Opinion | Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld: A Fog of Memos

Trying to grasp one other human being is usually a dismal process. And if not dismal, thankless. What am I purported to do? Disapprove of Donald Rumsfeld? That’s simple. Perhaps too simple. He was bold, pushed — additionally fortunate. And, as everyone knows, he was one of the chief architects of the disastrous conflict in Iraq.

It is unimaginable for me to write down about Mr. Rumsfeld, the previous U.S. secretary of protection who died on Tuesday, with out writing about his memos. He performed a task in making memo-writing the brand new frontier in governmental accountability. He additionally pioneered the memo as an obfuscatory instrument. Write one memo saying one factor, write one other memo saying the precise reverse.

As I interviewed Mr. Rumsfeld for my documentary about him, “The Unknown Known,” it turned (a minimum of for me) a narrative a few man misplaced in his limitless archive, adrift in a sea of his personal verbiage.

In 1966, early in his public service profession, Representative Rumsfeld, Republican of Illinois, co-sponsored the Freedom of Information Act, a automobile for understanding the intentions of excessive political figures. Then, as a member of President Gerald Ford’s administration — first because the president’s chief of workers, then as secretary of protection — he discovered a strategy to successfully undermine it.

President Richard Nixon was undone by his makes an attempt to hide and excise the official report. Mr. Rumsfeld knew higher by the point he was serving underneath Mr. Nixon’s successor. The trick was to marginalize the report, to litter it with so many contradictions rebuttal to any future historian might all the time be discovered. His memos (often called “yellow perils” within the Nixon administration and “snowflakes” underneath Ford) would pile up in drifts, disguising the underlying historic panorama. It’s a degree of genius that has not been acknowledged within the press — the founder of FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act) is the man who found out the right way to render it nearly completely nugatory.

And what accounts for his seeming change of coronary heart? The metamorphosis from a liberal Rockefeller Republican congressman, a confidant of the civil rights and antiwar activist Allard Lowenstein, to at least one of probably the most reviled neoconservatives?

It’s simple accountable all the pieces on opportunism, a swiftly altering atmosphere of success and extra success. Vocational greed … I don’t know. But regardless of the cause, a brand new Donald Rumsfeld emerged in the course of the Ford administration.

His first stint as secretary of protection is the beginning of the story — Team B, specifically. That was an train wherein a dozen or so protection business wonks and Russia hawks got carte blanche to undermine and successfully rewrite the newest National Intelligence Estimate on the Soviet Union, which they argued didn’t mirror the true peril going through America. They referred to as it a “competitive stress assessment” — extra complicated verbiage.

How does it work? Put merely, you’ve got a physique of proof. You don’t belief it. Or possibly you don’t prefer it. It conflicts with different beliefs you’ve got. So you create one other physique of proof, supporting your various view. I’m tempted to say, an alternate view of the info. But simply what the info are is precisely what comes into query.

I feel of Mr. Rumsfeld because the epistemologist from hell. What are the grounds for rational perception? As typically as not, the aim for Mr. Rumsfeld was not justifying perception however undermining it. For instance, many individuals believed within the chance of détente. Team B aimed to point out that perception was silly, or at greatest misplaced.

When you arrange a bunch of folks to search for proof to justify a previous conclusion, you’ve got opened the proverbial can of worms. It’s not onerous to see Team B as a precursor to the Office of Special Plans — the advert hoc group inside the Department of Defense that gave us a lot of the “intelligence” that led the United States to conflict with Iraq. And arguably there’s a development from there to the current-day justifications for re-examining the 2020 election.

The charitable rationalization is “reasoning backward,” from consequent to antecedent —affirming the resultant. That’s only a logical fallacy. The much less charitable model is reasoning with out cause. While I used to be making my documentary movie about Robert McNamara, “The Fog of War,” I bear in mind being shocked by his dire evaluation of Vietnam: Reason is not going to save us. Alas it appears clear that lack of cause is not going to save us both.

Nothing may very well be extra scary than the looks of thought floating over the floor of issues — unknown knowns and the like — masking an underlying absence of something. This is what Mr. Rumsfeld in the end excelled at.

George Packer lately referred to as Mr. Rumsfeld America’s worst secretary of protection. But this isn’t a recognition contest. It’s not the person, a lot, because the methodology. And the methodology, alas, appears ubiquitous. It’s not simply him. It’s all of us.

Errol Morris (@errolmorris) is a author and filmmaker in Cambridge, Mass. He is the director of a movie about Donald Rumsfeld, “The Unknown Known,” and wrote a sequence on the previous protection secretary for The Times, “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld.”

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