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Lawrence Wilkerson: I Helped Sell the False Choice of War with Iraq; It’s Happening Again with Iran

StoryFebruary 09, 2018
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Fifteen years ago this week, Secretary of State General Colin Powell gave a speech to the United Nations arguing for war with Iraq, saying the evidence was clear: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It was a speech Powell would later call a blot on his career. Is President Trump doing the same thing now with Iran? We speak to Powell’s former chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson. He recently wrote a piece titled “I Helped Sell the False Choice of War Once. It’s Happening Again.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look at the growing threat of war against Iran. In recent weeks, senior members of the Trump administration have repeatedly tried to churn up U.S. support for a war against Iran, while President Trump has reiterated his threats to pull the U.S. out of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Last month, President Trump issued a waiver to prevent the reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Iran, but warned he would not do so again unless the nuclear deal is renegotiated. The waiver must be reissued every 120 days to avoid the sanctions from kicking back in.

His warning came after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spoke at the Anacostia-Bolling military base in Washington, D.C., in front of pieces of metal she claimed were parts of an Iranian-made missile supplied to the Houthis in Yemen, which the Houthis allegedly fired into Saudi Arabia. This is Ambassador Haley speaking December 14th.

NIKKI HALEY: Behind me is an example of one of these attacks. These are the recovered pieces of a missile fired by Houthi militants from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. The missile’s intended target was the civilian airport in Riyadh, through which tens of thousands of passengers travel each day. I repeat, the missile was used to attack an international civilian airport in a G20 country. Just imagine if this missile had been launched at Dulles Airport or JFK or the airports in Paris, London or Berlin. That’s what we’re talking about here. That’s what Iran is actively supporting.

AMY GOODMAN: Weapons experts widely criticized Ambassador Haley’s speech, saying the evidence was inconclusive and fell far short of proving her allegations that Iran had violated a U.N. Security Council resolution. But to our next guest, Haley’s claims were not only inconclusive, they were also oddly reminiscent of the false claims about weapons of mass destruction the George W. Bush administration used to sell the public on the war with Iraq.

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005, during which time he helped prepare Powell’s infamous speech to the U.N. claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Powell’s speech was given 15 years ago this week, February 5th, 2003.

SECRETARY OF STATE 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.

AMY GOODMAN: That was then-Secretary of State General Colin Powell speaking February 5th, 2003, before the U.N. Security Council. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, his chief of staff, has since renounced the speech, which he helped write. Well, his new op-ed for The New York Times is headlined “I Helped Sell the False Choice of War Once. It’s Happening Again.”

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about what—how you felt at the time, how you came to understand the evidence that General Colin Powell, who himself said—called this speech, later, a blot on his career—how you put this speech together, and the echoes of it, what you hear today, in Ambassador Haley’s speech.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Amy, we put the speech together with, arguably, the entire U.S. intelligence community, led by George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, literally at Powell’s right hand all the time, seven days, seven nights, at Langley and then in New York, before we presented.

When I saw Nikki Haley give her presentation, certainly there was not the gravitas of a Powell, not the statesmanship of a Powell, not the popularity of a Powell. What I saw was a John Bolton. And remember, John Bolton was her predecessor, in terms of being a neoconservative at the United Nations representing the United States. I saw a very amateurish attempt.

But nonetheless, these kinds of things, when they’re made visual and the statements are made so dramatically, have an impact on the American people. I saw her doing essentially the same thing with regard to Iran that Powell had done, and I had done, and others, with regard to Iraq. So it alarms me. I don’t think the American people have a memory for these sorts of things. Gore Vidal called this the “United States of Amnesia,” with some reason.

So, we need to be reminded of how the intelligence was politicized, how it was cherry-picked, how we moved towards a war that has been an absolute catastrophe for the region, and even, long-term, for Israel’s security and the United States’ perhaps, with a deftness and with a fluidity that alarmed me then. It really alarms me now that we might be ready to repeat that process.

And your previous speaker, on North Korea, there’s another target. This president has so many targets out there that he could avail himself of at almost any moment, that we have to shudder at the prospects for war and destruction over the next three years of Donald Trump’s term.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the pieces of metal she was talking about?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I can’t imagine how anyone could haul some metal in front of the TV cameras and assert, the way she did, with the details she did—some of which was false, just flat false—and expect anyone within any expertise, at least, to believe it. Open parenthesis, (The American people don’t necessarily have that expertise), close parenthesis.

Look at her statement about “this could have been shot at Dulles, or it could have been shot at Berlin.” Had it been shot at Dulles or Berlin, it would have stopped well short, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean or even shorter. These missiles are not long-range missiles. These missiles are very inaccurate missiles. They have a CEP of miles. That means that, unlike a U.S. nuclear weapon, which would hit within a 10-meter circle or less, it would hit within a mile or two circle. They don’t know where it’s going to hit when they shoot it. It’s not very accurate, in other words.

So the things that she was presenting there, she was presenting with a drama, that even if what she was saying fundamentally was true, that the Houthis got it from Iran and shot it at Saudi Arabia, it simply was so exaggerated that one just looks at it and says, “I can’t believe that the United States is represented by that woman.”

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, it’s very interesting that you have this moment now in U.S. history where the Republicans—some of them—are joining with President Trump in trying to discredit the intelligence agencies. And yet you go back to 2003, when you have a fierce criticism of the intelligence agencies, saying they were being used to politicize information, which, oddly, is what President Trump is saying, in a very different context.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: You would have a lot of sympathy if you asked me if I have some doubts about the U.S. intelligence agencies, all 17 of them now, definitely. But let me tell you what I’ve done over the last 11 or 12 years, on two university campuses with really brilliant students, in terms of enlightening myself, gaining new insights into what happened not only in 2002 and '03, but what's been happening ever since and, for that matter, what happened ever since Richard Nixon, with regard to the intelligence communities.

What happens is you get people like Tenet, you get people like John Brennan, you get people like John McLaughlin, you get people like Chris Mudd, for example—Phil Mudd, who was head of counterterrorism for George Tenet and who tried at the last minute to get me to put even more stuff into his presentation about the connections between Baghdad and al-Qaeda. You get people like that who are at the top. That screens all the many dedicated, high-moral, high-character professionals down in the bowels of the DIA, the CIA, the NSA and elsewhere. That screens their views, which are often accurate—I’d say probably 80 percent of the time very accurate—from the decision makers. So what you get is you get people like Tenet and McLaughlin and Brennan, who shape whatever they can to fit the policies that the president wishes to carry out. The intelligence, therefore, gets corrupted. So, in that sense, I am still down on the, quote, “U.S. intelligence community,” unquote.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s really interesting, because a number of the people you mention from the past are the current commentators on television.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Yes, yes. John McLaughlin—John McLaughlin lied to the secretary of state of the United States on more than one occasion during the preparation for the 5 February, 2003, U.N. Security Council.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Trump speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it. Believe me. It is time for the entire world to join us in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction. It is time for the regime to free all Americans and citizens of other nations that they have unjustly detained. And above all, Iran’s government must stop supporting terrorists, begin serving its own people and respect the sovereign rights of its neighbors.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, respond to President Trump, and talk about the clock being put ever closer to midnight.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: That agreement, the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement between the U.N. Security Council permanent members, Germany, Iran, that agreement is probably the most insidious and likely way to war with Iran. The Obama regime, in a very, very difficult diplomatic situation, achieved the best it could. That best is a nuclear agreement that keeps Iran from a nuclear weapon and gives us over a year of time, should they try to secretly break out of it, to inspect and find and to stop, even if we had to bomb. So it is an agreement unparalleled in regard to stopping Iran’s search for, if it ever had the desire to, a nuclear weapon.

If Trump undermines that, if this administration undermines that, then there is no—and they are moving fast to do that—there is no other alternative, if you look at it. Now, my colleagues and some of my opponents in this will say, “Oh, no, that doesn’t necessarily mean war.” It certainly does, if you continue this march towards Iran’s—unacceptability of Iran’s having a nuclear weapon, because then we will have intelligence telling us that Iran is—I know the Foundation for Defense of Democracy and others will never let this rest. We will have everyone telling us that Iran, whether they are or not, is going after a nuclear weapon, once the agreement is abrogated. That means the only way you assure the American people and the international community, the region—Saudi Arabia is salivating for a war with Iran, with American lives at the front—that means the only way you stop Iran, under those circumstances, is to invade—500,000 soldiers and troops, you better have some allies, 10 years, $4 [trillion] or $5 trillion. And at the end of that 10 years, it looks worse than Iraq did at the end of its 10.

That’s what you’re looking at over the long haul, if you say this agreement is no good and abrogate it, because if it’s still unacceptable, that Iran not get a nuclear weapon, the only way that you assure that is by invasion. Bombing won’t do it. All bombing will do is drive them underground. They will develop a weapon. They’ll work with the North Koreans and so forth. We know they have worked with the North Koreans in the past. And they will develop one. And then they’ll be like Kim Jong-un: They’ll present us with the fait accompli.

Nuclear proliferation is a real threat right now. And I agree with the Bulletin of Atomic—the Atomic Scientists Bulletin that the hands on the Doomsday Clock are now at two, two-and-a-half minutes or so from midnight. We are more in danger of a nuclear exchange on the face of the Earth than we were in probably any time since 1945. And that includes the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the Berlin crisis that more or less preceded it. This is a dangerous time, and we have a man in the White House who is a dangerous president.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Wilkerson, on Wednesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis defended a Pentagon request to develop new so-called low-yield nuclear weapons, telling reporters the U.S. needed a more complete range of nuclear options. And this comes as the Trump administration has unveiled its new nuclear weapons strategy, which involves spending at least $1.2 trillion to upgrade, they say, the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Your response?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Make that about two to three, maybe even four, trillion dollars, because that’s what the cost overruns will be, and that’s what we’ll spend over the next 10 to 15 years to do this. And we do not need it. Just look at some of the components of this. We’re looking at a B-21 bomber for the Air Force, for example, that’s going to be so expensive the Air Force won’t even tell the Congress how much it’s going to cost. We’re looking at a nuclear-tipped cruise missile for that bomber, which negates the need for the bomber. It’s redundant, but we’re going to do it anyway.

This is to assuage the military-industrial complex in America that deals with nuclear weapons. This is to spend lots of money and keep lots of nuclear scientists and others in their jobs. I understand that, but I don’t condone this kind of money being spent. This is to respond to the Russians, whose military doctrine now includes using small-yield nuclear weapons, should they be invaded by NATO. It’s written in their doctrine. This is to further perturbate the situation with the Chinese, who are taking Mao Zedong’s nuclear philosophy and throwing it out the window and thinking, “Oh, maybe we better build lots more nuclear weapons so we can ride out a first strike and retaliate.” This is all because of the United States. It’s all because of what’s happening in the world post-Cold War, that we all thought was going to be more peaceful and is turning out to be more catastrophically dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Wilkerson, Trump just tweeted, “Just signed Bill”—he’s talking about the spending bill. “Our Military will now be stronger than ever before. We love and need our Military and gave them everything — and more. First time this has happened in a long time.” Your last 10-second response?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Yeah, not the first time. Ronald Reagan did it, '82, ’83, ’84. And he did it on politicized intelligence about the Soviet Union. We knew it was falling apart at that time, but that didn't go along with his arms buildup. That’s exactly what Trump is doing. And he’s using the military to gain more votes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson served as the secretary—as the chief of staff of the secretary of state, of Colin Powell, from 2002 to 2005.

That does it for our show. A very happy birthday Mohamed Taguine!

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