The Unknown Known

Synopsis: Former United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, discusses his career in Washington D.C. from his days as a congressman in the early 1960s to planning the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Director(s): Errol Morris
Production: Radius-TWC
  2 wins & 8 nominations.
Rotten Tomatoes:
103 min


Let me put up this next memo.

You want me to read this?

Yes, please.

"February 4, 2004.

What you know.

There are known knowns.

There are known unknowns.

There are unknown unknowns.

But there are also

unknown knowns.

That is to say,

things that you think you know

that it turns out

you did not."

I wonder if in the future

public figures will write

as many memos as I did.

I doubt it.

I must have gotten

in the habit of dictating

things that were important.

Not a diary.

Not a journal.

They're almost all

working documents.

Now, they've become historical

documents in retrospect,

but at the time,

they all had a purpose.

In the later years

of my using the dictaphone,

why, they were called


because they were

on white paper.

What would you say

the total number of memos

might be?

They said I dictated 20,000

just in the last six years

at the Pentagon.

There have to be millions.

"July 27, 2001."

A memo to Condoleezza Rice

concerning Iraq.

"We have discussed Iraq

on a number of occasions.

The discussions

have been inconclusive.

Sanctions are being limited

in a way that cannot weaken

Saddam Hussein.

We can publicly acknowledge

that the sanctions don't work

over extended periods

and stop the pretense

of having a policy

that is keeping Saddam

'in the box'

when we know he has crawled

a good distance out of the box.

Within a few years,

the U.S. will undoubtedly

have to confront

a Saddam armed

with nuclear weapons.

If Saddam's regime

were oustered,

we would have

a much-improved position

in the region

and elsewhere."

Why the obsession

with Iraq and Saddam?

Well, you love that word,


I can see the glow

in your face when you say it.

Well, I'm an obsessive person.

Are you? I'm not.


I'm cool.

I'm measured.

If you look

at the range of my memos,

there might be 1/10 of 1%

about Iraq.

The reason I was concerned

about Iraq

is 'cause four-star generals

would come to me and say,

"Mr. secretary,

we have a problem.

Our orders are to fly over

the northern part of Iraq

and the Southern part of Iraq

on a daily basis,

with the Brits,

and we are getting shot at.

At some moment...

could be tomorrow,

could be next month,

could be next year...

one of our planes

is gonna be shot down

and our pilots and crews

are gonna be killed

or they're gonna be


The question will be,

"what in the world were

we flying those flights for?

What was

the cost-benefit ratio?

What was our country gaining?"

So you sit down and you say,

"I think I'm gonna see

if I can get

the president's attention.

Remind him that our planes

are being shot at,

remind him that we don't have

a fresh policy for Iraq,

and remind him that we've got

a whole range of options."

Not an obsession.

A very measured,

nuanced approach,

I think.

In my confirmation hearing

when I was nominated

to be secretary of defense,

the best question

I was asked was,

"what do you worry about

when you go to bed at night?"

And my answer was, in effect,


The danger

that we can be surprised

because of

a failure of imagining

what might happen

in the world."

There are known knowns,

the things we know we know.

There are known unknowns,

the things we know

we don't know.

There are also

that third category

of unknown unknowns,

the things we don't know

we don't know.

And you can only know more

about those things

by imagining what they might be.

Pearl harbor was

a failure of imagination.

We didn't know we didn't know

that they could do what they

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Errol Morris

Errol Mark Morris (born February 5, 1948) is an American film director primarily of documentaries examining and investigating, among other things, authorities and eccentrics. He is perhaps best known for his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, commonly cited among the best and most influential documentaries ever made. In 2003, his documentary film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. more…

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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    "The Unknown Known" STANDS4 LLC, 2020. Web. 31 Oct. 2020. <>.

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