OTR Interviews

Rumsfeld at Peace with What's 'Known and Unknown' in His Career

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," February 10, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. He is the longest-serving secretary of defense in our nation's history. He served in the administrations of President Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford and President George W. Bush. He's also one of the very few Americans to have met former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in person.

Well, now the secretary of state -- or secretary of defense, rather, has earned another title, author. He is the author of the new book "Known and Unknown: A Memoir." The book delivers behind-the-scenes details of the Bush administration that may surprise you, and it may change your view of recent history. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld joins us live.

Good evening, sir.

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Good evening. Good to be with you.

VAN SUSTEREN: And there's so much more. You were the youngest -- you were the youngest ever secretary of defense, and perhaps the oldest secretary of defense, as well.

(LAUGHTER)

VAN SUSTEREN: I mean, there are so many different ways to describe you. Before we get to your book, I want to talk to you. So there's a -- there's a narrative that begins in terms of politics, or an important one, beginning in Lebanon about 1983. But it sort of -- it threads through, like, looking at what's happening now in Egypt. Does Egypt surprise you?

RUMSFELD: There have been so many events, as you suggest, from, well, the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, and the USS Cole and the first attack on the World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers bombings, the attacks on our embassy in Lebanon. And all of those occurred in a sequence, and in almost every instance, they were treated as law enforcement problems. They were -- people were indicted in absence. The - - a few Cruise missiles were fired off from time to time. But they never were connected as a problem of -- broadly of terrorism and of people determined to kill Americans and civilians and to impose their view against the nation state.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, in talking about that, though, is that you looking back now and seeing what Lebanon was like? Or at the time, like in Beirut -- because you spent time there -- did you think we were -- you know, at that point that we should be taking this as more than a law enforcement matter?

RUMSFELD: Clearly, as I discuss in the book, the -- in fact, I gave a speech at the U.S. Army Association in 1984, I believe. And I talked about the fact that a terrorist can attack at any place, at any time, using any technique, and it's not possible to defend against a terrorist attack at any moment of the day or night, against any technique, and the fact that we needed to treat it as a national security problem, rather than a series of isolated events.

George Shultz also gave a speech back in 1985 on that subject. And I guess the short answer to your question is that we both saw it as a problem of a different order than it was being considered at that time.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, it's interesting watching today's events in Egypt. And you know, everybody's so uncertain what's going to happen and uncertain what we should do. And then time goes on and we get to look back and we think, Well, we should have done it this way.

RUMSFELD: Well, you're right, but anyone who thinks they know of certain knowledge what's going to take place in Egypt or other countries in the Middle East I think are probably not going to be correct. When you have this kind of turmoil and this kind of concern and uprising, it is not clear exactly how it will shake out over a period of time. One has to hope for the best and hope that private diplomacy is taking place.

But the forces at work are varied. Some really want a freer political institution or a free economic or economic opportunity. Others are hardcore radicals who are determined to ultimately take control. And you could have a very broad popular uprising and have it not end up in a democracy or a freer political situation, but a small group, like in Iran, take over the country and impose their will because they happen to be the best organized and the most disciplined and the most vicious.

VAN SUSTEREN: You met Saddam Hussein in person. You also met President Mubarak. Let me start with President Mubarak. If he were sitting here, what would I think about him? What's he like?

RUMSFELD: Well, he's husky. He was an ex-Air Force pilot. He used to play squash before he was 82. I met him first when Sadat was acting president of the republic after the death of Nasser. And then I -- we were together in Salzburg when President Ford was meeting with President Sadat and he was the brand-new vice president. And we were off to the side, meeting and talking about flying and the air force and the United States Navy.

He tended to have a lot of energy. However, here we are, these many years since he's become president, and the circumstance of the people of Egypt -- they've not experienced a movement towards freer political institutions. They've not experienced a movement towards freer economic circumstances.

And the demographics in that part of the world are tough. There are - - an enormous fraction of the people are young. And the degree of unemployment in those countries is gigantic. And that makes it difficult for the leaders. What was it Churchill said, dictators or autocrats tend to ride tigers and they're afraid to get off.

VAN SUSTEREN: Everybody wonders why he just won't leave. I mean, he's dug his heels in, and it's getting more dangerous and everyone worries that tomorrow, after the call to prayer, it's going to get very violent because people thought today that he would leave. It was all the expectation.

RUMSFELD: Well, you know, try to put yourself in his shoes. On the one hand, you can make an argument from a self -- personal standpoint that he'd prefer to go out with some dignity over some period of time and not be thrown out. Then you can put yourself in his shoes and say you could make a rational case that he cares about Egypt. He recognizes the ferment, and he is apprehensive that that ferment could lead to a radicalized country, a damage to the country, damage to the people of Egypt, and that he would be willing to take the risk of trying to see that the transition is more orderly and have the military and he or his designees work over a period of time between now and September and see if they can't structure a soft landing.

VAN SUSTEREN: So you think it's a good mother rather than a stubborn motive, like, I'm president?

RUMSFELD: Could be either one.

VAN SUSTEREN: Could be either?

RUMSFELD: I can't climb in his head. But it's -- I think it's one of those two things, and it could even be a blend.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, now, going back to your book. You've spanned so many fascinating presidencies. LBJ doesn't come off particularly well in your book. I mean, the way -- and correct me if I'm wrong, but the way that I read your discussion about LBJ and Vietnam is that President Johnson was selfish and that he was only thinking of himself. That's the way I read that.

RUMSFELD: Well, there was a remark he made that, I have a big stake in this, ignoring the fact that the country had a big stake and that the men and women serving in uniform had a big stake. I don't think that's necessarily a perfect characterization of him.

I'll give you the other side of Lyndon Johnson. When Charles de Gaulle threw NATO out of France and asked the United States to get its military forces out of France back in -- I think 1967, Lyndon Johnson was president. And Dean Rusk had the responsibility of figuring out how you did that. You get everyone out and move them and all of that. And he went to President Johnson and he said, Mr. President, I'm leaving to go meet with Charles de Gaulle to make the final arrangements on our removal from France.

And he got to the Oval Office door and Lyndon Johnson said to him, Dean, you ask that SOB if he wants us to bring the graves home from Normandy. Now, you've got to like a president who does that. He knew the sacrifice that Americans had made to free France in World War II. And he clearly understood how selfish the act was on the part of de Gaulle to throw NATO out of France. And he insisted that his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, do that.

VAN SUSTEREN: In your book, when you were a congressman, you said your most important vote was the vote for the Civil Rights Act, as a Republican. And I think many people think...

RUMSFELD: As a congressman.

VAN SUSTEREN: No, no, as a congressman, but immunity, I think most people think that this was a Democratic push, that bill.

RUMSFELD: Oh, no, not at all. If you look at the data, there were a much higher percentage of Republicans that voted for the Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s than Democrats in both the House and the Senate. Lyndon Johnson, to his great credit, decided he wanted that legislation to pass. And he worked very closely with Everett Dirksen in the Senate and the leadership in the House of Representatives to get the legislation to pass. And it was a major victory and important for this country. We're a better country for having that legislation.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, now Nixon, which you worked for Nixon. And if I can find my notes where it says about Nixon that -- here's what you say. "I don't know to this day how to reconcile the man I knew with the tragedies that he inflicted on himself and the nation." You liked Nixon.

RUMSFELD: I did. He was an impressive man. He was thoughtful. He was strategic. He cared about the country. He was not socially easy or graceful or easy with people. But the contributions he made were significant to the country. The people he brought into the government were impressive people who had an effect on public policy in this country for the next 30, 40 years. He brought in, you know, Alan Greenspan and Dick Cheney.

VAN SUSTEREN: Who taught -- who taught your daughter how to parallel park.

RUMSFELD: He did, indeed. Yes. I think it's probably better for a parent to let a friend do that.

(LAUGHTER)

VAN SUSTEREN: In fact, he's -- he's -- is he one of your best friends, Cheney?

RUMSFELD: Sure. Sure. We've been friends since 1969.

VAN SUSTEREN: Even though you wouldn't hire him as an intern.

RUMSFELD: Oh, that's not true!

VAN SUSTEREN: That's what he says! He says...

RUMSFELD: I know that's what he says, but he's teasing. He came in and interviewed for an intern spot in my office in 1969. He was an academic, and I was looking for a lawyer.

VAN SUSTEREN: So you didn't hire him!

RUMSFELD: I didn't hire him. I hired a lawyer. Three months later, I hired him when I went into Nixon's cabinet and ran the office of economic opportunity.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, he says you wouldn't hire him. That's what he says.

(LAUGHTER)

VAN SUSTEREN: Gerald Ford -- you loved him.

RUMSFELD: I did. I served in Congress with him and we were friends. He was -- you know, I've worked for a number of presidents. But he's the only one that I had a very strong relationship beforehand. So he was a friend, as well as the president of the United States.

He came into the White House in 1974 under just terrible circumstances. He'd never run for president. He'd never run for vice president. No one ever had served as president who'd never run for those two jobs. He didn't have a campaign team. He didn't have a platform. He inherited an economy that was just terrible in the 1970s. The Vietnam war was coming to a terrible conclusion. The relationship between the Congress and the executive branch was just terrible, and the White House was considered an illegitimate institution. And the reservoir of trust had been drained in our country.

And he did -- just because he was such a fine human being, he restored confidence in government and did a wonderful job. And the country was very fortunate that a man of that nature, that caliber, that basic human decency was serving then.

VAN SUSTEREN: We're going to take a quick break, Mr. Secretary, if you'll just stick around because we have lots more questions. Especially, I want to ask you about President Bush 43, as well.

RUMSFELD: Good.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: We're back with former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Secretary, explain this to me. George Tenet, who was CIA director during the time that you were secretary of defense -- and he was appointed originally by President Clinton. And under his watch, we had the most incredible security problems. We had the bombings of the embassies in East Africa. We had the USS Cole. We had 9/11. I mean, it's just one security breach, intelligence problem -- we had weapons of mass destruction, where he said to the president that slam dunk that -- that -- that Saddam had them.

How did he manage to stay as director of the CIA with all those security breaches under his watch?

RUMSFELD: Because he's selected by the President of the United States.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, no, I understand that, technically. But there were so many -- when we talk about all these terrorist attacks that did hit us -- I mean, I guess I think, Well, maybe -- maybe there were so many more that I don't know about (INAUDIBLE) balance. But I never could figure out, with all those things under his watch, through two administrations, how he managed to survive.

RUMSFELD: Well, first of all, I had a very close relationship with him. The Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency have to be connected at the hip. The intelligence you rely on in the Department of Defense comes from this broad intelligence community. And he was enormously cooperative. And the relationship we had is what enabled us to do what we did in Afghanistan, to get in and deal with the Northern Alliance and the southern Afghan warlords and achieve that change in regime from the Taliban and the al Qaeda out to the Karzai regime in a matter of weeks.

VAN SUSTEREN: But that thing, in theory, wouldn't even have happened had we -- if 9/11 hadn't happened, you know? If -- and bin Laden wasn't necessarily. ... I mean, I'm just sort of -- or even, you know, the USS Cole, all the talk about taking the terrorism -- that we -- that we would take the war to them. But those things in a perfect world would never have happened.

RUMSFELD: Well, we don't live in a perfect world. And as I talk about in the book, the task of intelligence gathering today is enormously difficult. We've gone through long periods where we've drawn down our intelligence funding and our human assets. We've gone from a period when we focused on the Soviet Union intensively over decades to a point where we have not just rogue states that are closed and very difficult to gain information from, but we have networks, terrorist networks that don't have nations, that don't have parliaments.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, are you saying the job is just that hard?

RUMSFELD: The task of intelligence gathering is enormously difficult. And we have a lot of fine people working on it. And it is -- the implication that we ought to be able, as a country, to know the capabilities of all of the dangerous countries in the world, to know the intent of all the dangerous countries, the leaders of the dangerous countries in the world, not just the countries but the terrorist networks, that is an enormous task.

And we live in a dangerous world. We just have to face that. And the weapons are increasingly lethal every year. And the damage that can be done to free people by people who are willing to attack innocents is enormous. And it's growing each year.

So I look at that task and I say to myself, Is it -- is it possible to have perfection in there? Ought we not to realize that if people can attack any place at any time and you can't defend every place at every moment, we're bound to have to suffer blows. The fact that we have not had a terrorist attack in the United States for almost a decade is...

VAN SUSTEREN: Is huge.

RUMSFELD: Is huge!

VAN SUSTEREN: No, no, I grant that. It is absolutely huge. And I don't take away from that. Although, the underwear bomber, we got real lucky with on. ... That one we got lucky on.

RUMSFELD: We've been lucky on others.

VAN SUSTEREN: Anyway, I want to ask you, where do the proceeds of the book go, because I think that's important, your proceeds?

RUMSFELD: All the proceeds that I would gain from this book are going to go to the troops, to the wounded, to the fallen and their families. Anyone who works with them and has the privilege to work with those folks has to come away recognizing that each is a volunteer. Each one stuck up their hand and said, I want to help defend the country. They sacrifice greatly. Their families sacrifice, as well.

And the Rumsfeld Foundation gives money to a variety of charities that support the troops and their families and the children of those who've fallen. And that's where all the proceeds from this book will go.

VAN SUSTEREN: So it's a double. You get a good lesson in history -- actually triple -- good lesson in history, you learn about the secretary, he's married to his high school sweetheart, and you help the troops. Mr. Secretary, thank you. Nice to see you, sir.

RUMSFELD: Thank you, Greta. Appreciate it.