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.”