The Unknown Known

Errol Morris somehow made an interview style documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known. Toward's the end of the film Rumsfeld himself isn't quite sure why he agreed to do it. The title comes from the missing combination of terms in a 12 February 2002 news briefing. There, Rumsfeld responded to questions about the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, quipping that "there are known knowns... known unknowns... [and] unknown unknowns" (defense.gov). Morris focuses in on the statement's missing combination of terms, the unknown knowns. As it turns out, Rumsfeld was a meticulous recorder of memoranda, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of memos so numerous they were nicknamed "snowflakes." In a snowflake later in 2004, he reflected briefly on the fourth combination. There, he provided a rather odd interpretation, which he retracts towards the end of the film. I've included the film's transcript below not only because it is one of the most powerful scenes, but because it is as close to anything I've seen that Rumsfeld actually agrees there were things he did not know that he knew, or, more to the point, that he refused to face and accept:

February 4, 2004
Subject: What you know.

Rumsfeld (reading): 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.

Rumsfeld: If you take those words and try to connect them in each way that is possible, there was at least one more combination that wasn’t there, the unknown knowns. Things that you possibly may know that you don’t know you know.

Morris: But the memo doesn’t say that. It says that we know less not more than we think we do.

Rumsfeld: Is that right? I reversed it? Put it up again. Let me see.

Rumsfeld (reading): There are also unknown knowns. That is to say things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

Rumsfeld: Yeah, I think that memo is backwards. I think it is closer to what I said here, than that. Unknown knowns. I think you are probably, Errol, chasing the wrong rabbit here.
— The Unknown Known - 1.32.47-1.34.50

It is interesting that even in repeatedly reading the memo and correcting his own 2004 definition of "unknown knowns," Rumsfeld does not draw the conclusions that these are the more significant dangers. I can't find any evidence that Morrris read any of Slavoj Zizek's various repetitions of Rumsfeld's omission of "unknown knowns" in the 2002 news briefing. However, I am expecting Zizek to provide some comment in this regard insofar as Morris has actually sat down with Rumsfeld and had him repeatedly read his own memo on "unknown knowns." The surreal result is that, even the film interview, Rumsfeld doesn't seem to know what he knows. In any case, it makes Zizek's assessment all the more interesting: "If Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns,' the threats from Saddam the nature of which we did not even suspect, what we should reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the 'unknown knowns,' the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves... the situation is like that of a blind spot in our visual field: we do not see the gap, the picture appears continuous" (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 457).

timothywstanley@me.com