Filmmaker Errol Morris Reveals the Horror of Rumsfeld's War Strategy

In an in-depth interview, the award-winning documentarian explains the pains of talking terrorism with the former defense secretary.

Director Errol Morris poses at the Guess Portrait Studio on Sept. 9, 2013, during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Apr 2, 2014· 9 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The first thing I asked Errol Morris when I sat down to interview him about his latest documentary, The Unknown Known, was whether he minded my using a recorder. I don’t have the answer on tape, so I won’t quote him directly, but he said something along the lines that he would be offended if I didn’t. When I turned on the mic a few seconds later, the recording picked up mid-conversation, with Morris recounting how he had read, as a kid, about Truman Capote’s ability to recall hours of conversations. “I thought, I’ll never be able to do that,” he said, “and it turns out he wasn’t able to do that either!”

Capote may have had something of a rewriting problem, but as a documentarian, and as a writer, Morris has a particular relationship with the Record—one defined by near radical fidelity. In his 1988 film A Thin Blue Line, he excavated a very different story about the murder of a Texas cop from court documents and witness testimony than came out in the trial that convicted Randall Dale Adams. The doc helped lead to Adams’ exoneration. Similarly, in 2012 Morris dug into the record of the Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald, who was found guilty of murdering his family in 1970. His book, A Wilderness of Error, argues that MacDonald is innocent, that his family was killed, as he always contended, by a Manson family–like troupe of hippies who chanted “Acid is groovy; kill the pigs.” And in 2003, he showed a far different side of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War.

His second film about an American defense secretary, which comes out Wednesday, has a deep, if not obfuscated, record to pull from, including the more than 20,000 “snowflakes” that Donald Rumsfeld dictated during his six years at the Pentagon—more than 1 million if you go all the way back to his time in the Ford administration.

They include the memo from Feb. 4, 2004, that gives the film its name:

SUBJECT: What You Know

There are known knowns.

There are known unknowns.

There are unknown unknowns.

But there are also unknown knowns—that is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

Rumsfeld’s voice-over readings of his snowflakes and archival footage frame what’s new here: footage from the long, wide-ranging interviews—33 hours' worth—Morris conducted with the former secretary of defense. Viewed 11 years after the Iraq War began, The Unknown Known shows a less belligerent Rumsfeld, one who answers questions, rather than the deflecting public official the press grappled with during the Bush years. This is not the Rumsfeld who's shown telling a reporter, “I'm working my way over to figuring out how I'm not going to answer that one," after being asked a question at a briefing.

Even so, there’s nothing quite like clarity on display here. Circuitous, convoluted, and ever evading, the language of Donald Rumsfeld is something that begs to be parsed, to be pulled apart like a line of postmodern prose in the hopes that some deeper meaning is hiding within. But this isn’t an Errol Morris film where you’re shown a different side of a story or a figure whom you think you know. No, Rumsfeld still comes across as the architect of two unfounded, unnecessary wars. But The Unknown Known pushes past the surface of the Rumsfeld-isms, so easily brushed aside as a sort of dark, absurdist comedy, and asks viewers to reconsider the legacy—financial, moral, and otherwise—of that fateful logic.

“Pam Hess, one of the Pentagon correspondents, the Pentagon correspondent for UPI, said to me recently that you’ve got to imagine that there’s something more there—but maybe there isn’t,” Morris told me. “Which makes it a horror movie.”

That may be, but it’s hidden within the formal constraints of narrative biography. About a half hour into the film, Morris picks up the traditional personal history: wedding, marriage, early career as the Republican congressman from Illinois’ 13th District. That chronology takes The Unknown Known to Vietnam, and Rumsfeld’s involvement in this, his first war, as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff. In one of the most telling moments of the film, Morris asks what lessons he learned from the American withdrawal from Vietnam.

“I mean, think of that answer to the question,” Morris said when we spoke, drawing the scene Rumsfeld was privy to when the first troop transports pulled out of South Vietnam. “He’s sitting in the Oval Office with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, etc., etc., etc. And I ask him—this is the day that we evacuate Saigon, the beginning of the end of the worst debacle in American history. Tens of thousands of Americans are dead, millions of Vietnamese. And I ask him, What did you learn? What did you learn?”

“Some things work out. Some things don’t. If that’s a lesson, then that’s a lesson” was Rumsfeld’s response.

I told Morris quotes like that do kind of make it a horror film.

“I would take the 'kind of' out of that,” he responded.

That astonishingly shallow self-reflection seems to pervade Rumsfeld’s accounts not only of Vietnam but of Iraq and Afghanistan too. Except the more recent history is subject to uniquely Rumsfeld-ian retellings. One such fiction involves the most troubling legacy of President Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy: enhanced interrogation techniques.

After having Rumsfeld read out the 18 interrogation techniques he approved for use at Guantánamo Bay in a memo from Dec. 2, 2002—to great effect—Morris asks him about the drift of the practices from Cuba to Iraq. “There’s a claim that the interrogation rules used in Guantánamo migrated to Iraq, where they led to incredible abuse” is the point Morris raises, and Rumsfeld immediately counters, his tone clipped, that the idea is ridiculous.

To suggest that the procedures from Guantánamo migrated over to Iraq is to suggest that the procedures in Guantánamo would have encouraged the kind of unbelievably bad, illegal, improper behavior that took place at Abu Ghraib. And there was nothing that would have permitted anything like that. Anyone who reads the investigative reports knows that’s not the case.

And then something deeply strange happens, because Morris has read the reports, including former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger’s investigation of Abu Ghraib. A report Rumsfeld himself commissioned. A document Rumsfeld cites in dismissing the notion that anything migrated from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib. When Morris reads it back, the document mirrors his own language: “The augmented techniques for Guantánamo migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were neither limited nor safeguarded.”

“I find that moment very, very peculiar,” Morris told me. “You can expand that moment into a whole film.” Rumsfeld says there was no migration; Morris quotes Schlesinger saying there was a migration. Rumsfeld’s response to the quote, just seconds after saying that the idea of any migration is unfounded? “Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.” The men fall silent, and the shot lingers for an uncomfortably long time, Rumsfeld looking squarely at the camera, at Morris.

“I could have then simply said to him, How could you possibly agree to that, because you just said the exact opposite,” Morris said to me. “But I didn’t. So it sits there. And it’s a very, very peculiar moment for me. This happened I don’t know how many times, probably dozens of times, where we’re just looking at each other.”

He continued, his own thoughtful speech pattern slowing down even more, mimicking that long silence. “And,” Morris said before an uncomfortably long pause, “there’s so many things that could be said at that point and so many directions that it could be taken, but it seems to me that what does happen is you’re thrown back into the central mystery—you evidently were thrown back into the central mystery of the film.” What’s he thinking? Does he realize the dramatic, fraught paradox he just voiced?

“Does he know?” Morris added, “that he’s just been presented with a contradiction between the Schlesinger report and his claim? Does he care? Does he even hear it as a contradiction? Is he in some kind of strange cloud cuckoo land? I have no idea.”

The long silence recalls a moment in another more actively dramatic war film, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It comes after Martin Sheen’s Willard coolly kills the remaining survivor, a woman, of the sampan boat his crew shoots up. Our hero, if we have one at all, shoots her point blank, in the head.

“After a long-held shot of him isolated on the prow of the ship, bulking to a silhouette edged by the wasted light of the setting sun (much like Kurtz’s photograph in the preceding scene),” the critic Garrett Stewart wrote of the scene for Critical Inquiry in 1981, “the screen goes dark, blank, for a disconcerting (and in this film unprecedented) stretch—no slow and decisive cut but more like a wound in the narrative.” He identifies this gap as the film’s own heart of darkness, the title of the Joseph Conrad story Apocalypse Now borrows its narrative from. In the space of 30 seconds, the relatively upstanding American soldier shifts ever closer to Colonel Kurtz, the embodiment of everything immoral and depraved about the war. As Stewart writes, “the pitch-black hiatus at this turning point opens our eyes with Willard’s to the plot's own abyss, a fracture at one level of the story that drops its hero through to a closer bond than ever with Kurtz as an alter ego in calculated ferocity.”

Morris says The Unknown Known is a horror film. Kurtz simply says, The horror, the horror.

At one point in our conversation, Morris very carefully walked through a particularly dramatic comparison, likening the logic and foreign policy of the Bush Administration—of Rumsfeld—to one of the most notorious war machines in history.

We were talking about the torture memos—the legal memoranda written by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee that allowed the CIA to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” like water boarding. (Previously, Rumsfeld had ruled that a similar method should not be allowed at Guantánamo.) In the documentary, he says that he never read them—they were in the State Department, after all, so why would he, who headed up the Defense Department, bother reading documents from another agency?

“I don’t know if I should be making these kinds of comparisons, because I don’t really, really like comparisons to the Third Reich,” Morris said very deliberately, “but when you start celebrating fake documents as absolute truth. When you turn any kind of discussion about the nature of evidence, of proof, into gobbledygook. When you say you have no interest of even reading the memos that really undermined the foundations on which this country was built—I think something is seriously wrong, something gone awry.”

I tend to agree with Morris about likening anything to Nazi Germany, as it's inherently reductive and has the effect of shutting down debate. There’s no nuance in arguing about Hitler. Rather, I think Colonel Kurtz—or perhaps the unknown suit who allowed him to operate completely outside the rules and standards of the American military—is a better lens through which to consider Rumsfeld. He, like Kurtz, was allowed to go rogue because there was a (false) sense that what he was proposing was necessary and would work. Practices clearly outlawed by the Army Field Manual and international law were sanctioned at Guantánamo because Rumsfeld and the Bush administration thought they would save us. Instead, they “migrated” and tainted the global battlefield of the war on terror.

“The first photographs that were taken at the hard site at Abu Ghraib were taken by Sabrina Harman,” Morris said as we continued to talk about the Schlesinger-report moment in the film. She was one of the subjects he interviewed for the documentary Standard Operating Procedure. The 20 photos Harman took that day depicted detainees in stress positions, naked, hooded, standing in their own urine.

“Sabrina Harmon, Lynndie England, Chuck Graner, etc., etc., etc., walked into this,” Morris continued. “They didn’t create this. And it’s something just simply—not even forgotten about—no one cares to even know it.” In the Haynes Memo, the document that outlined the enhanced interrogation methods for GTMO detainees, Rumsfeld left a note regarding the technique of forcing prisoners to stand for extended periods of time. “However, I stand for 8–10 hours a day,” he wrote. “Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” That, Morris says, “is what you see in those first photographs at Abu Ghraib. It’s not just James Schlesinger against Donald Rumsfeld. It’s just an extraordinary preponderance of evidence that he chooses to ignore—and I might add that so does most of America. We’re no better.”

Perhaps this is the unique relationship The Unknown Known has to the Record. We’re complicit, passing through our own heart of darkness, like Willard, becoming something of Kurtz, because the Record was there from the beginning. Telling us there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, telling us that those iconic photos of hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib were directly linked to the hooded prisoners at Camp X-Ray.

Eleven years on, the Record proves to be still a squishy thing, something far less stark than the indelible black mark of a redaction. “Anyone who reads the investigative reports knows that’s not the case,” says Rumsfeld. Then, “That seems like a fair assessment,” says Rumsfeld.

This is a horror film. The horror, the horror.

Even the “What You Know” memo is revised. Rumsfeld tells Morris, “There was at least one more combination that wasn’t there: the unknown knowns—things that you possibly may know that you don’t know you know.”

In our conversation, Morris said that the original version conveys that “we know less than we think we do. If you like, it’s an expression of humility, of human fallibility, or at least the possibility of being wrong.” Not that we know more.

“And what does he amend it to?” he continued. “Not only do we know what we know, what we think we know, we know even more than what we know. So the expression of humility is suddenly transformed into hubris.”

“Yeah, I think that memo is backwards,” Rumsfeld says in the movie. “I think that it’s closer to what I said here than that.

“Unknown knowns. I think you’re probably, Errol, chasing the wrong rabbit here.”

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is involved in the production and marketing of The Unknown Known and Standard Operating Procedure.