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Colbert Uses Declassified Doc to Grill Rumsfeld: “It Is Big”

February 3, 2016
"It is big."

“It is big.”

“It is big.”

That’s how Donald Rumsfeld described the percentage of “unknowns” about Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program to Air Force General Richard Myers in a Secret September 9, 2002, memo.

The declassified memo – and accompanying eight-page Joint Chiefs of Staff report – makes clear that the Intelligence Community’s (IC) “knowledge of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program is based largely – perhaps 90% – on analysis of imprecise intelligence.” The report further spells out that the IC didn’t know the status of Iraq’s enrichment capabilities for its nuclear weapons program, that the knowledge of how and where Iraq was producing its biological weapons was “probably up to 90% incomplete”, and that the JCS seriously doubted that Iraq had the processes in place to build long range ballistic missiles – a clear refutation of arguments made by advocates for invading Iraq that Hussein was building long range missiles capable of hitting Israel.

Colbert cites declassified document in Rumsfeld interview.

Colbert cites declassified document in Rumsfeld interview, which you can watch here.

The 2002 document – initially released to Rumsfeld in 2011 pursuant to a provision of the President’s Executive Order on Classification (which also allowed Rumsfeld to cut the line in front of FOIA requesters, including the  National Security Archive, that had requested the same documents years earlier) and later released to Politico under the FOIA –  was the star of Stephen Colbert’s recent Rumsfeld interview.1 Colbert, using the document and playing on Rumsfeld’s favorite turn of phrase, “known unknowns”, argues that the American public should have been made aware of the unknown-knowns, “the things that we know, and then we choose not to know them, or not let other people know we know.” In other words, that the public should not have been presented an air-tight case for invading Iraq when, as the JCS memo explicitly states, “Our assessments rely heavily on analytic assumptions and judgement rather than hard evidence.”

You know what they say about making assumptions.

You know what they say about making assumptions.

The 2002 JCS document supports previous National Security Archive analysis of the Iraq War; namely that the Bush administration’s “knee-jerk reaction to the September 11 attacks—encouraged by Rumsfeld himself—was simply to initiate preparations for war with a state that had had nothing to do with the Al Qaeda attack.” Or, for that matter, a state for which there was no clear evidence was developing WMD.

U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary for Policy Notes from Stephen Cambone [Rumsfeld’s Comments], September 11, 2001.

U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary for Policy Notes from Stephen Cambone [Rumsfeld’s Comments], September 11, 2001.

In part one of a three-part series on the Iraq War published by the Archive in 2010, declassified notes by Rumsfeld’s assistant Stephen Cambone make the link from the Al Qaeda attacks to war against Iraq. Cambone’s September 11, 2001, notes, which were obtained by a FOIA request, show that a few hours after the “attacks Rumsfeld spoke of attacking Iraq as well as Osama bin Laden and directed Defense Department lawyer Jim Hayes to get ‘support’ for a supposed link between Iraq and Osama bin Laden from Paul Wolfowitz.” Other documents in the posting highlight the Pentagon’s interest in the perception of an Iraq invasion as a “just war” and State Department insights into the improbability of that outcome, and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s awareness, three days into a new administration, that Iraq “regime change” would be a principal focus of the Bush presidency.

Despite its significance, the 2002 JCS document was not shared with either Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was so angered about the lack of concrete intelligence on Iraq’s WMD programs that he called the intelligence underpinning his February 5, 2003, speech to the UN calling for military action against Iraq “bullshit“, or other key officials at the CIA. A senior member of the Joint Staff who was copied on the memo also said the president’s office was “the last place they would have sent it.” Yet Rumsfeld insists to Colbert that “It was all shared, it was all supplied. And it’s never certain. If it were a fact, it wouldn’t be called intelligence.”

To read more in-depth coverage and declassified documentary evidence on the Iraq War, visit the National Security Archive’s website. Seminal Archive postings on the lead-up to the Iraq War include: PR Push for Iraq War Preceded Intelligence Findings; The Iraq War – Part I:  The U.S. Prepares for Conflict, 2001; The Iraq War – Part II: Was There Even a Decision?; The Iraq War – Part III: Shaping the Debate; and The Iraq War Ten Years After.

The full Colbert-Rumsfeld interview is available here:


1. During the interview Rumsfeld makes a point of telling Colbert that not only did he know of this document’s existence, but he had in fact posted it on his website years earlier. This may be, but I for one was unable to find it on his website after a thorough search. If any readers do locate it, let us know and I’ll update the posting.

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