Calum Marsh: Errol Morris, on Donald Rumsfeld and His New Documentary, The Unknown Known: "About midway through Errol Morris’s new film The Unknown Known...
...his feature-length conversation with former U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, Morris asks Rumsfeld point-blank how 9/11 was allowed to happen. “Isn’t it amazing?” Morris wonders, given the safeguards in place, the countermeasures and intelligence and defense mechanisms designed to protect us. Rumsfeld cracks his trademark smile—more of a smirk, really. You can tell he’s got this one covered. “Everything seems amazing in retrospect,” he says.
In his more than thirty-five years as a documentarian, Errol Morris has profiled a lot of delusional people: Holocaust deniers, unpunished murderers, serial killer obsessives. None are as oblivious to their own mistakes as Donald Rumsfeld proves to be in this film. The Unknown Known has been criticized in some quarters for going too easy on its subject, but the truth is that Morris simply takes a more subtle approach. He doesn’t ridicule or undermine Rumsfeld; he doesn’t resort to rhetorical shortcuts or attempt to trick him into the corner of a lie. He doesn’t need to. It’s an axiom of literary criticism that the most damning evidence is always direct quotation. Morris does just that: He hangs Rumsfeld with his own words.
We had the chance to catch up with Morris in the lead-up to The Unknown Known’s release this week to talk politics, language, and why some critics have misunderstood the film.
ESQUIRE.COM: Tell me about the Dunning-Kruger effect.
ERROL MORRIS: Well, I wrote about it for The New York Times—an essay called “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.” [Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger] did research to ascertain this: If you’re really incompetent, are you so incompetent that you don’t know how incompetent you really are? In essence you’re protected from ever seeing, from ever knowing, the reality of who you are or what you do.
ESQ: Does that describe Donald Rumsfeld?
EM: It may apply in varying degrees to all of us. I would characterize it somewhat differently in Donald Rumsfeld’s case. To be sure, there’s a kind of what I could call cluelessness. Would I characterize it as willful obtusity or unwitting obtusity? The mystery of which it might be—and maybe possibly even both—is at the heart of the film I just made. I do know that when you look at his principles, his so-called philosophy, that it very, very quickly devolves into gobbledygook.
ESQ: How would you characterize Rumsfeld’s relationship to language?
EM: Well… we’ve evolved, clearly. I don’t know how many people have asked me if I have read Orwell on language and politics, which, as it turns out, I have. Orwell was fascinated by how language could be used to obscure an argument, confuse an argument, debase an argument. But the idea in Orwell was always that someone in control was using it to manipulate others, to trick others. Here, I often think that language is being used not just simply to trick others but also, in Rumsfeld’s case, to trick oneself. Near the end of the movie, he’s talking as though he can fix everything that’s gone wrong if he can just come up with the correct terminology. Maybe it’s going to require the redefinition of a few dozen words or so, but in the end he can make it look just fine—just through a little redistricting of terminology and definitions.
ESQ: One of the things I find fascinating about the film is that it’s neither a portrait of a master manipulator nor an exposé of somebody who is lying, but rather a profile of a person so impressed by his own aphorisms and slogans that they’re enough for him. He’s not hiding the truth, because he doesn’t have anything to hide.
EM: More or less, yes. There’s that smile, throughout the movie—to me it’s that look of supreme self-satisfaction. Look what I just said. I’m the cat who’s just swallowed the canary. I’m so smart, I’m so clever. And yet when you look at these principles—at times I call them Chinese fortune cookie philosophies—they quickly devolve into nonsense talk. When I was writing about the Dunning-Kruger test, I had a conversation with Dunning about the known knowns and unknown knowns and the unknown unknowns.
ESQ: Dunning was impressed by that Rumsfeld speech.
EM: Dunning felt that there was something to it. I felt that there was not. And it interested me over the years. I’ve had many, many conversations like that—people telling me how impressed they were by these so-called ideas. I am unimpressed. I would say it goes a lot further than that: I see how these ideas were used to confuse issues, to ignore facts. I see them as inherently pernicious. When you start talking about the known knowns and the unknown unknowns, you’re thrown into a crazy meta-level discussion. Do I know what I know, do I know what I don’t know, do I know what I don’t know I don’t know. It becomes a strange, Lewis Carroll–like nursery rhyme.
The fundamental issue is laid out very clearly in this press conference when [Rumsfeld] first talks about the known known and the unknown unknown. The question is “What evidence do you have of the presence of WMDs in Iraq?” He is specifically asked this question by Jim Miklaszewski for NBC. What’s your evidence of this? What do you know? What’s your justification for the belief that you have? That’s at the heart of this. Not separating the known from the unknown. Separating truth from fantasy, and fact from belief. This is something that he was never, ever able to engage.
ESQ: In another New York Times piece, Pam Hess offers this great idea about Rumsfeld and what she calls “exit ramps”—his ways of getting out of answering questions. Did you find that this was his strategy when dealing with you?
EM: I didn’t feel exit ramps as much as I felt that he was trying to articulate a philosophy, and in articulating the philosophy he was basically saying things that he believed but which made no sense. I think that’s probably the best way to describe it. He knew these expressions. He wrote this to the president of the United States: “The absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence.” What’s he doing? He’s taking a phrase that was popularized by Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, and Carl Sagan. They’re the ones who used this expression, but they used it in a very specific context. They used it in the context of searching for extraterrestrial life and extraterrestrial intelligence, saying that the universe is a very big place, and that just because we haven’t had evidence of life doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Then all of a sudden the ballistic missile commission picks it up, and Rumsfeld runs with it, and it’s trucked out during the run-up to the Iraq war.
ESQ: Not exactly the same situation.
EM: But no one seems to notice that the context is different. This is not the universe at large, this is Iraq, and a very specific site in Iraq where it was suspected that a WMD could be found. A UN weapons inspector goes to Iraq and can’t find any evidence of a WMD—that’s not absence of evidence, that’s direct evidence that the suspected WMDs are simply not there. The way I describe it is that it’s like someone tells you there’s an elephant in the room. You open the door and you look in the room, you open the closets, you look under the bed, you go through the bureau drawers, and you don’t find an elephant. Is that absence of evidence or evidence of absence? I would submit it’s the latter. But this gobbledygook use of nomenclature and terminology just creates endless confusion, vagueness, ambiguity—and I would submit that they kept doing this with respect to everything. It didn’t matter if it was suggesting the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, which he denies—which they clearly promoted, again and again and again. There’s a clip in the movie when he ridicules someone for even suggesting that there wasn’t a connection.
ESQ: Although, pointedly, in that moment, he doesn’t directly say there’s a connection. He was careful not to say anything for which he might later be held accountable.
EM: Given what he said, he should be held accountable.
ESQ: Of course, but in his way of thinking, there’s always this sort of elusive quality—“I didn’t say this, I didn’t say that.”
EM: “I didn’t say anything!”
EM: Part and parcel of his way of writing memos and addressing questions is to say A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, so by covering a whole range of possibilities, he’s really said nothing. The tail can’t be pinned on the donkey. Or, he says things that are utter gobbledygook that could mean almost anything you want them to mean. I think it’s one of the darker chapters of American history.
ESQ: When he’s being vague or evasive, is he deliberately trying to hide something, or is that kind of nonsense sincerely all he can give?
EM: Again you’ve gone to the heart of the movie. I don’t know whether it’s ever possible to pin him down in that regard. My own thought is that there’s nothing there—that in the end all you’re left with is the smile.
ESQ: In the editing room, was there anything about the conversation that you wanted to emphasize in particular?
EM: Yes. As we edited, I became more and more fascinated by the smile. I became fascinated by his attempts to reimagine what he was doing—to convince himself of his own rectitude, his own correctness. Even the story about the fallen soldier becomes a story about him. Not a story about death, destruction, or failure, but a story of triumph over adversity, a story of persistence, a story of hope. It’s just one more story in which the disaster of that war is transformed into something more suitable to his way of thinking. I’m sure that he would be delighted if the war had never happened. Actually, wait, no, I wouldn’t put it that way. I think he would only be delighted if the war did happen.
ESQ: Is that worse or better?
EM: Well, he’s never expressed any kind of remorse or regret about the war. After all, we gave freedom to these countries where it did not exist before. The fact that these countries are still plunged in chaos is something that he refuses to admit or to even see.
ESQ: Is he familiar with your film Standard Operating Procedure? There are moments when he speaks about the issues illustrated in that film, and in fact on several occasions directly contradicts the evidence you present.
EM: He does that repeatedly, through the whole movie! I show him that he’s been contradicted and he can’t deal with that. He just rolls over into some passive acquiescence. Or he’ll give a glib answer. “What did you learn from Vietnam?” “Some things work out, some things don’t, that didn’t.”
ESQ: “Stuff happens.”
EM: Yeah! It’s a mixture of platitudes, denials, confusions, and I’m left at the end of it with a feeling of utter emptiness. He can read the whole Haynes memo, and he reads it in such a way that it’s as if he’s never read it before, or at least he never read it carefully. He just says “Oh my” or “Good grief.” I mean: torture! This stuff was signed off, by you. Oh, but of course, “it wasn’t torture, and Mr. Morris, you’re wrong, you’re full of shit, chalk one up for me!”
ESQ: And that unbelievable moment when he says he doesn’t see how forcing inmates to stand for hours without rest is that bad, because he does it all the time in the office. It’s such obliviousness to what he’s condoning.
EM: That’s correct. It’s a remarkable interview. I’ve made many movies about self-deception over the years—about individuals who have somehow never reckoned with what they’ve done or who they are. But this might be the example of the most severe case I’ve ever encountered.
ESQ: I think it’s your richest film, as a result.
EM: Well thank you very, very much.
ESQ: I’ve read reviews that are mind-boggling—I don’t know what movie these people are watching. People say you’re playing into his hands or that you’re unable to penetrate his defenses. I don’t know how anyone could watch this movie and not see how deeply critical you’re being of him. The sense you leave with is certainly not that Rumsfeld is an intelligent guy.
EM: I think that there have been all kinds of responses—from Bill Maher, who felt the need to defend Rumsfeld, which came as a complete surprise. To people who felt that I was not hard enough on Rumsfeld, and in a very specific way. I don’t know if they’ve never seen any of the movies I’ve made or if they misunderstood them, but my technique has never been adversarial journalism. I’m not David Frost or Mike Wallace, nor do I want to be. It’s history from the inside out. It’s using the memos, which are examples of how he sees himself. And oral history, as a way of telling the story of how Donald Rumsfeld sees the world, and letting that play out. When he’s saying something that’s false, it’s clear in the movie! Is it clear when he claims that torture techniques did not migrate from Guantanamo to Iraq?
ESQ: When he even refers to the Schlesinger report, which says the opposite.
EM: Exactly. Or is it clear when he says that there’s no confusion between Bin Laden and Saddam, and I quote newspaper polls that show it’s just the opposite? And on and on and on. He’s in denial of reality but the movie repeatedly makes it clear that it is a denial of reality. I don’t know how that’s not pushing back or being hard on Donald Rumsfeld. They must be watching something different than what I made