OTR Interviews

Rumsfeld: White House made 'arguments of convenience' in Benghazi

Former defense secretary says Obama administration has failed to give 'any real explanation' for confusion in US consulate attack


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," October 25, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: First tonight, former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld talks Libya. He is critical of the White House and the State Department. He says they failed to do their jobs. And that is not the only thing Secretary Rumsfeld says the administration botched.


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


VAN SUSTEREN: Your overall thoughts about what has unfolded in Benghazi is what?

RUMSFELD: Well, first, it's a tragedy. It's unfortunate that we lost four Americans, including the ambassador. It is, I think, a serious problem that they requested additional security, from everything I've read in the press and have heard, and they weren't provided the kind of security that could have protected their lives.

The second part of the problem, it seems to me, is that after that happened, the White House particularly but also the State Department proceeded to try to describe what took place as not related to the anniversary of September 11, which it undoubtedly was, that -- and -- and attributed it to a video, YouTube video that really very few, if anybody, had seen.

And in fact, they had -- within a relatively short period of time, from everything I've read, they had information that it was an attack by an al Qaeda affiliate and that it was a terrorist act. And the fact that they apparently did not want it to be a terrorist attack but some sort of spontaneous demonstration led them to contend that that was the case, I think further confused and complicated it in an unfortunate way.

VAN SUSTEREN: How -- how can you tell or how do we know or how do we discern whether or not it was sort of incompetence that led them this videotape route or whether it was sort of a deliberate reason or sort of downplay that this was terrorism on 9/11?

RUMSFELD: Well, you can't. You'll have to see -- let the investigation play out over a period of time and know with certainty what took place.

But it clearly -- the killing of those four individuals and the fact that proper security wasn't provided and the narrative that came out of their mouths did not -- it fit exactly what their political narrative was. And it turns out it didn't fit what the facts were.

Now, why in the world would they send the U.N. ambassador out? And those decisions are made in the White House as to who goes out on the Sunday shows. Why would they send the ambassador to the United Nations out to go on three or four of these talk shows saying what she said, which was flat not correct. It was inaccurate and it misled the American people in an unfortunate way.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, the -- what I've been critical of the president for is that to the extent any of us are suspicious or suggest that things are done for political reasons or incompetence or whatever you think is that, is because there is this remaining mystery and he has not spoken to the nation. You know, he's the only one who could sort of clean this up.

Do you agree with me or not that he should at least sit down and explain what happened?

RUMSFELD: Well, I expect that, eventually, he'll have to. I think the record is increasingly clear because of the investigations that are taking place in the executive and legislative branches, and at some point, someone is going to have to stand up and say, Here's what the timeline was, here's what the facts were.

And it will be clear that it did not fit his behavior. It doesn't fit what he said at the United Nations. It doesn't fit him going on talk shows, comedian shows in New York. It doesn't fit him going to Las Vegas immediately after learning that these people were killed. It was unpresidential, I think.

And it's interesting that Governor Romney in the debate did not go after him on these things. I must say, I suppose if the undecided voters looking at that debate would come way feeling that President Romney was presidential and didn't go on the attack on this.

But eventually, it'll all come out, and it should, because you know, you have an administration that does not want to seem to even admit that there are such things as Islamists, radical Islamists who are determined to kill innocent men, women and children. They don't want to use those words.

They -- and -- and in the debate, that point came out, that this effort against terrorists is really not going to be one with bullets. It's an ideological task that's going to take time, more like the cold war than a hot war. And it requires people being willing to describe precisely what the enemy is and what the threat against the country is. And this administration has no strategy to deal with that, partly because they're unwilling to even identify the threat.

VAN SUSTEREN: With 20/20 hindsight, it seems absolutely appalling that we didn't have more security there.

RUMSFELD: It does.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I'm curious what your thinking or why you think we -- when those requests were made or when the messages were communicated to Washington, to the State Department, why they weren't acted on. And this is not exactly -- this is not Dublin, this is Benghazi.

RUMSFELD: No. Yes. Well, we all know that it's a dangerous place. We knew, in fact, that September 11 was a date that conceivably would be used by terrorists. We also knew that there were a lot of weapons floating around that country from the civil war that took place.

And you know, it undoubtedly -- first of all, it's very hard to be right every time. Everyone knows that. So I -- you give the people in government kind of a little slack. You're not going to be right every time.

It isn't money that prevented them from having proper security. That I'm sure. I suppose it -- that for whatever reason, the requests that came in from the embassy and the analysis that took place simply didn't have the degree of urgency that obviously, in retrospect, we can see was needed.

And the -- I don't attribute it to bad motives. I don't attribute it to conspiracy or some political thing. I think it -- generally, when the government misses something, it's in -- it's a lack of competence and the responsibility -- we know the ambassador fulfilled his responsibility because he made the requests. The State Department obviously didn't and the White House obviously didn't fulfill their responsibility.

VAN SUSTEREN: But when -- but when the IED went off and blew a big hole in the gate in June -- and if you have Britain pulling out, you know, I mean, how -- I mean, there are some really good signs there that there's something wrong. I mean, that would certainly alarm me if I was seeing this, that this place needed a little extra security. And if the ambassador -- of course, that was later asked for it, it really -- even with 20/20 hindsight, you know, realizing that that's advantageous. It's hard to see why they didn't do it at the time.

RUMSFELD: I agree. There were -- there were clearly threats. There were clearly other embassies that saw the threats and moved out. And they were on notice and they didn't respond with the kind of security, which is terribly unfortunate.

What is even worse from the standpoint of the American people -- not worse, but of a kind -- is the way it's been discussed after the fact. It has been all of this bobbing and weaving and explanations that are arguments of convenience but not real explanations and that prove themselves wrong within a relatively short period of time.

We've seen a whole series of them from the State Department, from the White House spokesman, from the U.N. ambassador, from the president that now, when you look at them, just didn't bear up over time as being accurate.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, it's interesting, press secretary Jay Carney said I think it was yesterday that when Fox News jumped on the emails that came out a couple nights ago that said that during the time that this was going down that the State Department had information that the terrorist group had taken credit for it on social media -- his response yesterday was, Well, you all in the room -- meaning the media -- you could have all gotten access to this. You could have gone to social media, essentially, and gotten it. So he's -- they're -- they're so deflecting away from them. Any sort of responsibility to inform?

RUMSFELD: Yes. And I think the secretary of state said that something on Facebook is not evidence. Well, it's a fact. It may not be conclusive evidence, but it's a fact. And I find the whole thing most unfortunate. And of course, the worst part of it is that we lost some lives of people whose -- we -- who deserved better of us as a country and as a government.

VAN SUSTEREN: The secretary of defense, the president and vice president were in the Oval Office at some point as this was going down, this whole crisis in Benghazi. I'm curious, what would sort of -- what do you image sort of is the discussion that goes on at that time, when you know in real time that a consulate is under attack? What would you expect?

RUMSFELD: Well, several things. You -- the first response has to be the lives of the people involved. What do you do about that? If you forget the fact that you didn't have the proper security there in the first place and you begin with the fact that it's under attack and you have Americans there serving the country, what can you do about it?

And that process then is the responsibility of the people in the Department of State and the National Security Council and ultimately the Central Intelligence Agency, who may or may not have operatives in the area, and the Department of Defense, who has assets in -- some hundreds of miles away. And what can they do?

And they begin that process of figuring out what might be done. And apparently, there was an unmanned aerial vehicle overhead that was, in fact, observing what was taking place.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was there any sort of military action? Some are critical that during the 7 or 8-hour period, or however long it was, that there was -- that there was -- that our military -- I mean, I don't know what was behind the scenes, what was -- what was done or what was at least put in -- in -- in action. But do you have any criticism or even thought about the military response or lack thereof?

RUMSFELD: Well, we know that destroyers were moved towards the Libyan coast. We know that the Sigonella base in the island off Italy has capabilities there, U.S. capabilities. And until I knew more about what the facts were, what assets were within reach and what requests were made, I wouldn't really be in a position to be critical or complimentary. I just don't know.

VAN SUSTEREN: Former secretary of state Colin Powell today has endorsed President Obama again. He did four years ago. Any thought on him endorsing President Obama for another four years?

RUMSFELD: No. No surprise. He endorsed him for years ago. I would expect -- he obviously timed it to try to be helpful, particularly helpful since the momentum clearly is moving in the other direction, away from President Obama. And I suspect that he and the White House timed it to try to be helpful to the president. But it's no surprise. He supported him last time and...

VAN SUSTEREN: And do you support -- have you made known who you support, or you staying out of this one?

RUMSFELD: No, no. I've indicated my support for President -- for Governor Romney and certainly hopeful that he prevails in the election.

I think that the direction we're going in the country is unfortunate. I think an awful lot of people are disappointed in the last four years. And I think an awful lot of the undecided people are looking at this and looking for some separation between them, what the demarcation, a contrast.

And in my opinion, that last debate provided that. I think that -- I don't know who won or lost these debates. I'm probably not the best judge anyway. But as I watched it, clearly, Governor Romney was presidential. He didn't attack and interrupt, and the president was less presidential, in my view, and did attack and interrupt frequently.

And I think the American people look at that and come away with a sense that one of them is the kind of a person they'd like to have lead and the direction we've been going is disappointing.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you think would be the biggest difference from a former secretary of defense perspective between the two administrations in another four years?

RUMSFELD: Well, I think that -- that Governor Romney's comments suggest that he recognizes that it's the United States of America's capabilities -- I say that meaning both our economic strength and what that suggests to other countries, that we will be a factor going forward, and our military strength that we will be a factor going forward, which if you look at the last four years, clearly, President Obama has a different view.

The Defense Department is going to be reduced in size and cut. President Romney is -- I mean, Governor Romney as president said he would be concerned about the size of our Navy. And the president was dismissive and rude almost by saying, Well, we have fewer ships, but we also have fewer horses. This from a man who never served in the military.

And I think people listen to that and would recognize that we need ships. We need a strong Navy, a healthy Navy. Why? Well, because we have economic intercourse across the globe. We see the problems of piracy, of drug trafficking, of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and all of which depends on freedom of the seas. And to be dismissive about the size of the Navy and say, Well, we have aircraft carriers, you know, we call them aircraft carriers and airplanes land on them was kind of almost kindergartenish. I was stunned by it. My father was on a carrier in World War II. I was a Navy pilot. And I sat there and listened to that and I thought, My goodness, what a -- what a response that was! It was so small and not large.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. Secretary, thank you, sir. Nice to see you.

RUMSFELD: Thank you.