We spend the hour with a former senior member of the Bush administration: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. In the interview, Wilkerson discusses what he calls a "White House cabal", led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld; pre-war intelligence and Powell’s February 2003 speech before the United Nations; the "memory lapse" by Gen. Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and much more. [includes rush transcript]
Vice President Dick Cheney launched a fresh attack Monday on critics of the Iraq war. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., Cheney again denied that the Bush administration manipulated prewar intelligence to build support for the invasion.
- Vice President Dick Cheney, November 21, 2005:
"The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight. But any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false. Senator John McCain put it best: 'It is a lie to say that the president lied to the American people.' American soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq go out every day into some of the most dangerous and unpredictable conditions. Meanwhile, back in the United States, a few politicians are suggesting these brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood. This is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety. It has no place anywhere in American politics, much less in the United States Senate."
Cheney’s public appearance Monday was his second in less than a week and the latest in a series over the past ten days by senior officials to rebut growing charges that the administration manipulated prewar intelligence and to counter growing pressure in Congress to withdraw troops from Iraq.
Today, we are joined by a former senior member of the Bush administration, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He served as chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. Last month, he caused a stir when he made a speech at the New America Foundation.
- Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, October 19, 2005:
"What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made."
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson joins us today from a studio in Washington DC for the hour.
- Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005.
AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Dick Cheney launched a fresh attack Monday on critics of the Iraq war. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Cheney again denied the Bush administration manipulated prewar intelligence to build support for the invasion.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight, but any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false. Senator John McCain put it best: It is a lie to say that the President lied to the American people. American soldiers and marines serving in Iraq go out every day into some of the most dangerous and unpredictable conditions. Meanwhile, back in the United States, a few politicians are suggesting these brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood. This is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety. It has no place anywhere in American politics, much less in the United States Senate.
AMY GOODMAN: Cheney’s public appearance Monday was his second in less than a week and the latest in a series over the past ten days by senior officials to rebut growing charges that the administration manipulated prewar intelligence to counter growing pressure in Congress to withdraw troops from Iraq. Today, we’re joined by a former senior member of the Bush administration, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He served as chief of staff to then Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. Last month, he caused a stir when he made a speech at the New America Foundation.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: What I saw was a cabal between the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.
AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson joins us today from a studio in Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, why don’t you lay it out? Explain what exactly you see happening right now.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, I listened to the comments that you were playing from the Vice President with great interest. I read some of them this morning in the paper, but my concern as a former member of the Defense Department, a soldier for 31 years, is with the difficulties that this administration has put in the face of our brave men and women in Iraq today, and to a certain extent in Afghanistan and in other places where they’re stationed around the world. And the difficulties I refer to come from the two decisions that I had the most insight into that were made in this more or less alternative decision-making process. And those two decisions were the inept and incompetent planning for post-invasion Iraq, and the some two years after that in which we have been involved in essentially a pickup game, an ad hoc approach, and the decision that came also from that alternative decision-making process to depart from the Geneva Conventions and from international law, in general, dealing with treatment of detainees, which has rebounded to America’s discredit around the world, hurt our credibility and made the job of our brave men and women in the field even more difficult.
AMY GOODMAN: This issue of torture goes back, even before the pictures that we saw in April of 2004 of the prisoners that were tortured at Abu Ghraib. You were there when the discussions were taking place. What was your position? What exactly did you hear?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, it’s not so much discussions as the fact that just prior to those photographs going public, the photographs of Abu Ghraib, the Secretary of State walked through my door into my office and said, — we had adjoining offices — and he said, "I want you to get all of the paperwork you can, get everything together, establish an audit trail and a chronology and so forth. I want to know how we got to where we are." And over the course of the next few months, I got my hands on every piece of paper that I could, open source, classified, sensitive and otherwise, and I built for myself a chronology, an audit trail, and gained profound insights into how we got to where we were.
And what I found was that the statutory process, that is, the process in which the principals and the President meet to make national security decisions, worked. And that process produced a compromise, a compromise reflected in the President’s memorandum which said although he recognized we were in a new situation, fighting al-Qaeda terrorists, for example, nonetheless, the spirit of Geneva would be adhered to by our armed forces in the field, consistent with military necessity. Now, my critics have said that phrase gave the President an out. I don’t agree. It did not say "consistent with national security demands." It did not say "consistent with the demands of the war on terror." It said "consistent with military needs." Now, military needs are very simple and clear to a man like me who spent 31 years in the military. It means that if one of my buddy’s life is threatened or my life is threatened, I can take drastic action. I can even shoot a detainee. And I can expect not to be punished under Geneva, or at least if I am court-martialed, I have a defense.
It doesn’t mean that I can take a detainee in a cold, dark cell in Bagram, Afghanistan, for example, in December 2002, shackled to the wall, and pour cold water on him at intervals when the outside temperature is 50 degrees anyway, and eventually kill him, which is what happened. And the first thing I came across in my research was two deaths in Bagram, Afghanistan, in December 2002. And now we know after the army has finally, two years, conducted its investigations, we now know that one of those individuals who was murdered at Bagram was very likely innocent.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain these discs that you found. You found them in December 2002?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: No, this is what I discovered was the first occasion — this was available to me in open source information, too, because The New York Times had done a really fine job of beginning an investigation of this. And what I found was these two deaths, and the suspicion was aroused in me, because at the time the Army coroner had declared the deaths homicides, and the Army had declared the deaths as a result of natural causes. And so, as I began to investigate, and as others began to investigate and began to talk to me and to feed me information, and as I began to look at the documents that were official and otherwise, I began to construct a case that showed that the Army had obfuscated, it had blocked at every level of command, trying to get to the bottom of these two killings.
And let me just add, when I left the State Department and had to turn over my papers, the deaths were up to over 70. And I have sources inside the government now that tell me the deaths may be up to 90. Now, this is people detained by the United States, either the armed forces, the Central Intelligence Agency or others, and these are people who have died in detention. Now, all of these cases, I hope, are not murder. But many of these cases still need to be investigated, and something needs to be done in the way of accountability.
AMY GOODMAN: And these are deaths in Afghanistan?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: These are in all of our facilities.
AMY GOODMAN: In Iraq.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: In Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you know about the secret detention facilities?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I can’t give you any insights into that. I did not know anything about that when I was in government. Those things, presidential findings, if they exist, are usually kept very close hold. Only very few people know about them. I have my suspicions. I suspect that if the Vice President is lobbying the Congress of the United States on behalf of torture, that we must have some kind of clandestine operation going on, but I can’t offer you any insights into that.
Let me just make one other point. You’re probably aware that recently the Minister of the Interior in Iraq was discovered to have a prison where principally Shia were being abused, being abused rather drastically, as I understand it. Imagine, if you will, General George Casey, our commander in Iraq and our ambassador in Baghdad, Khalilzad, imagine them having to go to Hakeem, the Minister of the Interior, and speaking to him in strong words about this abuse. Imagine Hakeem looking at them and laughing, because he could cite Abu Ghraib, he could cite Guantanamo, he could cite Bagram, and this position that we have assumed has just hurt our credibility and our image all around the world. Pardon me, my cell phone is ringing.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. We’re going to go back to this point in just a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He is the former chief of staff of Colin Powell as Secretary of State. He served as his chief of staff from 2002 to 2005 and has called the decision-making that went on in the lead-up to Iraq, those in charge, as a cabal. Colonel Wilkerson, before we go to that, I wanted to go back to what you were saying about those that were detained, over 170 Sunni men being detained, found tortured, and your response to that.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, it just reinforces my position that we cannot afford to be, as a country, as a people, seen as tolerating torture in any way, fashion or form, or unusual and degrading punishment as the International Convention Against Torture delineates it. It just undercuts our image. It undercuts our credibility. More important than that, it undercuts our political values and who we are.
And let me just give you a broader context for why that is so important. This is not a conflict of bombs, bullets and bayonets. This is not a conflict where the military should be the leading instrument. Yes, we had to go to Afghanistan because we had no choice. Al-Qaeda was resident there. The people who actually plotted and the people who planned the 9/11 tragedy were resident there. We had to go after them. The Taliban would not give them up. We had to go after them. The military instrument was appropriate there.
But the military instrument is not appropriate to this wider conflict, because this wider conflict is a conflict of ideas. It is our ideas, which are the political values upon which America is based, indeed, upon western liberalism is based, and the ideas of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other evil people like those. And if we think that this conflict can be won with bombs, bullets and bayonets, we are sadly mistaken. I was a soldier for 31 years. You do not fight ideas with bombs, bullets and bayonets. You fight them with your ideas, because your ideas are better. And so, when you detract from the better of your ideas, when you give people in the world, especially the millions of moderate Muslims who might be sitting on the fence right now in this conflict, when you give them reason to doubt your credibility, to doubt your ideas, give them reason to criticize you, you’re actually defeating yourself. And we just can’t continue to do that sort of thing, because this is a war of ideas, and we’re going to win it with our ideas, triumphant over the ideas of people like bin Laden and Zarqawi.
AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Wilkerson, in the run-up to the invasion, the Bush administration issued dire warnings about Iraq’s biological weapons program, to portray Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat and to build support for the invasion. President Bush repeatedly said Iraq had had mobile factories, brewing biological poisons. Colin Powell, your chief, the Secretary of State, also made the allegation in his prewar presentation to the United Nations in February of 2003.
COLIN POWELL: One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq’s biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents. Let me take you inside that intelligence file and share with you what we know from eyewitness accounts. We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. The trucks and train cars are easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors. In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War.
Although Iraq’s mobile production program began in the mid-1990s, U.N. inspectors at the time only had vague hints of such programs. Confirmation came later, in the year 2000. The source was an eyewitness, an Iraqi chemical engineer, who supervised one of these facilities. He actually was present during biological agent production runs. He was also at the site when an accident occurred in 1998. 12 technicians died from exposure to biological agents. He reported that when UNSCOM was in country and inspecting, the biological weapons agent production always began on Thursdays at midnight, because Iraq thought UNSCOM would not inspect on the Muslim holy day, Thursday night through Friday. He added that this was important because the units could not be broken down in the middle of a production run, which had to be completed by Friday evening before the inspectors might arrive again. This defector is currently hiding in another country with a certain knowledge that Saddam Hussein will kill him if he finds him. His eyewitness account of these mobile production facilities has been corroborated by other sources.
AMY GOODMAN: Then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, speaking at the United Nations February 5, 2003. The Iraqi chemical engineer Powell referred to is an informant codenamed "Curveball." In a major article this past weekend, The Los Angeles Times reported five senior officials from Germany’s federal intelligence service say they warned U.S. intelligence that information provided by Curveball could not be trusted or confirmed. The L.A. Times reports the C.I.A. corroborated Curveball’s story with three sources. Two had ties to Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. All three turned out to be frauds. The German authorities also told The Los Angeles Times that the informant suffered from emotional and mental problems and was not psychologically stable. Lieutenant Wilkerson, your response, and your involvement in the preparation of this absolutely key speech in the lead-up to the invasion?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, I must tell you that when I heard Secretary Powell uttering those words yet again, my heart sank another inch or two. I have said before, I’ll say it again, it was a low point in my professional career. I was in charge of the task force at the Secretary’s orders to put together his presentation on 5 February, 2003 at the U.N. Security Council, and I spent six, seven days and nights at the Central Intelligence Agency barely sleeping, as did my team, and then two days in New York with the same routine, putting this production together.
And I have read the stories, and I have heard people in the government who now continue to talk to me, talk about Curveball. I have also heard them talk about Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, whose story also, gained under other than Geneva Convention interrogation techniques, has now been recanted. That was the story that connected al-Qaeda and Baghdad very closely prewar. I have heard that story blown out of the water. Now I have heard the Curveball story blown out of the water.
I have no other defense than to say I sat in the room with the Secretary of State and the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, and listened to George Tenet and listened to John McLaughlin, his deputy, the D.D.C.I., and listened to his best national intelligence officers assure the Secretary of State, assure me, that this was a sound source, that indeed it was multiple-sourced, that everything we were seeing about the biological weapons labs was accurate. We could depend on it. It was a slam dunk. And now I have serious questions about — after reading the L.A. Times piece, the Washington Post piece, I have serious questions in my mind about how we got to that point, because no one ever said a word to us during that intense preparation period, about Ibn Shaykh al-Libi’s possible lack of veracity, because of the way he was interrogated, or more seriously, about Curveball and the doubts that existed in a number of places about his veracity.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to say you spent time at the C.I.A., as Vice President Dick Cheney did, and the allegations over and over again that to go there, to spend that kind of time meant, what many said about Cheney’s visit, it wasn’t to gather information but to twist the information, to intimidate the analysts?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, I, of course, can’t speak to that. I wasn’t there when Vice President Cheney went out. I understand he went out nine or ten times. That does seem to be an inordinate number of times for a vice president to visit the Central Intelligence Agency over that short a period of time, but why I was there was because the President had announced in his State of the Union address that we were going to New York, and we were going to present our position, and Secretary Powell was selected to be the presenter thereof.
And so, when he walked through my door and said, "Here, I need you to go out to the agency, get a task force together and develop this presentation," I was not going out there to bring any pressure on the agency. Quite the contrary. The agency gathered all of the intelligence community around me, and we attempted to go through the best intelligence that the United States, the British, the Germans, the French, the Jordanians and others had and to develop this presentation. So, I don’t think there was any pressure associated with my visit to the agency.
AMY GOODMAN: In September of 2003, the Vice President went on the offensive to justify the invasion of Iraq. In a lengthy interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, he portrayed Iraq as the geographic base for the September 11 attacks. In the interview, he reasserted the debunked claim that Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: With respect to 9/11, of course, you have had the story that’s been public out there. The Czechs alleged that Mohammed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack. But we have never been able to develop any more of that yet, either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, that claim had been found to be untrue. The F.B.I. investigated, found nothing to substantiate the report of the meeting. In fact, the F.B.I. concluded Atta was most likely in Florida at the time. Even the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, told The New York Times in October 2002, that there was no evidence to confirm reports of the meeting. In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, David Wise wrote that only moments before Powell addressed the U.N. in February 2003, Scooter Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff at the time, was frantically trying to reach you, Colonel Wilkerson, by cell phone to persuade Powell to include the supposed link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 in the speech.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Yes, I know David. He’s an excellent writer, and he’s a very incisive voice in terms of criticizing the intelligence community, in particular. As far as the call on the floor of the U.N. Security Council goes, I was not taking any calls that morning. I had told all of the people who were supporting me that I was getting ready for the presentation, that I wasn’t going to take any calls. I broke my own rule and took one call from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, feeling that it was in my interest to take my boss’s call. But I didn’t take the call from Vice President’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby. I referred it to someone else. So I’m not here to say that Scooter Libby called on the floor of the U.N. Security Council to the point that you’re addressing or that David addressed; the person to whom I did refer the call could probably assure you of that, because that’s the information I obtained later.
But more important than that is, I think, is the story you referred to did keep coming up. It came up a number of times in rehearsals where Dr. Rice, Mr. Hadley, Scooter Libby, Mr. Armitage, the Secretary and I, and the D.C.I. and D.D.C.I., were all present. And I remember one time vividly, because Mr. Tenet and the Secretary of State had agreed that that story did not have enough firmness, did not have enough foundation to be included in his remarks, everyone agreed on that, but I remember one story in particular or one scene in particular where we were rehearsing it, it was one of the later rehearsals in the D.C.I.'s conference room out at Langley, and Stephen Hadley leaned forward and said, "What happened to the Mohammed Atta story?" And the Secretary looked at him and fixed him with his eyes and said, "We took that out." And to Mr. Hadley's credit, he sheepishly grinned and leaned back in his chair and said, "Oh, yes, I remember now." So we had completely discounted that story by the time we made the presentation in New York.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet Cheney continued to assert it.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I can’t explain it. I can’t explain it.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you talk to his aides and say that our own intelligence community, the president of the Czech Republic, are saying this isn’t true; in fact, that Atta was probably here in Florida at the time?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, there is still some conjecture. There are people in the government and out of the government who believe there are people in the Czech government, if not in the Czech community at large, who still cling to that story. So, while I say we discounted it entirely, there may be some people out there who still believe it, and perhaps there are people on the Vice President’s staff and indeed the Vice President himself may believe it. That’s the nature of intelligence. You have to go, I think, with the majority opinion. And overwhelmingly, the majority opinion of both foreign and U.S. intelligence communities, is that that meeting never occurred.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you mean by a "cabal"?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, I’m a student of the national security decision-making process. I have taught it at two of the nation’s war colleges, four years at the Marine College, two years at the Naval War College. I have watched it up close and personal through my time with General Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, through Bush 1, as we like to say now, 41, George H.W. Bush, through the first year of the Clinton administration and now four years intimately with the State Department in the 43’s administration, George W. Bush’s administration. And I have studied it extensively all the way back to the 1947 National Security Act. And I know what the statutory decision-making process is supposed to be. I know what it evolved to be in the year 2000-2001, when President Bush took over.
I also know that every president — every president — since 1947, Harry Truman forward to the present situation, has deviated from the process at one time or another. That’s the President’s prerogative. That’s the way our government is set up. The President can take advice from other people. He can let other people make decisions. And he can decide to remain aloof from those decisions, witting of the decisions, or he can decide to be unwitting of those decisions, or he can actually be ignorant of those decisions. You can cite many examples: Iran-Contra, Watergate, the last few years of the Vietnam War are examples of failures in this kind of alternative decision-making process. You could cite successes, too. Henry Kissinger accumulated power like no other person in the history of America. He was both National Security Adviser and Secretary of State for Richard Nixon at the same time, concentrating power that still trickles down in history’s pages.
But usually what happens is when a president trusts an alternative process that’s not transparent, that’s not secret, if it results in success, no one ever questions it. But if it results in failure, as did Iran-Contra, as did Watergate, as did the Bay of Pigs for John F. Kennedy, then people start looking. Historians look. Congressmen look. Senators look. Everyone wants to look. The American people want to know the truth when you fail. And my point is, two of these decisions into which I had the most profound insights, the post-invasion planning for Iraq and the detainee abuse issue, have resulted in fairly large failures, and so they need to be looked at. They need to be investigated. And we need to have the insights gained so that we can try to insure that these kind of failures don’t occur again in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. We’ll come back with him in just a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005, has called the meetings of Cheney and Rumsfeld — said they formed a cabal that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made. Now, this weekend on CNN, both Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, and Peter Pace, the general, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they had no recollection of you, Colonel Wilkerson, ever having attended any meetings of Rumsfeld or Cheney; and, of course, Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, called your charges ridiculous. Your response?
COLONEL WILKERSON: [Inaudible] meetings, and I’m not —
AMY GOODMAN: Can you repeat what you just said?
COLONEL WILKERSON: I said Secretary Powell attended those meetings. I’m not talking about those meetings. I’m talking about the decisions that were made outside those meetings. The decisions that were made in the statutory process, the process that Richard Armitage and Secretary Powell most often attended, those decisions reflected a very balanced decision-making process, the kind of process that the framers of the 1947 act, for example, would have envisioned: A process where the President had his policies implemented, a process where Powell won as much as he lost, gave as good as he got, where Rumsfeld won what he wanted to win and where compromises were reached at times.
That process was reflected clearly in the documentation, which I read. The principals meet in the statutory process, in the process approved by the legislature, and a summary of conclusions document is written to summarize all the decisions made. And so, I read those documents, and I knew what was decided in the formal process. That’s not the process to which I am referring. I’m referring to the alternative decision-making process centered in the Vice President and centered in the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense when referred to Iraq and the two issues I’ve discussed.
And I find it really disingenuous of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, to say as he did that he didn’t know me. General Peter Pace was my immediate superior when I was the Director — Acting Director and the Deputy Director of the Marine Corps War College, the only army officer ever to be the director; and the reason I was the Director was because my good friend and Peter Pace’s nineteen-something classmate at the — I think the '66 or ’67, somewhere in there classmate — at the U.S. Naval Academy, Rick Donnelly, was my immediate boss who died suddenly of cancer. So I actually attended Rick Donnelly's funeral with my entire seminar from the war college at General Pace’s request. I sat right behind General Pace in the chapel at Quantico. General Pace knew me. He came into my seminars. He taught my students for me. He was in Mogadishu a lot of that time, so I wanted him to come to the seminars when he came back to visit the college. He knew me, and he denied knowing me; and if that was a failure of memory, well, that’s one thing, but I find it very disingenuous of the Chairman not to have least done the research to find out who I was.
AMY GOODMAN: It sounds like a lie.
COLONEL WILKERSON: I’m not going to say that. I’m going to say it was a memory lapse.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Colonel Wilkerson, what about President Bush and his involvement? You’ve talked about a cabal of Rumsfeld and Cheney. What about the man at the top?
COLONEL WILKERSON: That’s a difficult thing for me to decide in my own mind; and I would caution the American people about making a decision with regard to President Bush. If you look back on the decision-making process I’ve described to you, from Truman through Eisenhower on up to the present, you see sometimes where historians have gleaned from all the wealth of information they’ve poured through that the president was witting, that is, he was knowledgeable, and that other times where the president perhaps wasn’t knowledgeable. I think in the case of Watergate, it’s clear the President was knowledgeable. In the case of Iran-Contra, Ronald Reagan actually came out and made a sort of an apology for what had happened and then moved to correct the situation. As soon as the Tower Commission report came out and the recommendations of that report were read, changes were made. New people were brought into the National Security Council. New people were brought into the White House. Changes were made; and the American people could see that the President recognized a failure had occurred, and changes were made. And so, they gave President Reagan the benefit of the doubt; and I think I even recall his poll ratings went up after that. So he made a move, and it was a good move.
I can’t imagine, for example, a president like Franklin Roosevelt, who would have already fired people in this administration and sent the American people a signal that: 'Even if I was knowledgeable, I'm going to get rid of these people because they did damage to me. In some cases, I wasn’t knowledgeable, so I’m getting rid of these people because they did damage to me.’ That’s not occurred in this administration. I wish I would see some recognition on the part of the President that he understands the damage that’s been done to his country, the challenge that now confronts his soldiers and his sailors and his airmen and his marines in Iraq (and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, but still certainly the same challenge), and make some changes, some changes that would indicate to the American people, to those soldiers and marines and so forth, that he understands that changes are being made. Instead, what I see is a lockdown. I see, instead of a new person coming in to be the Vice President’s chief of staff in replacing Scooter Libby, I see David Addington who is a Scooter Libby look-alike, philosophically, ideologically, intellectually, etc.
So, I don’t see the administration recognizing that they’ve got problems and moving to correct those problems with the exception of what’s happening at the State Department with Dr. Rice, where I think she is moving to do some things that will begin to repair our image around the world and begin to tell the world that we’re not quite the unilateralists that perhaps they thought we were in the first administration.
But I still can’t make up in my own mind how knowledgeable the President was of some of this, and I wish he would speak to it. And if he would speak to it and say, 'I made these decisions,' I would cease and desist. I mean, I voted for him two times. I am a Republican, and I would like to see my president say something to the American people that leads me to believe he knows that he’s got some difficulties and he’s moving to correct them.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff of former Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. Now, in this time, Colonel Wilkerson, not only did we see the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but we also saw the democratically elected president of Haiti ousted, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And you were the chief of staff of Colin Powell at the time. Bill Fletcher of TransAfrica has said about Powell’s legacy, quote, "Why was he leading the charge, pushing President Aristide out the door? Why was he not instead using his office as a way of stabilizing the situation and bringing about peace?" What do you know of what happened February 29th, 2004, when the Aristides were forced out of the country?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I will have to tell you that I think Secretary Powell saved a great many lives on both sides, if there are two sides. There are more than two sides in Haiti. Secretary Powell was all for and was pushing hard for some sort of reconciliation, some sort of reconciliation where we could recognize the democratically elected government of Aristide and Aristide could himself step back from the brink, a brink that he had been largely responsible for creating, and things could improve in Haiti and the government that was in existence at that time could continue in office.
Once our ambassador, Ambassador Foley, who was one of the people who changed my opinion forever about the foreign service — our ambassador in Liberia did the same thing for me in Monrovia, such brave people. They’re braver than people I have even known sometimes in combat. And Ambassador Foley, at great risk to himself, personal risk, counseled President Aristide, talked with President Aristide, confronted him with the situation that Aristide was going to meet on the morn, so to speak, confronted him with the devastation that was likely to take place, and President Aristide, to his credit, made the decision to take Ambassador Foley’s offer and to leave the country.
I know he said a thousand things different from that in the subsequent weeks and months and years, but this was a situation fraught with all kinds of chaos, and Secretary Powell and the United States government and our ambassador in Haiti, in particular, did a marvelous job, I think, under the circumstances, of preventing what could have been widespread bloodshed and getting Aristide out of the country.
One testimony to that was the fact that even though on the surface we had had all of these rancorous relations, supposedly, with France, much on the part of Secretary Rumsfeld’s having stiffed the French on almost everything they wanted to do in the way of military liaison and so forth, the French were willing to come in and help us with the situation in Haiti and to provide troops for stabilizing that situation, because they, too, understood how desperate the situation was.
AMY GOODMAN: But this —
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: So I disagree completely with the characterization that TransAfrica put on this situation.
AMY GOODMAN: This all happened after the Aristides left. Why not bring in these forces before? We were only talking about a couple of hundred thugs that were moving in on the capital?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Aristide was the focal point. Aristide was the person who needed to be removed from Haiti, and even he understood that. In the conversation he had with our ambassador, he understood that. He knew that he was the lightning rod, and that if he didn’t remove himself from the island, there was going to be a lot of bloodshed.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, he would contest every point.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Of course, he would.
AMY GOODMAN: I went to the Central African Republic, and he told the story of basically what he described as being forced out of Haiti at the time, that you had this small group — I mean, these were not a large number of people — small group, known killers, people like Jodel Chamblain, who was found guilty of murder in absentia for the murder of the Justice Minister, Guy Malary, in 1993; Antoine Izmery. These were people who were known — certainly Colin Powell also knew them — had been back during the first coup, had been there negotiating with those involved in the coup. This was not the overall sentiment of the Haitian people, and he said it was the U.S. that pressed him to leave, that pushed him out, that put him onto this plane with U.S. military and security. He had no idea where was going until he was dumped in the Central African Republic.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I can’t imagine a man like Aristide, whose will to power is excessive, even obsessive, saying anything differently. Colin Powell, as you said, did know the situation in Haiti, probably as well as anyone in America. Colin Powell made the decision based on our ambassador in Haiti’s very clear presentation of the circumstances, and the President made the decision ultimately, and it was a good decision, and I would stand by that decision.
Haiti is a situation that picks at all our hearts all the time. Haiti is right next to being a failed state. And because of its proximity to the United States, we know what that failure means. And Haiti is not apparently capable of coming out of that situation. It’s a situation that, as I said, drags at all our hearts, but in this particular instance, I think a good decision was made, a decision that prevented further bloodshed that would have been widespread had it not been made.
AMY GOODMAN: Why say that the president, Aristide, had an obsession with power? This was a man who was the democratically elected president of Haiti, certainly got a higher percentage of the vote than President Bush got in this country.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Please, don’t refer to the percentage of vote as equatable to democracy, as equatable to the kinds of institutions we have reflecting democracy in America. Hitler was elected by popular vote.
AMY GOODMAN: I spoke to the head of the Steele Foundation. That was the American foundation that provided the security for the people around President Aristide, who was not allowed to send in reinforcements. Again, since we’re talking about such a small group of people who are moving in on the capital, the Steele Foundation felt he could be secured, but the U.S. government stopped Aristide’s own security from being able to come in.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Aristide felt like he couldn’t be secured. That’s the only — I was privy to the cables that come in from our ambassador. I was privy to some of the information that the secretary let me know about what was happening down there in terms of telephone calls and so forth. Aristide made the decision deep into the night that his life was in danger and that the bloodshed that would occur would probably fall at his feet, and so Aristide made a mutual decision with our ambassador to leave the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Why would —
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Despite what he says now, that’s what the record reflects.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I don’t doubt he felt threatened, but he felt threatened, as Kenneth Kurtz said, who was the head of the Steele Foundation, on our program, that they were not allowed to bring in the security. Why wouldn’t the U.S. government allow the security to be brought in? This was the president of the country.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: That’s a question you should address to George Bush, because I’m unfamiliar with the circumstance you’re talking about. I know about all of the elements that were converging. I know about all of the different elements that Aristide had excited to converge. I don’t know this story about private security people, who were willing to come in at the last moment and guard Aristide. I heard some information to that effect after the situation occurred, but I am unable to comment on that with any accuracy, because I’m not familiar with exactly what you are talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: And Gerard Latortue, the person who was put in charge in Haiti and his connection to the United States, how he was chosen?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: That’s a process that unfolded after Aristide was removed, and again, I don’t have any profound insights into that.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lawrence Wilkerson, who is the colonel who was the chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. What has Colin Powell — has his response been to your charges of the Rumsfeld/Cheney cabal?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: That’s a question that would better be asked of him. This has been very painful for me, because we have been friends for 16 years. I joined him in 1989 at the U.S. Army Forces Command in Atlanta, Georgia, and we have been together ever since pretty much. And this has forced an estrangement, I’ll be very honest about it. I would prefer to let him comment, prefer to let you ask him how he feels about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think people within the administration should be speaking out right now?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, it’s difficult to speak out when you’re in the administration and you still believe there’s good to be done. I’m not trying to make excuses for myself. I actually typed out my resignation, personally typed it out and put it in my center desk drawer and took it out and looked at it all through the summer of 2004, took it out at least once a week to look at it. And you rationalize. You make arguments to yourself that you are important, that you are doing decent things, and that you need to stay, in this case, in my case, with your boss, because your boss needs your help, and your boss is a stabilizing factor in the government. He is a person who can do damage control really well. He is a person who won the argument over the U.S./China relationship and managed that relationship quite well.
AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Probably the most important relationship. So, you know, I can’t criticize people who don’t just walk out the door when they think they can do something good.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lawrence Wilkerson, I want to thank you for being with us.