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Donald Rumsfeld: Being Waterboarded Is Better Than Being Killed by a Drone

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Previously published in Metro http://www.metro.lu.

Most former Cabinet ministers are soon forgotten. Not so Donald Rumsfeld. As George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense, he led the United States into war against Iraq and Afghanistan. He minted memorable catch-phrases like "Old Europe, New Europe" and "unknown unknowns." In his new memoir, Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld defends with renewed gusto the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. "If Saddam Hussein had just gone into exile, we wouldn't be having this war," he told me."That's what Baby Doc, Idi Amin and other dictators have done."

Metro met Rumsfeld at his office in Washington, DC. In spite of his combative public persona, Rumsfeld is friendly -- and witty. At a chance encounter at the Congress before the interview, he jokingly asked the person accompanying me: "Is she vicious? Is she leftist?"

How much credit should President Obama get for finding Osama bin Laden?
Every administration builds on the one before. We invested an enormous amount of time in correcting the weaknesses that existed since the end of the Cold War. People had gotten relaxed and drew down our intelligence and military capabilities. In the eight years of George W. Bush, we made a big focus on Special Forces. We increased their number by 50% and their budget by 300%. The Obama administration benefits from the effort post 9/11 that went into those capabilities.

Pakistani leaders like Pervez Musharraf say they didn't know where bin Laden was hiding. Do you believe them?
A lot of pundits are asking "how could Bin Laden have been there, right under Pakistani noses, a few miles from a military installation." But if you look across the Potomac River [the river flowing through Washington, DC] you see estate after estate after estate behind high walls. We have no idea what's going on inside them. It's perfectly possible for somebody to hide in plain sight. Of course it's possible that someone knew where OBL [bin Laden] was. But if I were OBL, I wouldn't tell anyone except one courier where I was. People can't keep secrets. If one person knows, he tells another person, who tells his wife or girlfriend, and so on. OBL had money and an al Qaeda support system. He didn't need a Pakistani support system. It's very plausible that the Pakistani government didn't know his location. When Musharraf says he didn't know, I believe him because I've worked with him enough. Are there people in the Pakistani government who would have liked to help OBL? Sure! Of course we know about their relationship with the Taliban and their actions in the war on terror. On one hand, they've helped us capture a lot of people. On the other hand, they've worked with the Taliban.

Does it still make sense for the United States to cooperate with Pakistan?
Absolutely. If we said that we're not going to deal with any country that's not exactly like us, how many countries in the world could we deal with? Winston Churchill made an alliance with Joseph Stalin, not because he admired the butcher, but because he wanted help in defeating Adolf Hitler.

Pakistan is a heavily Muslim country with nuclear weapons, a large number of radical Islamists, unfriendly relations with India -- but it's currently providing us with overflight rights, flights out of the country, ground transportation for international troops, and logistics assistance in the war on terror. It's doing a pretty good job scooping people up in the urban areas and turning them over to us. Pakistan isn't doing a very good job in the tribal areas, but it's trying, and its soldiers are getting killed. What's the worst possible outcome? A failed state. Wouldn't it be fun for the West to say, "oh my goodness, Pakistan, you're imperfect. Therefore we're going to stop working with you and take all our resources out. We're not going to have relations with you." This is a state that's got radical Islamists and nuclear weapons. Where would we be with if Pakistan became a failed state? We'd feel good and tell ourselves, "by golly, we're tough." That makes people feel good for 15 minutes. But then you've damaged relations and made things worse. We live in an imperfect world. These things require patience and maturity. Let's find out if someone in Pakistan was providing assistance to bin Laden and see how high up that person was in the government. But was it Musharraf? No. They've tried to kill him several times.

In your book you describe the discussions within the Bush administration about Iraq and Afghanistan, including the discussions leading up to Colin Powell's infamous speech at the UN. He said he was misled by the intelligence, but you seem to feel that he got off to easily in the court of public opinion.
I wasn't involved with the intelligence bit, but I know that he didn't lie in his speech. He said what he honestly believed. It was unfair to say, "Bush lied, people died." Nobody lied.

You report in your book that there was, in fact, a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] factory in Iraq. Since WMDs motivated the war, why didn't the Bush administration let people know it had found some?
We didn't know if the factory was directly connected to Saddam Hussein. Of course, he was running a police state, so there wasn't a lot going on that he didn't know about. Our troops found all the precursors and people who knew how to make chemical and biological weapons. They found WMD manuals in Arabic, chemical and biological protection suits and facilities where such weapons could be produced. We know that the people involved in this could have ramped up production of chemical and biological weapons in a matter of three or four weeks. I don't know why the [Bush] administration did such a poor job of defending itself.

Would the Iraq war be viewed differently if you and others in the administration had presented this evidence?
I don't sit around worrying about that. History will tell the truth.

You call Guantanamo Bay a professionally run prison. Do you mean its poor reputation is simply a PR problem?
What else could it be? We had hundreds and hundreds of people from the press going there, looking for bad things, but they couldn't find anything. They didn't come back and write stories that Guantanamo was well run, that the inmates had soccer and athletics and that the average weight gain was 20 pounds [9kg]. They didn't write that the inmates got religiously appropriate meals. They didn't write about this because this isn't news. But a Belgian human rights expert who went to Guantanamo, came back and said that it was exceedingly well run and better than the prisons in Belgium.

What about waterboardings?
So many people think there was "torture" at Guantanamo because the CIA waterboarded three people somewhere else, and those people were later brought to Guantanamo. People talk about "prisoners who were waterboarded at Guantanamo", which suggests that they were waterboarded by the Department of Defense. A total of three prisoners have been waterboarded, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but they were not waterboarded at Guantanamo, and they were not waterboarded by the Department of Defense. They were waterboarded with the authority of President Bush and the approval of the Department of Justice. Of course, the administration didn't defend Guantanamo very effectively. But the fact remains: it's a very well run prison.

I recently spoke with the naval officer who was in charge at Guantanamo when the Obama administration took office. He told me that Obama's attorney general [Minister of Justice] came down to Guantanamo. The officer showed him around, and after the tour the Attorney General said, "Now, show me the rest of it." He was convinced there was a secret place where bad things were happening. There wasn't. On his first day in office, Obama issued an executive order to close Guantanamo; but after his visit, the Attorney General said that the Obama administration would have to reconsider their closure plans. Of course, it remains open. The problem is, where should these people go? If you're going to have indefinite detentions, what do you do? You change your position, and that's what the Obama administration has done. The Obama administration came into office and found that, while the things that President Bush put in place to protect the American people are not desirable, they're unfortunately things that need to be done. Governing is different from campaigning.

One lead on the trail to Osama bin Laden came from information Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave while being waterboarded. Has this changed your position on waterboarding?
The CIA had a special unit that did it on very few people. The Department of Defense shouldn't do it. These are very young soldiers and they're not trained to do that. I don't think it's appropriate for the Department of Defense.

So it should be done, but not by young soldiers?
Three successive directors of the CIA -- George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden -- have testified that a major portion of our information on al Qaeda came from the three people who were waterboarded. And current CIA Director Leon Panetta has said that enhanced interrogation techniques contributed to the evidence that led to the location of OBL. I don't deal with intelligence, but I believe what these four men say, because I know them.

Given this information, do you think waterboarding should be used more often?
I'll put it like this: if you have a new high-value captive, like the three who have been waterboarded, and you think you can save lives, then you'd have to make a conscious decision to risk lives that could have been saved, if you view waterboarding as improper.

We have some units of our armed forces that are specially trained for resistance, escape, evasion and survival. One of my friends in the military was waterboarded as part of this program, for the purpose of learning resistance. Soldiers volunteer to go into this program, and they're waterboarded. They're not injured, but it's a frightening thing. However, it's not as bad as a drone killing you. But waterboarding sells newspapers.

Do you feel that your labels Old Europe and New Europe are still accurate? France has taken the lead on Libya.
Two-thirds of Europe and NATO supported President Bush. I wasn't trying to single out France and Germany; I simply pointed out that most of the new NATO members supported us.

What's the most important thing you didn't know that you didn't know when you became President Bush's Secretary of Defense?
People laughed when I said it at the Pentagon, but thinking about what you don't know that you don't know is rooted in science. Knowing what you know is good. And if you know that you don't know something, you're way better off than if you don't know that you don't know it. The things that get you are the unknown unknowns. That's what I learned when I took office in 2001. Intelligence analysts addressed things they knew that they didn't know, but they didn't imagine what they might not know that they didn't know. It was a failure of imagination. We live in a world where the lethality and availability of weapons is growing. The margin for error is small. The task of doing intelligence so that you can protect people is extremely difficult, and it will take better intelligence than we have to do it. A terrorist can attack at any time, using any technique. It's simply impossible to defend everyone, everywhere, all the time. That's particularly true in a free country, where people want to be able to go where they want. A terrorist goal is to frighten people enough to alter their behavior. If you can't protect everyone, everywhere, you'd better do what President Bush did, which was to put pressure on the terrorists. If it's harder to recruit, raise money, travel and find hospitable countries, then you won't be as good at killing innocent people as you'd otherwise be.

Wars, terrorism: what do you most worry about?
Our intelligence problems and the proliferations of weapons of mass destruction. I worry about cyber attacks. Successful Western countries offer the most opportunities; that's why people want to come to our countries. And yet we're the most vulnerable. We use digits instead of pieces of paper, and that makes us more vulnerable than less advanced countries to cyber attacks.

Previously published in Metro http://www.metro.lu

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