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Was invading Iraq in 2003 a mistake?

Most Americans say yes, as do the four major part frontrunners—Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump—in the 2016 presidential race. (Whether those candidates have actually learned from that mistake is another story, but I digress.)

But the architects of that invasion have been less willing to concede error. While George W. Bush has admitted that the invasion directly led to the creation of ISIS, Dick Cheney has claimed that he was “right about Iraq” as recently as September. (He wasn’t.)

Sitting down with Donald Rumsfeld on Monday night, Late Show host Stephen Colbert attempted to see if the former defense secretary would acknowledge that maybe the Iraq War wasn’t such a great idea.

“There’s one question that gets asked of you and other people that were in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq” that isn’t exactly fair, Colbert said, “which is if you knew then what you know now, would you make the same decision?”

“You only know then what you know then, and you only know now what you know now, and our now is tomorrow’s then,” he added.

“But that leads me to your most famous saying, which is talking about uncertainty in the world,” that there are “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” In this case, Colbert suggested, maybe the problem came from a fourth category: the “unknown knowns, which is the thing that we know, and then we choose not to know or not let other people know we know.”

In other words: Was the Bush Administration, including Rumsfeld himself, less than honest about invading Iraq?

Colbert referenced a recently declassified memo which revealed that the (ultimately false) case for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq was much less certain than it was made out to be in the run-up to the war. In fact, “Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program [was] based largely—perhaps 90%—on analysis of imprecise intelligence.”

As Colbert generously summarized, our government may have honestly believed the WMDs were there, but no hard proof of that belief existed—”and yet it was presented to the American people as if there was. It was known that there was not hard evidence, but we were presented a partial picture. And that’s the unknown known that we were denied. Do you think that was the right thing to do?”

Rumsfeld hemmed and hawed, but finally he confessed: “The president had available to him intelligence from all elements of the government. And the National Security Council members had that information. It was all shared, it was all supplied. And it’s never certain—if it were a fact, it wouldn’t be called intelligence.”

“Wow,” Colbert answered. “I think you answered my question.”

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