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‘The Unknown Known’ Not Giving an Inch in a Battle of Wits and Words

Not Giving an Inch in a Battle of Wits and Words

Review by AO Scott

In 2003 the journalist Hart Seeley published “Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld,” a book that arranged some of the public pronouncements of that secretary of defense into spiky, evocative morsels of free verse. Mr. Rumsfeld may have been an accidental poet, but “The Unknown Known,” Errol Morris’s new documentary about him, nonetheless makes an implicit argument for his literary distinction. Not only does Mr. Rumsfeld revel in his status as the proud and prolific author — via his beloved Dictaphone — of memos known at the Pentagon as “snowflakes,” but he also shows himself to be a man fascinated by language and delighted by his ability to use it.

With Mr. Morris’s off-camera encouragement, Mr. Rumsfeld, voluble and energetic in his early 80s, reads aloud from a dozen or so of his most memorable snowflakes. (He guesses that he composed around 20,000 during his six-year tenure in the administration of George W. Bush and possibly a million in the course of his career in politics and business.) The headings of several of the memos are “Definitions” and “Terminology,” and their author seems to have been fond of sharing passages from various dictionaries with staff members.

Clips from press briefings during the Iraq war illustrate his penchant for using semantics as a weapon, one he wields with undiminished glee against Mr. Morris. When the filmmaker presses him on the “torture memos” authorizing harsh treatment of suspected terrorists, Mr. Rumsfeld rephrases the question in such a way as to minimize any moral stigma and also any hint of his own responsibility. “Little different cast I just put on it than the one you did,” he says, breaking into a smile and raising a finger of triumph. “I’ll chalk that one up.”

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