His family shared the news on Twitter on Wednesday. He was 88.
Rumsfeld was known for his unwavering support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq following Sept. 11, the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques (aka torture), and the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib.
Despite the fact that Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld proposed military action against Iraq just four days after Sept. 11, according to Robert Draper’s book “To Start A War.”
A year later, he called the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda “accurate” (it was not) and “not debatable” (it was).
In November 2002, Rumsfeld signed off on the Department of Defense’s use of tactics against detainees at Guantanamo Bay that included deprivation of light, forcible stripping, “the use of phobias such as dogs, and stress positions for up to four hours.” Along with his signature, he wrote a note, saying, “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”
In 2011, Rumsfeld called it a “mistake” for the CIA to stop using such tactics.
Before he became known for his role in invading Iraq, Rumsfeld had a decades-long career in Washington and developed a reputation as a cunning and ambitious politician. In 1964, as a freshman U.S. representative from Illinois, he led a charge to oust House Minority Leader and fellow Republican Charles Halleck from his post, replacing him with future President Gerald Ford.
“You could tell right away that he’s a comer,” former Rep. Robert Ellsworth (R-Kan.) recalled of Rumsfeld in the 2004 PBS Frontline documentary “Rumsfeld’s War.” “That’s the way politicians would speak about Rumsfeld, ‘He’s a comer. And he has sharp elbows.’”
He took his first step into the White House in 1969, when he accepted an appointment from Richard Nixon to head the now-defunct Office of Economic Opportunity. It was during this time that Rumsfeld developed one of the most pivotal relationships of his career, forming an alliance with a young assistant and former Capitol Hill intern named Dick Cheney.
Cheney, who would go on to serve as vice president under Bush, lobbied for Rumsfeld’s appointment as defense secretary in 2001.
Under Nixon, Rumsfeld became a special adviser to the president and later U.S. ambassador to NATO. After Nixon’s resignation, Rumsfeld became Ford’s chief of staff, and quickly hired Cheney as his assistant. During that time, Rumsfeld pushed Ford to finalize the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, to effectively ending that conflict.
But it was when Rumsfeld took up his first appointment as defense secretary in 1975 that he began honing his aggressive reputation, effectively acting as a foil to the policy of detente — easing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — advocated by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Rumsfeld’s aggressive foreign policy and pro-military stance would remain intact throughout his political career.
Following his work in the Ford administration, Rumsfeld left full-time public service for the private sector and, eventually, part-time government work, including a stint as Ronald Reagan’s personal representative to the Middle East. He also briefly toyed with a presidential bid in 1987, but withdrew before the formal launch of his campaign. In the late 1990s, he served as chairman of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, dubbed the “Rumsfeld Commission.”
Rumsfeld resurrected his government career in 2001, when George W. Bush nominated him for secretary of defense. That appointment marked the second time Rumsfeld held the office and gave him the distinction of being both the youngest and the oldest person to have led the department. (Leon Panetta later surpassed him as the oldest secretary of defense.)
He famously offered rosy assessments of how the war in Iraq would proceed, and offered little introspection for the ensuing tragedy and fallout.
“The Gulf War in the 1990s lasted five days on the ground. I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days, or five weeks, or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” he predicted in 2002.
One of his most famous lines was, “You go to war with the Army you have ― not the Army you might wish you have,” which he said to a soldier who was pressing the defense secretary on what the administration was doing to make sure soldiers had the equipment they needed to keep them safe.
Due to his support of torture and his hand in crafting what many have come to call the “Forever War” (which has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, as well as thousands of American service members), critics labeled Rumsfeld a war criminal.
Human Rights Watch wanted Rumsfeld to face criminal investigation for his approval and support of the administration’s torture tactics.
Rumsfeld’s relationship with military leaders deteriorated during his tenure at the Department of Defense, and in 2006, a handful of retired generals and admirals publicly called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, saying he was incapable of effectively leading the Pentagon. He resigned later that year.
After his retirement from public service, Rumsfeld remained in the public eye, commenting on current events and publishing two books. In 2011, he openly supported repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibited out members of the LGBTQ community from serving in the military.
Though he supported Donald Trump in his first presidential campaign, in early 2021, as the then-president was seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Rumsfeld signed a letter from all the living former secretaries of defense warning Trump not to politicize the military and use it to retain power.
Rumsfeld is survived by his wife, Joyce, and his three children, Valerie, Marcy and Nick.
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.