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Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Dead At Age 88

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has died. He was 88. Rumsfeld served as defense secretary under two separate Republican presidencies - under Gerald Ford in the 1970s and under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006. In his second stint at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld was instrumental in leading the country to war both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. He was also, for a bit, well-known for his many aphorisms, including this one in response to a reporter's question about U.S. intelligence on whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD RUMSFELD: 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 know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know.

CHANG: Never forgot that one. For more, we are joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So Rumsfeld has a complicated legacy, right? He was unrepentant about the need to go to war both in Afghanistan and in Iraq - conflicts that U.S. forces have only begun to pull out of after two decades. How do you think he will be remembered?

BOWMAN: I don't think he'll be remembered very well by history. Rumsfeld was an arrogant, brusque kind of guy, and some Republicans on the Hill wanted him replaced early in the Bush administration because he just couldn't get along with folks in Congress. But the 9/11 attacks, Ailsa, kind of saved him in a way. He helped carry the wounded from the Pentagon and then became something of a matinee idol. But, you know, I think in many ways, Rumsfeld personified the hubris of an era, where he was really the architect of Afghanistan and Iraq. His death comes as the forever wars are ending, with nearly all U.S. troops expected to be out of Afghanistan by mid-July. On Afghanistan, there really was no plan once the Taliban was overthrown. And in Iraq, also little post-war planning. And frankly, Iraq is considered by many I talk with in the Pentagon to be one of the worst strategic decisions in the nation's history, but he remained defiant to the end. Now, he did expand special operations forces, and that's widely seen as a plus.

CHANG: And let's not forget, I mean, Iraq - it was a war that famously began with false information about weapons of mass destruction.

BOWMAN: Oh, that's right. And that's why I say he was one of the architects of Iraq. You know, he believed that. He - also, one of the things about Rumsfeld was his belief you could do less with more. He didn't support high troop numbers in Iraq or Afghanistan, and he refused to talk to the Taliban. On the troop question, this became a huge issue when Osama bin Laden was suspected of hiding out in the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. Bin Laden might have been captured, many say, had more troops been sent in. Rumsfeld said, absolutely not. And his ultimate refusal to send more troops a few years later led to his firing and being replaced by Robert Gates. But here's the thing - Gates only recently said, you know, that maybe Rumsfeld was right. The U.S. should have left earlier in Afghanistan in 2002 and really turned it over to state department and other folks.

CHANG: I am curious, Tom, I mean, during your time reporting on Rumsfeld, how did he come off in person?

BOWMAN: He was an arrogant, prickly kind of guy, especially with the press. He once began a press conference by talking about how great the Afghan forces were doing. And I piped up and said, if that's the case, Mr. Secretary, why are there thousands of Americans there? And he said, that's an accusatory way of putting it, and didn't answer the question.

CHANG: That is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.