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lawrence wilkerson

photo of Lawrence Wilkerson

Chief of Staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration since leaving the State Department in January 2005. In this interview, Wilkerson maintains that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld operate a "cabal" within the administration to bypass the traditional policy-making channels in order to push through their own agenda. He claims they "flummoxed" the decision-making processes to stifle dissent in the lead-up to war with Iraq and deliberately ignored the president's decision on setting limits to coercive methods of interrogation. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 13, 2005.

[What was your view of Vice President Dick Cheney when you joined the State Department in the current Bush administration?]

... [M]y appreciation of Dick Cheney at the time was as secretary of defense while I served as special assistant to Colin Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That was a very vivid impression of a secretary of defense who was probably as good an executive as I had seen in the department in my -- at that point -- 20-plus years in the military: a man who made decisions quickly; a man who, if ... you weren't briefing him properly, you were gone. If he couldn't get to a decision in 20 minutes or 30 minutes, then you were gone. You weren't doing your job; you weren't preparing adequately. ...

Dick Cheney was a very effective decision maker; he was not the kind of man you want to put your arms around and hug. He evinced a sort of coldness, but he was a good decision maker, and I would have classified him as a very good secretary of defense. ...

[National Security Adviser under George H.W. Bush Brent] Scowcroft said recently in The New Yorker, "I don't recognize my friend Dick Cheney anymore." What do you say?

He knows him far more intimately than I, but I don't recognize him either. He's not the secretary of defense that I saw for three years in the Pentagon. He's a different man.

What happened, sir?

9/11, I assume, and a certain degree of paranoia. I'll give you a good example. ... Carl von Clausewitz is a particular war theorist that I find very appealing and, in most cases, very accurate when he describes both the nature of war and the nature of conflict in general. One of the things that I think you would find agreement between even someone like Sun Tzu, an Asian war theorist, and Clausewitz, a German, is that you must make sure you identify the nature of the conflict you're in. You must. That's absolutely essential. If you misidentify that nature, you're not ever going to get back on the right sheet of music.

So with that as background, here we have [Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, 2001-03] John Yoo, for example, certainly total buy-in by the vice president of the United States, and I suspect total buy-in by the president of the United States also, that this conflict we are now involved in is the equivalent of the conflict we were involved in with the Soviet Union; that is to say that Al Qaeda has the capability to destroy the United States of America, its institutions, its very being, much as a 20,000-plus nuclear-tipped missile [arsenal] had the capability to had we gone to war with the Soviet Union and everyone unleashed his full panoply of weapons. This is ridiculous. This is utterly ridiculous. It begins marching you down in your decisions this road that is full of dangerous and even inept decisions, because we're not in an existential conflict with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda doesn't even remotely have the capability to bring the United States down. ...

So it's Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001, and the vice president is on Meet the Press, and he talks about the "dark side." ... Did you happen to see that? What did you take it to mean?

No, but I certainly heard about it. And as I just indicated, this dismayed me because it meant, to me at least, as if we were misperceiving the conflict. ... [T]his is a conflict of ideas; it is not a conflict of bombs, bullets and bayonets. ...

...[Cheney's] network is positioned almost everywhere in the government that's important.

I got a briefing as a member of the policy planning staff within a month or two of 9/11 from a very intelligent, hardworking young lady at the Central Intelligence Agency whose specialty was Al Qaeda. ... What she did was summarize everything in a chart, and she showed counterintuitively a pyramid: [At the top] they were that organization that advocated killing men, women, children, Muslims -- it didn't matter. That was their modus operandi. Through that pyramid and gradations in that pyramid, you came down to the base, the base being a billion Muslims, and in that base being a certain number of Muslims who, even though they had no truck for violence, for killing, certainly for killing innocent men, women and children, and certainly not for killing their own kind, nonetheless, as she put it in an anecdote I will never forget, "went into mosques all around the world and put shekels, dinars, dollars in the second box, knowing full well that the second box was not for charity; it was not for the mosque; it was for Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-like organizations."

I asked her the question; I said, "How many in that billion are doing that?" And she said: "Conservative estimate, 40 million. Liberal estimate, 100 million." And the mathematician in me said: "Oh, God. Sixty or 70 million people are out there; even though they don't believe in violence necessarily, they're supporting Al Qaeda." That's the center of gravity of this war, and you don't get at the center of gravity by killing it or by killing others. You get at that center of gravity by proving to them your ideas: that democracy is the best form of government; freedom is the best human condition; and market economies, open, free trade is the best way to prosper in those systems of governance; and violence and killing people is antithetical to that. That's how you win that conflict. It's a conflict of ideas. You have to capture the hearts and minds of those people who are putting the shekels, dollars, dinars in that second box in mosques all over the world. You don't do that with bombs, bullets and bayonets.

But we weren't interested in all in that. I mean, our first reaction from those first hours was completely anger, fear and revenge.

Afghanistan was clearly understandable. We presented an ultimatum to the Taliban. We said, "Turn over Al Qaeda, or we're going to come get them." They wouldn't, and so we did. ...

Afghanistan was understandable and was a legitimate use of the military instrument to respond to the specific incidents of 9/11 and the reluctance of the Taliban, the denial of the Taliban, in terms of our demands. Iraq, totally different matter, totally different matter -- a diversion from that good start, if you will. ...

[About the decision to go to Iraq], ... I've heard that Secretary Powell basically says at some moment fairly early in the process, "I can see where this train's going, and the best we can do is slow it down, but we are never going to be able to stop it." Is that accurate?

I never heard him use those words, but again, I was working for [State Department Director of Policy Planning] Richard Haass at the time. ... Richard has said -- I believe it was in George Packer's book, The Assassins' Gate: [America in Iraq] -- that he still doesn't know why we went to war.

But he could feel it coming almost from then?

He could certainly feel it coming. ... Richard said he knew very early that the march was on, and it was unstoppable. ...

[Were there two divergent schools of thought on Iraq at that time, with one in the State Department and the other principally in the Defense Department and the vice president's office?]

... [N]ot precisely the way you define it. There is a marked difference now. Again, people are woefully ignorant of this. One of the things the 1947 [National Security] Act attempted to do -- and many would say today did far too well -- was to rectify the imbalance of power between what had become the national military establishment and the State Department. The State Department was far too powerful, and one of the reasons they set up the national military establishment that later became the Department of Defense was to clearly counteract some of the overweening power that the State Department had developed.

[What do you mean "did far too well"? What is the balance of power like today?]

Today, that's gone well beyond their wildest expectations. The Defense Department gets $400 billion-plus [a year]; the State Department gets $30 billion. There is an antipathy on the part of the rest of the government, particularly the Defense Department, towards the State Department because the State Department has no domestic constituency; it has a constituency of foreigners. ... There's a natural antipathy between the State Department and the Defense Department. ...

This is a reverse for me personally when I moved to the State Department. Remember the old axiom about "where you stand depends on where you sit"? Well, not only did I develop a great deal of respect for the foreign service and the people who worked in the State Department, ... but I also began to understand what the State Department had been dealing [with] with regards to the Defense Department, not just in the imbalance of resources, but in what I called the continuing militarization of America's foreign policy. ...

The principal diplomat in each region of the world is not the assistant secretary of state for that region; it's the combatant commander. When the combatant commander for the Pacific goes to see Prime Minister [Junichiro] Koizumi in Tokyo, he carries Marine amphibious forces, carriers, fighter wings and Army divisions with him. The assistant secretary carries nothing but his pen and briefcase. I'll give you three guesses as to who has the most influence. ...

What I came to see at the State Department was what you might call the fruition of the greatest fear perhaps America had ever had with regard to its standing military, and that was "the man on horseback," answered in a very different and ironic way than I would ever thought it would be answered. The man on horseback was not in uniform; the man on horseback was in a business suit.

[Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld?

Yes, the man who came to wield that $400 billion instrument. ... Not only did Rumsfeld further ... the militarization of American foreign policy; he moved the military instrument in ways that led policy and moved the military instrument in ways that, in my view, were detrimental to the very democratic fabric that makes this country what it is, makes this country great.

How much of that is personal, Powell versus Rumsfeld?

I don't think it was personal. I don't think Colin Powell had a hate on for Donald Rumsfeld. What we were doing at the State Department was trying to insist that the diplomatic instrument should be a leading instrument, not a secondary instrument; that the diplomatic instrument could be an effective instrument if it were used properly; and that it could be not only an effective instrument, but a much less expensive instrument, both in terms of real cost -- that is to say dollars expended -- and in terms of ... lives and in terms of credibility around the world. ... And if you're involved in a conflict that is basically a war of ideas, you are degrading your capability to win that conflict considerably.

Meanwhile we have this broad war powers authorization; the "torture memo," the Bybee memo; the Geneva arguments. How do you characterize what was happening there, a slippery slope?

Absolutely a slippery slope. When you take the armed forces of the United States off the gold standard, when you take them off their code of conduct, off the law of war, off their field manual, and at the same time put enormous pressure on them to deliver, you're on worse than a slippery slope; you're starting an avalanche, an avalanche that produces this argument about "torture-lite" and "torture-heavy." [This] is nonsensical to me. Death is "torture-heavy."

When I left the State Department, more than 70 detainees had died while in detention. It's now up to 100. Of that 100, some 27 have been declared officially homicides. The first two I came across were in Bagram [north of Kabul, Afghanistan] in December 2002. The Army coroner declared them homicides; the Army declared them death by natural cause. ...

This is not an isolated bunch of privates doing some things that they shouldn't be doing at Abu Ghraib, as Secretary Rumsfeld has intimated on a number of occasions. This is widespread. It's in Afghanistan; it's in Iraq; it was in Guantanamo. And it all got started by the two things I described: the loosening of the reins, so to speak, the constraints, and the pressure to produce. "I must have intelligence. I must have intelligence." When you do that, you are asking for Pandora's box to open, and you're asking for all kinds of problems, and that's exactly what we got. ...

When you get around to assigning blame, how much do you lay on Rumsfeld and Cheney for this?

... When you see those sorts of things happening, you understand that this is blessed from the highest levels; it's blessed by the vice president of the United States. When you see him lobbying the Congress not to adopt the McCain amendment [prohibiting the torture of prisoners and detainees], you just have to be appalled.

I'm an American citizen, and my vice president is advocating terror. And to hide under this blanket of "No, we're actually just seeking to maintain the privilege of the executive branch" is nonsense. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution says the Congress has the power to make rules and regulations governing the land and naval forces of the United States.

But this is a war, isn't it?

Yes, this is a war that is as bad or worse than the war we were in for many years with the Soviet Union where we faced imminent destruction every day. ... That truly was a threat to our very existence. We didn't torture people then; we didn't torture Russian agents. Well, why are we doing it now in a conflict that is far, far less than the Cold War? ... Because the vice president of the United States wants us to do it.

How powerful is Dick Cheney?

How powerful is the vice president? The most powerful vice president in the history of our country.

And the implications of that?

... I think some of the decisions that have led us to the greatest challenges we now confront -- post-invasion planning for Iraq, for example, which was inept, incompetent; and this decision about deviating from our obligations under international and domestic law with regard to interrogation -- they're colossal failures. So when someone is powerful in the administration and makes decisions with the president witting or not witting, and those decisions turn out to be colossal failures, then people want to know why. ...

I haven't seen this administration do anything except batten down the hatches, man the torpedoes, full speed ahead, and replace [former Cheney Chief of Staff] Scooter Libby with David Addington, who is a Scooter Libby lookalike. That's not fresh blood; that's not new people; that's "I'm right; you're wrong, damn you." ...

Give me a sense of either alliances or orientations of central characters like [former National Security Adviser and current Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. What were her views in those earliest days post-9/11?

We had a one-word description of the National Security Council, ... and that one word was "dysfunctional." ....

I asked myself many times: "How that could be? How could a woman as competent as Dr. Rice seemed to be -- indeed, Secretary Powell had told me she was a sort of a protégé of his -- [head up an organization that] could be so dysfunctional?" ... If I were making a comment about Condi, I'd say simply she had her eye on the prize, and the prize was a Cabinet position -- and a particular Cabinet position, secretary of state -- and as national security adviser, one works one's ambitions to achieve that position.

I'm not saying that in a pejorative sense. That's the way people work, more by establishing an intimacy with the president than by bringing discipline and balance to a decision-making process, because when you bring discipline and balance to a decision-making process, you oftentimes have to make an enemy of people -- of the vice president, for example; you have to make an enemy of the secretary of defense; and on occasion you may even have to speak truth to power with regard to the president of the United States.

If your main goal is building intimacy with that president and with other members who have major influence on you, ... you don't want to make any of those people angry with you. So when it comes time to discipline the process, when it comes time to make the process work, when it comes time to tolerate dissent and allow balance into the discussions, you don't always side for that discipline and that balance, but you get your job.

What is your view of [former Director of Central Intelligence] George Tenet?

A mystery to me. I spent some of the most intimate hours of my life with George Tenet and John McLaughlin, his DDCI [deputy director of central intelligence]. ... [It's] a mystery to me in the sense that he could be so bamboozled by his own intelligence community and by foreign intelligence communities with whom he was dealing.

I have to go back and look at the record of the agency over which he presided. Let's face it: We missed the fall of the Soviet Union. We missed the 1998 nuclear test in India. We missed the five-year preparation cycle for 9/11. We bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The CIA has not got a stellar record in the last decade or two. ... But George Tenet presided over this organization for quite a long time, and I sat in the room looking into his eyes, as did the secretary of state, and heard with the firmness that only George could give it -- and I don't mean terminology like "slam dunk," although he was a basketball aficionado and used that kind of terminology a lot, but I mean eyeball-to-eyeball contact between two of the most powerful [men] in the administration, Colin Powell and George Tenet -- and George Tenet assuring Colin Powell that the information he was presenting at the U.N. was ironclad, only to have that same individual call the secretary on more than one occasion in the ensuing months after the presentation and tell him that central pillars of his presentation were indeed false.

Now, do I believe George Tenet knew they were false when he told him that? Absolutely not. I just don't believe it. I refuse to believe it. How did we get to that point? How did our intelligence community get us to that point? How did [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] Douglas Feith, who clearly politicized intelligence, clearly cherry-picked intelligence, clearly provided some of that cherry-picked intelligence to the vice president of the United States -- how did we combine all of that, plus a good dose of psychological groupthink, to come up with such an abysmal failure in regards to WMD in Iraq? It's a mystery to me, and I will never know the answer.

I am somewhat concerned now. To this point I have maintained that no one in the upper echelons of the leadership of this country spun the intelligence in a way that I would find clearly disturbing as a citizen of this country. I believe they believed what they were saying, that they were fooled, just as I was, just as Colin Powell was.

But I've heard some things lately that are disturbing to me. One of those things is this business about Sheikh al-Libi, who was an Al Qaeda operative in Afghanistan, who was rendered to another country and whose confession [was] then obtained under methods that were certainly not Geneva Convention-blessed methods. [He] gave some information about Baghdad providing chemical and biological training to Al Qaeda operatives that was later recanted, but was at the time [a major piece of evidence in the case for war against Iraq].

Roughly at the time the information was gained, a major dissent was rendered by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Well, I had a DIA representative with me at the CIA, and DIA was plugged into everything we were doing at the CIA, and no one ever, ever, ever mentioned that dissent to me.

Second: [Iraqi defector] Curveball. I am now reading that there was major dissent on Curveball -- Curveball being the source for the biological mobile laboratory which Mr. Tenet presented to the secretary of state as being absolutely firm. If this dissent existed in German intelligence [and] within the American intelligence community, why was it not surfaced during our preparation for the presentation to the U.N.? It was not. I never heard a single word of dissent on that either.

Now, let me tell you what might have happened if we had heard some dissent. Secretary Powell was not reluctant at all to throw things out completely. We threw the meeting between [9/11 hijacker] Mohamed Atta and Iraqi intelligence operatives in Prague out --

Despite the fact that that was Scooter Libby's favorite item?

They tried to get it back in when we threw it out.

When? How?

On more than one occasion. The last occasion I remember vividly was the last rehearsal out at the agency before we relocated to New York [to give the presentation at the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 6, 2003]. [Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs] Steve Hadley ... said, "What happened to the meeting about Mohamed Atta in Prague?" And Secretary [Powell] said: "We took that out, Steve. Don't you remember?" And Steve rather sheepishly hung his head, slid back in his chair and said, "Yes, Mr. Secretary, I do remember."

But we did have qualifying information about the aluminum tubes that were supposed to be centrifuges for a new uranium enhancement program. And when we presented this to Secretary Powell, he became uneasy about it. I tried to explain to him all the different ingredients to this problem that were out there: For example, there were different laboratories that had evaluated the tubes. One laboratory at the Department of Energy had not spun the tubes to sufficient rpm [revolutions per minute] to verify that they could be centrifuges, so obviously, DOE's position was going to be, "Hey, they can't possibly be centrifuges. They must be just shielding for rockets," or whatever.

Over here you had another lab, and they spun it to rpm sufficient to be centrifuges. ... So there were all manner of, shall we say, "different perspectives" on the aluminum tubes. Secretary Powell said, "Fine, I'll qualify it." And check his presentation -- he did. He went with Mr. Tenet's general conclusion that they were -- at least some of them were -- for a nuclear program, and that Saddam was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program with centrifuges. But he said, "I realized there is debate about this out there," and he did qualify that particular part of his argument.

Would we have done that with Curveball? Would we have done that with the connection between Al Qaeda and Baghdad? I can't say, but we never had the opportunity to decide, because we never were presented with those dissents.

How does it happen that the director of central intelligence gets it so wrong?

... My best estimate right now is, one, we did a lot of linear projection. We lost all contact in 1998 after we bombed [targets in Iraq]. We had no one on the ground, ... so we had no visibility. This linear projection would say he had this much anthrax at the end of the inspections, so we just projected and said, "OK, if he had this, he's got this now." Without questioning it, we just linearly projected.

Second, I actually believe now that Saddam Hussein was much smarter in this sort of counterintelligence sense than we gave him credit for. I think he was actually putting disinformation out. First of all, having studied him in the first Gulf War, I knew that his number one concern was purging Iran. His number two concern was his own people. ... In order to deter the Iranians and keep his own people in line, he could not admit he did not have WMDs, so he spoofed us. He knew when the satellite would be over, so he ran out stuff that we could photograph that looked like he still had special weapons.

I looked at the photographs at the CIA with the best analysts the United States has and with the best resolution on those photographs. I looked at photographs, for example, that showed me all the signs of special weapons at a certain day. ... Now, was that just a fabrication, or was Saddam actually trying to use our own satellites to send us signals that he still had WMD? ...

The other thing I mentioned earlier is this groupthink, where even if you dissent, your dissent is a footnote down in small 8 [point] font at the bottom of the page [or] the back of the text. INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research] at the State Department, for example, had objected and said, "We don't believe that he's reconstituting his nuclear program." They did sign up for the chemical and biological analysis, but they dissented from the nuclear. Well, how many times did that get presented? ...

There was not this clash of ideas; there was not this competition in the intelligence community. There was a mole, and the mole came down and said, "You will believe, and this is the truth, and this is what the DCI [director of central intelligence] is going to present."

Let me give you a really good example, and this comes from one of the analysts at the CIA whom I learned to trust the most because of his professionalism and his expertise. ... He told me a story about how the Iraqis had wanted to buy something from a foreign country, and they had this elaborate network of front companies that did purchasing for them so they could bust sanctions. This was almost anything conventional: artillery rounds, mortar rounds, whatever. So they're out buying something from this country through one of these front companies. Well, the company they're buying it from in this country decides that it will advertise to them that there's something else that they ought to be buying, and this happened to be a software mapping program for the Eastern United States. The Iraqis say: "Nah, we don't want that. We just want what we ordered." So they get what they ordered.

Well, it came back to our intelligence community that the Iraqis were seeking to acquire mapping software of the Eastern United States. Light bulbs go off. Intelligence community says: "Whoa, man. They're talking about UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] that could carry munitions, biological or chemical munitions, for example, and they're looking for mapping software of the Eastern United States. Conclusion: Let's draw the dots together. They're going to put a UAV on a ship or something, sail it up close to the United States, fly the UAV over the United States using that mapping software, and drop chemical or biological munitions on the United States. Whoa." Off they go and brief the vice president on that.

I said to this analyst, "'Well, when the information came in that it wasn't the Iraqis that were even seeking this, [that] it was the company advertising to the Iraqis and the Iraqis didn't want it, was that taken back to the White House?"

"No," he said.

Why not?

I suggest you ask Mr. Tenet that question.

I've talked to people who say he got too close to the president, that they had a personal relationship and that it's hard to bring the bad news to the client.

That's as good an explanation as any I've heard. Maybe that's the reason, for example, President Clinton decided not to have the daily briefings from the DCI. You're committed, and every day that you go, you're committed more. The tendency to be spun yourself without even realizing you're being spun suddenly becomes more pronounced, I would imagine. ...

When I teach this, I'm not going to teach this as a terrible aberration. I'm going to teach this as a decision-making process, set up by the Congress of the United States in conjunction with the president of the United States, ... signed as the National Security Act [of 1947] and amended by other presidents and other congresses as we went forward. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't work. In most cases that it doesn't work, it's when the president decides to do something different than what the law suggests. It's not illegal. Our founding fathers left wide gaps ... between legislative, judicial, executive. But when it leads to failure, presidents have to pay the piper. ...

[What was Dick Cheney's ideological role in the run-up to the war in Iraq?]

It's difficult for me to say. ... Dick Cheney is genuinely concerned about the security of this country; there's no question in my mind about that. He's paranoid about it, I think. And you can say, "Well, the vice president of the United States and the president of the United States should be paranoid about my security," and I probably wouldn't argue it until it starts causing me to do things that violate my own code of conduct, ethics and so forth. Then I'm going to object.

So how did they come to ally themselves [with] these Jacobins who are, above all else, intent on a messianic spread of the American way around the world at the point of the bayonet? And [how did] these ultranationalists, who during the campaign, for example, decried nation building, [start] going about the world slaying monsters and spending billions to do it? How did they come to form this unholy alliance, these Jacobins and these ultranationalists? ...

Right now, I think it was an alliance of convenience, desperation and power -- and the latter being the aphrodisiac. If you can stay in power only by allying yourself with a group that has got the attention of the American public and of the body politic at the moment, then you're going to do that. Then you're going to ride that tiger into whatever conclusion comes about. I think that's essentially what the president did with Iraq, and all of a sudden, he's the most nation-building president in our history.

He's got us in a physical situation which I don't know how we're going to extract ourselves from. We're spending billions of dollars on things that don't bring better education, better health care and other sorely needed things to the American public. He's embarked on probably the largest expansion of the federal bureaucracy of certainly any Republican president and probably any president since FDR, just with the Homeland Security Department. It's clearly questionable whether or not that has really fixed anything, as Katrina so vividly demonstrated. In fact, it may have exacerbated the problems. There's utterly no evidence yet that it has fixed the intelligence community, that it has done anything to stop that string of intelligence failures that [I] elucidated before. So it is a strange alliance indeed, and yet they're all riding it now because it's all they have to ride. ...

[Will we ever know if the administration's intelligence leading to war in Iraq was "stovepiped" up?]

[Did] we ever do get to the bottom of the Tonkin Gulf [incident]? Have we indeed gotten to the bottom of whether or not Mohamed Atta met [with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague]? There are still people who advocate that that meeting took place. ...

But if you are going to make a reasonable attempt to do so, I think you'd have to look at the connections between the people in the CIA who were, shall we say, more of a mind with the vice president, people in the agency, people in the Feith office and people in other areas of the government who were networked, who created this self-generating, self-regulating circle of information flow that nipped through the vice president's office so that when he needed something for a speech or he needed something for a convincing argument in the Oval Office in a one-on-one, he had it.

Well, whether it was accurate or not didn't really seem to matter to the people in the circuit. Now, I have to assume that the vice president, when he latched on to a particular piece of information -- principally through Scooter Libby -- thought it was accurate. Otherwise, I'd have to significantly re-evaluate the vice president. I have to believe he had a predisposition to believe and was seeking information to support that predisposition. People fed that information to him, and he believed the information he was getting was accurate.

[Tell me about Cheney's network. How far does his reach extend?]

His network is positioned almost everywhere in the government that's important. It was marvelous to watch his network work. ... In the levels of meetings that were in the statutory process -- policy-coordinating committee meetings, ... and then the principals' meeting where only the secretary attended, or sometimes a plus-one, like on the detainee-abuse issues or the Geneva [Convention] issues -- so if you look at those processes, Cheney attended them all through his surrogates. ...

His people attended, and rarely did they ever say anything; [they] just took good notes so that they could take it back and flummox the process wherever the vice president elected to flummox the process. ... Their modus operandi most of the time was to just be quiet, gather information and go back and tell the big guy. Then the big guy weighed in with the even bigger guy -- the president -- and generally speaking, got what he wanted.

When they had a policy -- for example, like Iran, where we couldn't even produce a presidential decision directive over the entire four years that I was in the State Department -- that was the vice president's desire. No bilateral relations with Iran, no negotiations, no talks, and oh, by the way, no support for the EU-3 [Britain, France and Germany] or any European or other activity that's going to talk to Tehran -- that was the vice president's position. So in this case, all he had to do was use that dysfunctional statutory process to mask the fact that the decision had already been made. It was a decision by default. You couldn't make a decision in the statutory process because everybody was always fighting, and so you got what [he] wanted, which was no decision.

This is what you meant when you called them a "cabal"?

Yes, because it uses the statutory process in which the entire bureaucracy has a voice to camouflage the real decision-making process, wherein the decisions are being made by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for certain key issues -- most often with the knowledge of the president, which is fine. The president discards the bureaucracy and has his two buds make his decisions for him. That's fine if the president wants to do it that way.

But when the president is not witting of that alternative process, I have problems with it, and it's my critique of those two decisions: the post-invasion planning for Iraq and the decision to allow the military to participate in this other-than-Geneva interrogation methods. I am not at all sure the president was witting of -- in fact, I am quite confident that he was not witting of -- through his own neglect or through nefariousness, I don't know. But nonetheless, the decisions got executed, and they have been abject failures, and that's why I'm focused on them.

The relationship between Cheney and Rumsfeld -- assess it for me.

The way I look at it, they are a symbiotic pair, and they've been together for a long time, and sometimes the one is the mentor and the other is the mentee, sometimes vice versa. ...

It's interesting to watch Rumsfeld as he attempts to distance himself from a lot of the decision making that actually occurred on his and Dick Cheney's initiative. Interesting to see Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 speaking to an issue and then Donald Rumsfeld today speaking to an issue. You want to ask yourself: "My God, can't the American people see? Don't they understand the dissembling that's going on here, the outright lying that's going on here? 'It's not an insurgency'; 'No, it is an insurgency.' 'They're not guerrillas'; 'Oh, they are guerrillas.'" It's quite palpable, and you wonder sometimes if our 24/7 news cycle, nine-second soundbite, doesn't inure us to any kind of real introspection and analysis of what's actually going on. We believe the second we hear it, and it's gone, and no one ever goes back to check what was said before, what was done before.

For example, the Pentagon is trying to beat McCain to his [anti-torture] initiative. The Pentagon is trying to get the new Army field manual out before McCain gets his legislation done. If you're an optimist, you can say Donald Rumsfeld realizes the tragic mistake he made in authorizing some of these things and he's trying to correct them. If you're the realist like I am, you realize that this is a premier bureaucratic infighter who's trying to cover his ass.

Just like his memo, his memo which he cites now, saying, "I was not really asked about this war. I mean, the president and the vice president knew my views, but I never really was asked about it" -- he's distancing himself even from the fact that we went to war in Iraq. And then he talks about the memo: "I drew up a memo with all manner of points about how this --" Well, he drew up a memo on everything. He could pull a memo out of his ass to cover any contingency. ... This is the supreme bureaucrat writing dozens of memos that he can pull out at any particular time and cite as his objection to what turned out to be a failure. This man is the "quintessential bureaucratic entrepreneur," to use Richard Haass' felicitous phrase.

Do you ever feel that it's Dick Cheney's invisible hand that is weighing in on the issues of coercive interrogation and torture?

Absolutely. Absolutely. From my perspective, in looking at all the documentation by the secretary's order I put together following the Abu Ghraib revelations, the debate boiled down to, on the one side, the Yoos, the Addingtons, the [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzaleses, the [White House Counsel Timothy] Flanigans, the Cheneys. The president of the United States had ultimate authority, period. He could do in a national emergency anything that he needed to do, and that what he needed to do was take the gloves off and go on the "dark side."

On the other side was Colin Powell; at times Dr. Rice; Will Taft, Colin Powell's lawyer; the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and later, as they discovered what was going on, the military lawyers, the JAGs and so forth. What they saw the president do in the formal process, the statutory process, confronted with this passionate debate, was make a compromise as so many presidents have done throughout our history. He decided: "Yes, it was a new kind of conflict; yes, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were the new kind of detainee. But the Geneva Convention and American political and cultural values would still be adhered to in the treatment of all detainees."

Now, what that turned out to be in execution was that guys over on the extreme right side of the debate said, "Well, we heard the president say that, but we're going to go and implement what we were going to do anyway."

Now, many of my critics have said, "No, the president knew they were going to do that; that's the reason he put that conditional clause in there -- 'consistent with military necessity' -- when he published the memorandum that codified that decision." "Consistent with military necessity" doesn't mean that you can go out and torture people. He would have said "consistent with national security, consistent with the needs of the global war on terror," or something like that.

Military necessity means that if I'm detaining you, and you threaten me or my buddies, I can [pistol-whip] you; I can even shoot you. I'm not going to kill you, but I can. It doesn't mean that I can hang you by your shackles in a dungeon in Bagram [Air Base in Afghanistan], subject you to 50-degree temperature day after day after day, fail to feed you except the bare minimum to live, introduce your body to hypothermia and then beat the crap out of you and kill you, which clearly happened on Dec. 10, 2002, in Bagram to two detainees and apparently has happened to a number of others. That's not what that means.

So I answer my critics by saying, "Well, then the president really didn't know what he was doing, because these guys went out and implemented not a compromise, but what they had argued for in the first place." And the CIA renditions and the CIA treatment and use of torture and so forth -- it just amplifies my feeling 100 percent. If the president thought that his memorandum covered that sort of activity anyway, why would he sign a [presidential] finding to cover the CIA's ass? If the memorandum that he published covered everybody, why would he feel like he needed a separate one for the CIA? ...

Why did Secretary Powell participate in the U.N. presentation? Why did he put his the hard-won career capital on the line?

Best ask him that question.

But you must have a guess.

No, I don't. I wish I did. I suppose for the same reason that I took his orders and went over to the agency and cloistered myself away and got him ready for it and ultimately, as I've said before, creating the lowest point in my professional career: loyalty.

Let me put it this way. There were times in this administration where I felt with regard to the national security establishment that Colin Powell was the only sane member of the administration. Under those kinds of circumstances, you don't want leave. ... You want to stay and do damage control.

I wrote a memo to the secretary either late '03 or early '04, and I said, "Mr. Secretary, your legacy is going to be damage control."

What do you mean?

"You were the one who reached underneath the U.S.-German relationship to [German Foreign Minister] Joschka Fischer when [Chancellor Gerhard] Schroder and Bush couldn't even talk to each other hardly, and you kept the relationship alive," ... a situation that saw Joschka Fischer and Colin Powell, who clearly understood the importance of this relationship, doing everything in their power -- telephone calls every day, meetings -- to keep the relationship solid, even though at the top it looked like it was falling apart.

Damage control with the French when Donald Rumsfeld was doing everything in his power to punish the French, like prohibiting the commandant of the Marine Corps from going to a meeting with his contemporary in France, a meeting that had been attended for years, simply to stick his finger in the eye of the French. ... The most effective multidimensional counterterrorism center is in France, and here we have the secretary of defense sticking his finger at every opportunity in the eye of the French, and here we have the secretary of state keeping the relationship solid so that we can use that relationship to fight terror, the real problem.

Our relations with the Europeans would be significantly more frayed than even they are now if it hadn't been for Colin Powell working behind the scenes to keep those relations on at least a workable level, fairly stable.

When Tenet and others begin to call and say, "You know what? The al-Libi information was coerced," how do you take the bad news?

Well, the secretary would come through my door at least once a day, sometimes five or six times a day. Sometimes he'd sit down; sometimes he wouldn't. Sometimes he'd just unburden himself, and other times we'd actually talk seriously about an issue. I remember these scenes where he would come through my door, and he would say, "Well, George just called and took another pillar out; another substantial aspect of my presentation is gone."

How did he feel about that?

Well, he took it like a soldier, ... but it was a blow to me. I wrote out my resignation. I put it in my center drawer, typed it myself. I wouldn't even make my staff assistant type it. "Dear President Bush, I've come to the point in my service where I no longer can serve, given the nature of your foreign policy and so forth. Therefore, I respectfully submit my resignation." Once a week or so, I would take it out and look at it, fold it back up carefully and put it back in my center drawer, never having the intestinal fortitude to submit it. I won't speak for Colin Powell, but I'll tell you it really affected me. ...

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posted june 20, 2006

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