Ex-Powell Staffer Discusses Cheney Role in Iraq War

Steve Inskeep talks with Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, about the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney's office over Iraq war policy. Wilkerson claims the vice president and others bypassed the rest of the government to control key decisions.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Not many former officials of the Bush administration have spoken out against the White House. Larry Wilkerson has. He's a former State Department official who generated wide attention in a speech last month. Wilkerson accused the vice president and others of bypassing the rest of the government to control key decisions.

Mr. LARRY 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.

INSKEEP: That speech came from a career soldier who became the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In an interview, Larry Wilkerson added more details. While in the government, he says he was assigned to gather documents. He traced just how Americans came to be accused of abusing prisoners. In 2002, a presidential memo had ordered that detainees be treated in a manner consistent with the Geneva Conventions that forbid torture. Wilkerson says the vice president's office pushed for a more expansive policy.

Mr. WILKERSON: What happened was that the secretary of Defense, under the cover of the vice president's office, began to create an environment--and this started from the very beginning when David Addington, the vice president's lawyer, was a staunch advocate of allowing the president in his capacity as commander in chief to deviate from the Geneva Conventions. Regardless of the president having put out this memo, they began to authorize procedures within the armed forces that led to, in my view, what we've seen.

INSKEEP: We have to get more detail about that because the military will say, the Pentagon will say they've investigated this repeatedly and that all the investigations have found that the abuses were committed by a relatively small number of people at relatively low levels. What hard evidence takes those abuses up the chain of command and lands them in the vice president's office, which is where you're placing it?

Mr. WILKERSON: I'm privy to the paperwork, both classified and unclassified, that the secretary of State asked me to assemble on how this all got started, what the audit trail was, and when I began to assemble this paperwork, which I not longer have access to, it was clear to me that there was a visible audit trail from the vice president's office through the secretary of Defense down to the commanders in the field that in carefully couched terms--I'll give you that--that to a soldier in the field meant two things: We're not getting enough good intelligence and you need to get that evidence, and, oh, by the way, here's some ways you probably can get it. And even some of the ways that they detailed were not in accordance with the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and the law of war.

You just--if you're a military man, you know that you just don't do these sorts of things because once you give just the slightest bit of leeway, there are those in the armed forces who will take advantage of that. There are those in the leadership who will feel so pressured that they have to produce intelligence that it doesn't matter whether it's actionable or not as long as they can get the volume in. They have to do what they have to do to get it, and so you've just given in essence, though you may not know it, carte blanche for a lot of problems to occur.

INSKEEP: When you describe Vice President Cheney as an unusually powerful vice president, grabbing powers that would normally be attributed to the president of the United States, what were some levers that he had to pull within the White House and in the government to have that much power?

Mr. WILKERSON: Well, he had enormous levers. First of all, his access to the president obviously. You've got an individual who has a very big staff for a vice president, and these people were plugged into the statutory process. They read the e-mails of the National Security staff, and people would say, `Well, shouldn't they?' Well, I had friends on the National Security Council staff who quit using e-mails for substantive conversations because they knew the vice president's alternate National Security staff was reading their e-mails now.

INSKEEP: We should mention, for those who don't follow this closely, Washington policy is often made by memos, who gets to write the memo...

Mr. WILKERSON: Precisely.

INSKEEP: ...who can block the memo from getting to the highest levels.

Mr. WILKERSON: Precisely and...

INSKEEP: You're saying the vice president had a lot of influence in those answers.

Mr. WILKERSON: Well, let me give you another example. There was a memorandum prepared on the staff of the statutory NSC, and that memorandum argued fairly logically and I thought fairly aggressively for a large number of troops being necessary for Iraq. And to this day, I don't know whether that memorandum ever got to the president of the United States.

INSKEEP: Isn't this the way that bureaucratic battles are won and lost, though? People like the vice president--they play hard, they've got a point of view, they want to win, and they work to get the president's ear, and they work to push out people like, for example, your former boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell?

Mr. WILKERSON: Oh, absolutely. Yet it is something new to have such a powerful vice president, to have such a staff working for that vice president which essentially constitutes an alternative to the National Security Council's staff, and to have that vice president's staff so immersed in the actual details of the decision-making that it can influence the way that decision-making comes out in ways that it wants it to come out, and not necessarily in ways that the president wants it to come out.

Let me give you a concrete example. I won't name anyone, but an analyst whom I have a great deal of respect for relates to me a story at the CIA. His boss, Mr. Tenet, briefed the vice president's office on software, software that Iraq was supposedly attempting to acquire from an Australian firm. The software that Iraq was attempting to acquire allegedly had to do with UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles.

INSKEEP: Unmanned aerial vehicles, surveillance vehicles...

Mr. WILKERSON: Right. Right.

INSKEEP: ...and even attack vehicles at some point.

Mr. WILKERSON: Subsequent to that, this analyst and several other analysts discovered that Iraq had indeed not tried to acquire that software from Australia, that Iraq was instead involved in another acquisition from Australia that was not sanctions busting, and that because they were involved in that transaction, the company in Australia that also made this other software asked Iraq if it would like to buy it. In other words, it was a purely commercial effort to get Iraq to buy something else that this company sold. And here's the key. I asked the analyst, `Did Mr. Tenet ever go back and disabuse the vice president of what he had told him in the earlier briefing?' And the analyst looked me right in the eye and said no.

INSKEEP: Your presumption is the vice president would not have wanted to know that the intelligence was not as sexy as it seemed.

Mr. WILKERSON: And that Mr. Tenet was not possessed of the intestinal fortitude to go back and tell him. That's pressure.

INSKEEP: Mr. Wilkerson, thanks very much.

Mr. WILKERSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Larry Wilkerson was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell in the first term of the Bush administration.

We checked out his claims, and regarding the role of the vice president's office in shaping detainee policy, a spokesperson declined to comment on internal deliberations. As to whether the vice president's office can read National Security Council e-mails, the spokesperson says, quote, "The vice president's National Security staff coordinates with the National Security Council, and they work as a seamless team." As for Wilkerson's story about George Tenet not returning to correct bad intelligence for the vice president, a spokesman for the former CIA director would not comment.

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