STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was on top of the world in 2002. The U.S. had toppled Afghanistan's Taliban without a full scale land war. It was seen as an astonishing success, and the U.S. was moving on to confrontation with Iraq. Speaking of Iraq's suspected weapons program, Rumsfeld famously spoke of unknown unknowns. After the war went sour, Rumsfeld resigned. His memoir, "Known and Unknown," vigorously defends his record and suggests he was not the author of some key decisions.
Why do you portray yourself at key moments as a passive secretary of defense?
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Former Secretary of Defense): I don't at all. I try to describe analytically what was taking place and the kinds of - the complexities that are involved in those decisions and how the interactions took place.
INSKEEP: What I mean by passive is that we think about major decisions of your tenure that were controversial - Paul Bremer, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, was the guy who disbanded the Iraqi army. That was not a decision that you made. Tommy Franks General Tommy Franks was the guy who decided not to send U.S. troops after Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001. Condoleezza Rice was the one who didn't run the National Security Council very well. There seems to be example after example where all the key decisions or many of the key decisions belonged to others, even though they might in some cases they were people under your direction.
Mr. RUMSFELD: Well, that's a strange reading of it. The way the book describes those events is rooted in facts and in primary documents.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about late 2001...
Mr. RUMSFELD: Uh-huh.
INSKEEP: ...Osama bin Laden was suspected to be hiding out in caves in Tora Bora. A special operations command history later concluded that there's reasonable certainty that he was there. And you write on page 402 that General Franks decided not to proceed with an offensive with conventional ground forces, to leave it to Afghan forces to try to trap Osama bin Laden. You put that as Frank's decision and not a decision that you write about questioning in any way.
Mr. RUMSFELD: I didn't question the decision. In fact, I think you'll find in the book a characterization that's somewhat different than that. What took place was there was speculation that Osama bin Laden might be in Tora Bora. General Franks ordered extensive bombing and rocket attacks and cruise missile attacks into the Tora Bora area. There was a good deal of discussion, but no one to my knowledge persuaded the CIA chain or the military chain that something different should have been done.
INSKEEP: And you also properly say here, you make a valid point when you say you want to leave decisions to the commander on the ground. And you say the commander on the ground made the decision that it was better to proceed with Afghans. But...
Mr. RUMSFELD: Now, wait a second. There were not just Afghans. There were American forces involved, Special Forces and CIA people...
INSKEEP: Fewer than 100 on the ground...
Mr. RUMSFELD: Yeah...
INSKEEP: Fewer than 100. You say that that was valid to leave that decision to the commander, but in light...
Mr. RUMSFELD: Well, I agreed with his decision.
INSKEEP: But at the same time you were a secretary of defense who quite aggressively asked questions. Did there every come a time when you questioned General Franks' assumptions in leaving American forces largely out of the picture and trying to close off the exits from Tora Bora?
Mr. RUMSFELD: There was a great deal of effort to close off the exits out of Tora Bora from the air, and second, I asked the question: Are there things we could do in addition? Now...
INSKEEP: You asked George Tenet, the CIA director, that. Did you ever ask Tommy Franks, the operational commander there?
Mr. RUMSFELD: I'm sure I did. We had discussions about this. And I agreed completely with both of them.
INSKEEP: Do you agree with the special operations command history several years after the fact, concluding that this was a major missed opportunity that has had significant effects for Afghanistan and the world, allowing Osama bin Laden to escape?
Mr. RUMSFELD: I have not seen that report.
INSKEEP: Would you agree with that statement as a statement?
Mr. RUMSFELD: Well, I think anyone can make a statement that if they believe Osama was there and if they believe that despite the weather and the mountainous terrain and the enormous number of tons of weaponry that were unloaded on Tora Bora, that there might have been something else that might have been done to have captured him - obviously that would have been preferable. But I think...
INSKEEP: Well, I mean you're an expert on defense matters. You know the limitations of air power.
Mr. RUMSFELD: It seems to be that's speculation.
INSKEEP: How large an imprint, in the end, Mr. Secretary, do you think you left on the Department of Defense during your time there?
Mr. RUMSFELD: Well, who knows, you know? There are a lot of people in your business who think they write the first draft of history and I suppose thats true, but over time perspective and documents become available. That's one of the reasons I'm putting out thousands of pages of documents. A couple of things that I you know, you look back and you regret that things were done quite the way they were done, and you wish there were differences and that things - you can't help but think about the men and women who volunteered to serve and the lives that were lost and you're appreciation to them and their families.
The on the transformation side, the work that was done on the department during that period dramatically increased the capability of the Special Forces of our country, the kind of capabilities that we need to deal in an asymmetric world. We've dramatically increased the number of unmanned aerial vehicles that occurred. And thanks to General Pete Schoomaker and his leadership of the army...
Mr. RUMSFELD: ...we ended up with moving from a division capability down to a brigade capability, which has dramatically increased the flexibility of the United States Army, has been an absolutely significant transformational change in the United States military. So you have to be gratified that those kinds of things occurred.
INSKEEP: I want to ask one other thing, Mr. Secretary, because I mean the book is called "Known and Unknown." It's about questioning assumptions and it's about making decisions with the information that you have at the time. You have made an argument that the decision to go to Iraq was the right decision in the way that you went, given the information that you had at the time, and you've made an argument that now, that the world is a better place with Saddam Hussein out of power.
But I'm curious about one thing, because now you do know what the cost of removing Saddam Hussein has been, more than a trillion dollars in spending, 4,000 American dead, great cost in American time, great cost in American prestige in the region. Knowing what you know now, was the war worth it?
Mr. RUMSFELD: You know, what you know now can help you in terms of judgments in the future, and can help our country and decision makers. It can't help you in terms of what you - actions that were taken preceding that. And it's kind of the road that wasn't taken is always smoother. And 20/20 hindsight's perfect.
I will say this. Gaddafi was working on a nuclear capability. When he saw what happened to Saddam Hussein, he decided he would forgo that, admit that he was doing that, allow inspectors in. And that's one of the non-intuitive events that occurred that was positive. Millions of Iraqi people, millions of Afghan people have been liberated. And a vicious, truly vicious regime that was shooting at our aircraft every day, more than 2,000 times when we were patrolling the northern and southern no-fly zones for the United Nations, that regime is gone, and the region is safer, our country is safer, and the world's a better place without Saddam Hussein.
INSKEEP: Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's memoir is called "Known and Unknown." Mr. Secretary, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.
Mr. RUMSFELD: Thank you.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.