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We Were Wrong About Pearl Harbor

We Were Wrong About Pearl Harbor

DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Friday, October 12, 2001. Interview with Tom Shanker, New York Times. Source: News Transcript from the United States Department of Defense.

Q: The first thing is, I told Torie I've been very intrigued by the comments you made and by comments the president's made about a new kind of war, and how you're really struggling and working to define how to carry out this new kind of war against this new kind of enemy.

At the same time, sir, when you watch television you see jet fighters taking off from carriers, you watch TV and you see stuff blowing up on the ground in Afghanistan. Those are fairly traditional assets that we're using at this point.

Is it too early to see and understand the new things that you're doing? Or are you still just asking the questions and trying to figure it out?

Rumsfeld: I think part of the answer is the fact that the people dealing with this conflict are all people who have dealt with, generally, people who have dealt with other conflicts. Therefore the way people are reporting it, the way people are seeing it is through the eyes that they have, the memories that they have.

Second, there are only so many things that lend themselves to visuals, to television, to videotape or dramatic photographs of something blowing up.

It is a very different way in any number of respects. The problem of asymmetrical threats exists, and always existed I should say. No matter at what point in history, people have always looked for a way to advantage themselves by finding a way around whatever strength somebody else had.

Our strength has been armies, navies, and air forces, obviously. And the reason those things are not threatened today is because it's expensive to do that.

Therefore, the (inaudible) are not frontally attacking our armies, navies and air forces. What they're doing is they're using our technology, our advances that have come through a period of proliferation of those technologies across the globe and they're using those to disadvantage us and look ways that we have not yet deterred them, or not yet fashioned defensively, and those are the ones we've been talking about for many months now. Terrorism, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological, nuclear, and cyber attacks.

Those are all things that at the moment people think of as unconventional, that is to say, or asymmetrical (inaudible). Multi (inaudible). They'd always joke about mispronouncing that. But it isn't a word that people really think about, but there are ways that somebody can go after a large country and harm them much cheaper and more easily than they can if they go after an army, navy, air force.

Q: That I understand, but what are the ways that this large country is thinking in new and unusual ways to go back at those people who have attacked this country?

Rumsfeld: The two things that have to be looked at, one is the obvious, the terrorism. And a terrorist network. You cannot defend everywhere at all times, against every conceivable terrorist tactic. You have no choice but in your own self defense to be preemptive, to go after the terrorists where they are.

The second piece of that is -- and that is what we're doing. The second piece of that is that throughout our long history we've had many times, when for whatever reason free people who are free to be wise, who are also free to be less than perfectly wise, where we had thought something improbable and been wrong. We were wrong about Pearl Harbor. We knew there was a possible threat, we knew the Japanese could do something, but we did not think -- even though we offered that very lucrative target, we did not think that they would be attacking as they did.

In Korea, by word or deed we behaved in a way possibly that left the impression that we might not be as attentive to that problem as we ultimately were.

For 260 or 75 years, whatever it is now, a long time, we've had the situations where we have, where something has occurred that we didn't, either didn't anticipate or didn't anticipate in a way that would deter it and dissuade it, and we've thrived, and we've had a big margin for error. We've had an ocean on either side and friends in the north and the south. And the power of weapons, while they have increased in lethality over the centuries, have still been within manageable levels until now, until recently. And they aren't any more.

Because of the end of the Cold War, because of the relaxation of tension, because of the proliferation that's just swept the world, there is no question but that the chemical and biological and nuclear weapons are in the hands of countries that wish us ill, who have engaged in terrorist activities, who have fostered and sponsored terrorist networks.

And when and how the nexus will occur between those nations and those weaponry they have, (inaudible) in the case of chemical and biological, and the terrorists they support, when that nexus will occur is something that I don't know the answer to, the world doesn't know the answer to, but it does not take a genius to project out that thing will occur. If that's true, and at that point you're not talking about hundreds [sic] of thousands of people, you're talking about hundreds of thousands of people or millions of people.

Then the question comes how do we as a free people who are free to be wise and free to be sometimes not quite as wise, how do we recalibrate ourselves as a society? And give credence to that seemingly improbable but not improbable event? And what do we do, how do we arrange ourselves and other people to do everything that's prudent and wise and doable to prevent that kind of an event from occurring?

The answer is that you have to project yourself forward. You have to ask yourself, were that to occur anywhere in the world, what would you want to have done? What would you as a society want to have done to avoid that? And isn't that your responsibility, to think back from an event like that and think what ought you to do now so that you have arranged yourself so that you have sensitized the people in the country and you've arranged the government and you've cooperated with other nations in a way that reflects the urgency of it and the magnitude of such an event before it happens?

What's taking place today, it seems to me, is a significant piece of that effort. It is an assertion by a leader, the president of the United States, that the problem of terrorists and terrorist networks or countries that harbor terrorism is a worldwide problem, it is an urgent problem, it is a problem that requires our country to focus sharply on it, it's a problem that is not unique to the United States, but involves nations all across the globe, and if we want to and if the people live in this world, and we're capable of living in that world, we have to look at how all the things we do that would minimize that risk, that would give us the maximum warning, that would deter, how can you get arranged to deter?

How ought you to be arranged to preempt if you see it coming before it happens? What things ought you to be doing from a financial standpoint? What things ought you to be doing from a diplomatic standpoint? Aren't there things that suggest a degree or urgency with respect to any one of those -- military, diplomatic, financial, you name it, domestic. What things ought you to do with a high sense of urgency now?

And it is hard for people to put themselves forward in time. Looking back, we can look back to World War II and say isn't that amazing what those folks did? We ended up with NATO, we ended up with the World Bank, we ended up with the OAS, we ended up with the various ANZUS Treaty, the relationship with Japan --

Q: You're talking about post-war.

Rumsfeld: That's what I'm saying. But it happened afterwards because there was an event that permitted it. And there was a war that shifted relationships between nations dramatically. That created new institutions that grew out of that conflict.

It is easier to do it if there's an event.

So the question is, can we do it before an event like that? And is it possible that what took place on September 11th, as one of my interlocutors on this last trip overseas said, that maybe out of this tragedy comes opportunity. Maybe, must maybe, the world will sufficiently register the danger that exists on the globe and have this event cause the kind of sense of urgency and offer the kind of opportunities that world War II offered, to refashion much of the world.

Q: One of the smart people in this building described what you're trying to do as cracking a new genetic code, and I've heard you say several times that it's hard for people to think that far ahead.

Are you dissatisfied with the ability to think that far ahead? The quality of the proposals you're giving as you shape this new campaign?

Rumsfeld: I don't know about the word dissatisfied. I feel a real sense of urgency, and I am constantly trying to think of how you can say something or do something or provide incentives in large structures so that the outcomes will be optimum, will be best for our people and best for the world. It's hard to do. It requires a lot of thought. We all do things imperfectly, and goodness knows I do. But I guess rather than being dissatisfied I guess I feel challenged to try to do it better, to try to --

Off the record, if you don't mind. You can leave on the tape. It doesn't bother me.

[Portion of transcript deleted]

Q: Back on the record. You've anticipated my next question which is on television right now there's an anthrax scare in New York City, the (inaudible). There is great focus on Afghanistan. And you talked about the global war on terrorism. There is a sense perhaps in the American people that the Administration is looking with a monocular at Afghanistan.

How do you manage public support for a broader war while you're bombing Afghanistan today, and balance it against the fear of another attack here at home?

Rumsfeld: Well, I have -- anyone who's lived in our country (inaudible) if you underestimate the American people. We are not perfect and our judgments are not always as timely as they ought to be, but there is no question that given sufficient information the American people find their way to reasonably right decisions on big issues, and this is a big issue. And we've got, comparably all of us, or the body politic collectively, has an inner gyroscope and it can get kicked off from time to time, and veer a direction, but it can be centered against and come back.

And I think all you can do is to try to communicate the truth in as direct and as balanced a way as is humanly possible. But not treat the American people as though they're not capable of taking bad news, because they are. And not mislead people.

We've got a big task as this society. But we've just gotten a big wakeup call.

Q: Again, as is so often the case when we've spoken or I hear you from the podium, you are describing a long-term global war against terrorism. Horizontal fronts. We can't even imagine sitting here where else this may go. But there is a big focus, again, on Afghanistan. They want to know the bombing today, what happened today. Is the rest of the war plan in place, or is it still being drafted every day and won't even be known for some time?

Rumsfeld: I think probably we would say that part of it is in place and is played out. Other pieces have to fall into place.

If you think about it, the law enforcement is increasingly in place. The United States has relationships with dozens of countries around the world. We have arrested and detained hundreds of people around the world. More are happening every day. And as they're interrogated, still other people are being identified and arrested.

Secondly, the president has very wisely asked people to function with a sense of heightened awareness. Within the last 48 hours one such person has called the FBI and provided information about a person who potentially could have (inaudible). And God bless that person. The president and the United States government have asked the world to understand how valuable intelligence information is, and that it's impossible for any government or any collection of government, without the cooperation of the people and all of those countries coming forward. It's impossible to know enough to be able to stop it. There is a lot of information coming forward (inaudible).

Those are big elements of all of this. The financial part of it's not trivial. There are increasing numbers of accounts being frozen. There are increasing numbers of millions of dollars that aren't available to those folks. And that's a good thing.

We have a lot of friendly services around the world, friendly governments around the world that are working with our government to do things, and those things are happening. People are being picked up; people are making plans to pick up people.

Q: Is there a military part that you manage from the building?

Rumsfeld: Sure, we're doing things and other people are doing things that are overt and covert. That's good. Countries that had been tolerant are less tolerant today. Countries that had been unafraid are a little more afraid today. It's harder today for a terrorist than it was yesterday. It will be still harder tomorrow. We're not moving around the world looking for a navy or an air force or an army to compete with, although this building is capable. We can do a lot of things other than that.

Q: Can you give me any guidance on the FBI (inaudible)?

Rumsfeld: Not (inaudible).

Q: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time.

Rumsfeld: Thank you.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).