"I have no doubt but that some people did leave before it started."

Anyone who reads the newspapers or is in one way or another subjected to the language of Bush Administration officials will recognize in this utterance the verbal stylings of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Rumsfeld uses this phrase — is it even a "phrase"? — so often, it is almost an obsession. A Google search of "no doubt but that" and "Rumsfeld" brought up over 400 pages and showed quotes from Rumsfeld on a variety of topics.

The fact that this odd grouping of words consistently conveys the opposite of Mr. Rumsfeld's intended meaning never seems to faze either him or the press. The press has never, to my knowledge, sought clarification when Mr. Rumsfeld has claimed having no doubt but that something or other is the case. Everyone seems to have no doubt that Mr. Rumsfeld's assertion is a jewel of clarity and poise.

Since I find this situation intolerable, I will now take the liberty of examining Mr. Rumsfeld's pet locution step-by-step. Let's take the statement that appeared in print yesterday. First, we learn that Mr. Rumsfeld has,

"...no doubt..."

That much is clear. Whether this absence of doubt applies in some sort of unyielding way to Mr. Rumsfeld's overall character or to what he would like us to think of that character, or whether it applies only to the case in hand, is perhaps not the most important point. What we are sure of is this: Mr. Rumsfeld feels absolutely sure about something. Let's pick up the next part of the locution:


Here, an exception is announced to the thing or the set of things about which Mr. Rumsfeld has no doubt. Something is subject to doubt. We can assume that much. Moreover, we should not conclude, from the suggestion or admission of doubt, that Rumsfeld's self-assuredness has been compromised. If Mr. Rumsfeld ever did have a doubt, he would be the first to say so, and he would do it forcefully, using language that puts to rest all doubt. That is, again, part of Rumsfeld's style. Now, on to the next word:


With this, we know, the subject of Mr. Rumsfeld's one doubt cannot be far off. Given the subordinate conjunction, we can assume, moreover, that it will be some state of affairs that is in doubt. Those familiar with Mr. Rumsfeld's manner of speaking surely were anticipating this moment. Upon hearing or reading him say, "I have no doubt...," they may have skipped at once to the words that follow:

"...some people did leave before it started."

So, that's clear, isn't it? The only thing Mr. Rumsfeld has doubt about is that some people in Fallujah left before the assault had started — the assault that was designed to kill them while they were still in town. In other words, they may not have left, for all Mr. Rumsfeld knows. If you have any doubt that this assertion contradicts what Mr. Rumsfeld intended in all likelihood to say, consider that Mr. Rumsfeld follows this boldly phrased acknowledgment by noting that,

"We also know that there are a number of hundreds that didn't and have been killed."

(This is a different point, but what is "a number of hundreds"? Is this to be distinguished from "hundreds"? If so, how? What other kinds of hundreds might Mr. Rumsfeld have been imagining that he perhaps felt it was important to exclude at once from others' considerations?)

The reason why this manner of speaking irks me is that one wonders exactly what Mr. Rumsfeld had (as the reporter noted) "acknowledged" — in this case as in all the others where he has reverted to claiming no doubt but that something or other was or was not so.

I might maintain a principle of charitable interpretation and not over-analyze statements that were perhaps made in the heat of a press conference, but the fact is, Mr. Rumsfeld always uses such pseudo-intellectual gibberish when discussing grave matters. As such, no charity could ever keep up with him, nor would it be warranted if it could keep pace. Moreover, the press is already overflowing with charity towards the Bush Administration. Therefore, I feel I am forced to try to understand.

When I do try to understand Mr. Rumsfeld's repetitive assertion, two possibilities come to mind. According to the first, Mr. Rumsfeld deliberately plants such doublespeak in his public statements. In this way, if Mr. Rumsfeld were ever called out on anything, as when facts emerge that contradict his previously stated views, he could say, "Well, look at the record... I said clearly that I doubted! In fact, I said that that's all I doubted!" Since Mr. Rumsfeld uses the curious expression almost obsessively, he could surely claim, without speaking untruthfully (though with the full intent to deceive) that he had always doubted whether Fallujah fighters had escaped, whether weapons had been stolen from Al Qaqaa under the watch of U.S. troops, whether weapons of mass destruction were being kept or developed by Saddam Hussein, and so on.

According to another possibility, the only thing that Mr. Rumsfeld may have implicitly acknowledged on this occasion, or at any time that he has spoken in such a tortured manner, is his own incoherence and incorrigible phoniness. Of course, if this were so, getting him to acknowledge that he had mistakenly or implicitly acknowledged any such thing would surely require another type of torture. Mr. Rumsfeld is a man of little doubt. Of that we can always be sure.

My conclusion? It is one thing to have a government full of unaccountable war criminals. It is another, and far worse, when the war criminals are deceptive, bungling fools. Indeed, I have no doubt but that that is not the case.

In fact, I'm sure of it.

(Philip M. Adamek) In Friday's New York Times, a senior official in the Bush Administration was asked about reports that a number of fighters had fled Fallujah before last week's assault began (11.12.04, "As U.S. Presses Fallujah..."). The senior official then gave what the Times reporter called an acknowledgment: