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Knowing an Unknown Unknown or: The On V Defense of Donald Rumsfeld

Today, I’m going to defend Donald Rumsfeld.

Not as a politician, Secretary of Defense, or one of his many other job titles he has held since the 1970’s. Rumsfeld failed as a Secretary of Defense. If he were a Democrat, Republicans would have launched million Benghazi-type congressional hearings investigating how he mismanaged two wars and the military.

Instead, I’d like to defend a philosophical notion he thrust into the public sphere, the most (in)famous thing Rumsfeld ever said. On 12 February, 2002, Rumsfeld, answering a question at a Department of Defense news briefing, said…

“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 we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

And cue the media, particularly liberals, using this quote as a talking-point-punchline. For the next couple of years, this became one of those far-left liberal memes, an example of the corruption and stupidity of the Bush administration. At the time, I was well-connected to liberal anti-war activists at my college, and I heard people mock this quote often.

Not that Rumsfeld ran from it. He titled his memoir Known and Unknown: A Memoir. Errol Morris, who I really respect as a documentarian, just released The Unknown Known, a documentary about Rumsfeld. I’m sure the documentary itself is terrific and informative, but Errol Morris, on the Colbert Report, had this exchange with Stephen Colbert:   

Colbert: “Your new film is called The Unknown Known, about former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. What the hell does that mean? The unknown known? What is that?

Errol Morris: “Can I be completely honest with you?”

Colbert: “I hope you will”

Errol Morris: “I don’t know”

Really?

It’s not a simple thought, I’ll grant you that. But it is a true one. Trying to re-explain it, I can’t really shorten it any better than Rumsfeld did, except for maybe adding examples. So…

- “...there are known knowns; there are things we know we know.” For example, most Americans know that America holds prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

- “We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” For example, we know America used torture, but until the Senate report comes out, we really don’t know how far America or its allies went, or what concrete information it gave us. Another example: until last year, we knew the Intelligence Community had a budget; we just didn’t know the specific numbers.

- “But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.” Until last year, most Americans were completely unaware about most of the NSA activities, like spying on heads of state in foreign countries (including allies) and collecting meta-data on telephone and internet usage.

Makes sense? Especially for liberals and small government activists, the last point illustrates this concept perfectly, and why it matters: we didn’t know what we didn’t know about the NSA and its massive surveillance of Americans. But because it was Rumsfeld (mistakenly) arguing for Iraq’s connection to terrorists, this concept--not the argument itself--got the blame.

Errol Morris should have been able to answer Colbert’s question; he wrote a whole essay on the topic for the The New York Times in June 2010:

“I found myself still puzzled by the unknown unknowns. Finally, I came up with an explanation.  Using the expressions “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” is just a fancy — even pretentious — way of talking about questions and answers. A “known unknown” is a known question with an unknown answer.  I can ask the question: what is the melting point of beryllium?  I may not know the answer, but I can look it up. I can do some research. It may even be a question which no one knows the answer to. With an “unknown unknown,” I don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer those questions.”

Clearly, he’s thought a lot about it. (And the title to his film isn’t actually something Rumsfeld said; it’s something Morris made up.)

There’s a larger problem, an inconsistency in what the general public wants from our politicians versus what happens when they get that thing. We want politicians to be more honest, less guarded and, frankly, more intelligent. We want them to be more human. But if they do something human, like Scott Brown, on the podium during his victory speech, telling the crowd his daughters were single, the other side of the political spectrum calls it creepy. If they do something interesting, like going on Between Two Ferns to talk about healthcare, it’s not presidential. And if they say something intelligent, like Rumsfeld did, it’s mocked.

So we end up with politicians hiding behind rote, memorized talking points, saying nothing unique, original, authentic or insightful. And we only have ourselves to blame.

two comments

I’m one of those adamant lefties and Rumsfeld haters, but I have to agree with you here. We might be better off if our politicians were allowed to admit they don’t know everything. Nor do any of us.


To say that something is an “unknown unknown” is not unusual. I hear other engineers and military guys refer to the “unk-unks” all the time. Not too hard a concept: we don’t know what we don’t know.