SH @ same time

Andrew Cockburn

  • Known and Unknown: A Memoir by Donald Rumsfeld
    Sentinel, 815 pp, £25.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 1 59523 067 6

Donald Rumsfeld, you could say, has had a remarkable career, stretching from a middle-class upbringing amid wealthier neighbours on the edge of Chicago, through Congress and high office in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including a spell as secretary of defense, a profitable excursion into business, and finally six tumultuous years heading the Pentagon under George W. Bush. Oddly, Rumsfeld begins his memoir with an out-of-sequence account of his 1983 meeting with Saddam Hussein as Reagan’s Middle East envoy, infamous for the evident warmth with which the two greeted each other. Perhaps it is there because he always cherished meetings with celebrities; later in the book there’s an encounter with Elvis. He has said in interviews that he didn’t actually write much of this book, preferring to dictate his reminiscences and then edit the transcripts – a process that took four years. Given the care with which he navigates some of the more contentious stretches of his history, there is little reason to doubt that it did indeed take a lot of time. In describing his own experiences on 11 September 2001, Rumsfeld notes that, in a breakfast meeting with congressmen that very morning, he had warned of an impending event somewhere in the world that would be ‘sufficiently shocking that it will remind the American people and their representatives in Washington how important it is for us to have a strong national defence’. Further emphasising his prescience, he mentions in the next paragraph that he had earlier sent Bush an essay on Pearl Harbor to alert him to the possibility of ‘surprise’.

Absent from this account is any mention of the warnings issued over the course of that summer by the CIA or the White House anti-terrorism co-ordinator, Richard Clarke, to the effect that Osama bin Laden was planning an attack inside the United States. Clarke’s name doesn’t appear in the index, or in any of the supplementary documents posted by Rumsfeld on his website, www. rumsfeld.com. Other sources attest that the last time Rumsfeld discussed, and dismissed, these warnings was on 6 September 2001, five days before the attacks. His memory of the period is hazy; the account here of his movements immediately after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon differs in detail from that of Aubrey Davis, the security guard who accompanied him to the site. It may be unfair to demand detailed and accurate recall of those moments when he and Davis marched along the smoke-filled Pentagon corridors on their way to the crash site, but there are more interesting lapses. According to the note his aide Stephen Cambone made of the conversation, at 2.40 p.m., still in the command centre, Rumsfeld told General Richard Myers, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to find the ‘best info fast … judge whether good enough [to] hit SH @ same time – not only UBL.’ ‘UBL’ stood for Usama/Osama Bin Laden, ‘SH’ was Saddam Hussein. Although several passages in Rumsfeld’s account of that day are sourced to Cambone’s handwritten notes, this conversation goes unmentioned. Instead, we have the bland assertion that ‘early on, I had no idea if Iraq was or was not involved, but it would have been irresponsible for any administration not to have asked the question.’

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