Donald Rumsfeld's 'unknown unknowns' come back to bite us with Biden
The late Donald Rumsfeld served as U.S. secretary of defense from 1975 to 1977 under President Gerald Ford and again, from 2001 to 2006, under President George W. Bush. Among other accomplishments, Rumsfeld also served for three terms as a U.S. Congressman.
Rumsfeld's contribution to our understanding of risk management was one of his most entertaining and quirky achievements. On February 12, 2002, Rumsfeld held a news briefing at the Pentagon, regarding a lack of evidence that Iraq was then a supplier of deadly weapons to terrorist groups. (Recall that that was the very premise on which the U.S. invaded Iraq, after Iraq held Americans hostage.)
"Reports that say something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns — that is to say, we know there are some things we do not now. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know. Oh, and if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones."
While Rumsfeld clearly popularized the quirky notion of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, he did not create the concepts. Rather, this specific analytical technique has long been utilized by security and intelligence teams at NASA. Clearly, however, Rumsfeld popularized the concept universally accepted today.
Sally likes Billy, which is a known known. But does Billy, who goes to the same school as Sally, like Sally back? That is a known unknown. Jill, who goes to a different school from Sally and Billy, saw Billy play at a football game and is obsessed with him. Jill is plotting to steal Billy from Sally. To Sally and Billy, Jill's plot is an unknown unknown.
U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan was a known known. Biden's sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan was a known unknown; clearly, at some point, the U.S. would depart, but it was a known unknown as to when the departure would occur. The unknown unknown was that Biden would incredibly leave millions in arms and materiel and abandon Afghani cohorts. It is a known known that some Afghanis, not loyal to the American cause, benefited from Biden's stark abandonment. A known unknown, in many instances, is the identity of those Afghanis who benefited. And it is an unknown unknown, or unk unk, due to the recent revelations on Hunter Biden's laptop, just who in the Biden family received a cut from the plunder.
How tragic that one must now filter all Biden's anti-American actions through the unknown unknown of is he getting a kickback, from whom, and for how much. Unfortunately, once Biden's actions are viewed with the calculus that he is getting payback, his inane energy policy — outsourcing our energy needs to the likes of Russia and Venezuela, sending billions to Ukraine, tipping the scale in favor of the Arab nations against Israel, the sudden departure from Afghanistan — makes sense.
In 2011, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) hosted a reception for Mr. Rumsfeld at the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Rumsfeld was there to be the guest speaker at graduation, and he had kindly agreed to meet with us the evening pre-graduation. I, along with others, had the opportunity to engage with him, charming and accessible, in private conversations. Naturally, we discussed unk unks. His parting words to us were: they get you every time.
Image: Donald Rumsfeld in 2011. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.