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Ex-Bush Official: U.S. Tortured Prisoners to Produce False Intel that Built Case for Iraq War

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Since the release of Senate findings earlier this month, the assumption that the CIA’s torture program’s sole motive was post-9/11 self-defense has gone virtually unchallenged. There has been almost no recognition that the George W. Bush administration also tortured prisoners for a very different goal: to extract information that could tie al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein and justify the invasion of Iraq. While the Senate report and other critics say torture produced false information, that could have been one of the program’s goals. We are joined by retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. Wilkerson helped prepare Powell’s infamous February 2003 speech to the United Nations wrongly accusing Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction. The claim was partially based on statements extracted from a prisoner tortured by Egypt on the CIA’s behalf, who later recanted his claim. Wilkerson says that beginning in the spring of 2002 — one year before the Iraq War and just months after the 9/11 attacks, the torture program’s interrogations “were as much aimed at contacts between al-Qaeda and Baghdad and corroboration thereof as they were trying to ferret out whether there was another attack coming like 9/11. That was stunning to me to find that was probably 50 percent of the impetus.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: Since the release of Senate findings this month, senior officials from the George W. Bush administration have defended their global torture program. Speaking to Meet the Press last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney said that with no major terror attack since 9/11, he wouldn’t hesitate to use torture again.

DICK CHENEY: With respect to trying to define that as torture, I come back to the proposition torture was what the al-Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation. … It worked. It worked now. For 13 years we’ve avoided another mass casualty attack against the United States. We did capture bin Laden. We did capture an awful lot of the senior guys of al-Qaeda who were responsible for that attack on 9/11. I’d do it again in a minute.

AARON MATÉ: The Obama administration and top Democrats have contested Cheney’s claim the torture program was effective, as well as legal. But what has gone unchallenged is the assumption the torture program’s sole motive was post-9/11 self-defense. There has been almost no recognition the Bush administration also tortured prisoners for a very different goal: extract information that could tie al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein and justify the invasion of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Instead, from President Obama on down, it’s been taken at face value that protecting the nation was the Bush administration’s sole motive. Speaking to the network Univision, President Obama was asked if President Bush had betrayed the country’s values. This was his response.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I’ve said before, after 9/11, I don’t think that you can know what it feels like to know that America has gone through the worst attack on the continental United States in its history and you’re uncertain as to what’s coming next. So, there were a lot of people who did a lot of things right and worked very hard to keep us safe. But I think that any fair-minded person looking at this would say that some terrible mistakes were made.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s comments were echoed by CIA Director John Brennan. In his first response to the Senate report, Brennan said those behind the torture program faced agonizing choices in their effort to protect the country after 9/11.

JOHN BRENNAN: The previous administration faced agonizing choices about how to pursue al-Qaeda and prevent additional terrorist attacks against our country, while facing fears of further attacks and carrying out the responsibility to prevent more catastrophic loss of life. There were no easy answers. And whatever your views are on EITs, our nation, and in particular this agency, did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secure.

AARON MATÉ: Though the White House has not questioned the Bush administration’s motives, there is no doubt torture played a major role in the push for invading Iraq. And while the Senate report and other critics say torture produced false information, that could have been one of the program’s goals. In 2009, McClatchy reported, “The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and … Saddam Hussein’s regime.” A “former senior U.S. intelligence official” said, quote, “There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder.”

AMY GOODMAN: The Iraq-torture connection gets only bare mention in the Senate intelligence report, but it’s still significant. In a footnote, the report cites the case of Ibn Shaykh al-Libi. After U.S. forces sent him for torture in Egypt, Libi made up the false claim that Iraq provided training in chemical and biological weapons to al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Colin Powell then used Libi’s statements in that famous February 5th, 2003, speech at the United Nations falsely alleging Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The Senate report says, quote, “Libi [later] recanted the claim … claiming that he had been tortured … and only told them what he assessed they wanted to hear.”

Well, we’re joined now by a guest with unique insight into the Libi case and other Bush-era uses of torture to justify the Iraq War: retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. Colonel Wilkerson helped prepare that speech that General Powell gave at the U.N., only to later renounce it. He’s now a professor of government and public policy at William & Mary.

Retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the Libi case and how seminal it was.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Amy, it’s probably the most seminal moment in my memory of those five days and nights out at Langley at the CIA headquarters with George Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin. Powell had rarely, in the some eight years or so I had worked for him to that point, grown so angry with me that he, in this case, physically grabbed me and took me to the spaces that were empty in the room adjacent to the DCI conference room, sat me down in a chair and essentially lectured me on how he was dissatisfied with and very unhappy with the portions in his presentation that dealt with terrorism, particularly the connections with Baghdad and al-Qaeda. And I quickly apprised him of the fact that I was just as uneasy as he was. He calmed down a bit, and he said, “Well, let’s throw it out.” We did. We threw it out.

Within about 30 to 45 minutes, we were back in the DCI conference room to resume that night’s rehearsal, and George Tenet himself laid a bombshell on the table. He essentially said—and these are almost direct quotes: “We have learned from the interrogation of a high-level al-Qaeda operative that not only were there substantial contacts between al-Qaeda and Baghdad, that those contacts included Baghdad Mukhabarat, secret police, Saddam’s special people, training al-Qaeda operatives in how to use chemical and biological weapons.” That’s almost a direct quote, Amy. At that point, Powell turned to me and said, “Put it back in.”

And from that point on, though I did take some of the stuff out as late as 2:00 a.m. in the morning in the Waldorf-Astoria prior to the morning of the presentation, and had Phil Mudd, George Tenet’s counterterrorism czar, standing behind me in the Waldorf, trying to prevent me from taking things out, until I finally told him I would physically remove him from the room if he didn’t leave of his own will, people were trying to get that portion back into the presentation. But the damage was done. The secretary, as you know, presented the information as if there were substantial contacts.

AARON MATÉ: Colonel, in your judgment, how big of a motive was the Iraq War in the torture program, in the torture of prisoners to get information that could tie al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: One of the things that I have to say rather stunned me was when Powell, in April, right after the Abu Ghraib incident was made public or incidents were made public, asked me to look into it and to get a tick-tock for him, to get a chronology—essentially, to tell him how we got to that point. And I began my investigation. I learned that there was, as early as April-May 2002, efforts to use enhanced interrogation techniques, also to build a legal regime under which they could be conducted, and that those efforts were as much aimed at al-Qaeda and contacts between Baghdad and al-Qaeda, and corroboration thereof, as they were trying to ferret out whether or not there was another attack coming, like 9/11. That was stunning to me to find out that that was part—I’d say probably 50 percent of the impetus that I discovered in both the classified and unclassified material I looked into.

AMY GOODMAN: In June, we spoke to Richard Clarke, the nation’s former top counterterrorism official. Clarke served as national coordinator for security and counterterrorism during Bush’s first year in office. He resigned in 2003 following the Iraq invasion. Clarke said that after 9/11, right after, in the days after, President Bush had wanted him to place the blame on Iraq.

RICHARD CLARKE: I resigned, quit the government altogether, testified before congressional committees and before the 9/11 Commission, wrote a book revealing what the Bush administration had and had not done to stop 9/11 and what they did after the fact, how the president wanted me, after the fact, to blame Iraq for the 9/11 attack.

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Bush & Cheney Should Be Charged with War Crimes Says Col. Wilkerson, Former Aide to Colin Powell

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