The Unknown Known: The Epistemologies of Errol Morris and Donald Rumsfeld


Errol Morris’s documentary The Unknown Known views the political career of Donald Rumsfeld and his time as US Secretary of Defence between 2001 and 2006. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival at the end of last August; was given a limited release in the United States on Wednesday; and has been showing at select Picturehouse Cinemas in the UK this week. Conceived as a companion piece to Morris’s 2003 documentary, The Fog of War – Morris has called the two works ‘salt-and-pepper shakers’ or ‘bookends’ – where that film explored the War in Vietnam, this focuses on the early days of the War in Iraq. Morris views these two wars as disastrous, unjustified and error-strewn, horrific episodes in American and world history. Yet where The Fog of War was a penetrating analysis of Robert McNamara’s decisions, considerations, and regrets regarding the Vietnam War, structured within a chronology of McNamara’s life, The Unknown Known is more amorphous.

McNamara had already shown a penchant for retrospection and reconsideration. His 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, and 2001’s Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century, co-authored by James G. Blight, were both impetuses for Morris’s film, and Morris drew from the former for the eleven lessons which serve as structural points in The Fog of War. Rumsfeld’s participation in such a project comes as more of a surprise. Morris has recounted that when he first contacted Rumsfeld’s lawyer, this lawyer assured him that Rumsfeld was never likely to speak to him on film. Rumsfeld eagerly chose to engage; yet at the close of the documentary, when asked by Morris the reason for his participation, Rumsfeld hesitates and offers only ‘I’ll be damned if I know’, his words accompanied by the grin which has become his trademark over the preceding hour and a half of footage.

Emerging from a closed subject, this grin comes to serve as a point of reference for the audience, appearing to offer some insight into the nature of the man. It can be read in a number of ways: as the sinister smirk of someone unwilling to reflect openly on his own failings or wrongdoings; as the connivance of a lifelong politician; as an attempt to disarm his interviewer; or more plainly as a genuine expression of engagement, of pleasure, or of well-being. For Rumsfeld himself, the smile seems both to challenge and to conciliate. With it, he affirms to his correspondent that they are engaged together in a battle of wits, while suggesting that this battle amounts to a game, to a play of language and personality, rather than to any deeper ideals or absolutes.


Morris interviewed Rumsfeld for 33 hours over the course of one year. The interviews followed the same filming technique which characterises The Fog of War and several of Morris’s other works: Morris utilised what he calls the Interrotron, which allows interviewee and interviewer to sit apart, but to look at one another via a screen while they talk. This enables Morris and his interviewee to maintain something approximating eye contact, while on the other hand providing the separation which Morris believes is conducive to revealing interviews. Morris thinks that subjects will say more to a camera than they will face-to-face with a person; and that with a camera in front of them, he can use pauses to encourage his subjects to fill in the blanks, speaking where they would otherwise remain silent. The Unknown Known centres entirely on Rumsfeld’s face: largely eschewing the archival footage that was a feature of The Fog of War, we are given Morris’s interview, and brief clips from Rumsfeld’s press conferences, while dictionary definitions of words circle against the dark background as Rumsfeld extends his own endeavours with language.

There is a brief recapitulation of Rumsfeld’s earlier political career. After opening in the midst of the Iraq War, and with the suggestive phrase which makes up the documentary’s title, we go back to the late 1960s and the 1970s, when Rumsfeld served first under the Nixon administration, then later under Gerald Ford. As Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity during Nixon’s Presidency, Rumsfeld appointed Dick Cheney and Frank Carlucci, then at the very beginning of their careers in politics. Serving as Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford from September 1974, a reshuffle the following year saw Rumsfeld become the 13th United States Secretary of Defence, with Cheney taking Rumsfeld’s previous position as Ford’s Chief of Staff. This reshuffle was dubbed the ‘Halloween Massacre’, and as Morris shows, Rumsfeld was widely fingered as its chief architect. While it effectively saw Rumsfeld and Cheney promoted – and made Rumsfeld, at 43, the youngest Secretary of Defence in US history – it saw several moderate Republicans fired, and made George H. W. Bush the Director of Central Intelligence, head of the CIA. While ostensibly a promotion for Bush too, the move has been seen as an attempt on the part of Rumsfeld to compartmentalise and therefore marginalise a political rival. Yet in 1980, it was Bush rather than Rumsfeld who Ronald Reagan chose as his Vice Presidential running mate.

Bush would succeed Reagan as President in 1989. Morris suggests to Rumsfeld that, had Reagan chose his Vice President differently, it would have been he rather than Bush in line for the Presidency. Rumsfeld’s response is one of the most revealing in the documentary: a terse, purse-lipped ‘That’s possible’. The prominent economist Milton Friedman once stated that he personally regarded Reagan’s selection of Bush over Rumsfeld as ‘the worst decision not only of his campaign but of his presidency’; and that had Rumsfeld been chosen, ‘I believe he would have succeeded Reagan as president and the sorry Bush-Clinton period would never have occurred’.

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Overall, this section of Morris’s film is richly instructive, informing or reminding viewers of an able and precocious political career, and one characterised by maneuvering and ambition, plus some disappointment. After 1977 and the end of the Ford administration, Rumsfeld spent the next two decades developing a career in business, and continuing to take part-time political roles. The most significant of these saw him appointed Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East: travelling to Baghdad in December 1983, he met with Saddam Hussein and Hussein’s deputy, and Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz. It was not until 2001 that Rumsfeld returned to the forefront of politics, when he was appointed Secretary of Defence in the administration of George W. Bush. Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx and Bush’s friend at Yale University, had been the newly elected President’s first choice for the post, but he turned the position down; and Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, forwarded the name of his old colleague, which Bush agreed to despite Rumsfeld’s differences with his father. So Rumsfeld became the 21st United States Secretary of Defence, and he would now become the oldest in US history.

Morris’s endeavour is to navigate the Iraq War perceived and conceptualised by just one of its predominant figures. He does not attempt an exhaustive account of the war, nor does he succeed in explaining its causes. Given the nature of Rumsfeld’s responses – by turns resolute and equivocal – the documentary poses more questions than it answers. It is one of Morris’s most provocative searches into his perennial themes: how we wilfully construct knowledge and how this constructed knowledge entangles with truth. We traverse the Iraq War amidst ‘snowflakes’: the name Rumsfeld embraced to refer to the memos he would send other officials and members of staff. He suspects he wrote and sent at least 20,000 of these during his six years as Secretary of Defence as part of the Bush administration: when he finally left the role at the end of 2006, a final memo sent to all Pentagon personnel declared ‘the blizzard is over’.

Morris displays some of these snowflakes on screen, and asks Rumsfeld to read several aloud. Some of the liveliest exchanges between the interviewer and his subject centre upon the two major controversies of the Iraq War: the decision to go to war itself, which implicates Iraq’s alleged but nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; and the abuses of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Yet even here, while Morris’s opposition to the Iraq War and his absolute disdain for its atrocities is clear, he does not attack Rumsfeld directly or attempt to hang blame heavily about his shoulders. There exists a memo, for instance, written by Rumsfeld on 27 November 2001, which appears to show him willing to concoct motivation for a war in Iraq, rather than responding honestly to intelligence:


Even on the day of 11 September 2001, Rumsfeld is reported to have asked for any evidence that might link the day’s terrorist attacks to Saddam Hussein, and thereby legitimise military action. Morris doesn’t include the above memo in his film. Rather than analysing the motivations for war, he prefers instead to contemplate Rumsfeld’s response once it had been concluded that Iraq did not, after all, possess weapons of mass destruction. He wants to allow Rumsfeld the space in which to express himself, to implicate himself or to reveal some pertinent detail as he sees it. Instead, Rumsfeld embarks on a rhetorical exercise, suggesting that ‘absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ – words which, applied to the context of Iraq and the devastating loss of life war has caused, Morris has subsequently called the most disturbing in his film.

Rather than open hostility, Morris expresses scepticism, and at certain moments allows his camera to linger on Rumsfeld after he has finished speaking in an attempt to achieve a sort of dramatic irony: viewers are supposed to understand the flaws in Rumsfeld’s arguments, and to see that his reflections upon and criticisms of others apply equally to himself. Speaking of his meeting in 1983 with Hussein and Aziz, and remarking that he continues to find it difficult to understand their respective states of mind, he reflects that they lived ‘pretend’ lives, fulfilling only their images of themselves. The lingering camera implies that this can be applied equally to Rumsfeld; but beyond the extent to which we all build our selves through images, it is not easy to conclude that there is anything especially counterfeit or deluded about Rumsfeld.

While expressing no remorse for his role initiating the Iraq War, readily chalking up points in his own favour when he feels he has bested Morris or uncovered a misleading interpretation of events, speaking sometimes directly and sometimes ambiguously, and appearing impervious to the lures of self-reflection, still there are few points in the film where Rumsfeld does not appear to be speaking candidly. Morris asks him about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld argues that the public opinion of Guantanamo Bay is grossly misguided; and describes it as one of the best-run prisons anywhere in the world. Of course, this lays aside concerns over the ideology behind the prison, and over the morality of the procedures which those who run it are required to carry out. Rumsfeld discusses authorising ‘Special Interrogation Plans’ for Guantanamo detainees in late 2002, but he depicts this as a procedural responsibility, in which he was essentially obliged to sign off from a list different levels of interrogative techniques.

Rumsfeld is adamant that Guantanamo Bay remains a legitimate institution; but he admits himself appalled by the abuses which took place at Abu Ghraib, the central prison twenty miles outside of Baghdad, in late 2003 and early 2004. Morris asks Rumsfeld whether the fact of Guantanamo Bay, its ‘Special Interrogation Plans’, and a lack of clarity within the military regarding these, together influenced events in Abu Ghraib, and after some hesitancy, Rumsfeld admits this possibility. It was his sense that, as Secretary of Defence, he was ultimately responsible for these wrongdoings which caused Rumsfeld to twice offer his resignation – which was twice declined by President Bush. On the other hand, pushed to admit a narrower responsibility for the Abu Ghraib abuses – which saw detainees stripped, tortured, raped, sodomised, and murdered – Rumsfeld declines. Regarding the ‘Torture Memos’ – sent by the Office of Legal Counsel of the United States Department of Justice in August 2002 and March 2003, and advising that ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, including waterboarding, might be permissable outside the United States – Rumsfeld states that he never read them, which prompts Morris’s most physical reaction: an immediate, incredulous ‘Really?’.


As with others who were part of the Bush administration, it is difficult to discern whether Rumsfeld is a deep thinker or instead a quick thinker, whose strength lies in thinking on his feet and making points firmly and effectively. Still – even for someone who disagrees wholeheartedly with Rumsfeld’s militarist ethos and with so many of his conclusions – The Unknown Known suggests Rumsfeld as a ready intellectual, who might be guilty of intellectual error more than moral malevolence. There is much philosophical interest in how Rumsfeld conceptualises power and its responsibilities, and in many of the things he says – even in his most notorious soundbites.

The film’s title derives from a Department of Defence briefing given in February 2002. Rumsfeld was discussing the lack of evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Utilising a form of tricolon, he said:

‘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 that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.’

The idea of ‘unknown knowns’ emerged as the logical fourth part of this series. Yet what ‘unknown knowns’ actually are remains a point of contention throughout the documentary, as Rumsfeld himself fluctuates between opposing definitions. At the beginning of the film, he defines them as ‘things that you think you know, that it turns out you did not’. This is a reading whose sense has precedents, for instance in the phrase attributed to Mark Twain that, ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so’. However, Rumsfeld’s initial definition does not follow the grammar of the earlier three; and at the end of the film, he redefines ‘unknown knowns’ accordingly as things that we do not know that we know. As Morris points out, the difference here is polarising: according to the first definition, we know less than we think; whereas according to the later definition, we know more. So do we know more than we think we know, or do we know less? Or is it not both?

Rumsfeld believes that all policy, but foreign policy most of all, requires imagination. This imagination is not cast as empathetic, and it does not, in the view of Rumsfeld, extend directly from knowledge. Elaborating on his quote, he locates ‘unknown unknowns’ as the sites of fundamental, world-altering change – which is to say that, for Rumsfeld, the most important events which occur are often those of which we have not even conceived, never mind expected. For Rumsfeld, Pearl Harbor and September 11 are the defining moments in American history, and they were allowed to come about through a complete vacuum of knowledge: America had not conceived of such attacks, and did not appreciate that such attacks were possible: the possibility of such attacks was unknown and had been unthought. So for Rumsfeld it is in the area of ‘unknown unknowns’ that we must imagine. He believes that the imagination must be harnessed to give the best sense of what is possible, thereby allowing not only for preparation, but for action. This sense of what constitutes an ‘unknown unknown’ may be debated: was there not a store of knowledge out of which Pearl Harbor and September 11 could have been conceived? And at the same time, Rumsfeld’s series raises interesting epistemological questions regarding how we build and access knowledge: to what extent is imagining and thinking through an ‘unknown unknown’ possible, and to what extent is all thought merely a reconfiguration of existing knowledge? Should ‘known unknowns’ be the realm and starting point of the imagination rather than ‘unknown unknowns’?


Whatever, we can allow even extreme or apparently absurd hypotheses as important facets of scientific and philosophical methodology; and we can allow hypotheses an important place too in political thinking. Yet to embrace the unfettered imagination as a source of potential knowledge, which can and ought to then be acted upon, seems profoundly dangerous in the political sphere. Rumsfeld’s philosophy allowed him a justification for war in Iraq regardless of all evidence – essentially on the basis of what might exist, and what, if we stretch thought to its limits, might occur. It is a chain of reasoning which results in militarisation, preemptive military action which in fact initiates rather than counters conflict, and a marked lack of proportionality in all military endeavour.

So in Rumsfeld there is a peculiar compound of narrow accountancy when it comes to analysing military might (as Secretary of Defence in the 1970s he was concerned at trends in comparative US-Soviet military strength, and ordered the development of new weapons and machinery in order to restore the balance in the Americans’ favour) and of free thought when it comes to evaluating the justifications for military action. Errol Morris’s friend and sometime collaborator Wernor Herzog has spoken with regard to his own documentaries about foregoing an accountant’s truth for the ‘ecstatic truth’ of the cinema: but aside from their widely different mediums, Herzog seeks in his films to reveal the full consciousness of individual human beings, while Rumsfeld too readily forgets the lives of others and asserts his own psychology in place of matters of fact. So too when it comes to language, Rumsfeld at once understands how words are used as tools, with nuanced and changeable meanings, yet seeks to fix their power by restricting and defining their application. He is an adroit and entertaining communicator, but his numerous memos seeking after dictionary definitions of words make it clear that he does not feel himself their master. He was content enough with his speech on knowns and unknowns that he incorporated it as the title of his autobiography, Known and Unknown: A Memoir, published in 2011. Considering the aftermath to September 11 and the path towards war in Iraq, Rumsfeld writes:

‘It was a time of discovery–of seeking elusive, imperfect solutions for new problems that would not be solved quickly. There was no guidebook or road map for us to follow.’

In fact, it was Slavoj Žižek, in a May 2004 article entitled ‘What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib’, who first theorised the missing term in Rumsfeld’s series. Žižek argued about Rumsfeld that:

‘What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know—which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.

If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns,” that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the “unknown knowns”—the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.’

A transcript of an interview with Errol Morris, in which he discusses the film, at Democracy Now!

Another interview with the director via Reuters:

Two insightful reviews of The Unknown Known, by The New York Times and The Spectator

A 2003 article in The Atlantic on Rumsfeld’s early political career:

Slavoj Žižek’s piece ‘What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib’, from In These Times, 21 May 2004:

The Unknown Known Trailer:

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