Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld Speaks at Jefferson Center

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Donald Rumsfeld expressions changed with the variety of topics during last Thursday’s fundraiser.
Donald Rumsfeld expressions changed with the variety of topics during last Thursday’s fundraiser.

by Valerie Garner

Chris Walters, chair of the Roanoke City Republican Committee, along with the committees from Salem, Botetourt and Roanoke County jointly organized last Thursday’s fundraiser headlining former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Tickets sold numbered 400 with revenue coming in at about $20,000 – $25,000, said Walters.

Donald Rumsfeld, aged 79, served as President George W. Bush’s 21st Secretary of Defense from 2001 until his resignation in 2006. He also served as the 13th Secretary of Defense under President Gerald Ford from 1975 to 1977. Many of the attendees held Rumsfeld’s memoir “Known and Unknown.”

The title was a play on Rumsfeld’s famous remarks during a press conference in 2002: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

It wasn’t a complete lovefest for Rumsfeld, though – 30 protesters, some from Occupy Roanoke, some from the Plowshare Peace Center, stood outside the Jefferson Center with signs and quipped a few jeers as people passed – “war criminal”, “waterboarding is torture” and “blood for oil” they said.

Walters on the stage acknowledged their rights under the 1st Amendment but cautioned that there would be consequences for any disruption inside the building. No protesters made an attempt to enter the building.

There was a Q & A session for over an hour in which Harry Wilson, Professor of Political Science at Roanoke College, threw no softball questions. Listing Rumsfeld’s service took a full three minutes; when he sat down he told the professor, “You make it sound like I can’t hold a job . . .” evoking laughter from the crowd who had just given him a standing ovation.

“Afghanistan with all its past history of oppression and war – the situation there is better – they held elections and as many as a million refugees have returned,” Rumsfeld said.  “There’s no way in the world that country can be turned into a modern liberal democracy,” he admitted.

When it came to the subject of current day Iraq Rumsfeld said, “It’s going to take some time for them to find their way. It isn’t possible for other nations to go in and make it all better for them.” He expects they will hash out a system that will be “as bumpy as ours (U.S.) was.” In summary, he made it clear that the training wheels were off and it was time the Afghans (or does she mean Iranians?) made it on their own with a government that fits their culture.

When asked about the reported conflicts within the Bush administration during the conduct of the war Rumsfeld said, “The press tends to play those as though they were personality conflicts.” He said that generally we worked very well together. “It apparently is much more interesting for the press to report the battle within.” Differing views he concluded were a good thing. If a decision drags on, then dissension takes over; “Once the President decides, people get in line.”

In justification for the war with Iraq, he defined Saddam Hussein as a brutal dictator who killed his own people. Rumsfeld admitted that no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were found; though they did find the means to make biological weapons, he said. Rumsfeld fully expected that U.S. troops would be subjected to biological attack. “They were not used … and political enemies of the Bush administration started saying Bush lied and people died and that was unfair.”

Rumsfeld defended then Secretary of State Colin Powell saying he didn’t lie but rather relied on intelligence information to make his presentation to the United Nations. “I know for fact he didn’t lie and that President Bush didn’t lie,” he said.

Intelligence throughout history has been imperfect, he said. He blamed military and intelligence cutbacks after the cold war with Russia for loss of the best intelligence personnel. As a result “we repeatedly made mistakes in our intelligence assessments.”

When asked if the country was better off today Rumsfeld said, “No – we still have terrorist organizations that operate in the shadows.” They function in closed societies and in ungoverned areas of a country, he said. “The purpose of terrorism is not to kill people – it is to terrorize them and make people fearful.”

He contended that prisoners of war had to wear a uniform and be part of a command structure to have the protection of the Geneva Convention. Rumsfeld said they were treated humanly at Guantanamo Bay Cuba. “Nobody was waterboarded at Guantanamo,” he said.

Rumsfeld said he was told that the CIA did use waterboarding elsewhere on a few people, adding that the “information that came from those three people was important.”

“Guantanamo is the best-run detention facility in the world, and there is no abuse. The average weight gain down there is 18 or 20 pounds – there are people that call it Club Med,” said Rumsfeld. Detainees were sent back to their home country if that was possible, he explained.

Abu Ghraib was a low for Rumsfeld. “It was absolutely disgusting, revolting, abusive – it was just animal house.”  It was a stain on the military and our country and improved recruiting for Al-Qaeda, he said. That’s when he offered his resignation to President Bush. Bush turned it down.

“In war, they’re just terrible ugly things and they are to be avoided with every conceivable possibility,” said Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld became emotional when talking about sending people into battle knowing some won’t return. “It’s a very tough thing to do – there’s not one person that’s in uniform today for any reason other that they decided that they wanted to serve their country,” he said.

Rumsfeld said he had not studied the downsizing of the military that President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta were implementing. “It’s unclear what will happen when taking a trillion dollars out of the military,” he said. “I think it would be a mistake to take that much out.” There is no question there is waste in government – “it’s other people’s money but you don’t develop Special Forces capabilities in five minutes.”

Wilson asked Rumsfeld a question from the audience on the negative campaigning of the Republican Presidential candidates. What ever happened to the “11th Commandment – Thou shalt not speak ill about a fellow Republican?” he asked.  Rumsfeld with a grin said that the four still standing are getting better at debating and left it at that.