Donald Rumsfeld’s Incoherent Unknown Unknowns

Donald RumsfeldOver the weekend, I saw the well known clip of Donald Rumsfeld saying, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” I’ve always dismissed the quote because it is such an ostentatious way of saying the obvious, “There are things we don’t know.” But as I listened to it this time, I was struck by the fact that the statement is incoherent. It contradicts itself.

If there are things that we don’t know that we don’t know, that must mean that some of the “known knowns” are, in fact, unknown unknowns. There isn’t anywhere else they can come from. There can’t be a category of “unknowns we take no opinion on.” The collection of facts must be divided into the knowns and the unknowns. We can divide the knowns into those things we know we know and those we things we don’t think we know. But the same can’t be done with the unknowns. An unknown is either unknown or mistakenly thought to be known.

I think that is what makes Rumsfeld’s quote so weaselly. He doesn’t want to come right out and say that there are things we think we know but which ain’t so. What would be a good example of that? Oh, I know: thinking that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Although, as everyone should know by now, that was just the pretense for war, not the reason. But still, I don’t doubt that they did think Iraq had WMDs. It’s like the old joke, “We know Saddam Hussein had WMDs; we still have the receipts.”

But if you wanted to, I guess you could stretch and trying to make an argument in favor of Rumsfeld. It would have to be that there are facts out in the world that we are just unaware of. That would be that they are unknown not in the sense that we don’t know the truth but rather in that we don’t even know that the facts exist. The problem with this is in doing so, Rumsfeld would have created two kinds of unknowns. Because clearly you couldn’t have these kinds of unknowns known — they would instead be “known unknowns.” For example, the first kind of unknown might be WMDs: we didn’t know if Iraq had them at that time. The second kind of unknown might be Al-Qaeda in Iraq: the administration didn’t (seemingly) even consider the possibility of the rise of such groups.

Regardless of how you look at it, Rumsfeld’s idea of “unknown unknowns” was always meant to obfuscate. I remember Rumsfeld going around quoting Laozi, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” The implication was, “Because I won’t tell you anything, you should trust me.” And just look at him in the video above: he’s so self-impressed. It reminds me of something I read from Matt Bruenig a while back. He was talking about libertarians and how almost all of them seem to think that they are the smartest people in any room. That sums up Rumsfeld. What he “knows” that isn’t actually true is that he’s very smart. He’s just smart enough to be really dangerous.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Donald Rumsfeld’s Incoherent Unknown Unknowns

  1. Never forget Team B. (Which probably inspired “The Russia House.”) When Henry Kissinger calls you out for making up bogus intelligence to bolster the military budget, that’s exactly what you’re guilty of doing. (Kissinger’s foreign policy analysis is like Arthur C. Clarke’s old line that when a famous older scientist says something is impossible, she is probably wrong, and when she says it’s possible she’s probably right. If Kissinger calls another country a threat, he’s probably wrong — but if he says some country is not a threat, he’s probably right.)

    That the quote essentially damns Rumsfeld with his own words — what he and the other war planners thought they knew, but were in fact utterly wrong about, was how well Iraq would respond to foreign-imposed neocon government — is the point of Morris’s movie. Rumsfeld can’t ever have been wrong. About anything.

    And the sad thing is, he probably never has been. Sure, the invasion was and is a humanitarian disaster. But it sure paid Blackwater & Halliburton well. So guys like Cheney and Rumsfeld got what was most important to them. Money went to the right people, and the ones harmed were inconsequential. The region’s going up in flames? Good. More calls for war. It’s like the Ministry Of Peace in “1984” with these murderers. They claim victory is eternally at hand, but would rather see war continuing forever. Had we gone into Iraq with a kind of Marshall Plan to help the nation build after Hussein, the Rumsefld and Cheney types at think tanks would be planning to overthrow the stable democracy and install a US-friendly dictator. It never ends.

    There’s a nerd rapper named MC Frontalot who nailed this sort pretty well in two minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3r-4Irm_Ww8

    • That’s a good point about Kissinger. I am planning a quote from him in the next couple of days. I’m just waiting for the book.

      The song reminds me of the bumper sticker, “Be nice to America or we’ll bring democracy to your country.”

      Regarding Rumsfeld and company, it reminds me of an interview I saw with Ahmed Chalabi. The interviewer asked him if he didn’t feel bad about helping to lie us into war and his answer was: of course not! He wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein and he did. If the US government was stupid enough to listen to him, so what? Of course, the US government listened to him only because he told them what they wanted to hear. Without him there still would have been a war.

      • Wow, it’s amazing Chalabi said that. We all knew he was a complete scam artist. Wild if he’s actually more honest about lying than the major players.

        We always listen to these liars if they say what we want to hear, don’t we? How long has Florida’s politics been influenced by the anti-Castro crowd? A few years back, the baseball Marlins actually had to fire their manager because he said something positive about Castro in an interview (basically, giving Castro wily credit for surviving so long, not praising his politics in the slightest.) Old people who keep waiting for their family’s Cuban sugar plantations to get back up and running went apeshit, and the manager was canned.

        • I think that was Chalabi’s best statement at that point. Everything had blow up in Iraq. So he either had to admit to being a fool or a con artist. What would you choose?

          That’s the thing about the Cuban expatriates: they are mostly a bunch of rich jerks who are sad that a revolution came in that they were on the wrong side of. And if they think they are ever going to get back what they once had, they are very mistaken. I’m sure if you go back far enough, you will find that my family was once royalty in the Azores. As a result of that, Amazon gives me a 4% referral fee instead of the normal 4%. I’m sure they give Cubans the same rate!

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