OTR Interviews

Rumsfeld blasts 'mindless' sequestration as 'fundamentally wrong' and a 'monumental mistake'

Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld goes 'On the Record'


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," August 2, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Right now, former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld comes out swinging at Congress. He says Congress is failing to do its job. What does he -- why does he say that? We spoke with Secretary Rumsfeld earlier today.


VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. Secretary, nice to see you, sir.

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VAN SUSTEREN: All right, big fight over sequestration. What do you think?

RUMSFELD: I think it's mindless. The idea of sequestering that amount of many hundreds of billions of dollars is fundamentally wrong. It's poor government. And if it does fall the way it looks like it could and it hits the Department of Defense, it would be a monumental mistake.

VAN SUSTEREN: You say monumental mistake, bad government. It was agreed to by both parties a year ago. Were they sort of relinquishing their obligation to the people, being lazy? Or how do you describe it? Because everyone knew this day would come.

RUMSFELD: Sure. And it hasn't come, though. It's close, but it isn't there yet. And what they did was kick the can down the road, and they didn't kick it very well or very far and haven't performed their responsibilities in the Congress of the United States to pass responsible budgets that are thoughtful and intended (ph). This is a stopgap excuse for a failure to do their jobs.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, how does it differ -- you used to be in Congress. Has Congress changed, or is this sort of -- you know, Congress and the president just sort of like to kick the things down the road a little bit?

RUMSFELD: Well, there's a pattern in the country. If you can't solve a problem, create a commission. Or if you can't solve a problem, kick the can down the road. And that's not good.

I think government and politics have changed. They've change partly because of television. I mean, it -- you know, back in the early days, they didn't have television. Partly because of gerrymandering in the House of Representatives, where today, a Republican -- the seats are so solid in general for Republicans or Democrats that a Republican doesn't have to worry about a Democrat competing. They have to worry more about someone from the right. A Democrat doesn't have to worry about a Republican -- a Democrat competing, they have to worry about someone way from the left.

So the pressure is to polarize things. And television has that effect, and money. I mean, if you're -- if you have to raise that amount of money to stay in office, then what people do is they devote a large amount of time to raising money. And the way you raise money is to be on television and to be seen and to be noticed.

And to do that, generally, you have to say something that's dramatic. You know the rule. If it bleeds, it leads. So you have to say something that gets -- grabs attention. And so you find people behaving in a way that's designed to grab attention so they can raise money, so they perpetuate themselves in office.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, if sequestration is ultimately resolved, if there's a deal that's met, is there still a harm in this long delay that's been going on for essentially a year? Does that uncertainty have a cost on our -- on our ability to plan for our military?

RUMSFELD: Yes, it does. For one thing, we've made this mistake before. After every major conflict -- World War II, Vietnam, Korea, you name it, the end of the cold war -- we've pared back dramatically. And it's easy to do. You can pare back in a month or six months.

To build back takes years. It takes investment. It takes time. It takes training people. And the thing that worries me the most about today is the projection of America as a country that's weak and that is behaving in a way that is not going to be good for our future.

You cannot have that kind of debt and those kinds of deficits and not send a signal to the world that we're behaving a lot like Europe, and that model is not a model that works.

And you can't be cutting a half a trillion dollars out of the defense budget and then have sequestration come along with the possibility of another half a trillion dollars and not recognize that you're telling the world America is pulling back, that America's not going to be a contributor for peace and stability in the world.

And the question is, Well, who is? What country is going to step in? Because vacuums get filled.

VAN SUSTEREN: Which brings me to the issue of Iran, and Israel and the United States insist, and many people in the world, is that Iran is marching towards nuclear weapons. Secretary Panetta was just in Israel. Governor Romney was just in Israel. Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, says that the sanctions have had an effect on the economy in Iran, but not on their desire or progress towards a nuclear weapon.

Where -- where do you think this Iran issue is headed?

RUMSFELD: Well, I think the prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu, is probably correct. Their intelligence on Iran is excellent. Sanctions tend not to work very well over a long period of time, and they do have the effect, tending to damage and hurt the people, as opposed to the governments. The people and the government tend to be able to manage their affairs and go on.

The sanctions in -- for example, in Iraq didn't -- didn't -- hurt the Iraqi people, but didn't bother Saddam Hussein. He kept building palaces and importing weapons and doing what he wanted to.

VAN SUSTEREN: We keep hearing that all options are on the table. But I have no sense in terms of time. Do you have any -- you know...

RUMSFELD: I don't -- I have no sense of the timing. I can say this. I think any prime minister of Israel who gets up every morning and reads in the newspaper that the leadership of Iran says that the Israeli state should be annihilated, eradicated, incinerated, has to know that it's that prime minister's responsibility to see that that doesn't happen.

VAN SUSTEREN: So what should -- or what do you recommend -- or what do you think should be the U.S. response to that? If -- you know, will -- if Israel goes alone and we support them, does that mean we say, essentially, you know, We're with you? We're not going to vote against you, for instance, in the U.N.? Or do we help supply military support? What do you think?

RUMSFELD: Well, I guess it depends on who's in the White House.

VAN SUSTEREN: If you were in the White House.

RUMSFELD: We historically have looked at Israel as a very important relationship. We have been cooperative, and we have assisted them with various types of technology and weaponry.

If I were in the Israeli government, I don't think I would notify the United States government of any intent to do anything about Israel -- about Iran, I should say. I think that their relationship with the United States is such that it conceivably could leak out of the United States government that he called and that he plans to do something on Iran.

So my guess is, given the pattern of leaks out of the White House, that any prime minister of Israel would not call the United States and give clear intentions as to what they plan to do.

VAN SUSTEREN: There was an article in The New York Times about six months ago -- and I don't know where it came from. It was, you know, one of those Washington stories -- which said that Israel probably couldn't go alone, that it didn't have the ability to fly all the way to Iran and destroy the bunker or the nuclear weapons area because it's under 30 feet of concrete, and then make it back, that they need our help.

Do you think Israel has the capability of going alone?

RUMSFELD: First of all, I don't think that Israel has to destroy all of Iran's nuclear capability. I think what you're talking about is correct, that undoubtedly, Iran is a sophisticated country. They must have multiple sites. They must have deeply buried sites.

And I'm sure the Israelis know precisely, which I don't, what they currently have. And all the Israelis need to do is delay them. They don't need to -- you don't need to do something like that 100 percent, like they were able to do in Iraq when they had the bombing raid and took out the Iraqi nuclear facility, or in Syria, where they took out the Syrian nuclear facility.

They did it pretty much 100 percent each case. I don't think that -- I think a delay is -- works to Israel's advantage. I have no idea what Israel's going to do.

VAN SUSTEREN: No, I understand. Well, I guess, then -- I guess that, then, leads me to the question of how devastating the leak was that we were -- that we were involved in partnership with Israel with the cyber -- the cyber-worm in an effort to make -- to debilitate the nuclear weapons program in Iran.

RUMSFELD: Every leak out of the White House is a signal to other countries, Be very careful about cooperating with the United States of America because if you do, you very likely will end up running the risk at least of compromising your country's relationship with the United States. You're compromising intelligence information that you need to defend your people. And as a foreign country, or foreign agents, you run the risk of compromising foreign agents.

Every country and every potential person we try to recruit to assist us looks at these leaks and says to themselves, That's not a reliable partner.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are these leaks any different? Washington's always been full of leaks. Are the leaks that have come out recently out of this White House or this administration -- I don't know where they originate -- there's an investigation going on. Are these leaks of any different quality or more serious or less serious or is it Washington as usual?

RUMSFELD: No, it's more serious. These leaks have been early and specific and damaging to our relationships.

VAN SUSTEREN: Syria -- if you were secretary of defense or president or - - what should we be doing about Syria?

RUMSFELD: I think that we would need to be looking very carefully at who the rebels are, where they fit across the spectrum, from people who might be better than the current regime to people who might be as bad or worse than the current regime.

And I personally believe we should be providing covert assistance to the people in that mix of rebels who we believe would provide a better leadership.

Syria and Iran are linked at the hip. They are terribly damaging to our country. They support Hamas. They support Hezbollah. They support other terrorist organizations. They are harmful to us in Iraq. They are harmful to us in Afghanistan. And they are harmful in the region.

And to change that regime is vastly more important than what went on in Libya because of the damage that Syria and Iran together pose to the United States of America.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it that easy to single out which rebel group does what? Because I know -- I was recently in Israel, and they are very concerned that should the regime fall, that Hezbollah will get hold of the chemical and biological weapons, that a rebel group with great sympathy to Hezbollah (INAUDIBLE) get it. I mean, is it that -- that easy to do, to identify which rebels you want to help and which not?

RUMSFELD: No. You can identify who's better to help. It's not -- we're not talking about perfection against something terrible. We're talking about gradations. And it is possible to identify people that would be preferable to others.

On the other hand, it is impossible to determine how it'll come out because you don't know what the dynamic will be. And leadership is important. Support is important, assistance, intelligence, weapons and the like.

I think that we should be providing that kind of covert assistance. And I think we should be trying to figure out who they are. But I think you have to be realistic.

What -- the people that are the best organized, the most disciplined, are also probably the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood and the people who are the toughest and the most brutal.

And they can be a relatively small minority in the spectrum of people opposing the Assad regime. You can have a majority of those people opposing the Assad regime be people are not Islamist. But they could still lose, so you can't tell how that's going to come out.


VAN SUSTEREN: And after our interview, Secretary Rumsfeld took us on a tour of his office. But it's not just any office. It looks more like a museum of United States history, with a few personal touches thrown in.


RUMSFELD: That was a cabinet chair from the Gerald R. Ford administration and this is a cabinet chair from the George W. Bush administration. And they put your jobs on the back. They put a little brass plate there, and it -- that kind of makes me look like I couldn't hold a job, but...


VAN SUSTEREN: Well, you got a lot of them. This one doesn't look like it's been sat in very much.

RUMSFELD: Well, I was traveling a lot.

VAN SUSTEREN: (INAUDIBLE) new. You were traveling a lot.

RUMSFELD: This is a piece of the Oval Office floor. I did not lift it out of the Oval Office. It was sent to me by the president when they apparently redid the floor.

Here's your friend Henry Kissinger. We were in Beijing back in 1974, after a meeting in Vladivostok, and there's George Herbert Walker Bush and Henry Kissinger with me with Phil Habib and Deng Xiaoping and some of those folks.

I was chairman of Tuskeegee Institute's 100th anniversary, which was - - they gave me this Booker T. Washington picture.

That's a piece of the plane that hit the Pentagon that I picked up out there that morning and brought with me into the office. And once they heard I had it in the office, it turned out it was the property of American Airlines and we had to get their permission to keep it, which they finally gave us.

VAN SUSTEREN: The day of the crash, you were in the building. Did you feel it shake or...

RUMSFELD: Oh, sure.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... (INAUDIBLE) big building. Actually feel it shake?

RUMSFELD: You could. And we'd seen two planes go into the World Trade Center, so when it hit the Pentagon, it was clear that we'd been attacked. And the only question, What was it? Was it a truck bomb? Was it an airplane?

And went out and down and around to see what it was and picked this up and brought it back.

These are pictures of the presidents. When they get together, they agree to sign so many copies for each other. And President Ford sent me these.

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh, lookit, there's Richard Nixon. He didn't sign it.

RUMSFELD: He did. He used...

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh, it's faded?

RUMSFELD: ... ink that's faded.

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh, his is faded.

RUMSFELD: And same thing here with Herbert Walker Bush.

VAN SUSTEREN: Oh, look at this one!

RUMSFELD: Isn't that a nice composition? That's a Kennerly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer from Vietnam.

Here's our place in New Mexico. That's where we live, and that's our donkey, Mo. We don't use fancy names in our family. There's an Iraqi ballot signed by Allawi. There's an Afghan ballot signed by Karzai.

Here's a missile, an interceptor, a photograph. A bullet hits a bullet. It can be done.

Picture of a pen that was used to sign one of the Civil Rights bills back in the 1960s. And this is a pen that was used to sign a defense appropriation bill in 1976.

VAN SUSTEREN: This is your office?

RUMSFELD: It is. There are my dachshunds.

VAN SUSTEREN: And their names, are they as simple as Mo?

RUMSFELD: Chester's on the left and Wrigley, named for Wrigley Field, is on the right, because hope springs eternal. We're still hoping that maybe the Cubs might win a game or two sometime.

VAN SUSTEREN: Don't hold your breath. And this is your desk? You don't -- you don't sit at -- you have a standing desk.

RUMSFELD: I stand up there and work there. I have since the 1960s. And I'm now discovering that people are writing things about that that's supposed to be good for you, to stand up.

VAN SUSTEREN: Tell me about the fellows.

RUMSFELD: The central Asian fellows?

VAN SUSTEREN: Central Asian fellows.

RUMSFELD: Well, you met them and they were delighted to meet you and to visit the studio. We now have had 62. We bring them over for a period of weeks, a group of 10 twice a year, and set them up with people like you or Nino Scalia or Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate, or The Washington Post Donny (ph) Graham and various people to meet and get an understanding of the United States.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I gave them all "On the Record" hats.

RUMSFELD: You did.

VAN SUSTEREN: And they all walked out of there to return to their countries wearing -- I don't know how long they continued to wear the hats, but I thought they looked good in them.