By Michael Roddy
VENICE (Reuters) - American filmmaker Errol Morris defended "The Unknown Known" on Wednesday from criticism he failed to ask tough questions in his documentary profile of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who oversaw the Iraq War.
Rumsfeld, famous for his statement that "stuff happens" in response to the looting of Baghdad after the American-led invasion, is shown smiling almost obsessively throughout the film which had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
A prodigious producer of memos, Rumsfeld also reflects on the meanings of words in juxtaposition, including his dictum that there are "known knowns" and "unknown unknowns".
The film got a tepid response at a press screening, with some in the audience saying Morris had failed to get Rumsfeld to face up to the consequences of what is generally viewed as a colossal failure of intelligence in Iraq under his watch.
"The question is in part, was I tough enough with him?" Morris said at a news conference at the festival where the film by the maker of "The Fog of War", an Oscar-winning portrait of Vietnam War-era Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, had its official premiere.
"I believe yes, I was for many, many, many reasons. I look at it as a devastating portrait, a frightening portrait. Do I contradict him? Quite often. But the goal is not to endlessly contradict him.
"I much prefer it - I hope I am not giving away too much here - I much prefer it when he contradicts himself, which he does unendingly."
Rumsfeld, who served under three presidents, agreed to do the film after Morris contacted him, the filmmaker said. Now 81, Rumsfeld was filmed responding to questions put to him in a studio.
Throughout, Rumsfeld defends the decision of the administration of former President George W. Bush to invade Iraq because Saddam was concealing an arsenal of "weapons of mass destruction", which intelligence was later discredited.
"It was thought to be the best intelligence available," Rumsfeld says after Morris plays a clip of a news conference from Rumsfeld's tenure as defense secretary in which he says "we know they have weapons of mass destruction".
"How do you describe it when it turns out to be not accurate?" he tells Morris. "Do you describe that as a failure of intelligence? I suppose some cannot unfairly suggest that."
Rumsfeld says that Guantanamo, where prisoners deemed a threat to the United States have been held for a decade or more without trial, "probably is as well run as any prison on the face of the earth".
He also maintains practices there did not result in the waterboarding and other forms of torture inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad.
After Rumsfeld makes that assertion, Morris produces a report by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger saying practices introduced at Guantanamo had indeed "migrated" to Abu Ghraib and also Afghanistan.
"I think that's a fair assessment," Rumsfeld says, without acknowledging that his previous assertion was wrong.
"In Britain we have a more aggressive style and there were so many times Morris let him off the hook," said Neil Young, film critic for the London-based Tribune magazine.
"I thought it was going to be a kind of forensic interview for an hour and 45 minutes and I think that's what it should have been. Instead it was cut, cut, cut, edit, edit, edit."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)