Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Benghazi
HH: So pleased to welcome back now the Honorable Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense. Secretary Rumsfeld, welcome back, great to speak with you again.
DR: Well, thank you so much. It’s good to be with you.
HH: I know your book, Known And Unknown is out there, and all the proceeds from it are going to military charity, but one of the things you couldn’t have covered, even in the second or the paperback edition, is what happened in Benghazi, Mr. Secretary. What are your thoughts on that?
DR: Well, it’s of course a terrible thing to lose four Americans who are out there serving America, and including the ambassador. It’s a sad day. It’s certain a tragedy for each of them and their families. But it’s also the U.S. representative of the United States of America in a country, and it’s a symbol of our country. And it is, to be vulnerable to that kind of an attack, when you know beforehand that their security was inadequate, that they said their security was inadequate, and you knew beforehand that al Qaeda was active and had affiliates in that area, in training areas, and you also knew that the Libyan government was perfectly incapable of providing security. So many weapons floating around that country after the revolution, it shouldn’t be expected that they would be able to protect our people. It’s our job to do that, and clearly, it failed.
HH: Late this afternoon, Jake Tapper, the intrepid ABC reporter, filed a story – President Obama Waives Off Questions From ABC News’ Mary Bruce about when he would begin to provide answers on the numerous questions regarding Benghazi. And Jake wrote, “Ad of now, the White House has disclosed that President Obama was informed about the attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi at roughly 5PM by his national security advisor, Tom Donilon, as he was in a prescheduled meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. At that meeting, senior administration officials say the President ordered that the U.S. begin moving military assets into the region to prepare for the range of contingencies. But beyond that,” Jake continues, “the White House has punted, saying that the accountability review board established by the State Department is investigating the matter and what went wrong.” Secretary Rumsfeld, is it plausible to you that having been briefed at the beginning of the attack, an hour into it, the President would not have been briefed for the following six hours on what was transpiring there?
DR: I cannot imagine a president of the United States, when he knows that our people and our embassy and our flag are under attack, that they would not devote their full attention to that, and stay in close contact. The fact that he went off to Las Vegas, Nevada for a political event, it seems to me to be an enormous misunderstanding of what the priorities were. I’ve, there’s no question but that he was aware. The National Security Advisor is in the White House for that purpose, and the Situation Room has all that information. And I would think that a president would be determined to see it through, and to be attentive to what was taking place. I can’t imagine that he would be inattentive.
HH: In your book, Known And Unknown, there area plethora of footnotes, detailed, minute by minute in some cases, explanation of where you were and what you did and when you did it. Is there any doubt in your mind that the White House already knows what the timeline is for Benghazi vis-à-vis what went on with the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor, and events in Libya?
DR: No, I’m confident they do. They have people in the White House that record the beginnings of phone calls, and who’s on the call, who’s in the Oval Office at any given moment. They know what’s happening, and the White House, the Situation Room, is of course the repository of information coming from all over the world. And there is no lag in the updating of data that feeds into the Situation Room to the national security advisor and the White House chief of staff. I was chief of staff of the White House for President Ford, and I just can’t imagine that he could not have been, if he desired to be, in continuous contact as to what was taking place.
HH: Is there any doubt in your mind that they’re trying to run out the clock on the election, Secretary Rumsfeld?
DR: It certainly feels like that. You know, when people die, and are killed in a terrorist attack, and you have an administration that where the secretary of state of the United States, who had the responsibility for assuring that there was appropriate security there, or else she should have closed that embassy temporarily, goes out on television and talks about a hateful video when she knows, and the CIA knew, that in fact it was a terrorist attack. And it was not related to that. It was not spontaneous. And then to send her agent, the ambassador to the United Nations out to peddle the exact same misinformation to the American people, and to have the President go to the United Nations and repeat the information about this so-called “hateful” video, it is really disturbing. And I think the President really owes the American people a prompt discussion of what actually took place, and to be straight up with the American people about it. It’s an important matter, and I think he owes that to the American people.
HH: Before the election?
DR: Oh, of course. I mean, you know, I worry about this election. I watched the debates, like I suppose a lot of folks do, and I thought about the undecided voters and what they were thinking of as they watched those debates, and trying to find some demarcation between the two candidates – Governor Romney and President Obama. And the thing that struck me was that Governor Romney was not attacking his opponent. He was making his case, explaining what he wanted to do. And if honesty is as important as I know it is to the American people, he seemed so direct and so honest and so straightforward. And then to have it contrasted with the Biden and President Obama’s attacks on their opponents, and interrupting their opponents, and in this instance, with respect to Benghazi, not being straightforward with the American people, for me, at least, honesty is important in government. I just think it’s critical. It’s central. You know, in our country, you lead by consent, not command. And to have consent from the American people, there’s got to be trust. And trust comes from confidence in what people are saying and how they handle themselves. You don’t have to be right all the time in government. But you darn well ought to be straightforward.
HH: Now Secretary Rumsfeld, you mentioned command. There are reports abroad that the head of Africa Command, General Ham, has been relieved in the aftermath of Benghazi. Obviously, you maintain quite a lot of contacts in DOD and throughout the Defense establishment. Have you heard those? And have you confirmed that?
DR: I have heard that he’s been relieved, and I have been told that it is not connected to this, that the difficulty that the African Command had is that they had not been properly staffed up. They did not have the kind of assets that the Central Command or the Southern Command, or the Pacific Command or the European Command all have. And the failure to properly staff them up left the combatant commander in that command without the ability to immediately send special operations forces to assist.
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HH: Secretary Rumsfeld, obviously the media and you had some memorable clashes. And when Abu Ghraib happened, you met with them. When the…every single…the looting happened in Iraq, you met with them. The media has laid down on Benghazi, in my opinion. What do you think of the media and the job they’re doing on following up the Benghazi story?
DR: I guess in the military what we’d say is they’re absent without leave. They’re AWOL. The mainstream media is, I guess has arrived at a point, which is sad to say in my adult lifetime, where they’re unwilling to carry a story and pursue a story, and to ask the tough questions that a democracy really needs. We need reasonable transparency, and yet they are unwilling to discuss it, to talk about it, to ask the tough questions in the White House press corps. And thank goodness we have multiple media outlets. We have a variety of talk radio, we’ve got cable television, we’ve got networks, we’ve got all these…the internet, ways that people can communicate, because for a democracy to survive, you simply have to have a free flow of information to the American people so that they can make judgments. And what you’ve got is the so-called elite media, the mainstream media, the networks and the New York Times and the Washington Post unwilling to tackle this story directly, frontally, the way they would have attacked any other story. I mean, think what they did with Watergate, where no one was killed in Watergate. They broke into a hotel.
HH: Do you think, if you could ask one question of the President, or see the media pursue one or two questions to the President concerning Benghazi-gate, what would it be, Secretary Rumsfeld?
DR: I would, you know, I’m not a journalist. I would look him in the eye and say Mr. President, you owe it to the American people to tell the truth. It’s going to come out eventually anyway. You’re better off doing it right now.
HH: You’ve done a lot of Sunday shows in your life, and when Ambassador Rice did five Sunday shows and said the same thing five times about the video precipitating this event, had she been briefed by the White House, in your experience? Did that have to have happened?
DR: Absolutely. I don’t know the woman, but I really, I almost feel sorry for her, because the way it works is that the White House communications people work with the chief of staff and the national security advisor and the President, and they decide what talk shows they want to put people on, and what the message ought to be. And she was told, without question she was told by the White House, we want you to go on these shows, and here’s what we want you to say. There can be no doubt about that.
HH: Is there a cover up, in your opinion, underway, Mr. Secretary?
DR: Oh, I don’t see how you could, anyone who understands the English language, could come up with any other characterization. It is, without question, a case of people being uncomfortable with the truth, grabbing arguments of convenience that seem to fit the narrative they’d like the American people to believe, and then finding that people don’t like that out there, that there’s someone in the CIA said well, wait a minute, we didn’t tell anyone to stand down. And all of a sudden, that contradicts what the White House is putting out. And then the intelligence agency looks at it and says well, no, it wasn’t spontaneous. We had warnings that al Qaeda affiliates were active in the area. And piece by piece, it comes out. You know the old story in Washington. It’s not what you do, it’s the cover up that counts.
HH: Thanks so much for joining us, Donald Rumsfeld. Known And Unknown, of course, his memoir, all proceeds of which go to the military charities who he knows do the best thing by the troops. Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.
End of interview.