NPR Morning Edition, November 3, 2005 · 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.
Steve Inskeep: 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.
Larry Wilkerson (in an excerpt from his speech): 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 Chief of Staff to 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.
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. They begin -- regardless of the President having put out this memo -- they begin authorizing procedures within the Armed Forces that led to, in my view, what we've seen.
Inskeep: We have to get more detailed 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 them?
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. When I began to assemble this paperwork, which I no 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 are 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. 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, it doesn't matter whether it's actionable or not as long as they can get the volume in, that they have to do what they have to do to get it. And so you've just given, in essence and 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 from the government to have so much power?
Wilkerson: Well, he had enormous leverage. First of all, he had 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 emails 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 emails for substantive conversations because they knew the Vice President's alternate national security staff was reading their emails.
Inskeep: We should mention, for those who don't follow this closely, Washington policy is often made by memos. It's who can write the memo, who can block the memo from getting to the high levels. As you say, the Vice President had a lot of influence in ....
Wilkerson: ... Well let me give another example. There was a memorandum prepared on the staff by 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 bureaucratic battles are won or 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 for example people like your former boss, Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
Wilkerson: Absolutely. Yet, it is something new to have such a power vice president, to have such a staff working for that vice president -- which essentially constitutes an alternative to the National Security Council 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 UAV's -- unmanned aerial vehicles.
Inskeep: Surveillance vehicles, even attack vehicles.
Wilkerson: Right. 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 Austrailia that also made that other software asked Iraq if they 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 I asked the analyst -- 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 other, earlier briefing? And the analyst looked me right in the eye and said, No.
Inskeep: Your presumption is that the Vice President would not have wanted to know that the intelligence was not as sexy as it seemed.
Wilkerson: Mr. Tenet was not possessed of the intestinal fortitude to go back and tell him. That's pressure!