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Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with John McWethy, ABC

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
September 12, 2002

Monday, August 12, 2002

(Interview with John McWethy, ABC)

Q: We'll be cutting it relatively high, so don't worry about your hands. I'm going to start you off with the day. I know you're bored with that but there are some questions that we talk about that day --

Secretary Rumsfeld: Sure. You know I'm not into Iraq today.

Q: You're never into Iraq, sir. You may have noticed that we are and you aren't.

Secretary Rumsfeld: So if you bring it up, I'll probably knock your chair over.

Q: I'll bring it up late so that if you draw blood it won't be in the early part, and I won't get a mess on my shoe. [Laughter]

Sure you don't want to talk about mules and donkeys and stuff, and go straight into Iraq?

Secretary Rumsfeld: I'm sure.

Q: If we could, sir, let's begin with the day. You were meeting with some folks from the Hill. Just take us through that scene and then I'll ask you a specific set of questions.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well, we were in this room and having breakfast with a group of members of the House of Representatives from both political parties.

In the course of it we were talking about the defense budget and the importance of passing it, and they were concerned to some extent about the Social Security lockbox which was very much discussed during that period. They were worried that the defense budget increase would impinge on that to some extent. I said, of course the other worry is that sometime between now and the next month, six, eight, ten, twelve, fifteen months there would be an event in the world, I didn't know what it would be, but it would serve as a counterweight to their concern about the Social Security lockbox.

Someone came in and passed note saying a plane had gone into the World Trade Center in New York, and the meeting broke up.

I went in and was getting my intelligence briefing and someone came in and said that another plane had hit a different tower of the World Trade Center. As we were completing the briefing, the plane hit the Pentagon. So it was an amazing day.

Q: So you did not alter, after the second building had been hit in New York, you did not alter your routine. You continued with your intelligence briefing?

Secretary Rumsfeld: I asked some people to see if they could determine what was going on. It clearly looked like it was no longer an accident of an airplane hitting a building. I asked people to determine what they could find out and was in the process of just winding up the intelligence briefing which I think was supposed to go from 9:00 to 9:30 or something.

Q: Who told you that a plane had hit the Pentagon?

Secretary Rumsfeld: I don't recall. It might have been Ed Giamastiani, Admiral Giamastiani, but I'm not sure.

Q: What did you do?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Oh, wait. No one told me. I didn't need it. The whole building jumped. No one told me that a plane had hit the Pentagon. I thought you were talking about the World Trade Center.

No, with respect to the Pentagon we were sitting there getting briefed and the table shook and the building shook and it felt like a bomb had hit the building. We ended our meeting and I got up and went down the hall towards where it clearly had come from. When the smoke got too bad I went downstairs and went outside and around the corner, and of course there it was. There was metal all over the grass and there were people coming out of the building hurt and people were assisting them.

Q: And you were being chased by your own security people, and what were they advising you to do?

Secretary Rumsfeld: I don't recall that they were chasing me or advising me. I was going, which seemed to me perfectly logically, towards the scene of the accident to see what could be done and what had happened. I was told by someone there that they had seen an airplane hit the building?

Q: What did you do?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Oh, I was there for a relatively short period of time and tried to help some folks in the stretchers. Decided I'd best get back into the Command Center, which I then did.

We shut down much of the building but kept open certain portions of it where we were able to, smoke was bad but it was workable and we were able to spend all that day and then that evening until quite late in the Command Center.

Q: We were told that your security people were urging you to leave the campus of the Pentagon and that you refused. Did that not happen?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Uh huh. That did. That was later. Yes, they wanted to evacuate us and the building and I decided I'd prefer to stay. So I evacuated my Deputy and he went to the alternative site so, there was a Command Center that was available outside of the Pentagon in the event that happened to be necessary.

Q: So you went into the NMCC, the National Military Command Center and you had a series of decisions to make in those first early minutes. Do you remember what some of those decisions were? There was a DefCon decision, there was a shoot-at-the-plane decision, those sorts of things?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Yes, it's correct. I did make a decision with respect to changing the DefCon status and we rapidly developed some rules of engagement for what our military aircraft might do in the event another aircraft appeared to be heading into a large civilian structure or population.

Q: Were you on the telephone with the Vice President? Was it --

Secretary Rumsfeld: The President, the Vice President, a whole host of people.

Q: To authorize shooting down a passenger plane, that had to be done at the highest level?

Secretary Rumsfeld: No. I think the way to think of it is that first a set of facts had to be determined, and then we had to determine what our capabilities were and what we ought to think about doing. So we developed a connection with NORAD, the Air Defense System, and began talking to them. We were being fed information from them as to aircraft, after they grounded aircraft of course. There were a number of incidents where, in one case there was an aircraft, I believe, that had its hijacking signal on. In another case there was just no communication. In several cases the planes were tracked. What we had to do was determine what the procedure ought to be.

It was a totally different circumstance for our country. The thought of having to shoot down one of our own civilian aircraft because it was about ready to crash into something like the White House or the Capitol or the Pentagon again. It was totally different than anyone had ever conceived. As a result we developed a rule of engagement that we decided was appropriate and then we decided the appropriate levels going up. Obviously the chain of command goes from the President of the United States to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander. What we did was develop a rule and a process whereby I would be notified by -- First of all the combatant commander would be notified in the event there was a circumstance that was abnormal and potentially dangerous, and he then would notify me and I then would notify the President in each case assuming there was time for that process.

Q: Had the Shanksville plane already gone into the ground at that point?

Secretary Rumsfeld: No.

Q: So you were still deliberating this early on in that process and there was that plane in particular that was the major --

Secretary Rumsfeld: You mean the one in Pennsylvania?

Q: The Pennsylvania plane.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I'd have to look at, some of the people who were with me, they have notes. I don't. I was pretty busy.

Q: In making the decision to go to a higher threat condition, a higher DefCon, that's a very serious step for the nation.

Secretary Rumsfeld: It is. The last time it was gone I believe was 1973 when I was Ambassador to NATO and the Middle East flared up. The United States put our forces on I believe it was DefCon 3.

Q: You had a teleconference call at around 3:30 in the afternoon involving the President, involving all of the top national security people. Do you remember what it was that you were dealing with at that point? You're about four or five hours after these attacks had actually occurred.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I don't. I'd have to talk to somebody and refresh myself on the sequence. It was a packed day.

Q: You had another, this was a videoconference at 9:30 supposedly with the President in the Emergency Operation Center. Do you remember that meeting and the sorts of things -- Now you're 12 hours after the fact.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I thought that meeting was in person, but I could be wrong. Maybe it wasn't that night, maybe it was the next night we went over to the White House and had a meeting there with the President, I think that's right.

Throughout the day there were a series of phone calls. Two people or multiple people on the phone and on secure videos that took place and it was kind of a stream of things. It was either the President or the Vice President in the White House Center or it was one of the combatant commanders discussing some aspect of what had to be done.

Q: Did you have a concern that the U.S. was about to be hit again in those early moments, those early hours?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Sure. There's no question about it. Once you take the three airplanes into three buildings and then you get on the horn and start talking to folks about aircraft that are supposed to be grounded and didn't go down, or aircraft that are coming in from the Pacific or the Atlantic, or an aircraft where the pilot has seemingly, not for sure, but seemingly triggered its hijacked beacon warning, you can't help but be very attentive to the possibility of another attack.

Q: Apparently one of the early interceptor planes from Andrew Air Force Base was not armed, but that pilot has subsequently said I would have been willing to fly my plane into one of those passenger planes. Were you aware of any of those dynamics?

Secretary Rumsfeld: I had not heard that particular statement.

Q: Late into that night you apparently looked around the National Military Command Center and realized that everybody was pooped, they were smoky and sweaty and tired --

Secretary Rumsfeld: Eyes. Everyone's eyes had been hurt by the smoke, and throats. There was so much smoke in the building, even in these rooms that were supposed to be reasonably secure that a lot of folks were scratching and their eyes were quite red.

Q: You apparently looked over to the Chairman and said can't we let a lot of these people go home? Do you remember the conversation?

Secretary Rumsfeld: I don't.

Q: Apparently the response was as long as you're here they can't go anywhere?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Yes, I think that's right. So eventually I went home.

Q: In order to -- Why?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well, so that other folks could get out of the building.

Q: Did you ever have a sense that you shouldn't have been here at the Pentagon during --

Secretary Rumsfeld: No. It was instinctively right for me to be here.

Q: Despite the fact that your security people apparently dinged on you rather regularly to get out of here.

Secretary Rumsfeld: That's their job. They've got their job, I've got my job. They did a good job that day.

Q: One of the things that we are asking every person, from the Vice President and all over the Cabinet, is that moment in overarching memory -- a vision, a smell, a moment, whatever, from that day that probably is not going to leave you.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I guess the feeling of the amazing advantage that the attacker has, that a terrorist has. They can attack anywhere and they can attack at any time of the day or night and they can attack using obviously our technology, our airplanes. They didn't build the airplanes. And they can then use them to destroy things that we value. The lives of the men and women in the United States, innocent people who were killed. That realization that this thing we've been describing as asymmetrical attacks, that is to say attacks that don't go against an army, a navy or an air force, but they go against innocent men, women and children, and they can happen at any time at any place in a variety of ways is a feeling of real vulnerability. It seemed to me that talking about it and addressing it conceptually is one thing, but living with that reality is quite another thing. It is a gripping thing. It forces one to feel a great sense of urgency for our government and our friends and allies around the world to recognize the nature of that threat, and particularly so if it ends up with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of these people.

Q: In those early moments when you ran around to the other side of the building, you and I talked about this several days afterwards while we were out there at the scene with the smoldering still going on. When you looked at the faces of young people and the middle age people who were starting to come out of that building who had been so terribly hurt, any thoughts on that moment?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well, they were terrific. I'm trying to think, there was a young woman bleeding, sitting on the ground, and I think she said to me, she didn't know who I was. She could see people holding drips going into people, IV of some kind, and she said something to the effect, if someone could bring that person over I could hold it.

Q: And she's bleeding. It takes your breath away.

You talked about the sense of urgency that you felt then.

Secretary Rumsfeld: And now.

Q: Now you feel an almost equal sense of urgency although the day has now gone off 12 months ago almost.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Yeah.

Q: Talk to me about the threat the United States faces today, the magnitude of that threat, and the urgency that you feel in trying to communicate without frightening.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well, it's a hard thing to do. You want to be honest with people and yet you don't want to present the case in a way that causes people to react in a way that isn't constructive and isn't useful.

The cold hard fact is that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is so extensive today that terrorist states have them and terrorist networks want them and are going to get them. Clearly, any organization like al Qaeda or any number of other terrorist organizations that are willing to kill thousands of innocent men, women and children, and where we have records that they have been seeking weapons of mass destruction -- meaning chemical weapons, biological weapons, as well as nuclear weapons -- aggressively seeking these weapons and trying to buy them and trying to get people to give them to them and sometimes succeeding, one has to know that if we look out whatever number of months -- five, a year, two years -- that there's going to be an event using those very powerful weapons where the number of people who die are not going to be several thousand but tens of thousands of people potentially. If you see that every day in the intelligence it forces you to say what ought we to be doing as a society between the day that happens and today? And that gives me a sense of urgency. It causes me to get up early and stay up late and work with these wonderful people in the Department of Defense and see if we can't do everything humanly possible to either avoid such an attack or to delay such an attack or to reduce the damage from such an attack or to mitigate the effects after such an attack, and you just have to feel compelled to do that.

Q: You are trying to change the public perception of how the United States goes about that and you used the word preemptive which is a new concept for our public and clearly for America's allies.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I think of it as self defense. In other words I don't think of it -- Preemptive is one word. Preventive is another word. Anticipatory self defense is another way of saying it.

If you know of certain knowledge something's going to come and you have a choice and you can either sit there and take the blow or you can act before that blow comes, you have a choice. If the danger to your country is several hundred people or several thousand people, that's terrible carnage, but it's not several hundred thousand people which could be the case if you waited to take the blow from a serious weapon of mass destruction.

Q: You used the word "if you know of certain knowledge", the phrase, "if you know of certain knowledge."

Secretary Rumsfeld: Uh huh.

Q: That's where the problem is.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Sure. That's right.

Q: That's where the salesmanship is most difficult and that's where your allies tend to not be with you quite as much.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well, first of all I don't think of myself as a salesman. And second, we haven't tried to sell anything to our allies, so I don't know that I agree with the premise in your question.

What I've said, and I think it's true, is that the world has to face facts. Our country does, our government, our people, our friends and allies around the world. The facts are as I stated them. These weapons exist, they're not going to go away. The capabilities and the ability to develop them is pervasive in the world, and that we know, if anyone is willing to read what people say, we know what these terrorists are saying. We know what their intent is. We know that for certain.

So we know that the weapons exist. We know they're available. And we know anyone who listens to Saddam Hussein's videos knows precisely what he has in mind.

It's like the people in the 1930s who read Mein Kampf and didn't believe it when Adolf Hitler had written it. He said what he intended to do.

Now, people have a choice. We can say to ourselves well, the American way is to wait and take the blow like Pearl Harbor. Or they can say that was fine when conventional weapons were what was at risk and when we had a bigger margin for error, but today it may not be fine to accept the loss of hundreds of Americans, innocent men, women and children.

It's not like these people are going after combatants. They're not going after our Army, Navy, or Air Force. They have told us what they intend to do, they've told us they're seeking to do it and therefore we do know that of certain knowledge.

Q: That they have intent.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Yeah.

Q: But it's not like weapons of mass destruction are new to the planet.

Secretary Rumsfeld: That's right.

Q: It's not like terrorist groups are new to the planet. Does al Qaeda represent a magnitude of threat the likes of which this world has not seen before?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well, I guess everyone has to make their own assessment of that. First of all, al Qaeda is not the only terrorist network in the world. There are any number that have been listed on the list. They have close relationships with terrorist states and they're known states that have weapons of mass destruction.

Is it new that there are thousands of people who have been trained, and we've read their training manuals. Their training manuals are public. We know what they're trained to do. They're trained to kill innocent men, women and children. There are thousands of them that were put through these training camps in three or four countries over a period of time. We know they're out there in the world. They're in the United States, they're in ten to twelve countries for sure and they're estimated to have cells in 50 or 60 nations of the world.

Now everyone has to decide what they think about that. It's not for me or anyone else to sell people on some idea. It's my job as Secretary of Defense to state the truth. It's my job to be prepared to do what the President and the country decide needs to be done, and it's my job to work with the people in this institution to see that we're organized and trained and equipped and ready to do what we're asked to do.

Q: One of the difficult things that the Administration is having now is selling, and I use the word sell, or convince the world of the magnitude of the threat. As you know from global polling, the United States since September 11th has not become more popular, has not become more beloved, but in fact have become less popular and the process may be creating more recruits for Saddam Hussein. Why is that? Why is the perception that somehow it is the United States that is threatening stability of the world and not these other people?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well, you used the word popular. It's interesting, first of all public opinion polls can swing 40, 50, 60, 70 points in a day, in a week, in a month. Anyone who chases public opinion polls and decides that that's the weather vane that's going to govern our lives is not a leader, they're a follower.

Second, the United States has not made a case, we have not taken evidence out to the world and said here's what we think to be the case. We acted, to use your word, preemptively in Afghanistan. Afghanistan didn't attack us, the al Qaeda did. We acted in our self defense in Afghanistan. It was so unpopular that 90 nations joined us in that activity.

Q: It was overwhelmingly popular.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Ninety countries. Think of that. That isn't unpopular, to use a word that I find almost offensive when we're talking about something as substantively as important as this. But the United States has put together a coalition of countries on the ground in Afghanistan, in the sea, in the air, and across the globe in support of the global war on terrorism. It's breathtaking in its size.

Now does that mean we're "unpopular"?

Q: It means that things have changed since the combat has stopped in Afghanistan, and you are well aware of that. America's allies, America's friends in the Persian Gulf and in Europe are starting to speak out about the lack of wisdom of the apparent direction the United States is headed. Why is that? Because you haven't convinced them yet? Or they don't see the wisdom of it yet? Or you haven't spelled out a program and they're all confused?

Secretary Rumsfeld: I think you're factually incorrect. I think the support for the global war on terror is very high, very substantial, and durable. I think what you're referring to is an attack on Iraq in this case because the press is asking about it every minute, and no one has made a case for that at the present time.

At that point if the President decides he wants to make a case to change the regime in Iraq he obviously would make that case.

So the idea that the global war on terrorism is unpopular I think is a misunderstanding of the situation. I think what you're reflecting is that there are people who are vocal, there are editorial boards, there are individuals who are all over the lot on this issue that have not been formed, have not been cast, and have not been presented to the world. That's understandable. People ought to have different views on it. It doesn't surprise me in the slightest.

Q: So the stars and the planets, as you put it a week or two ago, have not lined up yet. In fairness to the Administration, you have not tried to make your case in public, you would argue.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I wouldn't argue, I would just state it as a fact.

Q: And when you decide to make that case you're confident that the world will follow the United States and will follow the Administration's lead here?

Secretary Rumsfeld: First of all it's not for me to make the decision. It's for the President and the country to make a decision like that. And clearly, if the President makes a judgment that there is a good reason to do something one would think that it would be persuasive. It has been in the past. It certainly was with respect to the global war on terrorism. I would think that would be the case.

You've got to understand that what you're hearing around the world is not unanimity on any side. It's ambiguity. It's interest. You're hearing some parliamentarian in European country opine that gee, this is a terrible idea. We haven't seen the case made yet. That's fine. They haven't seen the case made yet. What's wrong with their having that opinion?

You see concern expressed in the Middle East in the press and repeated and amplified across the globe by the media. It's understandable. My goodness, they're concerned about the street, they're concerned about the circumstance of the Palestinians and the fact that there's been a lot of violence in the Middle East. They have populations that sympathize with the Palestinian cause and you can understand why they're concerned and have expressed a variety of views across the spectrum. I'm not surprised at all by what I'm seeing.

Q: Just a final issue, and that is Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, much of the leadership is apparently still at large. You have, as you put it, have killed, destroyed, captured, a percentage of what is left of al Qaeda's leadership, yet they are out there. It is still a real struggle for the United States. This is a reconstituted, reconstituting terrorist threat to the United States which you yourself have said is very real.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Uh huh.

Q: How are we to view this when you're after -- some successes, but clearly some struggles still to go?

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well, I would say amazing successes. The Afghanistan as a terrorist training camp is stopped. The Taliban that was hosting the al Qaeda is out of office. A new government has been elected. They are bringing about a change in that country that is liberating for the women, for the young people, for the schools, for the humanitarian workers to be able to go in there, it's just an amazing accomplishment in a very brief period of time.

The success elsewhere in the globe has been substantial. Over 2,000 people have been arrested and are being interrogated, information is being gathered. A number of terrorist attacks have been stopped and foiled through cooperation from these 90 countries in the coalition.

What is I think disturbing to the media is that it's not kinetic. That we don't see bombs dropping and we don't see people being blown up.

Q: It's disturbing to you, sir. You're the one who's shaking the --

Voice: That's --

Q: We're out of --

Secretary Rumsfeld: Good.

Voice: -- ten seconds --

Secretary Rumsfeld: I'm, as I said, genetically impatient. I like to see things happen. If I see danger out there and I say to myself when I get up in the morning if there's anything I can do to deal with that danger --

Are you ready?

Q: Not quite.

Voice: Yes, sir. We're back.

Q: Okay.

Secretary Rumsfeld: If I get up in the morning and see danger out there, you bet, I do everything humanly possible to try to find that danger and to deal with it. But I must say, I think that anyone who looks at what's been accomplished has to recognize that it's been an amazing set of accomplishments that this coalition of 90 countries has put together.

Q: A year afterwards the United States is still to a degree shell-shocked. Maybe not enough out there way beyond the Beltway, not aware enough as you are of the threat that is still posed, but a huge threat looks America in the face now.

Secretary Rumsfeld: It does. And it is something that existed, for example, for 50 years during the Cold War. We faced a huge threat. And intelligent people, democratic people, people freely elected representatives, the representatives went every year and invested so that we could deter and dissuade the Soviet Union from expanding further. We could deter and dissuade them from using nuclear weapons in a mindless exchange of nuclear weapons and they lasted through successive generations, through successive political leaderships of all political persuasions in Europe and in the United States, and it was an enormous accomplishment. And the implication that the American people or the sensible people around the world don't have the staying power to deal with a problem like this is just plain, historically incorrect. They do.

I've got a lot of confidence in the American people, and when you say outside the Beltway may not understand it, I think they do understand it outside the Beltway and the problem is probably inside the Beltway.

Q: If we had a lot more time we would go a lot of other directions. We are finished, I am told. But you used the word deter, you used the word contain, and I won't get into that whole argument. You and I can continue this discussion.

Secretary Rumsfeld: good.

Q: Thank you, sir.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Thank you.

Q: I appreciate it. I know this is a labor that is not something you love.

Secretary Rumsfeld: That is the understatement of the day. [Laughter]

Q: I know. I know, and I don't blame you.

But one year later, this is truly a remarkable moment.

Secretary Rumsfeld: It is. It's been -- The United States is facing something the likes of which it hasn't faced before.

Q: All new territory. Still, as you said on day one and day 365, still all new territory.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Yeah.

Q: Thank you, sir.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Thank you, sir.

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