Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell on America’s violation of international law and the overwhelming influence of Vice-President Cheney

[This interview is translated from the German in DER SPIEGEL 49/2005.]

[Wilkerson, 60, was one of Colin Powell’s closest advisors and his chief of staff in the State Department from 2002 to 2005. The colonel served in the Vietnam War and later was director of the Marine War College in Quantico, Virginia.]

SPIEGEL: Colonel Wilkerson, you have attacked the administration of president George W. Bush more vehemently than any other insider. Why?

Wilkerson: The breach of the Geneva Convention seen in Abu Ghraib, the trampling on international law and treaties, led me to go to the public. I wanted to unmask a politics that prevailed at the top – from the Vice-President to the Defense Department – and affected our troops on the front. This was damaging not only to the armed forces.

SPIEGEL: …with whom you served for 31 years…

Wilkerson: …this was also injurious to the image and credibility of the United States in the world. These offenses damaged our ability to win the battle against Osama Bin Laden, Abu Mussab al-Sarkawi and other terrorists. We cannot prevail in a war of worldviews if we violate our own basic convictions.

SPIEGEL: How did this happen?

Wilkerson: From my vantage point in the State Department, I saw how the decision-making process changed. Normally the president receives advice from all sides and then makes his own decisions. But I could see how Bush made compromises. He said we faced a new enemy and the regulations of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of war prisoners no longer applied. At the same time in a memorandum that I saw, he ordered that all prisoners be treated according to the model of American values and in the spirit of the Geneva Convention.

SPIEGEL: That lawful treatment did not happen.

Wilkerson: The other side of the government won the day, those who think terrorists are the new monsters that simply must be treated differently. This happened because Dick Cheney has proven to be the most powerful Vice-President of all US history. He wanted this. A secret and hardly known game of intrigue under the direction of Cheney and Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld short-circuited the normal legal course of decisions.

SPIEGEL: …with the well-known consequences, torture and humiliation of prisoners.

Wilkerson: Regarding the Geneva regulations, Cheney and Rumsfeld believed everything was allowed. The need for important information was so great there must be the most far-reaching possibilities in treating prisoners. This attitude then continued up to the lowest ranks of the armed forces. The cooperation of both elements – the information need and the reference that the rules had changed – opened a Pandora’s box. Thus incidents occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison including deaths.

SPIEGEL: How many prisoners died in American custody?

Wilkerson: More than 70 persons were killed up to the end of my service in the State Department. Some of the cases were investigated; others were hushed up.

SPIEGEL: Does the CIA also torture?

Wilkerson: I don’t know. If the president actually signed an order allowing a select trained unit of the CIA to interrogate prisoners in violation of the rules of the Geneva Convention, very few people knew about that. The Secretary of State may not have known.

SPIEGEL: You prepared the speech of Colin Powell before the UN General Assembly in February 2003 where he accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction and maintaining contacts to the Al Qaida terrorist network. Were these claims war lies as the oppositional democrats now argue?

Wilkerson: I’d like to know. At that time I was the leader of the group that arranged Powell’s presentation at the CIA. For five or six days, I was at the headquarters in Langley. There an agent with information from the German secret service claimed Iraq had mobile production facilities for manufacturing biological weapons. Now I know the Germans also doubted the credibility of this agent. Why was this withheld from me? Why wasn’t Secretary of State Powell informed? We used statements of Qaida member Ibn al-Schreich al-Libi who claimed that Iraq trained Jihad-fighters in chemical and biological weapons. In the meantime, he withdrew his statement. Now we hear that his confessions occurred under the conditions of notorious water torture, not under the presuppositions of the Geneva Convention…

SPIEGEL: …in which prisoners are nearly drowned during the interrogation. Did the US government often exaggerate the reasons for war and pick the facts that supported them?

Wilkerson: Yes, in relation to the under-secretary for political questions Douglas Feith, the former number three in pentagon. Vice-President Cheney also certainly exaggerated. One only needs to listen to his speeches at that time.

SPIEGEL: Colin Powell describes the UN appearance today as a blot on his reputation…

Wilkerson: …that was also the low point of my career. When I look back today, I ask myself: How could it happen that we were tricked? I wasn’t a novice. I had years of experience dealing with secret services.

SPIEGEL: What is your answer?

Wilkerson: Saddam Hussein was not as dumb as we all believed. He was even rather smart. He believed the greatest danger threatened from his chief enemy Iran and the second greatest danger was his own people. Then came the US, somewhere at the bottom of the list. The only way of maintaining the myth of his power was the threat of weapons of mass destruction, saying “I will kill you if you try to strike me.” He began this disinformation campaign.

SPIEGEL: Did Condoleezza Rice, security advisor of George W. Bush at that time, counsel the president better since she was intent more on balance between the hostile wings of the government?

Wilkerson: The National Security Council under Dr. Rice was described by a great number of insiders as “dysfunctional.” When one looks more closely, the failure of the Security Council served as a marvelous camouflage for that alternative decision-making process that developed around the Vice-President.

SPIEGEL: Rice had the trust of the president and tried to come nearer to him.

Wilkerson: Her eyes were firmly directed at a goal. She was successful and ultimately became secretary of state.

SPIEGEL: The Pentagon always claimed a stable government in Iraq could be built within months. How did such a misjudgment occur?

Wilkerson: An incredible measure of arrogance was involved. The hubris of this administration was responsible. A glance at the region would have made that judgment impossible. Unlike the Pentagon, we in the State Department never believed our soldiers in Iraq would be greeted as liberators with flowers. The way we prosecuted the Iraq war was not our only mistake. There were many mistakes from the start. Think only of how we put almost the whole world out of joint when we rejected the Kyoto protocol on protecting the atmosphere – without any statement of reasons. The ineptitude and incapability with which we confronted the whole world made foreign policy very hard during George W. Bush’s first term in office.

SPIEGEL: In the meantime the climate has changed. The American public has turned away from Bush’s Iraq policy. Should the US troops now be withdrawn from Iraq?

Wilkerson: This question has two aspects. A withdrawal is inevitable because Defense secretary Rumsfeld decided in 2003 not to increase the total number of armed forces. Our army and the marine infantry corps will break up sometime next year or in 2007.

SPIEGEL: What is the second aspect?

Wilkerson: We must bear in mind the situation in Iraq. We have to end our job; otherwise there will be a civil war. The whole Middle East will be in danger, which could end in a tragedy of gigantic dimensions… I hope the situation cools down before our armed forces sustain serious losses.

SPIEGEL: The democratic opposition has suggested that the president admit several mistakes to then ask for new assistance in the US and worldwide.

Wilkerson: For many Americans and me such an admission of responsibility – bound with some changes of policy – would be an encouragement. This would not correspond to the frame of mind and character of George W. Bush.

SPIEGEL: But isn’t the loss of moral authority the greatest problem of the United States?

Wilkerson: Obviously. I recently sat on a discussion podium with a former Canadian prime minister who said: “We Canadians are not anti-American. We are only very alarmed about a headless giant.” That metaphor fits this superpower. It seems without leadership and without direction.

SPIEGEL: Aren’t there beginnings of a more moderate and calculable foreign policy as your old boss always urged?

Wilkerson: Hopefully, there are some encouraging changes of course. Secretary of State Rice acts as though she has learned to play another sheet of music, a melody that sounds much more pleasant in the ears of our friends and allies. This is crucial. However I still hear sounds of an aggressive unilateralism especially from Vice-President Cheney that worries me. There is still this will to want to do everything alone – according to the motto, no fear of torpedoes, full speed ahead, go to hell, we are strong. This attitude does not fit the 21st century.

SPIEGEL: Haven’t the conservatives long failed with their agenda?

Wilkerson: They are neither neo-conservatives nor new conservatives. They are Jacobins according to the model of the French revolutionary leader Robespierre. The claim that these zealots are dead, asleep or lurking is not reassuring because there are still many of them. We must watch that they do not raise their ugly heads again to create new problems.

SPIEGEL: Colonel Wilkerson, thank you for this interview.