Skip to Main Content

Screening of Rumsfeld Documentary Sparks Discussion About Government Secrecy

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, and Spencer Ackerman, U.S. national security editor for The Guardian, discuss the government's culture of secrecy at a special pre-release screening of The Unknown Known.
Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, and Spencer Ackerman, U.S. national security editor for The Guardian, discuss the government's culture of secrecy at a special pre-release screening of The Unknown Known.

During Donald Rumsfeld’s six-year stint as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, he produced memos at an abundant rate, usually 20 to 60 per day. They came to be known as “snowflakes”  for the way the memos fluttered down the hierarchy of the Defense Department, sometimes blowing sideways towards the desks of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, or other important figures in the Bush administration.

Those snowflakes—made public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—provide a tantalizing peek into the mind of a man who held a key role in orchestrating the first  war of the 21st century. Along with a face-to-face interview with Rumsfeld, the memos provide the basis of The Unknown Known, a soon-to-be-released documentary by famed filmmaker Errol Morris.

The Project On Government Oversight, the Sunlight Foundation and Participant Media, the film’s producer, co-sponsored a private pre-release screening of the film last week at Washington, D.C. ‘s E Street Cinema. After the screening, POGO’s Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury moderated a discussion with Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller and Spencer Ackerman, U.S. national security editor for The Guardian.

The memos and interviews are filled with “Rumsfeld’s Rules,”  pithy guidelines Rumsfeld says directed his decision-making. “All generalizations are false, including this one,” is one of many he rattles off with a wry smile. While they may make good sound bites, they don’t convey very much meaning.

The panel also took the opportunity to discuss the Open NDAA campaign, a petition co-sponsored by 50 organizations across the political spectrum that demands the Senate Armed Services Committee open its mark-up of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to the public. The House version of the NDAA is marked up in public.

“When $625 billion or more and a wide swath of policy decisions are being made by a fraction of the Senate and without knowledge of the public, there’s something wrong with that,” Canterbury said.  “If the House can do it, why is the Senate claiming national security reasons to close the markup on the same bill? It doesn’t make sense and the public should have a larger say in that process.”

When the discussion after the movie turned to the federal government’s culture of secrecy, Miller expressed disappointment over the Obama administration’s unfulfilled transparency promises.

“That’s where the largest failure of the current administration really lays in my perspective,” Miller said.

Ackerman, who has worked on the Guardian’s coverage of the Edward Snowden leaks, said he was struck by Rumsfeld’s “aphorism-filled philosophy.”

“There are so many things on the surface that do make sense and you wish Rumsfeld had actually applied them to himself,” he said. “You wish Rumsfeld had really gone the full Rumsfeld.”

Another clever Rumsfeld turn-of-phrase featured in the film: “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” Jason Lemieux, who attended the screening and served in the Marine Corps during the invasion of Iraq, said he found those words particularly frustrating.

“There’s that clip in there where the press is saying you haven’t found any evidence that (Weapons of Mass Destruction) exist, and he just says ok, ‘the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence,’ ” Lemieux said. “How much ‘no evidence’ do we have to give you before it’s meaningful, or can you just do what you want and believe what you want? And there hasn’t been any real accountability.”

While Ackerman playfully teased the audience about potential secrets that have yet to be revealed from the Snowden files, he did say he believes his newspaper’s handling of the leaks illustrates journalists’ ability to responsibly release information in the public interest.

“I think it sort of sticks up for how engaged people, civic-minded people really have abilities that the government and bureaucracies just assume we don’t possess. I’m sure lots of people disagree with some of the journalism that we’ve done. Nevertheless I think it really does show that there’s nothing inherently dangerous in most circumstances about transparency. The government really does kind of have this Augustine attitude towards it with over-classification.”

Image by Andre Francisco.

By: Avery Kleinman
Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman Avery Kleinman is the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: National Security

Authors: Avery Kleinman

Submitted by Al G. at: April 19, 2014
Politics: New documentary movie: Unknown Known: My opinion: Donald Rumsfeld was/is the biggest narcissist in U.S. political history. Him becoming a legend (in his own mind), crediting himself with changing modern warfare was more important to him than saving the lives of brave American service personal. When Rumsfeld felt it was imperative that we go after the non existent weapons of Saddam Hussein, I remember him saying " You go with what you have" resulting in hundreds of our dedicated militarily personnel being unnecessarily killed or seriously injured. They lost their lives, just following orders as trained. He sent them into active combat in unprotected Hummer transport vehicles with canvas doors. Rumsfeld said he didn't feel it necessary to insure that the Hummers were at least modified with some armor before being deployed. Then his strategy was to drive around know Iraqi forces leading into Baghdad to speed things up. That turned out to be the stupidest idea ever, costing hundreds more American lives. The military had identified known enemy forces at specific locations, outside of the civilian population and were ordered to avoid/ignore them. That provided the enemy with the opportunity to just mingle back into the city in disguise and kill service personnel at will. It's obviously a lot harder to fight the enemy in an urban environment when you don't know who they are and at the same time trying to gain the support of non-combatant innocent citizens. Rather than admitting he's an idiot, apologizing and taking responsibility for the loss of American lives, he's instead enjoying live smiling and posing in front of cameras as usual, bragging about what he thinks was his job, well done. The list of his constant screw ups at our cost and for his perceived benefit goes on and on. Rumsfeld is one of the biggest embarrassments in world history. When he eventually passes and goes to Hell, medical research needs to examine his mutated brain tissues to insured they are never reproduced.

Leave A Comment

Enter this word: Change

Browse POGOBlog by Topic

POGO on Facebook

POGOBlog Contributors

See All Blog Contributors

Latest Podcast

Podcast; Social Media, Internet Provides Opportunities, Challenges for Lawmakers

The Congressional Management Foundation offers the Gold Mouse Awards annually to members of Congress who make the most of the opportunity the digital world offers them. POGO spoke with members of Rep. Mike Honda's communications team about their award.