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Glaring Omissions and Unasked Questions in “The Unknown Known”: Errol Morris’ Documentary on Donald Rumsfeld

Errol Morris’ documentary on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, based on 33 hours of interviews with Donald Rumsfeld, is set to open in theaters on April 2.

Errol Morris’ documentary on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, based on 33 hours of interviews with Donald Rumsfeld, is set to open in theaters on April 2. Morris has been on the interview circuit talking up the new flick, writing op-eds in the New York Times, and perpetuating the invisible wall of immunity around Rumsfeld and the others who violated human rights as part of the “war on terror” started by the Bush Administration.

Morris states that he wanted to know why the US went to war in Iraq. He describes his motivation:

“I had a desire to make a very specific kind of film. I call it history from the inside out. This was also true of McNamara, Fog of War. How do they see the world? The memos, the oral history is a way in. I didn’t interview 15, 20 people. I interviewed one person.”

On the Colbert Report Colbert claims that Morris was “gunning” for Rumsfeld. Morris does not deny being a “liberal”, or that he was “probably biased.” Morris, the concerned liberal, regrets that after 33 hours of interviewing Rumsfeld, he now knows less about why we went to war in Iraq than when Morris started the interview process.

Morris did ask some tough questions of Rumsfeld, as shown in the transcript below. In particular, Morris asked about legal memoranda that allegedly authorized the use torture.

ERROL MORRIS: What about all these so-called torture memos?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, there were what? One or two or three. I don’t know the number, but there were not all of these so-called memos. They were mischaracterized as torture memos, and they came not out of the Bush administration, per se; they came out of the US Department of Justice, blessed by the attorney general, the senior legal official of the United States of America, having been nominated by a president and confirmed by the United States Senate overwhelmingly. Little different cast I just put on it than the one you did. I’ll chalk that one up.


ERROL MORRIS: Was the reaction unfair?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, I’ve never read them.


DONALD RUMSFELD: No. I’m not a lawyer. What would I know? [CHESHIRE CAT SMILE]

Morris evinces much surprise on camera at Rumsfeld’s response. However, it is not surprising that Rumsfeld never read the Department of Justice memos. He didn’t need to. Rumsfeld had his own memo, written by his own attorney, detailing 20 interrogation techniques broken down into three Categories.

On December 2, 2002 Rumsfeld personally signed this memo, and approved the use of 17 out of 20 proposed interrogation techniques. These included isolation for up to 30 days; the use of stress positions (like standing) for a maximum of 4 hours; hooding a detainee; the use of 28 hour interrogations; removal of all comfort items (including religious items); switching detainee from hot rations to MREs; removal of clothing; forced grooming (shaving of facial hair etc.); and using detainees individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress.

[Excerpt from memo approved by Rumsfeld on Dec. 2, 2002. Full title of memo is: Memorandum from SECDEF to William J. Haynes II, General Counsel, Subject: Counter-Resistance Techniques, November 27, 2002. Read it here]

Stephen Colbert and Juan Gonzales both ask about Rumsfeld’s eerie smile during this interview: What was Rumsfeld thinking?

The answer: Will Morris ask about the December 2, 2002 memo? Because it’s clear that Rumsfeld read that memo, since he wrote on the bottom:

I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours? D.R.

When Morris doesn’t ask about the memo, the Cheshire Cat grin grows because Rumsfeld knows he has won this round.

There are so many questions that could have been, but were not asked about the memo approved by Rumsfeld on December 2, 2002. For example: what Rumsfeld thought about having to withdraw the memo less than two months later, directly due to military concerns over the interrogation techniques he approved. This fact is found in the Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody, Report of the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate (110th Congress, 2d Session, Nov. 20, 2008), pg. xxii, (hereafter “Senate Inquiry”).

The Senate Inquiry also found a link between the December 2 memo and abuses in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“Shortly after Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 approval of his General Counsel’s recommendation to authorize aggressive interrogation techniques, the techniques – and the fact the Secretary had authorized them – became known to interrogators in Afghanistan. A copy of the Secretary’s memo was sent from GTMO to Afghanistan. Captain Carolyn Wood … said she saw a power point presentation listing the aggressive techniques that had been authorized by the Secretary.”
Senate Inquiry, pg. xxii.

On the same day that Rumsfeld withdrew the December 2, 2002 memo, he directed the establishment of a “Working Group” to review interrogation techniques. See, Senate Inquiry, pg. xxii.

The Working Group ultimately produced a report containing a list of interrogation techniques. Rumsfeld again authorized the use of aggressive interrogation techniques. Rumsfeld’s approvals of these techniques is directly linked to human rights abuses at Guantanamo (“GTMO”), as found in the Senate Inquiry.

“On April 16, 2003, less than two weeks after the Working Group completed its report, the Secretary [of Defense Donald Rumsfeld] authorized the use of 24 specific interrogation techniques for use at GTMO. While the authorization included such techniques as dietary manipulation, environmental manipulation, and sleep adjustment, it was silent on many of the techniques in the Working Group report. Secretary Rumsfeld’s memo said, however, that ‘If, in your view, you require additional interrogation techniques for a particular detainee, you should provide me a written request describing the proposed technique, recommended safeguards, and the rationale for applying it with an identified detainee.’

Just a few months later, one such request for ‘additional interrogation techniques’ arrived on Secretary Rumsfeld’s desk. The detainee was Mohamedou Ould Slahi. [There is] declassified information suggesting that plan included hooding Slahi and subjecting him to sensory deprivation and ‘sleep adjustment.’ … Secretary Rumsfeld approved the Slahi plan on August 13, 2003.”
Senate Inquiry, pg. xxii.

Morris claims that he made this documentary to give an insider view of history, but he fails to ask about facts directly relevant to that history. Now, after interviewing Rumsfeld for over 30 hours, he claims to be unclear why we went to war. Perhaps if Morris had asked about obvious facts he would be less puzzled.

During interviews, Morris bemoans the lack of accountability, saying:

“We all know that the various officials of the Bush administration, George W. Bush himself, will never be held accountable for most, if not all, of the things that happened under their watch. They can now sit back and crow about one thing or another and indulge in one form of partisan politics after another. Maybe that’s the most disturbing thing about this story. If they took us to war for no good reason, shouldn’t they be in some way held accountable for that fact? Isn’t that important to our democracy, that we just don’t simply sweep the past under the rug, that we deal with it in some fashion?”

Morris had a chance to hold Rumsfeld accountable, and he chose not to. His “insider view” of history rings false because of its glaring omissions. Instead, he creates an inexcusable narrative of helplessness by stating: “We all know the Bush administration won’t be held accountable….”

It’s not too late. We can hold war criminals accountable, by getting the TRUTH OUT.

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