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An Interview With Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (Part Two)

See Part I of the Andy Worthington’s interview with Col. Lawrence Wilkerson here.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson served in the US 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 the first part of this interview, Col. Wilkerson discussed fears within the State Department that war crimes were taking place in Afghanistan, how he suspected that the British Overseas Territory of Diego Garcia (leased to the US) was used to hold prisoners in the “War on Terror,” and, perhaps most significantly, how he had recently become convinced that the administration’s fear of another terrorist attack (which was, essentially, used to justify the implementation of “extraordinary rendition” and torture) subsided more rapidly than has been previously acknowledged, as the drive for war in Iraq took over.

The second part of the interview begins with further discussion of the significance of Col. Wilkerson’s statement that no more than a couple of dozen of the prisoners at Guantánamo had any serious intelligence value, and also includes reflections on how former Vice President Dick Cheney is “crazy,” how the Democrats have no spine and the mainstream media has no principles, and how the US had no Arabic experts at the time of the 9/11 attacks except a handful in the FBI who were promptly sidelined.

Col. Wilkerson also spoke 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, 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; he 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.”

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?


About the Author

Andy Worthington

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Andy Worthington is a historian, writer and author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (2007) and two books on modern British social history. Contact him at andy@andyworthington.co.uk.