Former Official: Interrogations Were Geared to Link Iraq, Al Qaeda

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, leveled the accusation in a televised interview and said he'd testify against former colleagues

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Prior to the Iraq war, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a 2003 speech at the U.N. Security Council that has haunted his reputation ever since. He argued that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction using intelligence that was later discredited. "I'm the one who presented it to the world, and it will always be a part of my record," he later lamented. "It was painful."

Why did he do it?

In the course of trying to explain, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's chief-of-staff, had this exchange in a televised interview:

AMY GOODMAN: You said in 2009--I think this is what you're getting to now--in the Washington Note, an online political journal, you talked about how finding a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaeda became the main purpose for the abusive interrogation program that the Bush administration authorized in 2002.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: In summer of 2002, my FBI colleagues, my CIA colleagues, who will speak the truth to me, have told me that. I've also gleaned it from other methods that I can't talk about here on the television. Someday they will come to light, and historians will record them.
Wouldn't that be something!

Civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald, appearing on the same segment, subsequently said this:

Dick Cheney is not just a political figure with controversial views, but is an actual criminal, that he was centrally involved in a whole variety not just of war crimes in Iraq, but of domestic crimes, as well, including the authorization of warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens in violation of FISA, which says that you go to jail for five years for each offense, as well as the authorization and implementation of a worldwide torture regime that, according to General Barry McCaffrey, resulted in the murder--his word--of dozens of detainees, far beyond just the three or four cases of waterboarding that media figures typically ask Cheney about. And yet, what we have is a government, a successor administration, the Obama administration, that announced that there will be no criminal investigations, no, let alone, prosecutions of any Bush officials for any of these multiple crimes. 
And that's no surprise. Greenwald has been beating the "Cheney is a criminal who should be jailed" drum for some time. Less frequent is having a former Bush Administration official respond as follows:

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Wilkerson, do you think the Bush administration officials should be held accountable in the way that Glenn Greenwald is talking about?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I certainly do. And I'd be willing to testify, and I'd be willing to take any punishment I'm due. And I have to say, I agree with almost everything he just said. And I think that explains the aggressiveness, to a large extent, of the Cheney attack and of the words like "exploding heads all over Washington." This is a book written out of fear, fear that one day someone will "Pinochet" Dick Cheney.

So why did Colin Powell allow himself to be complicit in the rhetorical tying of Iraq to Al Qaeda? Here's Wilkerson again:

He had pulled me aside in the National Intelligence Council spaces in the CIA, put me in a room, he and I alone, and he told me he was going to throw all the presentation material about the connection between Baghdad and al-Qaeda out, completely out. I welcomed that, because I thought it was all bogus.

Within about an hour, George Tenet, having scented that something was wrong with the Secretary vis-à-vis this part of his presentation, suddenly unleashes on all in his conference room that they have just gotten the results of an interrogation of a high-level al-Qaeda operative, and those results not only confirm substantial contacts between an al-Qaeda and Baghdad, the Mukhabarat and Baghdad, the secret police, if you will, but also the fact that they were training, they were actually training al-Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons. Well, this was devastating. Here's the DCI telling us that a high-level al-Qaeda operative had confirmed all of this. So Powell put at least part of that back into his presentation.

We later learned that that was through interrogation methods that used waterboarding, that no U.S. personnel were present at the time--it was done in Cairo, Egypt, and it was done by the Egyptians--and that later, within a week or two period, the high-level al-Qaeda operative recanted everything he had said. We further learned that the Defense Intelligence Agency had issued immediately a warning on that, saying that they didn't trust the reliability of it due to the interrogation methods. We were never shown that DIA dissent, and we were never told about the circumstances under which the high-level al-Qaeda operative was interrogated. Tenet simply used it as a bombshell to convince the secretary not to throw that part, which was a very effective part, if you will recall, out of his presentation.

If you're trying to assess what is motivating Wilkerson to say all this, it's useful to know both that there was a bitter rivalry between Powell and Dick Cheney, and that Wilkerson has said he feels guilty about helping to prepare the infamous U.N. speech. 

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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