November 22, 2005

The Vice-Presidential Cabal


  1. A conspiratorial group of plotters or intriguer
  2. A secret scheme or plot.

Therasus: A secret plan to achieve an evil or illegal end.




Late Edition, CNN Sunday Nov 20, 2005


BLITZER: Criticism of how the Bush administration handled the run up to the war in Iraq isn't limited to Democrats. The man who served as former secretary of state Colin Powell's chief of staff also offering up a tough assessment of the White House's actions. He's retired U.S. Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. Colonel Wilkerson, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to "Late Edition."


BLITZER: And I didn't mean to suggest you're a Democrat or a Republican. I don't know what you are.

Politically I know you're a retired senior military officer in the U.S. Army. You worked for Colin Powell at the State Department as his chief of staff. And you wrote this recently in the Los Angeles Times: "The decisions of this cabal were sometimes made with the full and witting support of the president and sometimes with something less. More often than not, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was simply steamrolled by this cabal. Its insular and secret workings were efficient and swift, not unlike the decision making one would associate more with a dictatorship than a democracy."

This cabal being, in your words, "the vice president, Dick Cheney, the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, basically got what they wanted in getting the
United States to war against Saddam Hussein."

WILKERSON: Well, Wolf, my points were a little more precise than that.

My points had to do with the two issues, decision issues that I had the most profound insights into -- the one being the post-invasion situation in
Iraq, and the inept and incompetent planning therefore, mostly led by Douglas Feith under secretary of defense for policy's outfit.

BLITZER: At the Pentagon.

WILKERSON: At the Pentagon.

And the issue which finally broke the -- the straw that broke the camel's back for me and made me want to go public, the issue of detainee abuse, which has done so much damage to my armed forces and so much damage to America's image and credibility around the world. Those were the two issues that I had the most profound insights into.

Now, let me add, there are other things that I think this different, alternative decision-making process had impact on. And I just don't have the profound insights into those other things.

For example, I've recently learned that the Office of Strategic Intelligence that Secretary Rumsfeld wanted to set up in the Pentagon, which would essentially be an office of disinformation, due to the congressional pressure and the pressure from the American people, media and so forth, couldn't be set up.

I've learned that millions of taxpayer dollars were used to outsource that operation to the Rendon Group. And I'm looking into that now, too, because I have some insights into that. I've read the fine book by James Bamford, "Pretext for War" and then his recent article 15 November, I believe, in Rolling Stone which details the relationship between the Rendon Group, Ahmed Chalabi, the INC and so forth.

BLITZER: But on the specific point of the cabal that you spoke about, the Rumsfeld-Cheney cabal steamrolling all these decisions, you're talking about the post-war that they steamrolled decisions and how to deal with the war after major combat, as they say, was over and on the issue of detainee abuse?


And this is not something that happened in the statutory process. In the statutory process, the bureaucracy worked, if you will. Colin Powell won some as secretary of state. Donald Rumsfeld won some as secretary of defense.

The statutory process on many decisions, U.S.-China relations, the six-party talks with
North Korea, the Millennium Challenge Account, HIV/AIDS donations, on many decisions worked.

But on others it was dysfunctional. And underneath that dysfunctionality, decisions were made in an alternative process.

BLITZER: And so what you're not suggesting -- correct me if I'm wrong -- is that there was a cabal that led to the war?

WILKERSON: No, I cannot find that.

I am having second thoughts about the intelligence on
WMD. Once Shaykh Al-Libi's recantation took place and we now know that his words were false and probably gained under some of the interrogation techniques that I'm now decrying and that every American should decry, but I'm finding things that I didn't know before.

And I'd reserve opinion now on whether or not some of the intelligence that led us into
Iraq was politicized or not.

BLITZER: In our first hour on "Late Edition," the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Peter Pace, both of them said they don't remember seeing you at any meeting leading up to the war or participating in any of these sessions.

Listen to what Rumsfeld told me within the past hour.


RUMSFELD: I don't believe I've ever met him. I look at the picture. I don't recognize him.

BLITZER: Is he right?

RUMSFELD: I can't imagine he was ever in a meeting with the vice president or me or anyone else at a senior level.


BLITZER: Basically suggesting you don't know what you're talking about.

WILKERSON: They made my point for me.

The decisions were not made in the principals process, in the deputies process, in the policy coordinating committee process. They were not made in the statutory process.

And my insights into them came through on the detainee abuse issue, Secretary Powell walking through my door in April or March of 2004 and telling me to get everything I could get my hands on with regard to the detainee abuse issue -- ICRC reporting, memoranda, open- source information and so forth -- so that I could build some kind of story, some kind of audit trail so we could understand the chronology and we can understand how it developed.

Because we knew the photographs from Abu Ghraib were coming out and we knew they were going to do terrible damage to America's image in the world, terrible damage to the troops trying to do their job in Iraq, and we needed to have a handle on how it happened, how it came about and how we might deal with it.

BLITZER: All right. So let's talk about torture specifically. And you've studied this. You've gone into great length while you were working for Secretary Powell on this issue.

Does the United States, whether military or civilian, use torture against detainees?

WILKERSON: There's no question in my mind that we did. There's no question in my mind that we may be still doing it.

And there's no question in my mind where the philosophical guidance and the flexibility in order to do so originated -- in the vice president of the
United States' office. And his implementer in this case was Donald Rumsfeld and the Defense Department.

BLITZER: Now, what evidence do you have to back up that very strong accusation?

Because as you know, the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, they all deny the
U.S. condones torture.

WILKERSON: As I said before, and as you quoted me, Wolf, I don't know if the president was witting in this or not.

I voted for him twice. I prefer to think that he was not.

The president put out a memorandum and the memorandum, in essence, said that, although this was a new situation -- this war on terrorists was a new situation, the spirit of
Geneva would still apply, consistent with military necessity.

Now, many of my critics have said, ah there's the president's out, "consistent with military necessity."

But the president did not say consistent with national security; he did not say consistent with the demands of the global war on terrorism; he said with military necessity.

That means -- I'm an infantryman, who was in the Army for 31 years. I know what that means. That means if someone is going to -- if I'm detaining someone and they're going to kill one of my buddies or me, I can butt-stroke him. I can even shoot him if I have to.

And I haven't departed from
Geneva. Or even if they say I have, I have a defense. That doesn't mean that I can take that individual in a room, shackled to the wall, powerless and beat him in order to get information out of him.

And the first thing I came across, Wolf, was, as early as December 2010 at Bagram in

BLITZER: 2001?

WILKERSON: 2002, where we actually murdered two detainees. And the truly, truly horrific thing about one of those murders is it now looks like, from a consensus of the other military people who were present at the time, that the one man, a taxi cab driver in Afghanistan, was just caught up in things.

He was innocent. He was innocent and he was murdered.

BLITZER: But is this a case of a couple or a handful or a few U.S. troops running amok and getting carried away or a much more serious suggestion that this is condoned at the highest levels of the U.S. government? WILKERSON: Too widespread. And when you've got a general like General Sanchez, who is actually a facilitator of this...

BLITZER: Rick Sanchez was in

WILKERSON: Precisely.

BLITZER: He was the
U.S. commander?

WILKERSON: Actually a facilitator of this...

BLITZER: When you say a facilitator, what do you mean by that?

WILKERSON: Well, what happens is, you have guidance that comes down from on high. And I think this guidance originated with Secretary Rumsfeld. It was a memorandum.

BLITZER: You said the vice president a minute ago.

WILKERSON: Well, the vice president had to cover this in order for it to happen and in order for Secretary Rumsfeld to feel as though he had freedom of action.

There was a memorandum actually from Secretary Rumsfeld. And it's a famous memorandum now. It actually had a note on it saying, I stand up for so many hours every day; I don't see why they can't.

This memorandum and other attitudes on the part of the Defense Department and on the part of its military -- I'm not leaving the military out of this -- its military leaders as well as its civilians created an atmosphere of flexibility, an atmosphere of, this is not your father's war.

This is a place where things can be done because we need the intelligence. And they can be done with a great deal more flexibility than before.

General Miller's trip from
Guantanamo to Iraq had that in mind. And when you do that and combine it with putting pressure from the top down on the troops, to produce intelligence, produce intelligence, produce intelligence, you enter on a slippery slope indeed.

You begin to tell people that there are things they can do that aren't within the normal realm of things and that they have to do them because you need the intelligence.

BLITZER: What evidence...

WILKERSON: And that's what happened.

BLITZER; You say it may be continuing right now. On the military side or the civilian side? By the civilian side, I'm referring to the
CIA or civilian contractors for the U.S. government.

What evidence do you have that it may be continuing to this day? WILKERSON: Well, I can only assume that, when the vice president of the
United States lobbies the Congress on behalf of cruel and unusual punishment and the need to be able to do that in order to get information out of potential terrorists...

BLITZER: When he's opposing the John McCain legislation?

WILKERSON: Right -- that it's still going on. That's the only conclusion I can come to.

BLITZER: Well, can you come to another conclusion that maybe there's that rare moment where it may be absolutely essential?

Last week Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, was on this program and he offered this scenario.

He said, let's say it's September 7th, 2001, a few days before 9/11 and the U.S. has one of those hijackers and he speaks about, get ready, you're about -- a lot of Americans are about to die, but I'm not going to tell you what's going to happen.

Can you envisage a scenario where torture might be justified in that kind of a situation, to try to get the information out of this person?

WILKERSON: Well, if we think about that for a few minutes, it has a lot of logic to it. It almost presupposes the perfect situation where you know everything you need to know before you ask this question.

I'm very familiar with the ticking bomb argument. But there's a vastly more important dimension to it, Wolf. And that is, that this is a war of ideas that we're in. It's not a war of bombs, bullets and bayonets.

We chose to lead with the military in this war because the Taliban,
Afghanistan, Al Qaida and everything was there and we needed to take care of it because of what it had done to the United States.

But the bigger conflict is the war of ideas. Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Al Zarqawi are evil. And we need the Muslim world to wake up to that evil, as it seems to be slowly doing, and to denounce that evil.

And in a war of ideas, you cannot damage your own ideas, your own position by seeming to do things that are in contradiction of your values. And look at what happened recently with the 170, 173, whatever, Iraqis that we found underneath the ministry of interior in
Iraq. I mean...

BLITZER: Well, they supposedly were being tortured by Iraqis.

WILKERSON; Exactly. But what is General Casey, what is our ambassador, Khalilzad -- what are they going to say to Hakim?

Are they going to go in and say, you can't do this? Hakim will laugh at them. Look at Abu Ghraib. Look at
Guantanamo. Look at Bagram. Why should you lecture me?

BLITZER: As tough as that accusation is, in this statement that you made last month, you also said something that potentially is a lot more worrisome to the American public. Listen to this.


WILKERSON: If something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence.


BLITZER: All right. Explain what you mean by that because it sounds as if -- that you're accusing this administration of total ineptitude and not dealing with the threats as they currently exist.

WILKERSON: Well, Wolf, this is a long story, and it goes back to the 1947 National Security Act and the debate between the national security state and our traditional political values and cultural values.

So, it's not anything new. There are people who wanted perfect security against the
Soviet Union and were willing to bankrupt the nation in order to do it.

But if you make a decision that you want -- not perfect security but as good a security as you can, realizing perfect security is impossible, and you are willing to spend the dollars on it, you better spend the dollars on the right thing.

And I'm glad you brought this up, because, in my October 19 remarks at the New America Foundation, almost everyone seems to have overlooked what I said -- about what I said about the sclerotic bureaucracy.

There are reasons presidents turn to other decision-making processes than those that exist statutorily. There's a reason that cabals form to do things like
Watergate, Iran-Contra and so forth.

There's a reason for that, because the bureaucracy is so sclerotic; it is so incapable of moving fast -- as Secretary Rumsfeld said, getting inside the enemy's decision loop -- and so, we need to take a real hard look at this.

Katrina -- the federal response to Katrina showed us we need to take a real hard look at how we take those portions of the inter- agency group, the federal bureaucracy, and how we compel them to do a better job of coordinating, of sharing information, of dealing with crisis.

And this has been ongoing for a long time. President Clinton had PDD 56, but he never put any teeth in it. We need something we can put teeth into. BLITZER: Colonel Wilkerson, we're out of time. But thanks very much for joining us.

WILKERSON: Surely. Thank you.

Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to the secretary of state, Colin Powell.

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