Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson

Chief of Staff to Secretary of State

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a 31-year Army veteran and long-time associate of General Colin Powell, was Powell's chief of staff in the State Department from August 2002 until Powell left office in 2005. Tasked by Secretary Powell - in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib revelations - to gather all the information and documentation relating to the Administration's interrogation policies, Colonel Wilkerson put together what he calls an "audit trail" that led "straight from the Vice President's office." A veteran of the Vietnam War, Wilkerson has served on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College and holds advanced degrees in both international relations and national security studies. He is currently a visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson on...

Interview: September 21, 2007
Edited Transcript

I want to take you back to just after 9/11, and we start hearing things like "we're going to go to the dark side" from the Vice President, and "the gloves are off" from the Secretary of Defense.

We already had quite an inkling, if that's the right word, of things to come with regard to the Vice President's capturing of key international issues, key national security issues. And his complicity with the Defense Department, particularly the number one man, Donald Rumsfeld at that department, in capturing these issues and pursuing them and pushing them the way he wanted to. Early on we began to realize, some of us, that we were going to have significant problems with key issues when our approach to those issues differed markedly from the Vice President's approach. So that already was there for us.

Frankly, we all -- the group I'm talking about -- thought that Secretary Rumsfeld would be the first casualty in the Bush Administration in terms of a major Cabinet figure. We thought he was doing such a poor job at the Defense Department, and uniform military was becoming so alienated from him, and Mr. Feith, the Undersecretary for Policy in the third echelon, Mr. Wolfowitz in the second echelon as Deputy Secretary, couldn't make the trains run on time. So the Defense Department, administratively, leadership-wise, was rudderless. It was flailing all over the place. And we just thought that he was gone. Once those airplanes struck and there was a Secretary of War instead of a Secretary of Defense, we all sighed and said, not now. Donald will be around because this has suddenly frozen him in the light, you know, and he's the one. He's the person.

We also realized that was going to give him a lot of extra oomph in terms of whether it was the formal principals meetings, National Security Council meetings, or whatever. And we were going to have an even more formidable bureaucratic foe to deal with. So bottom line, we were a little bit anxious about what lay ahead in terms of our ability to influence national security policy in the ways we thought it should be influenced.

You've studied all the documentary evidence. Put all together, what do those memos and documents outline?

I've done a lot of research since then, so I have somewhat modified my views with regard to the President. Initially, when I came out of the State Department, and I made some private remarks at the nation's War Colleges and then some public remarks later when I just couldn't take it anymore, I thought that the President had signed a memorandum on the 7th of February, 2002, that essentially said here's what we're going to do. We're going to recognize that the Taliban in Afghanistan and al Qaeda anywhere are different creatures. They're not going to be the kinds of people we dealt with in the past in terms of the Geneva Conventions, international conventions and other things. So we're going to make a case for them being different. Everyone else is going to be still treated under Geneva, under the International Convention Against Torture and so forth. And this will happen in the spirit of American principles, of American values, and therefore everyone will be treated in the spirit of Geneva, "consistent with military necessity."

Well, that phrase meant something for me, 31 years in the Defense Department. "Consistent with military necessity" meant if you have to butt stroke someone because he was about to kill your buddy, then you had the right to use lethal force. Or force more than might be otherwise necessitated. It didn't mean that you had the right to torture people and ultimately to kill. And I know the Vice President and the Secretary Defense, who had argued vociferously for the other side of the coin, that is the gloves are off, dark side, let's do it, let's do everything we have to do, that they then subverted that Presidential decision and went out and did what they wanted to do in the first place, was to take the gloves off and do whatever was necessary.

Who was arguing that the President did, in fact, have the power to abrogate international law and domestic law?

The train I saw began theoretically, if you will, with John Yoo, and made its way through other willing partners within the legal apparatus that advises the White House, and finally got to the President. But I know from previous experience, and I make this as a very, very educated surmise, that David Addington was probably behind all of it. That John Yoo and Addington and Gonzales and Flannigan, and maybe Haynes at OSD all were in this process of informing the President that their theory of executive power allowed him to anything in national emergency-like circumstances, and this was one of those circumstances.

Very convoluted, strange reasoning to a person like me who believes in the Constitution. Indeed, I swore to support and defend the Constitution, not the executive office of the Presidency. The Constitution. And so their interpretation of the Constitution is quite strange to me and goes along with what we used to call David Addington when he was assistant to then Secretary of Defense Cheney in the Pentagon, and my boss was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We used to call him "Weird David." Brilliant, brilliant man. Brilliant man. Fleet on his feet, fleet of mind, but with some really strange ideas. Ideas that I would characterize as the kind of ideas the Greeks call tyranny.

It's what our Founding Fathers feared. If the Executive side of the three-pronged government they set up suddenly became too powerful, read Federalist 41, by Madison, read Federalist No. 6 by Alexander Hamilton. I mean they're always pulling out to tout for executive authority. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 6 essentially said, 'Do we really think humans change because they become democrats?' They're still motivated chiefly by power. They're still motivated chiefly by their ambition. We need checks on these people too. And that's the reason they set the government.

This theory of -- or this assertion of, essentially, unfettered presidential power is peppered throughout the documents.

Yes, and it's peppered throughout other documents, too, that we haven't even seen yet.
Documents about NSA surveillance, documents about the FISA Court. Really, if you examine it thoroughly, I think what you find is a certain degree of cowardice here, and one would probably say that all tyrants have a little bit of cowardice in them because they don't want to go through the system. Take the FISA Court, for example. The really brave thing to do, the courageous thing to do, would have been to take it to the Congress and to fight tooth and nail in the bureaucracy and to think that your ideas were good enough to prevail, or at least prevail in some sort of workable compromise, which is, after all, a hallmark of our government. And do it in the open, and get the FISA Court changed to the extent that you needed it changed, in order to deal with what you thought was a new type of threat. Instead, they just did it in secret. They did it in secret. They didn't have the courage to go try and work it through the legal system, which is the way it should have been done.

I have read that Vice President Cheney absolutely shares this view of Presidential power with David Addington.

He does, and it has been, as Brent Scowcroft said, I believe in The New Yorker, "I don't recognize Dick Cheney anymore", it's been quite an epiphany for me too. Because I saw him as the Secretary of Defense, and I saw a very good executive exercising reasonable power, and doing a fairly good job at the Defense Department. In fact, in the short history of that department, half century plus, I'd say he was probably up there with the top three of four Secretaries of Defense we've had. Now, I have had people tell me, who knew him when he was a Congressman, one particular Congressman said to me over lunch, you didn't know Dick Cheney when I knew Dick Cheney, and what you're really seeing now is Dick Cheney without adult supervision. He always had adult supervision before. At one point it was Donald Rumsfeld and Jerry Ford. At other points it was George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell. Colin Powell just beneath him, and George H.W. Bush above him. He's without adult supervision now, said this Congressman, and now you're seeing the real Dick Cheney. He's always been that way. He's always been that way, this guy said.

And Addington had the power of the Vice President's office?

Absolutely, absolutely. Addington, in my view, is the Zawahiri to Cheney. Ayman al-Zawahiri, I think, is the real brains behind al Qaeda, sort of the eminence grise. Addington is the eminence grise for Dick Cheney.

We now know that Addington was essentially running this group of administration lawyers.

I think Addington runs much else, too. I think he has a very, very powerful hold over, control over, management over what has become an alternative National Security staff. The Vice President has some 88 to 90 people who are working for him and who essentially duplicate the National Security Council staff of about 200. And sometimes subvert what the national security staff, which works for the full National Security Council, President, Vice President, Sec. Def., Sec. State, what they want to do. Which means they're subverting what the President wants to do, too, which is interesting, unless the President's complicit, of course. I can't say that.

The other thread throughout so many of the documents is this almost palpable fear of prosecution for war crimes.

The people at CIA, I think are very frightened about what might happen to them with a new president, with a more powerful Congress. They're -- and so it would be -- I think it would be very difficult for General Hayden, now the director of the CIA, to get anyone to do the kinds of things that we were doing in the past. Not saying it's not happening with a select group, but I'd have to see it before I believe it, because I know they're frightened about what might happen to them.

Do you think that this fear of prosecution was one of the motivations for deciding to opt out of the Geneva Conventions?

Absolutely. They thought they had wriggled around inside the legal theory, to the extent, and I think Addington and Yoo had a lot to do with this. And I, frankly, really don't think Gonzales had enough brainpower to check them at any point, theoretically, intellectually. Power-wise he might -- could have. But he had no idea where they were going, I don't think. Addington, clearly, I think, was the brainpower behind this, and I think they felt like their flexibility within what they had designed was such that there wouldn't be any fear of repercussions, legal repercussions.

Let me take you to Afghanistan. The war starts and there are no laws of war. The foundation has been taken away. So what happens?

A lieutenant in charge of a platoon of 40, 41, 42 men, and it is mostly men in the combat arms, or a special forces team leader, a Marine squad leader, or a Marine platoon leader, they have only so many tools to keep their men in check. And one of those tools is the law of war, the Geneva Conventions, and all that goes along with it. And it's not -- you know, you can't stop a corporal or a private and say what do the Geneva Conventions say? You know, what's Common Article III? Maybe some of them might be able to tell you, but they know that it's -- it's fundamental decency, it's American values. You don't shoot somebody who's got a set of handcuffs on. You don't shoot somebody who's on the ground wounded and asking to surrender. Those kinds of things are fundamental, they're basic, they're honed into your head as a private.

At the same time, every platoon, every squad, every team has two or three soldiers in it who are going to do most of your killing. These are people whom you want, because they're your warriors; they're going to do most of your death and destruction on the enemy, but they're also people you've got to be really watchful of, and all these tools you bring out to watch these people, and to threaten them if you need to threaten them.

When you take those tools away and you say, you have carte blanche; you can rape, pillage, plunder; you can shoot anybody you want to. When you even intimate that, when you even turn your head the other way as an officer when an untoward deed is done, when you see someone shoot someone who's trying to surrender, for example, and you turn your head the other way, you don't want to bother it, you are reinforcing, in that person's mind and everyone who's watching's mind, that that's okay to do that. And this began to happen. And Donald Rumsfeld saying it was a few bad apples was just pure poppycock. It wasn't just a few bad apples. It was policy.

The good thing about our Armed Forces, I think, is the fact that so few participated in this sort of thing, and you have so many now who are coming out and saying in private and some of them in public, this is what I did and I'm not proud of it. This is bad, this is really bad, this is not the American Army. This is not the American Marine Corps. And they're right.

The policies put them in an almost untenable position.

Particularly around Abu Ghraib, too, and I don't think we know the full story there yet about this. I've talked to so many people who were veterans of that experience. Everyone's got a little bit different take on it, but the general take is we didn't know what to do, and when instructions came down, we did it. For example, on the walls of one of the major areas at Abu Ghraib, over the course of 30 days, there were three or four different sets of instructions nailed up, as things got rougher and rougher and rougher. You can't do that to a private or a corporal. I mean you've got to tell them this is what you can do, and this is what you can't do. Oh, footnote three tomorrow morning, footnote four next Wednesday. You know, you can't do that. Especially not in that circumstance where it's -- your hold on life is a bit tenuous anyway, both the soldiers and the prisoners, because they were being bombed, they were being shot at, they didn't have enough people. We come back invariably, in every circumstance, when I talk about reconstruction and stability, when I talk about getting the sewage out of the streets, when I talk about looting, when I talk about ministries that were ransacked, when I talk about any issue about Iraq with the troops coming back, officers, enlisted NCOs, it all boils down to, in their minds, not enough troops. Didn't have enough soldiers, didn't have enough Marines.

Back to 2002, which we're now learning is a pretty crucial year for the development of this policy. If tactics that are being considered are, on their face, cruel and inhumane, that means they violate the Geneva Conventions. And if they violate the Geneva Conventions, that means they violate the War Crimes Act. Why was that not the end of the conversation?

It's a mystery to me, except that Addington and others apparently were able to talk their way, tap dance their way through these things. Also a violation of domestic law, because when we signed up to the International Convention Against Torture, I believe it was President Clinton in '98, '99 who had to then present to the Senate for the Senate's approval, the papers that showed we had changed domestic law to make it conform with the law in the treaty. And that was done. The Senate approved it. So we have domestic law now that goes along with the ICAT, and as I understand it -- I'm not lawyer -- but as I understand it, that domestic law is even tighter in some places than what we might call War Crimes Law internationally.

In early December of 2002, the Secretary of Defense approved a list of interrogation techniques like stress positions, hooding, isolation, the use of dogs. Could one have foreseen the result of signing that document?

In my view as a professional soldier, yes. In my view, the results you were going to get was the results we got. For example, when you tell someone you can use a dog, but you've got to have him muzzled, and you don't understand the psychology of an NCO and a private who are under pressure to produce intelligence, and they've been told they can use dogs, the muzzle on the dog doesn't work. So the muzzle comes off. And the next thing that happens is the dog takes a little bite out of the detainee. That's how you make the detainee and other detainees who are going to hear about it know that you are serious with the dog. The dog standing there with a muzzle is not very frightening. That's just anecdotal. But, I mean, that's what's happened.

That's what's called a slippery slope. It shows that Mr. Rumsfeld, at best, had no comprehension whatsoever of the lower ranks and what it takes to control people and to lead people in combat. No comprehension whatsoever. And that's why I fault people like Dick Myers and Peter Pace, who were chairman and vice-chairman at the time, because at the minimum, Pete Pace should have. Pete Pace was my boss. I knew Pete Pace. Pete Pace was in Vietnam. Pete Pace was in some pretty ferocious battles in Vietnam. He knows what it's like to be on the ground. In my mind is this question: why did they let the Secretary of Defense do these sorts of things? And the other aspect of this is, no one sat down, not John Yoo, not David Addington, not Dick Cheney, not Donald Rumsfeld, and said, "What's the cumulative effect of allowing all these things to be done?"

That particular memo that you were referring to, that had his postscript on it about standing, had A -- in terms of the alphabet -- A through double D. That's about 30 things that you could do. No one thought about the cumulative effects of these things. What if you were to do 12 of these things repeatedly over a 45-day period in the dark with no exposure to the light, no sleep, hypothermic temperature conditions sometimes, hanging by your wrist from the wall sometimes. What if you combined all these things? That's not torture? I don't think anyone ever sat down and thought about that. Or if they did, they condoned it.

What about that handwritten note.

Well, to me, that's a significant indicator of the way Secretary Rumsfeld dealt with these sorts of things. It wasn't his intellectual analysis of what he was offering that the soldiers on the ground who were doing the interrogations could do. It was flippant. It was, "My God, I stand at my desk. Oh, by the way, I am here in the Pentagon; it's air conditioned, it's heated, et cetera, et cetera. I can stand at my desk for" -- whatever it was, ten hours or whatever. "Why are you restricting them to standing only this." It just showed an incredible naiveté or -- and I think this is probably more the case -- an incredible hubris and detachment from what the real world is all about.

It could be read by the troops as carte blanche?

Yes, as could the entire memo. I mean, when you look at all those things, and you start thinking about what you could do applying all those things selectively over time, that was -- you know, that was the edge of the slippery slope, if you will.

It was the result a fairly deliberate decision-making policy?

I have no doubt in my mind. I read the Church Committee report. And I remember almost laughing when I came to the part about, it was widespread, it was throughout the services, it was all over Afghanistan and Iraq, but there were no policy implications. Come on. It's not rocket science. If it was widespread, if it wasn't a few rotten apples at Abu Ghraib, if you encountered it, as General Taguba said, all over the place, how could how could it not have any policy implications? And oh, by the way, why didn't you search to see if it didn't have policy? And then you get the -- you know, the comeback, which is, "Well, that wasn't our charter."

But if you are doing an investigation, and you come upon a cobra about to strike you in the knee, I would think that maybe you would probably want to see why the cobra was there. Or maybe they would say, "Back away and get away from him and don't examine why he's there."

We weren't asked to look at the most important matter we might be talking about here: have we subverted our Constitution? And if so, what do we do about it? That's a pretty important affair as far as I'm concerned.

Given all the evidence, how did President Bush and Vice President Cheney still manage to say, "We don't torture"?

Within the definition as contorted and convoluted as it was, provided by, for example, the some 50-odd-page Bybee memo, they're speaking inside their definition. If you define torture as "organ damage," "death" or "almost death" and then look at what was being done, with the exception -- and I made this point of the deaths -- then you can stand up and say that you don't do torture. And I think that's what they were doing.

This administration has brought, to a fine art, rhetorical riposte that is utterly illogical but winds up being accepted by the American people, or the bulk of them. Look at the al Qaeda Baghdad connection. No one that I know who is expert in this believes there was a connection between al Qaeda and Baghdad of any substance. And yet, when you go out and poll the American people, still, 61, 62 percent believe there was. This is all because of the White House's rhetoric. And they do this with other issues, too. And the terror issue is no different.

The ultimate torture is to kill someone. And if I remember right, the last time I talked to someone like Human Rights First or one of the people who was involved with them in tallying this total, it was up to about 128, of which some 38 to 40 had been judged homicides and were under, or had been under some sort of investigation. That's the ultimate form of torture. And what I got back from one administration official, was, "Well, it's just 38."

You mentioned the Bybee memo. We now know that David Addington had a lot to do with the drafting of that memo as well.

Fingerprints are all over it.

As you say, the audit trail goes back -- even on that memo, goes back to the Vice President's office.

One of the secrets of their power, which we were very slow to realize, and I mean Richard Armitage and Secretary Powell, too, was that they had a very tight circle of people in their network, the peak of which was Addington and Cheney. And what they did was use that very small circle to subvert the rest of the federal bureaucracy if they needed to. And often, they did, and did. And they had a vision. They were ruthless in carrying it out, and they executed it very well.
To kill people and to torture people, in my view, goes beyond anything we have ever done in this country before, with the exception of slavery at its height, when we actually lynched blacks and hung them and tortured them and so forth and so on. It rivals -- it rivals that, in my view, in terms of a degradation of our values and our culture and what we really should believe, what we profess to believe in this country.

Do you think that's how history will judge?

I think we're going to have some real bills to pay in the future when people truly examine this. I wouldn't be surprised to see -- I know it would be unprecedented. But I wouldn't be surprised to see some action against some people post-Bush administration. I think there are probably some people shivering in their boots thinking about that prospect right now.

You mean prosecution?

Criminal prosecutions. I would hope that we don't drop this entirely and just say, "Put it in the closet with slavery and everything else, you know, and let's hope the stink goes away in a decade or two." I would think that we would -- Secretary Powell, right after Abu Ghraib -- and I believe he believed this in his soul, went out and said repeatedly, "Watch what happens. Watch what happens. The photographs are horrible. Should never have happened. But watch what happens. Our democracy will deal with this. It will hold the people who should be held accountable, accountable. Watch." And then you saw Rumsfeld hauled before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Indeed twice, he offered to resign. You saw the kinds of processes you should have seen to affect this kind of accountability. But it never happened.

Do you believe what we now know to be illegal acts?

I believe them to be illegal in the face of the domestic law that was created to correspond with and conform with the international convention against torture and unusual punishment. And I believe it would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which is also treaty law. I don't buy this business that Addington and Cheney and others have been professing about -- at any time, national emergency or otherwise, the treaty power of the Senate being abrogated by or superceded by the power of the executive. This is nonsense. As a matter of fact, if you'll read carefully what Clinton gave to the Senate, there is a phrase in there that says "Not even national emergency shall negate this ruling." So it's clear that they recognized that someone like a Pinochet, like a Chavez might say, "national emergency, state of marshal law. We can kill people," bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. They even wrote that in there, that that would not be forgiven, that the law would still go after you.

If you were making a closing argument against the decision makers, policymakers what would it be?

This is a very difficult area, and Powell and I have had conversations about this before. How do you hold people at this level of power -- after all, we're talking about the most powerful man in the world when we talk about the President. And those who surround him are pretty powerful, too. How do you hold him responsible? The Constitution is clear with the President, I think. You impeach them if there are high crimes and misdemeanors. And by the way, I think there have been high crimes and misdemeanors. And I marvel at the fact that we haven't gone down that road, at least somewhere in here, a little more forcefully than perhaps we have.

How did we get to this place?

We got to this place because Bush and Cheney, who rarely speak unless there's camouflage behind them, have made it that way. They have put the military out as their stalking horse for every issue that grates right now: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran. This is not the way we should be running our republic. This is a very dangerous way to run our republic.