“…I’ve come to the conclusion that [Cheney] truly is — whether he was that way when I knew him before, when he was Secretary of Defense, I don’t know, that’s not at issue with me any more — the man now is just crazy.”
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson served in the U.S. military for 31 years and was Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from August 2002 until January 2005, two months after Powell’s resignation, when he left the State Department. He is now the chairman of the New America Foundation’s US-Cuba 21st Century Policy Initiative.
In March, in a guest column for the Washington Note, he wrote an article criticizing some crucial aspects of the Bush administration’s detention policies in the “War on Terror,” which, as I noted at the time, “are not as widely known as they should be, and which echo some of the important issues that I’ve tried to raise in my book The Guantánamo Files and my subsequent writing.”
Specifically, Col. Wilkerson wrote about “the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there,” and how “several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.”
He also poured scorn on “the ad hoc intelligence philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people, called the mosaic philosophy,” whose shortcomings were recognized, in May, by a District Court judge, Gladys Kessler, when she granted the habeas corpus petition of a Yemeni prisoner, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed.
I recently approached Col. Wilkerson to ask if he would discuss some of these issues in greater detail, and was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed, as he provided some startling new insights into the conduct of the “War on Terror’; specifically, in this first part, he explained how the State Department had wondered whether the little-reported Dasht-i-Leili container massacre had involved war crimes, how the Bush administration had considered using the Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia (leased from the UK) instead of Guantánamo, and how Col. Wilkerson himself believed that some prisoners had been held on Diego Garcia.
He also spoke about the administration’s obsession with building a “mosaic” of intelligence from the prisoners to understand the workings of al-Qaeda, and how, increasingly, this obsession shifted to a search for connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, to justify the planned invasion of Iraq. What I found particularly interesting at this point in the interview was Col. Wilkerson’s insistence that the administration’s fear of another terrorist attack subsided more rapidly than has been previously acknowledged, as the drive for war in Iraq took over.
Col. Wilkerson discussed the long-standing rivalry between the Pentagon and the CIA, and how former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — albeit with the backing of Dick Cheney — infected the military with the kind of techniques authorized for use by the CIA on “high-value detainees,” and he also mentioned receiving reports from military personnel who refused to disobey the Geneva Conventions when it came to the humane treatment of prisoners, and from others who revealed the disturbing scale of the global detention policies implemented by both the Pentagon and the CIA.
Col. Wilkerson talked about how the investigation into the CIA’s destruction of 92 videotapes recording the interrogations of “high-value detainees,” which is being conducted by federal prosecutor John Durham (who was recently appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the abuse of prisoners held by the CIA) could be explosive. He described the crucial role played by Cheney’s closest advisors, his legal counsel David Addington and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (who resigned as Chief of Staff in October 2005 after being indicted in the Valerie Plame scandal, was convicted but had his sentence dismissed by President Bush in July 2007), and concluded by admitting that, until January 2004, he had no idea of the extent to which the State Department had been excluded from the machinations of Cheney’s “war cabinet.”
He also explained how he believed that President Bush had no idea how dysfunctional his administration was, and reinforced his earlier claim that “no more than a dozen or two” of the prisoners held at Guantánamo had “any intelligence of significance” with a few pointed anecdotes about the administration’s overall failure to seize more than a handful of worthwhile prisoners.
Andy Worthington: I wanted to talk to you about the article you wrote about Guantánamo for the Washington Note in March, which was fascinating because you pointed out so many aspects of how the prison had come into being that had not been reported very well. I know that you received a certain amount of attention for it at the time, but I’m very interested in putting some of those comments that you made out there again, for some people who may have missed them the first time around, and also because I was hoping that maybe you could expand on a few of the themes that you wrote about.
In the first major point that you raised in your article, you talked about the incompetence of the battlefield vetting, and I know, from The Interrogators, a book by a former interrogator in Afghanistan, who wrote under the pseudonym Chris Mackey, that the orders came from Camp Doha in Kuwait, where the prisoner lists were being looked at, that every single Arab who came into US custody had to be sent to Guantánamo, that there was effectively no screening process whatsoever.
And, of course, the Article 5 competent tribunals didn’t take place either. (Held close to the time and place of capture, and designed to separate combatants from those caught up in the fog of war, these tribunals were established in the Geneva Conventions, and were used by the US military in every war from Vietnam onwards — until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan). So I was wondering how you’d heard about the incompetence, if you’d heard this from military people in the field who’d complained that the competent tribunals didn’t take place, whether you’d been getting feedback from Kandahar and Bagram about how there was no screening. I wonder if you could explain a little bit more about that.
Lawrence Wilkerson: My initial source was immediate, and it was from the conversations that took place every morning without fail, sometimes at the weekend but always Monday through Friday, at 8.30, in the Deputy’s Conference Room in the State Department, with the Secretary [Colin Powell] and the Deputy [Richard Armitage] assembled and some 50-odd undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, office directors etc. We went around the table with everyone with a dog in the fight, which was most of the undersecretaries and the assistants getting his or her three or four minutes, and the Secretary would get his five minutes or 30 minutes, depending on what the issues were that day — and of course the Deputy would get his time too. And immediately upon our commencing operations in Afghanistan — and when I say commencing operations, I mean the moment we had the first Special Operating Force team with the Northern Alliance, and we were getting actual reporting back from US as well as CIA with Northern Alliance Forces (so, from US military sources, CIA sources, and initially from others in-country, let’s put it this way, to whom we had access) — what I got immediately was that, with regard to the Northern Alliance taking prisoners, it was absolute chaos.
We got signs that they weren’t taking prisoners; that is to say, they were shooting them. We got signs that when they did take prisoners they would negotiate with them, get them to reconcile themselves, so to speak, and let them go. I mean, it was chaos. Everything you can possibly imagine that could be happening on a battlefield in Afghanistan was happening.
Andy Worthington: So this is presumably after the fall of Kunduz and the fall of the North, when there was the terrible container massacre …
Lawrence Wilkerson: It grew particularly — how shall I say it? The volume [of information] increased remarkably right before, and then during and after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Andy Worthington: OK. And then most of these people didn’t end up in American hands. To my knowledge, only dozens of the thousands of prisoners who made it alive to General Dostum’s prison in Sheberghan, near Mazar-e-Sharif were taken to Guantánamo …
Lawrence Wilkerson: Right, and of course that was the subject of an intense period of discussion. If my memory serves, it was over several mornings with different questions from the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary of our war crimes envoy, Pierre Prosper — ambassador-at-large Pierre Prosper — and of other people like Beth Jones, who was assistant secretary for Eurasia. The appropriate functional and/or regional assistant secretaries would join in the discussion in the morning when the Secretary would ask questions, and I do remember several discussions about these prisoners who grew fairly visible there for a moment and then just seemed to fade from the scene as Dostum apparently had his people put them in containers. One story was that his people then ventilated the containers with AK47s in an attempt to give the prisoners some air, if you want to put a positive spin on it; if you want to put a negative spin on it, in an attempt to kill them. I mean, there are all kinds of stories associated with that, but that was sort of minor considering the chaos that, it seemed to me, existed on the battlefield of Afghanistan with regard to detainee management.
Then it faded for a bit and we didn’t get a lot until we began to hear that there were going to be some detainees that were going to be siphoned off, and were going to be brought back to either Diego Garcia or Guantánamo Bay, or some other place that would be essentially out of US jurisdiction, and Guantánamo quickly took the most emphasis, because we had dealings with Guantánamo before, during the ’93, ’94 exodus of Haitians, when we had problems with immigration across the Florida Strait, and we needed a place to keep people in this instance, so that we could determine, on a very careful, methodical basis, whether they were economic asylum seekers, whether they were political asylum seekers, or whether they were just people trying to get away from wherever they were, and to do the vetting process, and so forth, and to do it out of the confines of the very precisely delineated American judicial procedures.
So Guantánamo was a place that we knew from past, what I would call altruistic uses of it — to allow the process to work, to keep people in a place where they weren’t harassed, where they were fed and looked after, and had medical attention and so forth — but it became a place where we were trying to detain people from the so-called “War on Terror.”
And the reason for picking that place ultimately — and I still believe we had a few at Diego Garcia, and perhaps a few in other places too, but Guantánamo was the principal place — the motivation for picking it was familiarity, and the fact that we’d been through this before, with this sort of extra-territoriality, this being outside the US court system and so forth, and it had met the test of time, if you will, during those episodes, and so it very quickly became the area of choice, I think, and before we knew it at the State Department we were getting cables saying that people were coming back, detainees were coming back from Afghanistan and coming back to Guantánamo.
We knew that these people probably included people captured in Pakistan, people captured under what was a bounty system, essentially, people captured perhaps in other areas, but we knew that the central flow point was going to be Afghanistan, and we also knew that because we were already getting signals from Foreign Minister Straw, the Foreign Minster in Spain, and different countries, who were alerting us to the fact that they knew that we had some of their citizens in these contingents, and they were making their early pleas to get their citizens repatriated, to get them back, under the guise that, of course, they could do as well determining their guilt or innocence, putting them through their judicial systems and incarcerating them if necessary.
And I remember Jack Straw being particularly adamant about this, because he was one of the first to know, as you might expect, that British citizens were involved, and that went on, almost on a daily basis, to the point where it became exasperating for Powell and to a certain extent for Armitage, who would be there sometimes when Powell was traveling, and we’d ask these questions, with specific detainees in mind, with specific countries in mind, indeed often with specific foreign ministers in mind who had just called the Secretary that morning, and the Secretary or the Deputy would ask Pierre, “What’s the update?” and Pierre would, as happened almost every time, roll his eyes and report essentially the same thing: that the Secretary of Defense would not let them go.
We had made every plea, we had banged on doors, we had sent cables, the Secretary himself had called the National Security Advisor, Dr. Rice, the Secretary himself had brought it up with the President of the United States on one occasion, but the Secretary of Defense would not relent, these people were not going to be released. And that went on, and of course the Uighurs got into it, and we started a program to sort of shop the Uighurs around the world, and that went on and, as far as I remember, was never resolved in a way that the Secretary or Pierre was very happy with, and in fact we wound up placing a few Uighurs in Albania, that was the only country that would take them …
Andy Worthington: And that took place in May 2006.
Lawrence Wilkerson: Yes, that was much later, but to return to Afghanistan, the regular meetings were one of my sources of knowing how chaotic the vetting was, and how chaotic the imprisonment was, and how adamant Rumsfeld was — and I’ve come to find now that Donald would not have been adamant without the Vice President’s cover — about not letting any of these guys go, for any reason whatsoever. I also know that one of the motivations for this was not just his obstreperousness, or his arrogance, which was manifested most of the time, but it was the fact that they wanted all of these people questioned vigorously, and they wanted to put together a pattern, a map, a body of evidence, if you will, from all these people, that they thought was going to tell them more and more about al-Qaeda, and increasingly more and more about the connection between al-Qaeda and Baghdad.
I even think that probably, in the summer of 2002, well before Powell gave his presentation at the UN in February 2003, their priority had shifted, as their expectation of another attack went down, and that happened, I think, rather rapidly. I’ve just stumbled on this. I thought before that it had persisted all the way through 2002, but I’m convinced now, from talking to hundreds of people, literally, that that’s not the case, that their fear of another attack subsided rather rapidly after their attention turned to Iraq, and after Tommy Franks, in late November as I recall, was directed to begin planning for Iraq and to take his focus off Afghanistan.
So those discussions that went on — the cables that came in, the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary, all the cognizant people in the Department of State, Pierre, and their discussions every morning, sidebar discussions in the corridors on the seventh floor, indeed, discussions with me in my office, once I became Chief of Staff in August 2002 — that was one source. Another source was military personnel whom I’d known in the past or who people I’d known in the past introduced to me as good sources, who reported to me from, essentially, all over the world, not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but places like Indonesia, places like Djibouti, and so forth, about what was going on with regard to what the Defense Department was calling “kinetic activity”; that is to say, Delta Force and the like, spread all over the world looking for al-Qaeda, and what was happening in the various countries and cities where they were doing this.
Other information came from other places like conventional formations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where I had people I knew in the military who were reporting back to me, usually by email, and also from the other side of the house, if you will, from the diplomats and the people in the embassies and the consulates and so forth in some of these countries, some of whom were much dismayed that they had, as one ambassador put it, 6’ 4” white males with 19-inch biceps walking around in their capital cities, and did anybody really think that they were fooling anyone, and when was somebody going to tell him why they were in his capital city? You know, these were forces that Rumsfeld and [Douglas] Feith [the undersecretary of defense for policy] spread across the world to go after everything from Abu Sayyaf to Jemaah Islamiyah to al-Qaeda, and our ambassadors knew nothing about it initially, but these people were very visible, and they were discovered, and calls began to come back from cities around the world to the Secretary of State and to others about who were these people and what were they doing.
And they were also detaining people, because I believe that Rumsfeld’s first goal there was — he didn’t trust the CIA, he didn’t trust their interrogation, he didn’t trust what they were doing — so he wanted his own activity, he wanted his own action. That’s one of the reasons that the procedures that the President, for example, had confined to a very select group of “high-value detainees” and to just the CIA as the instrument of interrogation — that’s how that migrated over to the Defense Department, essentially through Rumsfeld’s distrust of the CIA, and, frankly, bureaucratic jealousy, and a grab for power. And so Rumsfeld wanted his people doing the same thing, and Jim Haynes, his lawyer in the Defense Department, was perfectly willing to go over to David Addington, and [John] Yoo and [Jay] Bybee and the rest, and craft his own legal views for justifying what the Defense Department then struck out to do.
But much of the reporting that was coming back to me was coming back not just from this massive chaos in the battlefield areas, which Abu Ghraib, of course, with regard to Iraq, came to characterize most vividly, but also from these other detentions that were going on around the world, because, as I said, Rumsfeld’s first priority was to capture, not to kill. If they got in extremis, they were authorized to kill, as Seymour Hersh has stumbled onto, but their real goal was to capture them and to provide more intelligence for this “mosaic” that Rumsfeld and crew were building up, so that they could understand more about al-Qaeda, and more about terrorism in general, and go after these people.
So that was another source. Still another source was people who were involved in detainee management. These were contractors — CIA and military — who were a little bit uneasy about what they were being asked to do, and by whom they were being asked to do it, and without, in some cases, any paperwork to cover their butts, so to speak, and they were sending cables back, and they were talking to people, and people were talking to me, about the disquiet that was going on amongst people who were either seeing some of these things happen, or in some cases were actually involved in it, in some way, and weren’t happy about what they were doing.
I’ve said before that one of the things that, with regard to the armed forces, has made me proud of a lot of those young guys out there — and young gals out there — was that a lot of these people apparently refused to do this stuff, and their leaders, whether they were captains or lieutenants, or whether they were majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels, brigadier generals or whatever, were not eager to order them to, because they knew, from past experience, that when that happens, then you get whistleblowers, you get people who write their Congressmen, and call their Congressmen, and take pictures and so forth, so I was elated to hear that a lot of these young officers — in particular, young NCOs — were refusing to do this stuff, but nonetheless they were talking about what others were doing.
Andy Worthington: And, just to confirm, you’re talking about detention and interrogations in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places, I mean, was this kind of across the board?
Lawrence Wilkerson: Yes, and it wasn’t just interrogation, as you indicated, it was some of the things that happened when they were detaining prisoners for the initial time on the battlefield, it was some of the other things that happened other than just officially sitting down in a room and being interrogated, the whole detention system and the management thereof.
Andy Worthington: Well, I’m very glad to hear you talk about that, and about the numbers of people refusing to take part in abusive behavior, because I realize that it was such a shock to so many serving military personnel that they were expecting the Geneva Conventions, and that was all stripped away, and suddenly they’re in a chaotic place, where, it seems, anything goes, and presumably, for so many of these people, the only rule seemed to be some kind of sadism, so I’m really pleased that you mentioned how much feedback was coming from people who were appalled by it and who refused to take part in it.
Lawrence Wilkerson: There was one young lieutenant, who happened to be a Pakistani American, who was fluent in Urdu and one of the Afghan languages, and who also spoke enough Arabic to get by in Iraq. He gave me some really electrifying vignettes, about leading his platoon the first year that he was over there, and some of the things that he had to do that made him feel like he was risking his life in order to, as he put it, obey the law.
Andy Worthington: You’ve made it very clear how much professional jealousy encouraged Donald Rumsfeld to drive the “CIA-ization” of the military’s way of treating prisoners, which is horrific really …
Lawrence Wilkerson: It wasn’t a surprise to me, because I spent 31 years in the DoD, and I have to say that the entity we probably disliked the most during the majority of my years was the Central Intelligence Agency. I mean, we would sit out in the Pacific, when I was working out there, and our station chiefs then, we would mock them, you know: big fat dudes, making 120, 130 thousand a year, and all they did was sit there and read the newspapers in their capital cities and report it back to Langley as finished intelligence. I mean, we didn’t have much use for the CIA and that’s generally the way the rank and file in the Pentagon feels — and in the military in general. I remember in the first Gulf War, when Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell were on the phone at Colin Powell’s house — a secure phone; late in the evening for Powell, and early in the morning for Schwarzkopf — and Norm was threatening to come to Washington and shoot the DCI.
So I mean, there’s always been that institutional jealousy, hatred even between the Pentagon and the CIA, so I didn’t have much difficulty understanding that that was a part of what had happened, and you add Rumsfeld’s arrogance and his power play to it, and you’ve got a real, powerfully dysfunctional system there, in terms of — as Powell put it in his debrief to President Bush, January 13, 2005, if I recall, “Mr. President, you have no idea.” Bush had just said, “Well, you’ve lived through Weinberger and Shultz, you know that there’s always infighting,” and Powell’s response was, “Mr. President, you have no idea. This is an order of magnitude worse.” Frankly, I think that was the first time anybody had ever alerted the President to the fact that his wasn’t a normal administration.
Andy Worthington: And that’s important to raise, because so much of what went on focused on Cheney, obviously, and I was going to ask you a little bit about Cheney — and Addington, because I was particularly struck by a passage in Jane Mayer’s book, The Dark Side. Mayer was writing about when John Bellinger, legal counsel to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, had discovered, from intelligence reports, that a significant number of innocent men were being held at Guantánamo, but when he tried to approach the President about it (via Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House Counsel), they were met by Addington instead, who dismissed Bellinger’s concerns by declaring, “No, there will be no review. The President has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it!” After Bellinger fired back, pointing out that this was “a violation of basic notions of American fairness,” Addington replied, “We are not second-guessing the President’s decision. These are ‘enemy combatants.’ Please use that phrase. They’ve all been through a screening process. There’s nothing to talk about.”
Lawrence Wilkerson: I received one particular assessment from a person for whom I had no reason whatsoever to believe that he would give me an inaccurate portrayal — and one reason was, that was his character, but another reason was that he had no dog in the fight — and his estimate of the number of people — I think it was 741 or 742 that we suddenly had on a piece of paper somewhere — of any significance was as follows. He said, “I’ll tell you right now that 700 of them haven’t done a damn thing except get in the way of somebody capturing them.”
Andy Worthington: Right, and those are the kinds of figures that we’re down to. I mean, back in March, you stated that no more than a couple of dozen had any serious intelligence value …
Lawrence Wilkerson: The other thing — I laughed at this when I first heard it, but now I realize it was probably closer to the truth than anything the administration said — when Bush announced in September 2006, with some degree of trepidation, that he’d transferred these 14 to Guantánamo out of the secret prisons. Now I realize that they made that transfer principally so they could get some hardcore terrorists to Guantánamo.
Andy Worthington: I’ve watched these figures over the years — suggesting that only somewhere between two dozen and 40 of the prisoners had any connection with terrorism — so it was great for me when you raised that issue in March, in your article for The Washington Note, and I wondered what you thought about what’s happening with the Obama administration. They seem to be listening to a certain amount of scaremongering — as when Robert Gates suddenly popped up in April and started talking about legislating for a new preventive detention policy for 50 to 100 of the prisoners. Now to me, even the notion of introducing preventive detention legally, if you like — the Bush administration having done it illegally, as I regard it — is a terrifying prospect, having to think that they should even be contemplating doing that, but it also suggests that they’re reading too much into the significance of the prisoners, and I wondered what your thoughts were on that.
Lawrence Wilkerson: Well, to keep it brief, I think the problem is that this is a national security issue, and there are so many more challenging issues — as one official put it to me the other day — on which the President has already shown some ankle, whether it’s about talking to Iran or whether it’s his rather pronounced silence vis-à-vis North Korea, or whether it’s something as minuscule as lifting some travel restrictions on Cuban Americans for Cuba. They don’t believe they can show another square centimeter of ankle on national security, because the Republicans will eat their lunch, and every time I’m told this I die laughing. I say, your guys are captured by the Sith Lord, Dick Cheney, you’re captured by Rush Limbaugh, whose real radio audience is about 2.2 million, and whose employer, Clear Channel, lost $3.7 billion in the second quarter of this year. I said, when are you gonna wake up? These are kooks. And Cheney is the kook leader. But [Nancy] Pelosi and [Harry] Reid are such feckless leaders they haven’t got any spine. We have no leadership in the legislative branch on either side of the aisle.
Andy Worthington: I agree with you absolutely there …
Lawrence Wilkerson: I become exasperated. There’s just no courage, there’s no moral courage whatsoever in the Democratic Party.
Andy Worthington: Unfortunately, when it comes to getting rid of Guantánamo after all these long years, somebody’s going to have to come up with some courage at some point, because this question of the prisoners’ significance is the crucial issue to me. The hardest thing should be coming up with countries to take some of the men, not still sitting around discussing whether it’s still worth holding them. We should be focusing on the — whatever it is, two dozen, three dozen, four dozen at most — and doing everything in our power to get the rest of those guys out of there, to close the place down.
Lawrence Wilkerson: I agree, and from what my diplomatic colleagues tell me now, it’s difficult to get countries to accept them because we’ve taken such a hard stance with the Congress not approving the money and not wanting anyone even imprisoned in our maximum-security prisons in this country, which is preposterous.
Andy Worthington: Yes, exactly. I mean, how safe do you think your prisons have to be?
Lawrence Wilkerson: Another part of this that I discovered — it shouldn’t have shocked me, but it did surprise me — was that when 9/11 went down there was no interrogation capability in the United States, other than in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There was none. Everything the military had was geared still to the Cold War, everything the CIA had had been dismantled, and the FBI had maybe — the best figures I’ve been able to get my hands on of people who were fluent in Arabic or Farsi or maybe both, and they also were culturally sensitive, knew something about the region from which the detainee might come, knew something about his tribal affiliations and so forth — there were maybe two dozen. Here we have this attack, and then we captured people, and we had no interrogation capability other than a small contingent in the Bureau.
Andy Worthington: And they were sidelined …
Lawrence Wilkerson: Yes, after they proved their worth, they were sidelined.
Andy Worthington: To me that’s still the biggest shock about the whole story, and it’s the clearest example of why disregarding that experience in the FBI was such a disaster.
Lawrence Wilkerson: But it was something this administration almost made a cult of doing — not just on interrogation, but on almost everything, whether it was Iraq, whether it was the Middle East in general, whether it was North Korea. The attitude was: Don’t talk to me from a position of expertise, talk to me from a position of fixed religious adamancy, you know.
Andy Worthington: Exactly. And again, that was the story that impressed me in Jane Mayer’s book, The Dark Side, when, after understanding that there were so many “Mickey Mouse prisoners,” as General Dunlavey called them, John Bellinger, who, at the time, was the National Security Council’s Legal Advisor, went to try and have a meeting with Alberto Gonzales, when he was still Bush’s Counsel, and found David Addington there, and Addington said, we’re not bothered about what you’ve got to say about innocence and guilt. The President has said they’re all guilty on capture, that’s the end of the story, nobody’s reviewing it. You know, it’s an example of justifying actions on the basis of executive power, and as you said as well, if you’re going to get into the details of why on earth are you doing it, it’s because they thought they could very slowly build this “mosaic” of intelligence that would take forever, of every terrorist movement, every insurgent movement ever, and who knows how many people that would involve? I think the number of people in US custody throughout the Bush years is over 80,000, isn’t it?
Lawrence Wilkerson: The figures I came across for Iraq, Afghanistan, secret prisons, Guantánamo, people who were being held in prisons in other countries on our behalf — the highest figure I ever came to was about 65,000, but it could have well been more than that.
Andy Worthington: And I get the feeling that they would just have gone on forever if they could …
Lawrence Wilkerson: Well, I mean, that was it, it’s a hard slog, it’s war, and therefore, if we say it’s never over then they’re always detained. I remember [Colin] Powell and Taft — Taft was his legal advisor, Will Taft — asking a question, something to the effect of, “What’s final disposition?” and [Donald] Rumsfeld’s response was something like, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Andy Worthington: That’s another thing, really, is that at no point did they ever seem to have any concept of how something might end. They started things and had no idea what their ultimate plan was. What, you really intend to hold people forever without charging them with anything? You really want to kidnap people on an industrial scale and have secret prisons and — you don’t know what you’re going to do at the end of this, do you? Everything was started with no thought for how it might possibly be concluded.
Lawrence Wilkerson: I think the principal figure in this — Vice President Cheney — would say, in response to what you’ve just said, “So what?” I mean, I really do. I wouldn’t have said that a couple of years ago, but now I’ve come to the conclusion that the man truly is — whether he was that way when I knew him before, when he was Secretary of Defense, I don’t know, that’s not at issue with me any more — the man now is just crazy.
Andy Worthington: Yes, well, I’m glad you said that. In March you called him evil. Crazy is — you know, he just seems to be a deranged man, I’m surprised he’s been getting so much air time.
Lawrence Wilkerson: It’s our media. Our media loves to keep it going. They love to throw him out there and, you know, stoke the fires. I asked a couple of people fairly high up in our media world, “Why in the world do you continue to give him and Limbaugh an audience? Why? Why do you even put them on the same plane as the President of the United States? Why do you have these dueling speeches? You guys made them dueling speeches, not the two principals.” Well, you know, they’re running out of business. People are canceling their newspaper subscriptions every day. They want news.
Andy Worthington: And they’re more interested in hearing this than they are in hearing that this madman was the driver of manufacturing false intelligence through torture to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Lawrence Wilkerson: Well, they helped in that.
Andy Worthington: Of course, that’s why they don’t want to talk about it.
Lawrence Wilkerson: With the exception of Knight Ridder, now McClatchy, they just about all helped.
Andy Worthington: Yes, it’s true, but I’m still shocked at how that’s underreported in the Cheney story, because he’s just been allowed too much time to carry on trying to sell his own version of it: that torture saved us from some attack that we’re not allowed to find out about, that nobody can seem to find any evidence for, but maybe the more it goes on — I mean, he really does seem like a crazy man. He had the chance to relax and he doesn’t know how to do it.
Lawrence Wilkerson: Yep. He even got his family out there.
Andy Worthington: Well, how else would you deal with him, I suppose, if you were related to him?
Lawrence Wilkerson: I do think there’s some fear in it too. I think there’s some folks realizing that there may be, at a minimum, some problems with traveling, and at a maximum, there may even be — I just don’t think there’s a political will in this country to do anything truly dramatic to bring some accountability to this, but I do think that these people, much the way that military people do still, count their reputation and their legacy and how the history books are going to look at them as something significant, and as they grow older it grows in importance, so that, you know, they don’t want to be tarnished, and I think Cheney’s seriously concerned about where he’s going to go in the history books.
Andy Worthington: Well, I understand that. I think it ought to be more serious than that, but I’ve felt all along that, although prosecutions ought to happen because, you know, torture statutes have been broken, but apparently nobody is going to be held ultimately responsible, that’s really not an acceptable position. The position taken by Obama, it seems, is to say, well, OK, we’re going to clean up our act but we’re not going to hold these people to account, but whichever way you look at it, it certainly doesn’t leave Cheney in the clear …
Lawrence Wilkerson: No. My wife thinks that ultimately there’s going to be something. I’m a little more cynical than she, but she’s convinced that this investigation that’s been going on [by John Durham] — very low-key, the guy’s very persistent, he’s very determined, he reminds me of [Patrick] Fitzgerald on the Valerie Plame case, and his starting point is the destruction of the videotapes, and I’m told he’s got a plan, and he’s following that plan, and I’m told that plan is bigger than I think.
Andy Worthington: Well, I’m quite encouraged by that, because I’ve not heard too much about that investigation. I’ve heard more about the long-awaited Justice Department investigation into the lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel who wrote the torture memos, and from what I’ve heard about that investigation, it seemed to involve establishing concrete, irrefutable connections between Dick Cheney’s office and the Office of Legal Counsel, because the torture memos have come out, and somehow still it’s as if the lawyers did it themselves …
Lawrence Wilkerson: Yep.
Andy Worthington: And what’s needed is: no, the lawyers were told what to do, they agreed that they would not think independently, and they would make the advice what was required, and if a chain leads infallibly up to that particular office, then how can they wriggle out of it? I understand that Dick Cheney was, I think, driven mad after 9/11 by his fear and his paranoia, and a lot of his unsavory impulses took over what may have been left of his humanity, and he became consumed by it, and I don’t think anybody doubts that in some ways they were motivated by the fear of another attack, but when you break the law, which is what they did, is it enough to be able to leave office and your crimes go with you? Is that enough?
Lawrence Wilkerson: Well, you know, I’ve read some of the language in the International Convention Against Torture, and in the document that President Clinton had to submit finally to the Senate, and I’ve read the Senate’s qualification of that document too, but, you know, this is in order to become a signatory to the treaty, to promise to the treaty holder that you will do as necessary, to make your domestic law conform to the law encased in the treaty, and it’s pretty clear that there is no national emergency “out,” there’s no exit.
Andy Worthington: No, there isn’t. It’s Article 2.2 of the Convention, which says, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Lawrence Wilkerson: And that’s not something we qualified, that’s not something where we said, “Oh, that’s a little part of it we don’t agree with, but we’ll still be a signatory.”
Andy Worthington: And that, of course, explains why it was crucial in the OLC memos to redefine torture so that torture wasn’t happening.
Lawrence Wilkerson: Right.
Andy Worthington: I mean, why would you do that unless you know that it was illegal?
Lawrence Wilkerson: Yes, and to me that’s why so many people kept saying, “We don’t torture.” They had to get that on the record that this is what they believed, because that was the legal opinion that they had. Now the man who, to me, brings all of this together more than Cheney himself, because he has one foot in the legal camp — and I must admit it’s a fairly brilliant foot — and he has one foot in the operator camp, that’s David Addington. That is to say, Addington was very influential, maybe to the point of maximally influential with that idiot Gonzales, and everything that flowed from Gonzales, both when he was Bush’s Counsel and when he was Attorney General, and was also influential through his connection with Libby, and Libby’s ability to coordinate the interagency group that essentially worked for the Vice President — not for the President but for the Vice President. Addington was both the Zawahiri and the bin Laden.
Andy Worthington: What a fabulous analogy that is.
Lawrence Wilkerson: David’s a strange person. When he was working for Cheney, when Cheney was Secretary of Defense, we in the uniformed military used to refer to him as “Weird David.”
Andy Worthington: Yes, well he was just in the right place to push everything where it shouldn’t have gone after 9/11,wasn’t he?
Lawrence Wilkerson: He was perfectly placed. He and Libby both. They were perfectly placed.
Andy Worthington: But it is extraordinary the lack of public accountability and the absolute significance of Addington’s role in all those years. I mean, I can’t think of another period in American history when somebody who was working for the Vice President so often actually seemed to be running the show.
Lawrence Wilkerson: It is extraordinary with regard to the Office of the Vice President. I mean, it’s hard to go back and find anybody ever in that position who gathered to himself as much power as Dick Cheney did.
Andy Worthington: Sure.
Lawrence Wilkerson: I mean, I can find places where Alexander Hamilton as aide-de-camp to George Washington was as influential as George Washington was during a specific instance at a specific time or a specific date, but it wasn’t something that pertained throughout Washington’s command of the continental armies or his Presidency.
Andy Worthington: And I think earlier, when you were saying about Colin Powell telling the President in January 2005 –
Lawrence Wilkerson: January 13, 2005.
Andy Worthington: — that he had no idea of the scale of what was going on, that was an insight for me into how the President really didn’t know who was actually running the show.
Lawrence Wilkerson: The sad thing is that, until early January 2004, I’m not sure we did either. I understood that there was a team, I understood it was highly placed and probably under the Vice President, I understood that it was membered in almost every aspect of the interagency group that dealt with national security, I understood they had a strategy, I understood they were ruthless in carrying out that strategy, and I understood that I was a day late and a dollar short, because they’d beaten me to the marketplace. But it took me a while to figure that out. I even figured out that they were reading my emails, but I wasn’t reading theirs.
Andy Worthington: Well, I’m sure, but I suppose why wouldn’t it when they were so obsessively secretive? And on that note, I guess I’ll let you get on. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you here on the phone and talking to you, and I’m sure those who read this interview will be grateful that you took the time to do so.
Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. Visit andyworthington.co.uk to read his most recent reports.