There are known knowns

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"There are known knowns" is a phrase from a response United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave to a question at a US Department of Defense News Briefing in February 2002 about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.[1]

Rumsfeld stated:

Reports that say there's -- that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that 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.

—Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defense

The statement became the subject of much commentary and derision.[2]


The Plain English Campaign gave Rumsfeld its Foot in Mouth Award[3]

However, linguist Geoffrey Pullum disagreed, saying the quotation was "completely straightforward" and "impeccable, syntactically, semantically, logically, and rhetorically".[4]

As for the substance of his statement, Rumsfeld's defenders have included Canadian columnist Mark Steyn, who called it "in fact a brilliant distillation of quite a complex matter",[5] and Australian economist and blogger John Quiggin, who wrote, "Although the language may be tortured, the basic point is both valid and important ... Having defended Rumsfeld, I'd point out that the considerations he refers to provide the case for being very cautious in going to war."[6]

Psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek extrapolates from these three categories a fourth, the unknown known, that which we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know:[7] "If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the "unknown unknowns", that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the "unknown knowns" – the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values."

In his 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells of a presentation on uncertainty he was requested to give to the United States Department of Defense shortly before Rumsfeld's speech. The core message of The Black Swan is that unknown unknowns are responsible for the greatest societal change.[citation needed]

Rumsfeld named his autobiography Known and Unknown: A Memoir.

The event has been used in multiple books to discuss risk assessment.[2][8]

In popular culture[edit]

Since Rumsfeld's speech, the full quote and the terms "known knowns" and "unknown unknowns" have appeared in popular culture.

The Unknown Known is the title of Errol Morris's 2013 biographical documentary about Rumsfeld. [9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ " News Transcript: DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, United States Department of Defense (". 
  2. ^ a b Girard, John; Girard, JoAnn (2009-06-01). A Leader's Guide to Knowledge Management: Drawing on the Past to Enhance Future Performance. Business Expert Press. pp. 55–. ISBN 9781606490198. Retrieved 10 February 2014. 
  3. ^ "Rum remark wins Rumsfeld an award". BBC News. 2 December 2003. Retrieved March 31, 2013. 
  4. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2003-12-02). "Language Log: No foot in mouth". Penn: University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2012-04-12. 
  5. ^ Steyn, Mark (December 9, 2003). "Rummy speaks the truth, not gobbledygook". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-10-30. 
  6. ^ Quiggin, John (February 10, 2004). "In Defense of Rumsfeld". 
  7. ^ "What Rumsfeld Doesn't Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib". Retrieved 2009-02-23. 
  8. ^ Neve, Geert de; Luetchford, Peter (2008). Hidden Hands in the Market: Ethnographies of Fair Trade, Ethical Consumption, and Corporate Social Responsibility. Emerald Group Publishing. pp. 252–. ISBN 9781848550582. Retrieved 10 February 2014. 
  9. ^ Scott (2014). "Not Giving an Inch in a Battle of Wits and Words; Deciphering Donald H. Rumsfeld in ‘The Unknown Known’". Retrieved 4 April 2014. 

External links[edit]

February 12, 2002, Press conference The reporter asks the question that leads to the "known unknowns" response at approx. 37:19