‘Unknown known’: Colbert provokes near-admission from Donald Rumsfeld on Iraq War

U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld (C) signs a Baghdad road sign
at the request of a US soldier April 30, 2003 during his visit to US
troops at Baghdad's international airport. © Luke Frazza
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came to promote his solitaire app, but when Stephen Colbert craftily brought up the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld’s remarks left ‘The Late Show’ host and many others saying “Wow.”

Launching his ‘Churchill Solitaire’ game, the 83-year-old Rumsfeld has been on a media tour where tough questions are not a prerequisite. Talking about the Iraq War, even as it looms like a cloud, can be a challenge when 2016 is saturated with politics and a fun application built to benefit charity is closer at hand. But Colbert made transitioning to the taboo topic look easy.

Colbert asked if Islamic State, or terrorist groups like it, holding western Iraq and eastern Syria was considered "a worst-case scenario, or a beyond-worse-case scenario" in 2002 and 2003 during the run-up to declaring war.

The “disorder in the entire region … generally, people had not anticipated,” Rumsfeld answered.

That’s when Colbert added that the top two presidential frontrunners from each party all say the Iraq War was a mistake. But with that, Colbert also said he wouldn’t ask Rumsfeld the style of question some supporters of the war have answered in the last couple years. Though it has now become cookie-cutter, the “if you knew then what you know now, would you still have supported the war” angle of questioning was described as “unfair” by Colbert.

“You only knew then what you knew then, [and] you only know now what you know now,” Colbert told Rumsfeld. “Our now is tomorrow’s then.”

Next, Colbert alluded to a famous answer Rumsfeld gave during a 2002 Department of Defense press conference in relation to the connection between weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. The quote is as follows:

“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Colbert ventured to add “the unknown knowns” as the fourth category. Colbert defined these as “the things that we know, and then we choose not to know them or not let other people know we know...”

Before trailing off, Colbert was trying to connect his “unknown knowns” thought to a recently declassified 2002 memo, then Rumsfeld interrupted.

“I’m going to save you embarrassment,” Rumsfeld said, to which Colbert retorted, “I can’t be embarrassed ‒ I’m a comedian.”

Colbert went on to talk about the 2002 Joint Chiefs of Staff memo, which stated that as much as 90 percent of the case against Iraq’s weapons programs was based on “imprecise intelligence.”

“I believe that everybody believed that [weapons of mass destruction] were there,” Colbert granted Rumsfeld, “but there was no hard proof that they were there.”

“So there was an unknown known for the American people,” Colbert continued. “It was known that there was not hard evidence, but we were presented a partial picture ‒ and that’s the unknown known that we were denied. Do you think that was the right thing to do?”

Rumsfeld dodged the question, noting that his own website had published the Joints Chief of Staff memo years prior. Colbert asked it in a different way.

“Were there things that the administration or you knew that we didn’t learn about out of the best possible intentions ‒ which is, there were things that would undermine the case for a war you thought was necessary to save the United States?” Colbert asked.

Rumsfeld’s answer stunned Colbert and the audience.

“The president had available to him intelligence from all elements of the government, and the National Security Council members had that information. It was all shared, it was all supplied, and it’s never certain ‒ if it were a fact, it wouldn’t be called intelligence,” Rumsfeld said.

That last line had people on Twitter calling it the quote of the year.

“Wow,” Colbert said. “I think you answered my question.”

Previously in the interview, however, Rumsfeld had used the word “facts” to describe what informed President George W. Bush’s decision to launch the war.

“[Iraq] had used chemical weapons on their neighbors, the Iranians. They had used chemical weapons on their own population, the Kurds, and there was a lot of evidence that they ‒ they'd already used chemical weapons ‒ and, it seems to me, the president, given the facts he had from the intelligence community, made the right decision,” Rumsfeld had told Colbert minutes earlier.

The introduction of the 2002 memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff into the conversation forced Rumsfeld to begin to differentiate between “facts” and “intelligence,” a distinction the former SecDef had recognized back when he wrote a note to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Richard Myers when the memo was first written.

“Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD,” Rumsfeld wrote. “It is big.”

The 2002 memo was never shared with the secretary of state at the time, Colin Powell, or top CIA officials, according to Politico Magazine, which interviewed multiple anonymous sources at the State Department, White House and CIA. Less than six months later, Powell would present the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq to the United Nations, telling the international body, “These are facts, not assertions.”