Powell's Former Chief of Staff Lawrence
Wilkerson Calls Pre-War Intelligence a 'Hoax on the American
-- -- Colin Powell's former Chief of Staff Lawrence
Wilkerson makes the startling claim that much of Powell's
landmark speech to the United Nations laying out the Bush
Administration's case for the Iraq war was false.
"I participated in a hoax on the American people, the
international community, and the United Nations Security
Council," says Wilkerson, who helped prepare the address.
"I recall vividly the Secretary of State walking into my
office," Wilkerson tells NOW. "He said: 'I wonder what will
happen if we put half a million troops on the ground in Iraq and
comb the country from one end to the other and don't find a
single weapon of mass destruction?'" In fact, no weapons of mass
destruction were found in Iraq.
An interview with Lawrence Wilkerson
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Mr. Wilkerson, thanks for doing this.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Thank you for having me.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: We now know that there was deep
skepticism within the intelligence community about some of these
pre-war claims than what's being expressed publicly at the time. Is
it reasonable to think that the administration knew about this
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Six months ago I would have said "no."
Since that time, however, there have been some revelations.
Principally about Sheik Al Libbi's testimony and how it was
obtained. And how there was a DIA, for example, Defense Intelligence
Agency, dissent on that testimony, apparently I'm hearing now,
around the time the testimony was actually given.
And even more to the point than Al Libbi, Curve Ball. And the
revelations that have come out about Curve Ball. And in particular
the German dissent from the integrity of CurveBall's testimony.
I can tell you that having been intimately involved in the
preparation of Secretary Powell for his five February 2003
presentation at the UN Security Council, neither of those dissents
in any fashion or form were registered with me or the Secretary by
the DCI, George Tenent, by the DDCI, John McLaughlin, or by any of
their many analysts who were in the room with us for those five, six
days and nights at the Central Intelligence Agency.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And they didn't give you any inkling
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Not a bit.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: -- there was this debate about some of
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Not a bit. In fact it was presented in
the firmest language possible that the mobile biological labs and
the sketches we had drawn of them for the Secretary's presentation
were based on the iron clad evidence of multiple sources.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Maybe they at the most senior level,
like you, just didn't know?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I have to believe that. Otherwise I
have to believe some rather nefarious things about some fairly
highly placed people in the intelligence community and perhaps
DAVID BRANCACCIO: What do you think really did happen with
regards to this-- disconnect between what we now know about these
profound questions about some of these key sources and the fact that
somebody had these questions in real time?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, I've been a consumer, a user of
intelligence at the tactical, operational and strategic level for
close to 35, 36 years. And I've seen many errors in intelligence.
And I know it's not a perfectible business. Not by any stretch of
However, I am astonished at the failures of our intelligence
community over the-- last decade in particular. We failed to predict
the demise of the Soviet Union. We failed to predict the Indian
nuclear test in 1998.
We bombed a Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. We failed to
detect the five year planning cycle of al Qaeda, the operatives who
conducted 9/11. And we failed in terms of predicting Iraq's WMDs.
So we have a significant problem in this nation with our
intelligence community. And, by the way, I don't think it's fixed in
any way. Yet. This administration has really done nothing to fix it.
And-- so I-- I'm familiar with intelligence failure.
However, this particular one seems to me to warrant a lot more
investigation than it has to this point warranted. And I take in the
recognition the Robb Silberman commission, the 9/11 commission and a
host of other lesser-- investigations that have attempted to look at
this. And the phase two investigation now going on in the Congress,
which I think as long as the Republicans control the Congress will
not be a-- an investigation that reveals very much. But I think we
really need to take a hard look at how not just the intelligence
failures I've enumerated occurred, but how this particular one did.
Because it could turn out to be one of the worst in our history.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Your experience with evaluating
intelligence-- you understand from your experience evaluating
intelligence, this is tough stuff.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Very.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: It often is inconclusive. And you have
to use powers of critical thinking to figure out what is the right
thing to do.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: And you have to listen to dissent. You
must. You can't squelch dissent. You can't put dissent in an obscure
footnote on page 495 of an intelligence annex. You must listen to
You must-- I-- I today regret the fact that I didn't listen
better to the Intelligence Bureau and the State Department. The--
the Intelligence Bureau and the State Department at this time we
were preparing Secretary Powell dissented on one key issue. And they
essentially said there was no active nuclear program in Iraq.
And they were right. And the rest of the intelligence community
was wrong. But the rest of the intelligence community did not take
that dissent, massage it, compete it in the world of ideas in the
intelligence community. It simply footnoted it and relegated it to
that footnote. To that qualification, if you will.
INR was right. The rest of the intelligence community was wrong.
Now INR was wrong about bio and chem. They said the same thing the
rest of the intelligence community said. That he did have active bio
and chem programs. But they were right about the most important
weapons of mass destruction Saddam could have had, the one that
backed up, for example, Dr. Rice and the Vice President and the
others who talked about mushroom clouds. And I did not listen to
INR. And the Secretary of State did not listen to INR. And as it
turns out we should have.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: In the case if pre-war intelligence are
we just talking about not listening to dissenting views?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I think that's a big part of it, but
it's larger than that. A good friend of mine who was probably one of
the most respected INR intelligence personnel that we had at the
State Department and who indeed has gone on to join John Negroponte
as one of his principle subordinates, once told me that what was
missing was competition. And that struck me, because that's what we
believe in in America.
You know business, education. Competition is an essential
ingredient of what we do. There is no competition in the
intelligence community. In other words leaders don't listen to
various parts of the intelligence community debate one another.
Instead it's a conformist community. And the DCI and-- at that
time presided over the conformity. In other words, if-- you had a
dissenting view, that dissenting view might make it into a footnote.
It might make it into a qualifying paragraph. But the intelligence
community, speaking through the-- director of Central Intelligence,
was going to have a conformist view.
And that view was going to be collected from the community, but
it was going to be a conformist view. And there's-- it's absurd to
think that the director for Central Intelligence, or now the
National Director of Intelligence, is not influenced by the politics
around-- him or her.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, that's a key question here. Is it
just a-- an issue of there's a dominant view in the intelligence
community and the competing views aren't heard? Or are you concerned
that the view of the intelligence community that, for instance, Iraq
has weapons of mass destruction, is in a sense being imposed from
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I think there's a certain amount of
politicization of intelligence. I-- don't think you can escape it
because of human nature. Particularly if you have a DCI like George
Tenent who is frequently in the presence of the President.
Then he is going to absorb during those meetings what the
President wants. What the President is looking for. What the angle
of attack the President has is. And he's going to search for
intelligence that will support that angle of attack.
That's just the nature of human beings. So it's absurd for
someone to say that the intelligence is not politicized at all. Of
course it is. It has to be. It has to conform to the leader's
wishes-- to a certain extent. And what you need in this competitive
community I've described is people who will stand up to power and
tell truth to power. And say, "No, that's not right," to the Vice
President of the United States, for example.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: We now know from published reports that
Vice President Cheney and his right hand man, Lewis Libby, went over
to the headquarters of the CIA about 10 times in late 2002 and early
2003. We don't know what was said. What do you think was going on?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, if the Vice President was
exercising his right as one of the leaders of this country to go to
one of its intelligence agencies and to-- check on how they're doing
and to make sure that they're doing their jobs properly and so
forth, I find it difficult to believe that took 10 times. And as
I've said, it's absurd to think that intelligence isn't somehow
politicized at times.
It's equally absurd for the Vice President to assert that his
trips out to the agency were not bringing undue influence on the
agency. That's preposterous. Anytime a leader of his stature visits
a single agency that many times, he is, by simply the virtue of his
position, bringing undue influence on that agency.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: So you can imagine a scenario where the
Vice President's over there kind of CIA?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I-- could imagine that scenario
DAVID BRANCACCIO: I've never met the Vice President. He's
the kind of guy who could lean on somebody?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Absolutely. And be just as quiet and
taciturn about it as-- he-- as he leaned on 'em. As he leaned on the
Congress recently-- in the-- torture issue.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: We've been talking grand policy. The
then director of the CIA, George Tenent, Vice President Cheney's
deputy Libby, told you that the intelligence that was the basis of
going to war was rock solid. Given what you now know, how does that
make you feel?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: It makes me feel terrible. I've said
in other places that it was-- constitutes the lowest point in my
professional life. My participation in that presentation at the UN
constitutes the lowest point in my professional life.
I participated in a hoax on the American people, the
international community and the United Nations Security Council. How
do you think that makes me feel? Thirty-one years in the United
States Army and I more or less end my career with that kind of a
blot on my record? That's not a very comforting thing.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: A hoax? That's quite a word.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, let's face it, it was. It was
not a hoax that the Secretary in any way was complicit in. In fact
he did his best-- I watched him work. Two AM in the morning on the
DCI and the Deputy DCI, John McLaughlin.
And to try and hone the presentation down to what was, in the
DCI's own words, a slam dunk. Firm. Iron clad. We threw many things
out. We threw the script that Scooter Libby had given the--
Secretary of State. Forty-eight page script on WMD. We threw that
out the first day.
And we turned to the National Intelligence estimate as part of
the recommendation of George Tenent and my agreement with. But even
that turned out to be, in its substantive parts-- that is stockpiles
of chemicals, biologicals and production capability that was hot and
so forth, and an active nuclear program. The three most essential
parts of that presentation turned out to be absolutely false.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: You've said that Vice President Cheney
and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld managed to hijack the
intelligence process. You've called it a cabal.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Decision--
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And--
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: -- making process.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: The decision making process.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Right.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, let me get it right. You've said
that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld somehow managed to hijack the intelligence decision making
process. You called it a cabal.
And said that it was done in a way that makes you think it was
more akin to something you'd see in a dictatorship rather than a
democracy. Now those are strong words. Why a cabal?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, the two decisions that I had the
most profound insights into and which I have spoken to are the
decision to depart from the Geneva Conventions and to depart from
international law with regard to treatment of detainees by the Armed
Forces in particular. But by the entire US establishment, now
including the CIA and contractors in general.
And the post-invasion Iraq-- planning, which was as inept and
incompetent as any planning I've witnessed in some 30-plus years in
public service. Those two decisions were clearly-- made in the
statutory process, the legal process, in one way and made underneath
that process in another way. And that's what I've labeled secret and
Now let me hasten to add that I've taught the national security
decision making process in the nation's war colleges for six years.
I'm a student of that process. I will teach it again-- starting in
January. This is no aberration. It's been done before. It was done
with regard to the Bay of Pigs with John F. Kennedy. It was done
with regard to Watergate with Richard Nixon. It was done with regard
to Iran-Contra with Ronald Reagan.
It was done to a certain and rather lasting effect-- with regard
to Vietnam by Lyndon Johnson and others. So you-- it's not anything
new. And it's been done many times before. That is to say, decisions
have been made elsewhere than in the Oval Office in other
Normally nothing happens as long as the decision is effective,
it's well executed and it produces success. It's when the decision
produces failure that historians, politicians, Congressmen, American
citizens want to know why. And in this case I think both decisions
did produce failures and so they're going to want to know why. And--
we're seeing some of the investigations and-- looks into those
decisions now to decide why they were failures.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: There's an argument that swashbuckling
executives, Defense Secretary and the Vice President making
executive decisions without involving the bureaucracy is very
efficient, gets the--
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Oh yes.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: --job done.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Oh yes.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But you're saying that--
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: This is the argument that's marshaled
by presidents from Truman on. Although I will say that Truman and
Eisenhower were probably the two least apartment to do this sort of
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well think about it. Involving, just for
starters, the entire National Security Council on, for instance,
evaluating the intelligence that-- would help inform a decision to
go to war in Iraq. And that's going to slow things down. They're
going to be dissenting opinions. You're never going to get that war
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: You mean kind of like what our
founding fathers-- intended when they put the Constitution together?
Checks and balances, dissent would be listened to and so forth and
DAVID BRANCACCIO: You're thinking that--
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Ferdinand Eberstadt was a bright man
who participated in these debates that were roiling — I mean truly
roiling around Truman and then around Eisenhower as we try to
implement the National Security Council and tried to implement the
other parameters of the act, including the formation of the Central
Intelligence Agency. And other putting together the National
Defense, national military establishment and then turning it later
in an amendment to the act into the Defense Department. Many debates
occurred that are just like the debates we're having today.
And Ferdinand Eberstadt, remember now that the 1947 Act in part
at least was passed to prohibit ever having another Franklin
Roosevelt. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was also passed to
prohibit having 12/16 years of one man. But I think any critic of
Roosevelt would've said even people who, as my father used to say--
"Roosevelt ah terrible man. Terrible man." They might've hated his
policies but they never would've accused him of being anything other
Ferdinand Eberstadt now, remember that history. Ferdinand
Eberstadt writes to Walter Lippmann and he write-- he writes I
believe in 1953 if I recall Walter Lippmann being-- that columnist
who didn't mind commenting on anything. And Ferdinand says to
Lippmann, "I understand that this may be a more effective process,
that a few men making a decision maybe a more effective process, a
secretive process may be very efficient." But suppose we get a dumb
Suppose we get people who can't make good decisions as FDR was
pretty good at. I'm worried and I would rather have the discussion
and debate in the process we've designed than I would a dictate from
a dumb strongman. And that dumb strongman is his felicitous phrase.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: You're worried that we not have come to
that but that we're heading down this path of--
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Oh I think it's come to that. I think
we've had some decisions at this administration that were more or
less dictates. We've had a decision that the Constitution as read by
Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and a few other very selected
administration lawyers doesn't pertain the way it has pertained for
200-plus years. A very ahistorical reading of the Constitution.
And these people marshal such stellar lights as-- Alexander
Hamilton. They haven't even read Federalist Six. I'm sure they
haven't. Where Alexander Hamilton lays down his markers about the
dangers of a dictate-issuing chief executive. This is not the way
America was intended to be run by its founders and it is not the
interpretation of the Constitution that any of the founders as far
as I read the Federalist Papers and other discussions about their
views would have subscribed to. This is an interpretation of the
constitution that is outlandish and as I said, clearly ahistorical.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And if the system were shown to work
that might be one thing. But-- in the case of recent US for--
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Dictatorships work on occasion. You're
right. Dictatorships do work but I-- I'm like Ferdinand Eberstadt.
I'd prefer to see the squabble of democracy to the efficiency of
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