Donald Rumsfeld

The Private Lives of Public Servants

VTR Date: October 7, 1989

Guest: Rumsfeld, Donald


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Donald Rumsfeld
Title: “The Private Lives of Public Servants”
VTR: 10/7/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I have been for a very long. And for a very long time, too, I’ve known and admired my guest today as one of the most deeply committed Americans in the public arena. Donald Rumsfeld served forcefully as President Ford’s White House Chief of Staff. Years before that Gerald Ford had suggested that I invite the then very young Republican Congressman from Illinois to take Mr. Ford’s own place at an Aspen Seminar because he was even then so insightful into the proper mix of American ideals and institutions. Well, eventually, Donald Rumsfeld became our Ambassador to NATO, then America’s youngest Secretary of Defense. And he has been here on The Open Mind many times before…most recently with our mutual friend Jack Valenti to talk about a single six-year term for President, and about money and politics. Today, however, I’ve invited Secretary Rumsfeld to speak perhaps more personally about an area of deep concern to him and to the many others dedicated to the proposition that America must be able to recruit into public service at the highest levels individuals who need no longer fear – as presently they must fear – that FBI background checks into persons considered for government work continue to fuel feeding frenzies of indiscriminate opposition with unverified and perhaps irrelevant pejorative information leaked inappropriately for partisan or other purposes. In fact, I want to discuss with Mr. Rumsfeld a quite extraordinary open letter he has sent to the head of the FBI with copies to the White House and the Senate, where perhaps it goes even more pointedly.

As he wrote “Dear Mr. Director: For more than twenty-five years, I have cooperated with the FBI by meeting with agents concerning the backgrounds of literally dozens of individuals under consideration for senior positions in the federal government. Indeed it has never crossed my mind not to cooperate – until very recently. However, this letter is to advise you that I have come to the end of the road. In the future, I do not intend to cooperate with FBI agents on background checks, until significant changes are made in the way the information is handled. I will happy again to assist in the background investigations at that point where unverified information is held closely and only verified information which has some relevance to a candidate’s qualification for the office is made available to individuals outside of the investigative process. While I respect the men and women in the FBI, I cannot in good conscience be a party to the process as it has evolved. Sincerely, Donald Rumsfeld”.

And I suppose I ought to begin by asking Mr. Rumsfeld if anything has changed in the situation…changed meaningfully.

Rumsfeld: No, Dick, it hasn’t. I’ve been in touch with people in the White House and the FBI and received correspondence back from the FBI and talked to some people in the Senate, and at this point, nothing has changed. The process as it’s evolved remains what it was when I wrote that letter, and I think that’s unfortunate for the country.

Heffner: You say, “as it has evolved”, when you were Secretary of Defense was it not that extreme and what was happening with the unverified…

Rumsfeld: Oh no.

Heffner: …materials.

Rumsfeld: Absolutely not, it’s changed enormously in the last ten years. Back in those days…in the sixties and seventies, the FBI files were not turned over to members of the House or the Senate. The investigative process is important. It is necessary to do background checks on people from…for a variety of reasons…to see that they have been law-abiding, because we don’t want people in high public positions, in the judicial brand or the executive branch who have been…made a pattern of breaking the law. Second, from a national security standpoint, it’s important to know that they are good security risks and can handle classified information. So a background check’s an appropriate thing. A background check is, however, an imperfect thing. What it is, is it’s an effort to go out and talk to a lot of people about a single individual and gather as much information as possible. It does not then require validating or verifying every single item that was provided, at some point judgment enters into it and one looks at it and says “This is relevant to the position…this isn’t, so we’ll be interested in the relevant things, but not the irrelevant”. They will try to verify those things that can be verified and to the extent things demonstrate that they were not true, they’re set aside. Now, that is an orderly process, and that’s what the FBI is supposed to do. To the extent someone in the executive branch, outside of the investigative process… or in the legislative branch, outside of the investigative process, asks for and receives that raw data before it has been validated, or before there’s been some judgment made as to relevance, and then takes that information and moves it around in the executive and legislative branches, which inevitably then ends up in the press, it seems to me great damage is done to the individuals involved, because they then are tarred with a brush that’s not true or relevant to serve somebody’s purpose. But more important, great damage is done to our country and our government because people who know that that’s how the process works say to themselves, “Why do I need to subject myself to that?”.

Heffner: But now, Don, you sat in the House of Representatives…if you had gone from the House to the Senate, or even sitting in the House, if you had been charged with some responsibility…

Rumsfeld: Yes.

Heffner: …concerning people who might come to serve our government in important places, wouldn’t you insist that you had available to you, before an administration agency, in this instance the FBI, had culled the material that it wanted to cull? Wouldn’t you want everything that was available, available to you?

Rumsfeld: No. what I would want to know is that an appropriate investigation had taken place, that those relevant areas that had been raised had been examined, and either demonstrated to have been true or not true. And that those that were true, not those that were not true, but those that were true were provided me, as a Senator or a congressman, so that I could make a judgment as to the appropriateness of that person for that position. But I think once you decide you’re going to take a host of things…allegations, that are not true, move them into the press…correction, move them into…outside of the investigative process which inevitably means into the press…

Heffner: That is what you meant.

Rumsfeld: Yeah, ultimately. Then what you’re doing is you’re creating a collection point for mischief, for innuendo, for inaccuracies, that it seems to me puts the government in the position, or people in the government in the position of doing a great deal of damage to both individuals involved and to the government of the united states because of the effect it has on individuals.

Heffner: Let me ask you before we go on with that aspect of things. You talked about the materials that are relevant…

Rumsfeld: Yes.

Heffner: …and I mentioned relevancy too.

Rumsfeld: Yes.

Heffner: How relevant, in your estimation, are the personal details, or the details of a nominee’s persona life?

Rumsfeld: I think there are certainly some aspects of a persona life that are relevant, and I would submit that it probably varies from position to position.

Heffner: And how…

Rumsfeld: I think there are some positions, , for example, that involve national security that probably would involve a level of and aspects of one’s personal life that might not be relevant in non-national security areas. I think that there are some positions in government where a background of alcohol abuse would be unacceptable. Conversely there are a number of positions in government where a background of alcohol abuse would not be a problem whatsoever.

Heffner: Among the latter positions would you include the…that of Secretary of Defense?

Rumsfeld: I think that a…people who are involved with those national capabilities that can inflict great damage on others is certainly…are certainly areas that probably are not appropriate for substance abuse, records of substance abuse.

Heffner: Alright. Put another way, that’s fair game then, that area.

Rumsfeld: Oh, I would think so.

Heffner: Alright, now…who draws the line…

Rumsfeld: But, i…

Heffner: …where do you draw the line…

Rumsfeld: But I would think it’s not fair game for some other positions in government.

Heffner: Okay.

Rumsfeld: Well, I think that, that those judgments are made by people in the executive branch. I mean these…if you’re referring, for example, to an appointment in the executive branch that does not require Senate confirmation, which also have background checks, then obviously it’s ultimately the President of the United States, who’s elected by the American people to make decisions on behalf of the American people…it’s perfectly appropriate.

Heffner: But you’re concerned, obviously.

Rumsfeld: Is…

Heffner: …is with that material that goes to the Congress…

Rumsfeld: Yes.

Heffner: …where there is some legislative involvement.

Rumsfeld: If it is a position that requires Senate confirmation then obviously the judgment is made by the President, and to the extent the Senate, which has an important role in the confirmation process, wants to discuss those things with the President or the executive branch, on a non-specific basis, they’re perfectly willing to do that. I mean that’s a legitimate area of discussion.

Heffner: You think we’re really talking about something that simply cannot be restrained, constrained, handled in a fair way as you want it to be?

Rumsfeld: Oh, I think it can be. I think it can be. Indeed, I think it has been over many decades, I think, for the most part people have behaved reasonably well with respect to it. I think that’s what’s happened in recent years, partly as a result of the Vietnam War, partly as a result of Watergate, you’ve seen the Congress get more involved in attempting to micro-manage the activities of the executive branch of the federal government, and in blurring the line as to where responsibilities lie, and the inevitable effect of that is that you, you multiply the number of people who are involved in everything. That’s one of the reasons it just takes forever today for this process to go on, and it’s because there’s so many people involved in it. But i think it’s perfectly possible for the executive and legislative branch to come to some ground rules with respect to categories of nominees, certainly.

Heffner: But you say, “Perhaps the impact of Watergate”, and you mentioned other things, too. We’re not going to turn the hands of the clock back.

Rumsfeld: No, we’re not. But on the other hand, there’s no reason to roll over and play dead dog and simply say, “Simply because things have gotten out of hand we should continue to let them get out of hand even more”. At some point, people ought to say, “Wait a minute, we’re reasonable people, we’re all in this together, we want to make this country a better country, now let’s talk about how we’re behaving, and ask ourselves, ‘Is that really what we think is wise’,” and I’m saying I don’t think it is.

Heffner: And you’re saying that we can, by asking those questions in as demanding a way as…

Rumsfeld: Sure.

Heffner: …you suggest, reverse the tide. You know…

Rumsfeld: Let me take a different example…

Heffner: Sure.

Rumsfeld: It’s an easy example. Let’s, let’s say that there’s a person being nominated for the Internal Revenue Service…

Heffner: There’s nothing easy about that.

Rumsfeld: …the tax collection position. Let’s say a person is…a person in his background had a period in his life where he had trouble with alcohol or he had family difficulties, or he just…maybe even tried to cheat and didn’t do his income tax, just didn’t do it. Say he didn’t owe anything because he was deducted, it was deducted, but he didn’t do, didn’t fill it out, he didn’t do what he was supposed to do as a citizen. That person ought not to be head of the Internal Revenue Service, how can he have any credibility? On the other hand, let’s say that same individual’s nominated to be a Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and one looks at this background in the aggregate and it’s admirable, for the last twenty years he’s lived an exemplary life, done a good job for the…in the society, understands the subject matter, I don’t think that that should be an impediment because he, he had difficulties at a…twenty years before and for one year in his life, and didn’t do…didn’t do something he should have done. You see the difference?

Heffner: Yeah, but now, of course, you take a comparatively easy example, and you take one that has to do with something to do with the law, and you haven’t taken up the question of personal morals, maybe because you don’t want to, and i could understand…

Rumsfeld: Yes.

Heffner: It’s always a sticky wicket when we get into that, to look…

Rumsfeld: It is.

Heffner: …at other people.

Rumsfeld: It is.

Heffner: But isn’t that something that is being done more and more and more today?

Rumsfeld: It is and I must say I’m…I don’t want to cop out on this, but I don’t know the answer. I mean I just simply don’t know what the answer is as to what is appropriate and what ought not to be appropriate points of discussion with respect to that aspect of behavior. I think that, that obeying the law is a category, having deficiencies which could put in jeopardy the United States of America is a category, and then there is this other category of general demeanor which is a moving target. What is acceptable at any given point is different from ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years before, and I’m not wise enough to know exactly what it ought to be, or to say that it’s gone too far or not far enough, I just don’t know the answer.

Heffner: But you are wise enough, that I can attest to, to have said…it’s fascinated me for the several years since I read a speech that you gave…Values Have Consequence, and you wrote, “Unlike those nations whose histories are rooted in an ancient tribal, geographical, or religious past, a past of bloodlines, America began, not as a tract of land, but as a set of values with consequences”. And then you quoted, as you so often do, fellow Princeton man, Adlai Stevenson, when he said, “When an American says he loves his country, he means not only that he love the hills, the prairies glistening sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains and the sea, he means he loves an inner air in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw a breath of self respect”. Now that inner quality of this country, doesn’t it preclude an answer that you might have given to my question that would involve our individually making judgments on other peoples’ moral status when it comes to their appropriateness for public office?

Rumsfeld: I think that it includes…the values of our society include freedom and they include diversity and they include forgiveness, and i…I don’t know that we need to have a set of rigid, fixed requirements that go to every aspect of personal behavior. I do think we need to be interested in the people that go into these positions, I think we ought to have background checks, I think we ought to treat that information confidentially, and to the extent it’s validated, it ought to become part of the decision making process, and I think that I’m not able to say on the personal…separating the law-breaking, separating the putting our country at risk, which is two categories, I’m not able to say precisely that we ought to have a cookie mold pressed down that, that is unchangeable.

Heffner: Don, in the recent troubles…

Rumsfeld: Do you feel different from that?

Heffner: No, I don’t feel differently at all, but I, I must say I wondered if I asked the former Secretary of Defense…now I’m, I’m sort of weighing the public area, as you did before, I’m talking about the Secretary of Defense now, and you were “it” or “he”…I wonder whether you wouldn’t have to say that everything fits into qualifications for Secretary of Defense, it’s too damn delicate, sensitive a position.

Rumsfeld: There are a few positions that require special care, and, and that’s one.

Heffner: Let me ask you about the instances in which they went beyond, as a nation, the one, or the two, or the several positions that you would say require special care. Is this a function of political in-fighting largely? In the, in the matter of the Secretary of Defense, the nomination of a man who would be your distant successor. Was this enemies in the Congress? Was it the executive branch? We know that the press printed this stuff, where did they get it?

Rumsfeld: Well, they clearly got it from people in the…either or both, the executive and legislative branch, and I would suspect who were not part of the investigative process. I think probably the people in the investigative process treated professionally.

Heffner: So your gripe is not with the FBI?

Rumsfeld: No. I don’t have knowledge, but on…my assumption is that, and it’s probably people outside of the professional investigative process who were given access to it, who shouldn’t have been…my judgment, who treated it unprofessionally, and it, it led to some of the most bizarre, ridiculous allegations about Russian ballerinas, and all of this nonsense which…I mean by the time it was over, the American people couldn’t tell what was true, what wasn’t true…it looked…it was as though it were cumulative, it looked as though the revelations were, were piling one on top of the other, when in fact they weren’t at all, they were coming out, being leaked, being dismissed as inaccurate.

Heffner: But now…

Rumsfeld: And, and yet the aggregation of all of that left people with an impression that I think was inaccurate.

Heffner: But now your letter was addressed to the Director of the FBI…

Rumsfeld: Yes.

Heffner: In the past do you think directors would have had the capacity to say, “That material is simply not available because it is not material that we have in the real pipeline?”

Rumsfeld: Ummm.

Heffner: Because you’ve said things have changed.

Rumsfeld: They have changed and I, I think that probably if a President says, “You make that information available to the White House Counsel”, that any Director of the FBI would have available to the White House Counsel, and once it’s with the White House Counsel, if the President then authorizes the White House Counsel to make it available to other people in the executive branch and then to transmit it to the legislative branch, would knowing there’s no way in the world you can restrict how it’s managed or handled in the legislative branch, once it’s given…then you get what you expect. I mean you, you…whatever happens, you deserve.

Heffner: So going back to my first question as to whether anything has changed, what has not happened since the Tower nomination has been that the President of the United States has enabled the Director of the FBI to evaluate material before anyone sees it.

Rumsfeld: that is…that is my understanding. There has been no public indication by the President that he disapproves of the process, there’s been no statement to the Congress or the press that he has made a judgment that henceforth material from the investigative process will be held within the investigative process until such time as it’s been validated and deemed relevant, in which case, then it would be made available to the people in the executive branch who need it and the legislative branch who need it.

Heffner: What role do you think the press has played in all of this, or are they simply the messengers, as they claim?

Rumsfeld: Well, of course, from the press’ standpoint it’s, it’s a field day, the more mischief that’s heaved out there, the more things there are to print and say…and the more things are printed and said. If an executive branch or a legislative branch official says that in this mix of information that’s being circulated around through the government there are these allegations, the press is going to print that there are those allegations, and then they’re there, and there’s no way that they ever can be buried again, even though they’re not true.

Heffner: Don, did anybody…no, I don’t mean “anybody”…you say not…no change has taken place, to your knowledge.

Rumsfeld: Right.

Heffner: Was your concern picked up, as I would have suspected it would have to be?

Rumsfeld: Oh yes, indeed, it’s been picked up by a number of people in the press who thought it was an interesting perspective and, indeed, in some instances agreed with it. I have received an enormous number of contacts from people in the…presently and past people from the executive branch of the federal government saying that “You’re right on the mark. That this is wrong the way it’s proceeding”. I have even had some people in the legislative branch say that they agreed with that. So, I have been surprised, frankly by the amount of interest and comment that it has generated.

Heffner: You know, in a funny way, it, it plays into the whole notion that in recent years there has been a premium placed upon secrecy. When, in fact, what you’re talking about is the opposite, secrecy perhaps where secrecy is not deserved and then a wide open, you-can-look-at-any-of-this-unverifed-and-probably-irrelevant-material…

Rumsfeld: Yeah.

Heffner: …and-get-whatever-you-want-out-of-it. You say, too, “this didn’t happen”, I won’t say “in your day” because your day is still ahead of us, but it didn’t happen in the period when you were Chief of Staff of the White House, or it didn’t happen when you were in the Defense Department. I wonder, again, whether it’s possible ever to turn the hands of the clock back. You say, in a very principled way, ‘Yes, you make an agreement, and you make it impossible for this unverified material to be available”. But, again, what about the press…ah…and the pressure It brings?

Rumsfeld: Oh, there still will be rumors and things like that, but i…I mean things are going to be said, there’s no question. If you’re in the public eye, things are going to be said. But we don’t want to put the print of government on it, it seems to me. I think that, that it’s less likely that a press person’s going to print or play something that is not part of that process then if it is part of that process, so i…I think that, in fact, the clock can be turned back. I think that the American people have a good center of gravity, and what happens in our political life is that the pendulum moves and it gets shoved over here, and at some point it goes a little too far, and people feel funny about it being that far, they don’t like where it is, and it gets shoved back, more towards the center, and there’s a, a center of gravity and a balance I think, in the American people and there’s a sense of fair play about, about people. I don’t think people felt good about that process.

Heffner: Yeah, but you have indicated at other times that what is so necessary is for leadership to stimulate, to reveal again, that inner decency, that inner sense of fair play in the American people, that’s when things begin to swing back again. Leadership doesn’t seem to have been exercised along those lines in this instance.

Rumsfeld: Well…not yet. But I think…

Heffner: Always the optimist, yes?

Rumsfeld: …there are people in the Congress who understand that this in an excess, I really do. For example, there were some allegations made recently about a prominent member of the leadership of one of our two Houses of Congress, and they were kind of leaked and rumbled around and at a certain point, people said, “My goodness, it’s not true, it’s wrong that that’s going on, we want it stopped”, and it was stopped.

Heffner: Don, I’m therefore…

Rumsfeld: And that’s healthy.

Heffner: I’m therefore going to count on others saying the same sort of thing that you have suggested…stop. And we]re getting the signal to stop, and I want to thank you so much, Secretary Rumsfeld, for joining me today on The Open Mind.

Rumsfeld: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A Wein; the New York Times Company Foundation and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.