RAY SUAREZ: In recent weeks, criticism has intensified over the Bush administration's Iraq policy, both in the run-up to the war and its aftermath.
A former top-level foreign policy insider claimed the vice president and other administration officials hijacked some of the most important decisions about U.S. national security, including vital decisions about post-war Iraq.
Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson was Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, and close friend and adviser for 16 years. Two weeks ago he spoke to a Washington Public Policy Institute.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): 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.
RAY SUAREZ: In an interview this week, Wilkerson repeated his charge that an alternate decision-making process had evolved run by the vice president and his allies at the Defense Department in the first Bush term.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): This is the first time that so much power has been concentrated in the office of the vice president.
While the formal process was engaged -- that is to say, everyone debating and dissenting and so forth and so on -- the informal process was making the decisions.
There was a labyrinth out there of people who sopped up information, manipulated information, handed information, and built information, I think in some cases, that supplemented, augmented, helped this alternative decision-making process to realize its decisions rather than those that might have been flummoxed or stopped or halted or still in debate in the formal process.
RAY SUAREZ: How did this work in practice?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): Well, with regard to Iraq, it was centered in Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith's office. Other people were sprinkled throughout the government.
RAY SUAREZ: Wilkerson says that a faction of the Central Intelligence Agency was aligned with the vice president's office. At times, this group was in conflict with CIA Director George Tenet, the DCI.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): And so, you would get one part of the agency, the official part, if you will, with the DCI as the mouthpiece of that official part, saying, "Wait a minute. I don't think that ought to go in the president's state of the union address; that's not right. We don't have firm evidence that Iraq is seeking uranium from the country of Niger, so it shouldn't go in there."
Then you would have this dissenting body in the agency report up the chain to the vice president's office and back in it would go, into the state of the union address.
RAY SUAREZ: Isn't this just an appropriate outgrowth of the cabinet process?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): I don't think a president, if he's a wise man, is ever going to trust the critical decisions that send men and women to die, and kill other people too -- we forget that sometimes-- to just a small entourage.
It's got to suffer the debate, the dissent that's going to inevitably be there, the exposure to a wider body, to his entire cabinet, if you will, to everyone who has an opinion to offer in there.
RAY SUAREZ: At a press briefing this week, Secretary Rumsfeld maintained the administration's decision-making process was open, and he disputed the idea of a cabal when asked if one existed.
DONALD RUMSFELD: Of course not -- my goodness gracious. The President of the United States makes these decisions, and he did it in open meetings and discussions that went on at great length, and that's -- that kind of a perspective, obviously, is looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
We know -- anyone who looks at this process knows what it was. The President of the United States made some judgments based on the best advice he received, and he went to the Congress, and the Congress received the information.
He went to the United Nations, and the United Nations had the same information, and he made a decision. And the process, I think, was transparent and -- and it is what it is.
RAY SUAREZ: But questions remain.
Just this week, the administration's handling of prewar intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was at the center of a partisan dispute in the Senate.
Democrats claim the majority Republicans had delayed an investigation for over a year. After invoking a little-used rule to force a rare closed session, the Democrats got the Republicans to agree to speed up the inquiry.
For Wilkerson, prewar intelligence on Iraq was particularly affected by what he viewed as the alternate decision-making process in the White House.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): I am coming to believe that the intelligence was politicized. I'm coming to believe that there was a band centered in the Pentagon that went about politicizing that intelligence. I don't doubt their sincerity. I don't doubt that they believed that they were taking the nation to war for a good purpose -- removal of Saddam Hussein, whatever -- I don't doubt that most of them, if not all of them believed that he was a threat, whether it was an imminent threat or not, I don't know. That kind of hits the line of my belief factor. But I think they got to the point where the end justified the means.
RAY SUAREZ: But it wasn't just intelligence. Wilkerson says the Cheney and Rumsfeld teams strongly influenced the planning of the postwar occupation of Iraq and the handling of prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq. On the occupation:
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): Here's what the plan was: The plan devised principally in Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith's office, and I have to believe, if Rumsfeld is the controller, the leader he says he is, that he was fully cognizant of this, and I don't think he would have been cognizant of it without the blessings of the vice president either.
The plan was to put Jay Garner, General Jay Garner, in his organization, called ORHA, on the ground in Iraq for maybe 90 to 120 days, install Ahmed Chalabi and his INC colleagues, or some other look-alike, in control, and then leave, withdrawing most of the major military force in the process, if not all of it, in a very short period of time.
This is ineptitude and incompetence of the first order. Ever since that plan failed, we've been in a pickup game and now we've transmogrified the mission from imminent threat and WMD into spreading democracy.
RAY SUAREZ: On the treatment of prisoners, Wilkerson cited a 2002 presidential directive that set new rules for handling prisoners in Afghanistan.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): The president was saying in his memorandum that this was a different situation, and that detainees in the war on terror and prisoners of war in a conventional conflict, were different animals, so to speak, different categories.
Nonetheless, he ordered the armed forces of the United States to do all that they could to comply with the spirit of the Geneva Convention.
The Defense Department, however, under the protective eye of the vice president, took a totally different approach, and some of the atmosphere, the environment that was created, was created principally by two things, and these are very dangerous things if you're going to get on the slippery slope: One, the insinuation that you can do things different because this is a different environment, and then the pressure to do so.
RAY SUAREZ: This backing off of the Geneva Accords, Wilkerson says, led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): There's a fine line between the brutal behavior necessary to yield force -- wield force, for the state, and going over that line.
So one of the reasons you have these codes instilled in every soldier's heart, and you have this love of war and so forth, is not just it's American values, but you want to give the leaders, the platoon leaders and the company commanders and the battalion commanders the tools to control this use of brute force for the state.
When you relax those rules, you're inviting real problems; you're inviting the kind of problems we had at Abu Ghraib. I have to go back to the vice president's office and hold it culpable, too, because one of the early-on, aggressive participants in this debate about whether or not America could, in fact, change 200 years of policy was David Addington. He's the person that's replacing Scooter Libby. He was the intellectual legal guru, if you will, behind the discussion about the commander in chief having the right in this new situation -- new situation being the war on terror -- to make exceptions.
RAY SUAREZ: Lewis "Scooter" Libby resigned last week as Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser. He was indicted on five counts of obstructing justice, perjury, and lying in the CIA leak investigation. Libby entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment Thursday.
For his part, Wilkerson says he's just reporting what he saw in the run-up to the war, and still wonders if he should have spoken out at the time.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Ret.): My defense is one of loyalty to a man I'd known for 16 years. My defense is that I knew that he was one of the people in the administration who would argue for moderation, who would argue for diplomacy, who would argue for alliances, who would argue for working with the world instead of against the world, who would argue for magnanimity, humility, instead of arrogance and hubris.
Looking back on it now, to be very direct in answering your question, there is a part of me that regrets I didn't resign.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.
MARGARET WARNER: For an assessment of former State Department official Larry Wilkerson's charges about the process that led to war, and in particular Vice President Cheney's role, we turn to: Randy Scheunemann, former president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, and a former Iraq consultant to Office of the Secretary of Defense-- he's now a private consultant; and David Corn, the Washington editor for the weekly journal of opinion, the Nation.
We invited the vice president's office to participate in this discussion, but they declined. Welcome, gentlemen.
We've just heard Larry Wilkerson. David Corn, is he right? Was the whole process of going to war driven by -- what he calls a cabal, essentially headed by the vice president and defense secretary?
DAVID CORN: Cabal is a big word, but I think he's right in talking about how the process was perverted by the vice president's office and the White House.
I mean, ultimately, this was Bush's decision, and he wasn't forced; I don't believe he was a puppet driven to do this. But if you look at the flow of intelligence, if you look at the fact that in the Defense Department they set up the office of special plans, and sent intelligence to the vice president's office to make the case for war and going around the CIA procedures, you get to see a picture of people who are really devoted to this objective, and that they've cut out the State Department. They don't want to hear it. They tried to cut out some of the CIA analysts as well. So it was, I think, a rigged process, and they were trying to rig it in a way, and the question is how come there wasn't the honest and open debate that Larry Wilkerson thought there should be?
MARGARET WARNER: What's your view of the cabal idea, the end-run around the traditional -- the bureaucracy and the traditional decision-making process?
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: Well, Wilkerson asserts several cabals, I was trying to keep them all straight -- the CIA and the vice president, the vice president -- Secretary of Defense Feith's office. I mean I think soon we're going to need a psychologist versed in dealing with paranoids to understand his theory.
What you've got is an unelected bureaucrat that is frustrated that his principal lost out in policy debates and he is complaining about the process, but his complaints have no basis in fact.
MARGARET WARNER: What about the substance, however, of his complaint? Why do you say there's no basis in fact -- the substance being that Cheney and Rumsfeld had an outsized role in this that did cut out other parts of the decision-making apparatus?
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: The Vice President of the United States ran in a national election twice. He was elected to be there, and the fact that he has some power I think reflects the fact that the president relies on his judgment.
The idea that the bureaucracy, as Wilkerson puts it, didn't have a seat at the table -- I'm sorry, they don't get a seat at the table. When the principals' committee meets it's the cabinet secretaries and it's the vice president. That's where decisions were made.
As for open debate, this country debated it for months; the Congress debated it, bipartisan basis; they voted to authorize the use of force.
DAVID CORN: I'll give you a good example of what you might call cabal-like activity. And that is there was this allegation that Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 ring leader, had met with an agent of Saddam Hussein's intelligence service in Prague.
After much examination, the CIA and the F.B.I. -- whose job it was to evaluate this -- said that they couldn't back it up; there was nothing to this report.
Dick Cheney, getting information from the office of special plans --
MARGARET WARNER: This is the Doug Feith office in the secretary of defense's office.
DAVID CORN: He kept making public appearances after the CIA and after the FBI had rebutted these charges and found there was nothing to them. He kept making public appearances and telling the public, well, we have this report.
And so I think that is a -- you know in some ways, he's not sticking to his obligations to the people who elected him to be an honest broker, to look at information honestly, and if you're trying to cherry pick and end-run the CIA and then put it out there to make your case for war, that -- I don't know, I don't think you have to be paranoid to be worried about it.
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: For the record, Czech intelligence stands by the claim and the CIA --
MARGARET WARNER: Czech intelligence.
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: Czech intelligence, because the meeting allegedly occurred in Prague; they stand by that claim; and the CIA and the FBI never rebutted it. They said they could not prove it, but they certainly didn't disprove it.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's take what I think everyone agrees was a massive intelligence failure, and that was on the question of whether WMD existed in Iraq.
How much of that intelligence failure do you think, Randy Scheunemann, can be laid at the vice president's office or of that himself and his staff?
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: I think for that I would look at the national commission, the Robb-Silverman Commission that spent months looking at this, as well as the bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and they concluded it was a massive failure, and it was a failure principally in the CIA and the intelligence community, and furthermore, that there was no politicization of intelligence; there was no pressure on analysts; there was no pressure to change conclusions, and even Wilkerson admitted himself that every piece of intelligence that went into the secretary of state's presentation before the United Nations Security Council was cleared by him, Larry Wilkerson.
MARGARET WARNER: So he did use the word "politicization of intelligence." What's your view on that?
DAVID CORN: The key thing here is there are two parts of the intelligence failure. One was the intelligence that was produced by the CIA and the bureaucracy. The other was how it was stated --
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, how the consumers -- that is the elected officials, presented it to the public.
DAVID CORN: And the public is supposed to get the final word on whether there should be a war or not. And the president came out and he said there was no doubt in this intelligence. Dick Cheney came out and again and again stated as fact that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program -- which was the scariest part of the argument for war.
Yet, if you look at the national intelligence estimate, the major summation of the intelligence, it was full of disagreements on the aluminum tubes, the infamous aluminum tubes; Department of Energy analysts and State Department analysts disagreed with CIA analysts.
MARGARET WARNER: But then how do you explain that Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the U.N., made this case based on the weapons that Larry Wilkerson said he cleared it, and that in fact Powell himself cleared it?
DAVID CORN: Well, yes, I mean don't think they did their own investigation of the intelligence. They read the intelligence that came to them and thought whether it was sufficient or not, but they didn't see some of the footnotes - the dissents as well -- maybe they should have looked at it more closely.
I mean, Powell says now that he feels like he was duped and he is quite angry about this. And so I find it fascinating that the White House has admitted that the president and Condoleezza Rice, who was national security adviser at the time, never even read the full national intelligence estimate before deciding to take this country to war.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's take one other thing that Larry Wilkerson talked about and he also laid at the foot of both the secretary of defense and the vice president what he calls the poor planning for the postwar situation. Now, how much of a role did the vice president have in that?
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: Well, you know, I guess if the plan was to install Ahmed Chalabi immediately after the invasion, the cabal didn't prove to be very effective. I mean --
MARGARET WARNER: But that isn't the question. The question is: Were they responsible for that plan, which Larry Wilkerson said went completely awry, and they had no follow-up -- that's what he's saying, that we're now playing a pickup game.
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: Well, clearly, if there was a plan to install Iraqis and to have a sovereign government right away, we would have been in a better situation. I think frankly it was the interagency fighting and the objections of the State Department and the CIA from doing that that turned us into an occupying power and lost us that critical first year when the insurgency blossomed.
DAVID CORN: But if I remember correctly, the State Department spent $5 million or more for planning after the invasion, economic, security, political transitions. And it was the Defense Department that said get out of here. We don't want your plans. We know what we're doing.
And the vice president and the White House obviously were aligned with that sort of thinking.
So I mean Larry Wilkerson was on the losing end of these fights. I mean, that's clear, but we see now that -- the way they went about doing it, the Defense Department and the White House, they didn't do it the right way.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you think you can really see Vice President's Cheney's hand in that?
DAVID CORN: In that particular struggle, perhaps not; on things like torture, on things like pushing, you know, some of the WMD stuff, certainly.
MARGARET WARNER: So you do think on the prisoner abuse? What's the evidence on that?
DAVID CORN: Well, the key thing is the infamous torture memo that said, you know, that we had some right to do this we didn't have to respect the Geneva Accords --
MARGARET WARNER: Because they weren't classic prisoners of war?
DAVID CORN: Right. Again, this was a fight between the State Department and the Defense Department, but the memo that was written was written by Dick Cheney's legal counsel, David Addington, who he just promoted to chief of staff to replace Scooter Libby.
And even the past few weeks when John McCain passed this bill in the Senate ninety to nine against brutal treatment of detainees, it's Dick Cheney's office, Dick Cheney himself who has been the point person trying to beat that back.
MARGARET WARNER: What about that on the prisoner abuse?
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: Look, the McCain amendment has huge bipartisan, bicameral support. It is going to become law of the land. I hope it becomes law of the land with support of the administration.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. And what about before, in other words, what about Vice President Cheney's office's role in the policy that has prevailed up till now?
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: There is no doubt that David Addington, who I have known for many years, has a very strong view on executive power, and there's no doubt there's been debate inside the administration.
But I have got to add this almost McCarthyite smear campaign against David Addington and John Hannah is outrageous and it is not based on fact. They are capable public servants doing their job.
DAVID CORN: But these are just policy criticisms; I don't think anyone is smearing them. If David Addington wrote that torture memo, then you can criticize; I mean, the White House had to pull it back.
MARGARET WARNER: I have a very last final question, very brief to both of you: Where was the national security adviser, then Condoleezza Rice, who is supposed to be the honest broker in this?
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: Well, I'll tell you where she is now --
MARGARET WARNER: No. Excuse me, where she was then.
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: She was chairing the National Security Council meetings where they had innumerable debates at the deputy's level, at the principals' level on Iraq.
But she's at the State Department now, and I think what Wilkerson makes clear is there is precious little support in the Powell State Department for the president's policies.
DAVID CORN: I think you hit it on the nose. Her job was to make sure there was an honest debate, and if Dick Cheney was out there saying we have the evidence; we have evidence that Atta was in Prague, when it wasn't clear, if the other agencies didn't agree with that, she should have been the one reining him in and saying we have to coordinate this, and anything that gets out there has my seal of approval. And she didn't do that with the Niger allegations either in the state of the union speech.
MARGARET WARNER: David Corn, Randy Scheunemann, thank you, both.
DAVID CORN: Thank you.
RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: Thank you.