Scott Horton Interviews Lawrence Wilkerson
Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, discusses why Bush and Cheney must have known most Guantanamo prisoners were innocent, the US military’s inability to do battlefield vetting of Afghan war prisoners, Cheney’s reversal of the Blackstone formulation on the wrongful imprisonment of innocents, how Colin Powell and others were kept out of the loop about intelligence based on tortured confessions, how the intelligence failures on Iraq WMD were in part due to compensating for missing Saddam’s real program in 1990-91 and why Douglas Feith and Richard Perle are essentially representatives of Israel’s Likud party.
MP3 here. (28:52) Transcript below.
Larry Wilkerson is a retired United States Army Colonel and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Scott Horton interviews Col. Lawrence Wilkerson July 2, 2010
Scott Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio, I’m Scott Horton, and our next guest on the show today is retired Col. Larry Wilkerson. He helped lie us into war with Iraq and he’s regretted it ever since. Now he’s at the New America Foundation. Was an aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Welcome to the show. How are you doing, Larry?
Lawrence Wilkerson: Doing fine.
Horton: Appreciate your joining us here. Now, this is kind of old news, but what’s so old about it? It’s all still going on. From April 9, of this year, 2010, “George W. Bush ‘Knew Guantanamo Prisoners Were Innocent’,” in the Sunday Times, which normally I would think if it’s in the Sunday Times, it’s not true, but here they’re quoting you, and you seem like an honest guy, so why don’t you tell us about it?
Wilkerson: I believe that as soon as we got the 740 or so prisoners out of Afghanistan to Guantanamo, that we knew there had been improper battlefield vetting; that is to say, there were too few troops in Afghanistan, U.S. troops, to do the kind of combat status review tribunals, the other things under the Geneva Conventions that are normally done, that indeed we’ve done in every war since World War I, even before that, and so what happened was that no U.S. soldiers were involved really significantly in their capture. There were Pakistanis, there were warlords, there were Northern Alliance troops and so forth involved, but there really weren’t any U.S. personnel involved. So this complement of prisoners came to Guantanamo having been swept up on the battlefield by all manner of people other than the U.S. and having had no battlefield vetting whatsoever.
So when we got them there, it was clear that there were people there who didn’t belong there. We had people who were over 90 years old. We had 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds, 16-year-olds. We had British citizens. We had Australian citizens and so forth. We had foreign ministers like Jack Straw from London, for example, a good friend of Colin’s, asking us immediately to repatriate these people because they were our allies – the UK, arguably our special relationship ally – and yet we wouldn’t do that.
So it became clear, I think, to the highest levels in the U.S. government quite swiftly in 2002 that we had people at Guantanamo we didn’t know much about at all. Some of them might be hardcore terrorists, some of them might be nothing more than soldiers, drivers and that sort of thing, and a whole bunch of them, maybe even the majority of them, might be nothing more than people who had been swept up on a battlefield that was quite chaotic, and incidentally swept up at times for bonuses that we were paying. We paid $5000 to a Pakistani, for example, for capturing someone, so what’d he do, he goes out and he captures his enemy and makes $5000 off of it. If he’s Taliban, that’s great. If he’s al Qaeda, that’s even better. But normally they weren’t. They were just people that the Pakistani made $5000 off because he didn’t like him very much.
Horton: Well now, on one hand, Secretary Powell, and the vice president, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, and everyone must have known this because I think quite a bit of this was in the media, at least, if you’re reading The Guardian or something, this wasn’t, you know, it was pretty apparent that they were sort of just sweeping up people and paying bounties and that kind of thing early on. But, here you are, you’re a former high-level official in the government and you’re saying you know for a fact that these men knew. How do you know for a fact that these men knew? Did you all see the same papers and you know they saw the same papers, or you were in the room when Colin Powell and Dick Cheney discussed this, or what?
Wilkerson: No, a lot of this is my surmise with regard to the vice president and the president. I mean it’s very difficult for me to see what I saw and know what I knew, listening to deliberations that Secretary Powell went through with, for example, his Ambassador for War Crimes, Pierre Prosper, and others and not believe that my president and my vice president knew how screwed up they were at Guantanamo. Furthermore, I know what the philosophy was, and the philosophy was that if you’ve got one terrorist in jail, who cares if you’ve got 500 innocent people in jail? It’s worth it. It’s worth it for two reasons: One, because you may be able, because the people you’ve got who are innocent came from the same region, the same country, the same area, often the same province as the terrorist, you may be able to get information out of them that may be helpful. So that’s the first reason. The second reason is, who cares if you sweep innocent people up as long as you get the bad guy? I mean, if you read Ron Suskind’s book, you understand that that was pretty much the philosophy that Vice President Cheney exercised all the time.
On the other side of the coin, I heard the discussions that took place every morning at 8:30 in the conference room when we met with the assistant secretary and the under secretaries and office heads and so forth, and people like Pierre who were dealing with this issue of trying to repatriate people, trying to get people who weren’t guilty of anything other than having been swept up on the battlefield, like the teenagers and the 90-year-old man and so forth, out of Guantanamo and back to their country. Or in the case of people we didn’t know anything about, which I think was the majority of them, back to a country where the same kind of process could be pursued, perhaps even better pursued, as in the UK – after all they had experience with Northern Ireland and so forth and a lot more terrorist experience than we did – and getting them back to them so that they could do it. All this conversation went on day after day after day, but nothing ever happened.
The Uighers were another case in point. I think everyone early on knew that the Uighers were guilty of nothing but having been swept up on the battlefield. Now we have U.S. courts having corroborated that fact. There were about 16 or 17 of these Uighers. They were from the far province, the western province of China, Xinjiang province of China. And yet we hadn’t at the end of the Bush administration repatriated them yet because we couldn’t find anybody in the world that wanted to take them. We didn’t want to give them back to the Chinese. We were fearful that the Chinese would take draconian, drastic action about them because the Chinese had declared that that group of people were terrorists in their own right. So, I mean, this went on daily, this discussion, and is today, and it was clear to me that the highest-level people knew how screwed up the situation was in Guantanamo. Now, the fact that I saw the Secretary of State aware of it, knew that he talked to Dr. Rice every day, knew that he talked to Secretary Rumsfeld quite frequently, that leads me to believe that the highest people over there in the White House knew about it too. And if I conclude otherwise, then I have to conclude they were all idiots. And though I’ve said some disparaging things about the vice president and others, I don’t think I’ve ever called them an idiot. I don’t think they were idiots.
Horton: Well, did Scooter Libby sit in on these deputies’ meetings?
Wilkerson: No, these were meetings in the State Department where Secretary Powell meets with his people.
Horton: Oh, I see. But they have the deputies’ meetings where the Deputy Secretary of Defense and State and all the different departments come together and then the vice president surely would have somebody representing him there, right?
Wilkerson: Oh, the vice president had people representing him everywhere. There were people at the lowest level coordination meetings within the interagency group from the vice president’s office. For example, when I sat in on discussions of the six-party talks or issues in Asia in general with Jim Kelly, who was the Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, who was in the chair – when I sat in those low-level coordination meetings, the first level, if you will, of the interagency process, there was always a person from the vice president’s office there.
Horton: Now, you know, pardon me, but, it seems to me like if you guys were having these meetings where you talk about how there’s all these innocent people there, on such a regular basis, was everybody not agreeing that “We know we’re liars but this is part of our PR for the war on terrorism, is we got to pretend that there’s more than 100 of these guys in the whole world”?
Wilkerson: Well, look at the problem they had. Look at the challenge they had. And when I say they, I mean the entire interagency, including my boss, Secretary Powell. The challenge had a number of dimensions to it. The first dimension was, “Wow, we don’t know about these people. They were not vetted properly on the battlefield. They were not taken by U.S. soldiers. We don’t know. All we have in some cases is a card with an expected name, maybe the time and date of capture, and maybe who captured. That’s the extent of the trail of evidence that we have. Wow. We don’t want to release these guys because they might really be terrorists. Better to keep them in jail and be wrong about their guilt or innocence than to release them and let them resume the war.” That’s the first dimension. Second dimension…
Horton: All right, well, we’ll have to hold it right there. We’ll get back to the second dimension of it after this break. It’s Larry Wilkerson from the New America Foundation. Antiwar Radio.
Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton, and I’m talking with retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, former aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now at the New America Foundation, and we’re talking about how the government, the Bush government, knew that the men at Guantanamo Bay were innocent. And you were saying, sir, about the second dimension, or maybe you want to recap the first, the two points about what y’all knew, and I guess I was suggesting that it seems like it must have been a cynical conversation, that we have this PR stunt to try to prove that there are lots of terrorists out to get us, you know, 700-something innocent people at Guantanamo originally, while there were never more than a couple hundred al Qaeda in the whole world in the first place.
Wilkerson: Well, the first dimension that I mentioned was of course that we didn’t want to let a terrorist go. And that’s a legitimate dimension, in my view. The second one was, how on earth could you possibly admit to the American people how screwed up Guantanamo was? If you’re Secretary Rumsfeld and you admit that, you’ve just admitted that you don’t know what you’re doing. And you certainly open yourself up to firing by the President of the United States, and you’ve made yourself look like a total fool. So you’ve got this very understandably human dimension to it that no one wants to admit that they’ve made such a colossal error. You’ve got another dimension to it, too, and you hinted at it there. It’s what I call the “Karl Rove dimension.” You want to exploit this as much as you possibly can, so you put them in shackles, you put hoods on them, you put them in orange jumpsuits, and you show a little TV footage every now and then. You want the American people to believe that these are heinous, despicable, deadly criminals.
Horton: Yeah, goes good with an orange alert in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Wilkerson: Yeah. And it doesn’t hurt that you’re doing that. And you’re also, if you’re the vice president, who’s been saying from one end of the country to the other that there are contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and Baghdad, which the intelligence community was saying, “No there aren’t, no there aren’t, no there aren’t” repeatedly, then you want these people to be, shall we say, subjected to the most extreme interrogation methods possible in order to get out of them corroborating proof that there are contacts between al Qaeda and Baghdad.
Horton: Now, now, let me stop you right there, because any journalist – in fact, let’s go ahead and point at McClatchy Newspapers – they went through and they said, “Look, all the torture coincides with Iraq lies, Iraq al Qaeda lies, Iraq weapons of mass destruction lies, but you were there. Were there discussions that you overheard, Col. Wilkerson, where they were deliberately talking about “We need to torture these guys into lying about Saddam Hussein’s connections to Osama bin Laden”?
Wilkerson: No, I was not. And I would not have been privy to those kinds of conversations anyway.
Horton: You ever talk with Colin Powell about that, in the elevator or when you were walking to the car?
Wilkerson: I don’t even believe, in my study of past national security decision-making situations, I don’t even corroborate this, I don’t even believe Colin Powell knew about it. I think this was a very, very closely held, vice president, perhaps the president – I’m not even sure the president was fully versed on it – George Tenet group that worked the problem aside from everyone else. And that’s not – historically that’s not unusual. When the president issues a finding to do something like this, whether it’s Eisenhower issuing a finding to overfly the Soviet Union with U-2s, or whether it’s Eisenhower, for example, issuing a finding to overthrow the first democratically elected prime minister in Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the community that knows about that finding, that decision, is very small. It usually doesn’t include anyone without a need to know, and that means people who are actually going to have to execute the decision. So, I have no problem understanding that my boss didn’t even know about some of this stuff.
Horton: Well, but when you guys were the recipients of the information, such as, we have this guy, I don’t know if they told you the name, al-Libi, but he says that Saddam taught the al Qaeda guys how to make chemical weapons and so forth, did you believe that, or did you know that had anything to do with people being, you know, crucified from the ceiling until they “admitted it,” or worse?
Wilkerson: I didn’t know that until much later. I found it out through my own research, and in the case of Shaykh al-Libi, I found it out because this intelligence individual revealed to me that he had had been tortured in Egypt.
Horton: But I mean the CIA brought you his lies and said, “Use this,” right?
Wilkerson: But the CIA did not bring us any identification of sources, and that’s their normal modus operandi. We did not know, for example, that Curveball existed until well after his UN presentation. We did not know that. What the term of art that the CIA used with the Secretary of State and with me and others was “a high-level al Qaeda operative” has revealed so and so and so and so. We didn’t know names. We didn’t know places. We didn’t know interrogation methods and so forth until well after the presentation.
Horton: Well, formalities aside, did you know that they were BS-ing?
Wilkerson: I’ll be very honest with you and tell you that I suspected at the time that we weren’t getting the full truth.
Horton: Well, now there’s so much ground to cover on Guantanamo, but there are so many other things I want to ask you about as well. Is there anything important about Guantanamo I might have missed – to give you a chance to address here?
Wilkerson: Well I think, you see, one other thing, when President Bush makes a decision to send, if I remember right, it was 14, the 14 high-value detainees that were fairly – we were fairly certain about were very instrumental either in 9/11 or in other activities that al Qaeda was planning or had accomplished, when he decided to pull them out of the secret prisons, which as you know were distributed across the globe, and put them in Guantanamo, there were statements at that time, and some of us made with some derision in our voice, that, “Hey, for the first time since Guantanamo was opened, we really have some hardcore al Qaeda there.”
Horton: Right, yeah, it puts the lie to the whole Guantanamo situation when anybody who was actually, you know, Ramzi bin al-Shibh or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were in a former Soviet torture dungeon in Eastern Europe or in Morocco or in an underground dungeon in Thailand or something like that.
Wilkerson: And frankly I think that was one of the president’s reasons for putting them at Guantanamo. Because we knew the situation at Guantanamo was untenable in the long term and we needed to get some people down there who really counted.
Horton: All right, now, I have a bunch of questions. I don’t know how many I can fit before the next break – do you think there’s any chance I can keep you one more segment after the bottom of the hour?
Wilkerson: Um, yeah. I can stay for another 15 minutes or so.
Horton: Okay, great, I know you’re busy, and I appreciate it. So I want to talk about the aluminum tubes. I want to ask you about the aluminum tubes. Because so much hinged on the idea, as you know, anybody who knew anything about nuclear anything would have been able to just laugh at it, but, you know, the idea that Hussein had some sort of advanced uranium enrichment program or something was laughable to anybody who knew anything about it – or to the IAEA, for example – but the case for war hinged on these tubes. And it was not just the neocons. I believe the story was, it was somebody at the CIA insisted on it. And yet you were working with Colin Powell over at the State Department, and I know that it was the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which I guess is sort of the State Department’s own little CIA there, that they and the Energy Department said, “This is nonsense.” And that was leaked to, or not leaked but discussed at least off the record with Knight Ridder Newspapers, and even with the Washington Post – in September of 2002 the Post ran a story saying, “The lower people don’t believe this.” And yet they kept using it all the way up until the invasion in 2003, including, of course, in Colin Powell’s famous speech – and now I’m sorry because the bumper music’s playing, we’ll have to go out to break, but I’ll try to get your answer on the other side of it. Everybody, it’s Col. Larry Wilkerson, who used to work for Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State in the first Bush administration. We’ll be right back.
Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio on the Liberty Radio Network, LRN.fm, and KAOSRadioAustin.org, talking with retired Col. Larry Wilkerson. He’s now at the New America Foundation. And the question before the break was about the aluminum tubes and who believed this nonsense about the aluminum tubes other than the American people?
Wilkerson: Well, you have to look at the entire panoply of intelligence that was brought to bear on Iraq. There are 16 intelligence entities in the United States, 17 if you count the Foreign Intelligence board. Fourteen of the 16 agreed on the nuclear program. I&R at State and DoE’s intelligence outfit were the only two that dissented, and their dissent was duly noted in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. But, more important than that consensus in the intelligence community that was wrong, obviously, was the fact that it wasn’t just aluminum tubes. There were seven items that the other 14 entities brought out to demonstrate that they thought he had a program. They ranged from everything from the tubes and magnets and rotors and all the things necessary for a centrifuge complex, to scientists that Saddam was trying to recruit who were nuclear scientists, to software that he was purchasing around the world through his what we called “spider front” of companies that purchased in Germany and Russia and elsewhere for him, and so there were other reasons to believe, not the least of which, and I didn’t even include it in the seven, was the fact that we had been very wrong in 1990 and 1991 about his nuclear program. He was much further along than the intelligence community had estimated at the time. So you might say they were trying to make up for their failure in ’90 and ’91 by assessing that he was further along then. So it wasn’t just the aluminum tubes, though admittedly they were a part of it. And I’m not one to defend this at all, because it was dead wrong, but there were other aspects to it than just the two dissenters and the aluminum tubes.
Horton: Yeah. Well, the guys at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, they bought everything but the tubes, or they were –
Wilkerson: Yeah, they bought the chemical and they bought the biological. And then one of the things Tom does in his book now –
Horton: Well, I meant in terms of the other pieces of the nuclear story there. Because you know, Mohamed ElBaradei said, “Come on, this is not right. I’ve been there.”
Wilkerson: Well, you have to remember that ElBaradei had motives of his own, and even if he didn’t have motives of his own, the president, the vice president, even the Secretary of State and others thought he did. So, you know, you’re dealing with politics here and you’re dealing with international politics.
Wilkerson: That’s sometimes hard to deal with.
Horton: But at the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, how much of the nuclear story were they buying? – You said there were the 14 different pieces…
Wilkerson: They didn’t buy any of it. To Tom Fingar’s credit, to Carl Ford’s credit and other analysts in INR, they stood up against the rest of the intelligence community, except for the small element in the Department of Energy, and they said, “We dissent. We do not believe he has an active nuclear program. We do think he wants nuclear weapons, we do think that he will eventually try, but we don’t think he’s got an active program right now.” And they were right.
Horton: All right, now, I guess we can keep going down that path, but there’s so many other things. Let me ask you about the role of David Wurmser and John Bolton in the State Department in the first Bush Jr. administration. It sort of seemed from the outside – there was a piece in Salon.com by Anonymous called “The State Department’s Extreme Makeover,” that came out, I think in 2002, maybe early 2003, saying “Boy, these guys that work for Cheney came in, turned the place upside down, marginalized or fired all the old CFR member types and you know if we put aside Iraq for the moment there’s the story of how America broke the agreed framework with the North Koreans, put new sanctions on them, and now it’s the Proliferation Security Initiative which said we’re going to seize your ships at sea and all this, in what seemed like deliberate plan to provoke the North Koreans into withdrawing from the Nonproliferation Treaty, as John Bolton has been caught on tape saying, what’s his plan with Iran as we’ll, to so frustrate them that they would just go ahead and quit their international agreement. And I wonder if you can kind of tell me about your view from inside the State Department of these two men and how the Cheney network operated under Colin Powell and Dick Armitage and you over there at the State Department?
Wilkerson: There’s no question that John Bolton was operating off a different sheet of music than the rest of us on more than one occasion. I would go in to see the Deputy Secretary of State and we would both lament the fact that we didn’t seem to be able to control him because he was covered by the vice president’s office. Very difficult to control an under secretary who ultimately has access to the vice president and, in this case, ultimately to what I believe was the real power in the first Bush administration. We tried. Obviously, we didn’t do that good a job. He made some very egregious speeches about North Korea, about Syria, about Cuba having an active biological weapons program, of all things, tried to intimidate one of our I&R analysts, a young man, Christian Westermann. The secretary had to bring the young man in and tell him no one in the State Department would intimidate him and give him access to his own office were it to happen again. So, yeah, it was a contest.
Now to go to those two specific individuals in your statement earlier, I think there’s a very clear-cut case that Wurmser was not only working for Rumsfeld and Feith and the Pentagon, but he was also working for Israel. I think Feith was working for Israel too. Cheney, on the other hand, I think was working for Cheney. And so you had this confluence of motivations and confluence of unholy alliance, if you will, of strange characters. You had Feith and Wurmser, who as far as I was concerned, were card-carrying members of the Likud Party. And they had different motivations from people like Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. And they had different motivations than people like Cheney and Libby and Addington and the vice president’s office. So you had this alliance of these people who were all after one thing, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but in many cases, for very different reasons.
Horton: Wow, so, please elaborate about what exactly you mean there. I guess people sort of differentiate between who’s an actual spy or who’s an agent of influence, and I guess the Israelis have a thing called a “sayanim” who’s like, “Eh, a friend of Israel who does things for us sometimes,” that kind of thing. Just how much agents of Israel, these guys, do you think they were? Wurmser and Feith, particularly.
Wilkerson: I’ll put it this way. I think Douglas Feith thought that Israel’s interests and the U.S. interests were 100% complementary 100% of the time. So if he was looking out for Israel’s interests, it was not any, by any way, stretch of the imagination, being unfaithful or traitorous with regard to the United States because our interests were the same, all the time, every day, day in and day out. That’s of course nonsense, but I think that’s really the way he believed.
I didn’t know Wurmser that well so I can’t tell you how he believed, but I do know that there were people in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the government, as there are right now this minute, and as there will be tomorrow, who were working as much for Israel as they are for the United States, and I know that with AIPAC and the Jewish Lobby, as John Mearsheimer has called it, in general operating the way it normally operates in this country, this special relationship that we have with Israel overlooks a lot of this a lot of the time. I mean you can throw out Jonathan Pollard and you can throw out an occasional attempt to do something about the more egregious spying, especially when it brings clear damage to us, but by and large it happens all the time. Look at what happened with Franklin and Rosen and AIPAC and that business. It’s pretty much been swept under the rug now. We share classified data with the Israelis all the time, both through official conduits and through unofficial ones too, and people get away with it all the time.
Horton: Well, no doubt about that. So, I wonder what you have to say about Richard Perle? Is that a general enough question for you?
Wilkerson: Richard Perle was so much on our minds – and he would love to hear me say that – in 2001 and 2002 that the secretary actually asked me to build a dossier on him and to see what he was saying, because he was going all over the world, Europe principally but elsewhere too, and he was talking, and he was being perceived, as an official member of the government. Of course he was a semiofficial member, he was on the Defense Policy Board, and he was pushing the war with Iraq, and we at the State Department in particular didn’t like what he was doing.
Horton: I tell you what, I’m starting to hate these hard breaks, but that’s it. Thank you very much for your time on the show. I hope we can do this again soon, because I’ve got more questions.
Horton: And you apparently have a lot of answers.
Wilkerson: Thanks so much for having me.
Horton: All right, everybody, that’s Larry Wilkerson. He’s at the New America Foundation.