that just intrinsic in the (inaudible)?

RUMSFELD: If you think about it, the task for government, it seems to me, is to try to calibrate the right amount of truth, that those weapons do exist, that they are very powerful, and that people who have those weapons work closely with terrorist networks and therefore as the president said, have a heightened sense of awareness, be tolerant of the kinds of things we need to do to recognize that those things exist and that we need to do something about it. And yet not panic people to the point that behavior becomes counter-productive rather than helpful.

My impression is that the administration's done a pretty darn good job. I've listened to John Ashcroft and I thought he found a, he's got a good rudder on this. I've listened to Tommy Thompson and I thought he -- and the president has done a wonderful job. Just kind of instinctively. He finds the place to be that provides the kind of leadership that's constructive and helpful. And the vice president has as well.

GEYER: They're very comforting in a way. And you are too.

RUMSFELD: They've provided the right kind of directional leadership, it seems to me, those folks have. And that's a good thing.

What kind of a book are you working on?

GEYER: I can't tell you. (Laughter)

RUMSFELD: You're always working on a book. Don't tell me it's something flaky.

GEYER: Susan knows. She can tell you later. I can't tell you. You'll lose all respect for me.

It's very interesting, but it's light-hearted. So when I finish with this stuff and go write on this book, it's just wonderful.

RUMSFELD: Do you do it every morning?

GEYER: I do it whenever I get some time. It's almost done. I go to Pakistan again and finish this off --

RUMSFELD: Is that right?

GEYER: I don't know, I [have two weeks]. It doesn't seem to me the time to go is right now.

RUMSFELD: Off the record, [portion deleted]

GEYER: My great worry about Afghanistan, (inaudible), but Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi, if any one of those was to really collapse inside then (inaudible).

One last question. I know the time is probably up, but on the ground interference? Can you tell me anything about it? Do we have people actually on the ground? Is there anything you can say about that?

RUMSFELD: [Can't comment].

GEYER: That's what I thought you'd say. (Laughter)

RUMSFELD: I was with the Sultan of Oman --

GEYER: Oh, is he fabulous?