In my non-Tomdispatch life as a book editor, I used to have a modest dream. Every season, editors like me send the galleys of books they’re publishing off, en masse, to likely blurbees, who will, if all goes well, reach for their thesauruses, gather their adjectives into serried ranks, and say the best things possible about the book at hand, soon to be born into such a tumultuously noisy world. That blurb, when it comes in, had better include (your choice): “illuminating… much-needed… superb… a must-read… riveting… a bracing antidote to… informative and compelling… analytically rigorous, historically sensitive, and enormously helpful… a stimulating and revelatory work” — and that’s just from the blurbs on the back of a single book that happens to be sitting by my computer.
But imagine, as I used to, sending the same galleys out to people guaranteed to hate the book. How “bracing” and “illuminating” — and what a selling point — it might be to pepper a back cover with the opposite of the norm: “Frankly, I was offended by it… peddling lies… absurd… absolutely irresponsible… one more sign of moral degradation… amount[s] to pro-al-Qaeda propaganda.” Oh, sorry, that’s not just a dream, there’s a lucky publication in our world that’s already gotten those comments — and from a stellar cast of anti-blurbees! I’m speaking, of course, about Amnesty International’s recently published annual report, which took out after U.S. global detention practices — and the accompanying comments of Amnesty’s General Secretary Irene Khan (who labeled our prison in Guantnamo, “the gulag of our times”) as well as those of Amnesty USA’s Executive Director William Schulz, who called for other countries to investigate and indict our leaders.
Amnesty has in recent days been the object of a full-scale, administration-wide verbal assault. The blurbs above, all gathered by the intrepid Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, come from: Dick Cheney (the first two); Condoleezza Rice (but she wasn’t alone: At a news conference, “the president used the word ‘absurd’ four times in the course of a 10-sentence response when asked his reaction to a highly critical report by Amnesty International…”); Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Richard Myers (who also referred to Guantnamo as a “model facility”); and for the final two gems of antipathy, the Wall Street Journal (“which often reflects the views of influential hardline policymakers such as Cheney”).
The President and Vice President, in fact, stopped hardly short of declaring Amnesty a terrorist organization. But then that’s their verbal style, which can be summed up as: Reality, to hell with it! Or: You can have reality, we’ve got the jails!
From Amnesty’s point of view, who could ask for better publicity? From the point of view of the rest of the world, these blurbs are like gold, confirming the accuracy of the Amnesty report. (After all, people only scream when it hurts.)
Of course, even in such moments of fabulous (as in some grim fable) departures from the world as it is, one often finds a glimmer of truth — the odd verbal stumble or Freudian slip sometimes telling us more than whole interviews. The President, for instance, offered this little gem in his attack on the Amnesty report at his recent news conference:
“In terms of the detainees, we’ve had thousands of people detained. We’ve investigated every single complaint against the detainees. It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of — and the allegations — by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble — that means not tell the truth. And so it was an absurd report. It just is.”
Ah, those detainees trained to “disassemble” who knows what in some verbal chop shop back in Afghanistan. And ah, our President, “disassembling” his own speech that way and then pausing, that glimmer of recognition flickering on his face, and offering a definition for the word he hadn’t quite been able to say, dissembling… “not tell the truth.” (Actually, my dictionary says: “To disguise the real nature of; hide with a specious appearance or semblance.”) A reader recently wrote in to suggest that the President’s stumbles of this sort seemed to be signals for his lies — a little like Pinocchio’s lengthening nose.
I assume, by the way, that the FBI agents at Guantnamo who emailed home to their superiors scenes they had personally viewed of the nightmarish treatment of prisoners had, by then, been thoroughly brainwashed by those well-drilled, cleverly disassembling “detainees” (who only looked helpless and tortured). How could the President not be right when the detainees told such obviously “absurd” stories of mistreatment? How about that yarn in which women interrogators smeared menstrual blood on them? Absolutely irresponsible! Oh wait, it turns out to have been true…
But perhaps the letting-the-truth-slip-out award of the week should go to Vice President Cheney for his CNN interview with Larry King:
CHENEY: …For Amnesty International to suggest that somehow the United States is a violator of human rights, I frankly just don’t take them seriously.
KING: They specifically said, though, it was Guantnamo. They compared it to a gulag.
D. CHENEY: Not true. Guantnamo’s been operated, I think, in a very sane and sound fashion by the U.S. military. Remember who’s down there. These are people that were picked up off the battlefield in Afghanistan and other places in the global war on terror. These are individuals who have been actively involved as the enemy, if you will, trying to kill Americans. That we need to have a place where we can keep them. In a sense, when you’re at war, you keep prisoners of war until the war is over with.
That use of “prisoners of war” was picked up by an eagle-eyed Tomdispatch reader who sent it my way. Now here’s the interesting thing: This administration has insisted that the prisoners in Guantnamo fall into a category of their own creation. On this they have been adamant: The detainees are “unlawful combatants,” not “prisoners of war.” Although most of them were captured during our war in Afghanistan, they don’t, according to the President and his followers, fall under the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, not being “prisoners of war.” But of course the — that word again — absurdity of this has long been self-evident, even, it seems, to the Vice President; and, by the way, to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, always leading the verbal way, who in an interview with Bill O’Reilly last December said of the organization Human Rights Watch: “That they’ve decided on their own that it is tantamount to quote, torture, and of course that’s a hot button word. It’s tantamount to torture to keep somebody without telling them what, how long they’re going to stay in jail. Well, every war, prisoners of war were kept in, without charges, without lawyers, until the war was over.”
It’s good to see that the Veep and the Secretary of Defense both now recognize, however inadvertently, that a prisoner of war by any other name is still a prisoner of war; brave slips of the tongue, when you think about it, since that recognition might open them up somewhere, sometime, to criminal charges.
There’s much to be said about the language of most of the top officials of this administration, including the President, but none have quite the flare for — dare I use the word and give the Bush administration its dream blurb? — the absurd of our Secretary of Defense. He gives several new twists to that old World War II warning phrase, “Loose lips sink ships.” For that reason, while crediting George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the gang for their inspired verbal high jinks, Tomdispatch, always eager to give credit where it’s most truly due, has established a periodic Rummy Watch run by Nick Turse and supported by a full-time team of interns whose lives are now devoted to nothing but monitoring the endless yak of Donald Rumsfeld, also known as the mouth that never sleeps. ~ Tom
Rummy Rules: Rummy Watch II
By Nick Turse
When we last left our hero, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, I sarcastically conjectured that poor Rummy had been “dropped from the loop” at the Pentagon. Reviewing situation after situation in which he pleaded ignorance — he hadn’t been able to view the Abu Ghraib photos until they were in the media, never received critical Pentagon reports, and missed major news stories about crucial defense issues that were already public property — I posited (tongue firmly in cheek) that underlings at the Department of Defense were apparently keeping materials from the SECDEF and so leaving him to twist in the wind at press events as well as in front of congressional panels.
Since then, I’ve kept on the case and have found our man in the Pentagon remarkably consistent in his inconsistency. Rummy has continued to evade tough questions, avoid straight answers, feign ignorance, claim not to have seen already public Pentagon reports, distort reality, denigrate the press, and rewrite history with little challenge from any corner. Like a mafia don or perhaps that other the Donald — who’s obsessed with a different type of empire — and as the ruler of the most powerful single sector of our government, Donald Rumsfeld creates his own realities and makes his own rules to suit his own tastes, whims, and dreams. Quite simply, he lives by Rummy Rules — a shifting, ill-defined coda based on double-talk and double-standards where fictions become facts and Rummy reigns supreme.
For example, at a March 10, 2005 joint press event with French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, Rumsfeld was asked about a high-profile review of Pentagon global detention operations and interrogation techniques authored by Vice Admiral Albert T. Church:
Q Mr. Secretary, the Church Report obviously is out… And your overall reaction to the report as you’ve seen it?
SEC. RUMSFELD: I have not read the report, and I think I’ll leave it there. And I have been quite busy this morning, and I wasn’t able to see any of the testimony. So I’m afraid I’ll just have to —
Q Mr. Secretary —
SEC. RUMSFELD: We’ll make this the last question.
Later that day, Rumsfeld appeared before the House Armed Services Committee where he was no less evasive with Republican Congressman and Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter of California, who got into it with the know-nothing SECDEF, even adopting Rummy’s trademark “folks,” as they argued about an undefined topic:
CONGRESSMAN HUNTER: Did you get the question?
SECRETARY RUMSFELD: I did get the question. My problem is that number one, it’s not something I’ve read, it’s not something I’ve been briefed on… I’m afraid I’ve responded as fully as I’m currently capable of doing. Thank you very much, folks.
CONGRESSMAN HUNTER: I appreciate it, folks.
Obviously, not even a feed-the-beast militarist like Hunter can avoid Rummy’s pique when the SECDEF’s rules are violated.
As the nation’s stand-up non-sequitur-in-chief, the Pentagon head has just finished a great month in the spotlight — from his attack on Amnesty International’s recent comment that the U.S. prison camp at Guantnamo Bay, Cuba “has become the gulag of our times” (“reprehensible” and “outlandish”) to his unbridled jingoism and curious definition of “liberation” (“[N]o force in the world has done more to liberate people that they have never met than the men and women of the United States military…”), he’s managed to exceed the wildest dreams of his detractors.
In fact, Rummy has rolled over them, verbally speaking, like an Abrams tank, but if there were one moment in the last two months when he exceeded by an Iraqi mile the high standards for the form that he himself created, it was his appearance on ABC News’ “This Week” with George Stephanopolous.
After a gracious greeting, Stephanopolous called attention to an ABC News poll that showed 53% of Americans felt the war in Iraq was not “worth fighting.” Only 28% felt the war had made the U.S. stronger in the world, he added, while 41% who believed it had weakened the country. Then he asked Rumsfeld, “What do you say to those Americans?” Essentially ignoring the question, Rumsfeld promptly replied, “Well, I haven’t seen the poll. I’ve seen polls that say very much the opposite of that.” He, of course, didn’t mention what polls those were — though it’s conceivable they were taken by the White House in an alternate universe. Stephanopolous next drew attention to a Washington Post story about sagging U.S. military manpower and quoted General Richard Cody, the vice-chairman of the Army, as saying that the sad state of affairs keeps him awake at night. “Does it keep you up at night, as well?” Stephanopolous asked the SECDEF.
“No. It doesn’t keep me up at night,” answered Rummy, who, in high style, launched into a confusing response in which he admitted that just a couple of years into what look to be exceedingly long occupations, the U.S. has already deployed 40% of its National Guard and Reserve forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — a fact that might indeed have left a lesser Pentagon-head sleepless — and he even managed to turn to some of those soldiers under his command into inanimate objects. (“…[W]e’ve only used in Iraq and Afghanistan something like 40% of the Guard and Reserve. It’s not like everything’s been used up.”)
Letting him off the hook, Stephanopolous then turned to a report in the Washington Post that the U.S. had again misled its allies, telling them that North Korea was selling nuclear materials to Libya, when, in fact, “according to U.S. intelligence… it was [U.S. ally in the war on terror] Pakistan that was buying the materials from North Korea and selling it to Libya.” Put on the spot, Rummy fell back on one of his classic defenses, claiming that he — in fact, the whole Pentagon — had been of the loop:
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: …The Post goes on to say, “Pakistan’s role as both the buyer and the seller was concealed to cover up the part played by Washington’s partner in the hunt for al Qaeda leaders.” Is that true?
SEC. RUMSFELD: I have no idea. I’ve never heard anything like that and it wouldn’t be the Department of Defense that would be involved anyway. It would be intelligence agencies.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But this is something you’d be aware of —
SEC. RUMSFELD: I’m not…
SEC. RUMSFELD: I know nothing about the front-page Washington Post article.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you know anything, then, about Pakistan buying weapons, buying nuclear materials from North Korea and selling it to Libya?
SEC. RUMSFELD: I do not personally — and the implication that the United States misled allies, I would — which is the essence of what –
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Post headline.
SEC. RUMSFELD: — yes, of what you’re saying, I’m not in a position to comment on because I just have no knowledge of it.
It would only get better as the interview continued.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: …When you were last on the program, you said that you weren’t aware of any U.S. military operations in Iran, ongoing military operations. Since then, it’s been reported that Iran has protested to the United States about U.S. overflights on their territory and that that protest was forwarded to the Pentagon. What was the Pentagon’s response?
SEC. RUMSFELD: I have no idea. I don’t know about the protest. I have seen — there are various —
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You don’t know about the protest?
SEC. RUMSFELD: No…
But a transcript can’t do justice to the deer-in-the-headlights style that the Don adopted in his bravura performance. He fell noticeably silent for long stretches (as the camera zoomed in on his face) and finally sputtered his part of the following exchange as if in slow-motion:
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Have you ever authorized any U.S. military overflights of Iran since you’ve been Defense Secretary?
SEC. RUMSFELD: Well, I don’t — I don’t think I have, but I don’t know. I’d have to check. And I don’t know that I’d answer it if I did find out that we had. But I don’t believe we have.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You don’t believe you have?
SEC. RUMSFELD: Yes, and I can’t recall any.
While the rules of Rummy-style (still being established) prohibited our Secretary of Defense from recalling specifics when it comes to significant news about an Axis-of-Evil power with nuclear ambitions, they evidently in no way prohibit him, as happened only days later, from unequivocally denying obscure allegations that the U.S. was to “begin monitoring Argentine airspace as a preventive measure to avoid [drug] trafficking and terrorist movement.” As adamant on this matter as he had, on Iran, been foggy, the SECDEF insisted that such talk was “inaccurate” because, “had there been anything like that, I would have heard something of it, and I’ve never heard of anything like that. So, you can disabuse yourself of that concern.”
Evil, nuclear Iran: “I don’t think I have, but I don’t know. I’d have to check.” Argentina: “I would have heard something of it.” Who can deny that, only now, after years in power, is the man truly hitting his stride.
The Donald even felt free to chastise the reporter who broached the subject in regard to Argentina. (“You don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper do you?”) Since then, Rumsfeld has launched his own Rummy-rules war on the media, lamenting to the New York Times about the free press in America and how it hampers propaganda efforts. (“It’s an awkward thing for our government because we have a free press here and you can’t say…you can’t speak to one audience without having it affect your own audience.”) At the same time, he made a special attempt to denigrate reporters in general. And just recently, right-wing radio host Laura Ingram asked him about the “mainstream media constantly fluffing up these stories about Koran mishandling” and whether he was “frustrated by the media coverage.” The SECDEF replied “There’s no question but that it’s harmful to the country and it’s harmful to the men and women in uniform and the job they’re trying to do.”
Under developing Rummy rules, America’s free press may just have to go — but the overseas one has clearly got to go first. Of late, Rummy has saved his strongest venom for Arab television outlets “like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah and some of the others,” announcing that spreading “lie[s] is what they do.” He then painted Al-Jazeera as nothing short of a terrorist TV network (“Terrorist acts on television. Now, how does Al-Jazeera get there? Obviously, they have advance notice.”)
In recent months, it should be noted that, while Rummy was sticking to already elaborated Rummy rules in most situations, he also took some daring steps to expand the Rummy repertoire — not just spouting off against the press, but launching a one-man media boycott of sorts. Already on strike at the Pentagon, when it came to basic information, he proactively and in measured stages stopped reading the press. Way back in February, the SECDEF already couldn’t be bothered to read published reports about North Korean declarations that the country possessed nuclear weapons. Then, in March, he told Stephanopolous that the Washington Post front page was on his do-not-read list. As it turned out, he was only warming up. Later that month, he placed the New York Times on the list as well. (“I didn’t read the article.”) And most recently, he made sure not to have read a word in Vanity Fair or anywhere else concerning the revelation that the FBI’s former number-two man, Mark Felt, was the Watergate informant known as “Deep Throat” (“…I have not followed what’s been — I’ve not read these articles.”)
In the distant month of January 2005, Rummy had admitted to reading Newsweek; but recently, in the midst of the magazine’s Koran-in-the-toilet flap (where the government deftly shifted the national discussion from U.S. abuses and their effects upon world opinion to an indictment of that magazine’s reportage), he invoked Rummy rules in a new way. He remarked threateningly in regard to the now-retracted article: “…[T]he only other thing I’d say about it is, people lost their lives. People are dead. And that’s unfortunate. And people need to be very careful about what they say…” As the architect of wars that have killed an estimated 100,000-plus people, he invoked Rummy rules to retain for himself alone the sacrosanct right to say whatever you want without a care in the world.
While attacking the press, Rummy lauded historians for their “perspective” — but mostly for not being reporters. He even took to offering his own historical assessments: “[M]y recollection is looking at four or five insurgencies in the last century… they ended up ending.” How astute. Rumsfeld has even taken to playing instant historian in summing up the Abu Ghraib torture scandal: “I think when some perspective is put on it you’ll see some people were not treated properly and people were punished for it…”
The SECDEF lives enveloped in a reality based solely on Rummy rules and he wants us all to have the pleasure of joining him. There’s just one caveat — we must suspend disbelief and live by the credo: “In Rummy We Trust.”
And trust we must or else none of it makes sense. Sometimes Rummy can’t read. Other times he seems to refuse to do so. He’s at war with the press and members of Congress who dare to question him. He seems to have taken up his boss’s attitudes toward the media with a passion. He’s happy — in fact, delighted — to alter history to suit his needs. He’s remarkably uninformed, except on Argentina, and astonishingly forgetful when it comes to alleged U.S. military actions against Axis-of-Evil hot-spots with grave global implications.
His statements often fly bravely in the face of reality, not to speak of credulity. For instance, while terrorist attacks around the world have spiked so high (from 175 in 2003 to 651 in 2004) that the Department of State was forced to stop issuing its “Patterns of Global Terrorism” statistical report (which it had published every year from 1980 onward), Rummy contends that the U.S. is “doing pretty well” in the global war on terror. But when questioned about Osama bin Laden — the man his boss declared was “Wanted, Dead or Alive” way back in September 2001 — Rummy explained the administration’s progress on that front this way, “I don’t think — When you’re hunting for someone and you haven’t found them, you haven’t found them.” Sage words from a wizened old pro.
Rummy’s double-talk; non-answers, and general evasiveness can leave you scratching your head. Is it total incompetence or gross malfeasance? Could he really be out of the loop on so many critical issues? Or is he instituting Rummy rules in Washington, rules so bizarre yet so consistent as to ensure, in the Bush administration’s endless face-off with the press, that Rummy always rules?
Don Rumsfeld is fond of misquoting Mark Twain’s axiom that “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” The great anti-war and anti-imperialist author no doubt turns over in his grave each time the SECDEF mangles his words to suit his needs, but Sam Clemens would no doubt appreciate the stark irony of the Donald daring to call out others as liars.
If Twain were alive today, perhaps he might pen “Donald Rumsfeld’s Soliloquy” — like the 1905 “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” that he wrote concerning the rule of an imperial power-broker who made his own grim rules in Belgium’s Congo colony. But barring a resurrection (or the growth of a spine by the American media), the Secretary of Defense is likely to go on, uncontested, writing his own rules, answering to no one, and creating a reality where, indeed, only Rummy rules.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Nick Turse, PhD, MPH works in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University. He writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice and regularly for Tomdispatch on the military-corporate complex and the homeland security state.