The hardest part of living through the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, was seeing members of his "Pentagon family" hurt. After struggling with that, the hardest part, he said, was determining how to respond.
"There was no roadmap," Rumsfeld said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "There was no guidebook. There was no war plan on the shelf that [said], 'This is what you do.'"
Rumsfeld told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer that then-CIA Director George Tenet called him that morning and confirmed that the attack was the work of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Then, President Bush called him and told him to think about what to do next.
"The president was very decisive," Rumsfeld said. "He said immediately, 'We're not gonna pound sand. We're not gonna simply indict some people in absentia and fire off a few cruise missiles. We're going to deal with this problem before something this bad or something worse happens to the American people. And we're gonna find ways to protect them.'"
Rumsfeld called the Bush administration's response to the events a "measured reaction." He pointed out that a terrorist could strike at any time with any kind of weapon, like a chemical or biological weapon that could kill hundreds of thousands.
"So the president was right to say the goal is not to retaliate - or it's not retribution," he said. "The goal is to to protect the American people. And the only way to do that was to put pressure on terrorists around the world and make everything they do hard."
Still, the former defense secretary said the administration "fell way short" in understanding that the fight against al Qaeda would take more than bullets.
"It's something that'll take all elements of our country competing with the ideas of the radical Islamists, until we're able to compete with that as we did in the Cold War... in favor of free political systems and free economic systems," he said. When it comes to that fight, he said, "we won't know how long it'll last or what the outcome will be."
Rumsfeld described the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 to Schieffer. He recalled running out of the Pentagon and seeing thousands of small pieces of metal strewn about. He and others in the Pentagon helped rescue people from the burning building until first responders arrived. When a Fire Marshall told Rumsfeld to evacuate and close the building, he insisted on keeping it open and only evacuating non-essential personnel.
"It was clear they had hit the seat of economic power in New York and the seat of military power of the United States in Washington. And another plane of course was probably gonna try to hit the seat of political power in the White House or the Congress," Rumsfeld said. He said he thought at the time, "I don't want the world to think that a group of terrorists could shut down the U.S. Department of Defense."