Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fabricating the case for the Iraq War

Most of you have never heard of Larry Wilkerson, and probably even fewer of you have heard of Jasim al-Azzawi, and that's truly a shame. Larry Wilkerson was the chief of staff to Colin Powell, first at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later at the State Department. He has become an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, and most especially of the process by which the George W. Bush White House went about selling the American public, the Congress, and at least some of the international community on the idea of régime change by military force. Jasim al-Azzawi once worked as an Arabic translator for the U.S. State Department, but he is now the host of the weekly discussion program Inside Iraq on Al Jazeera English. This week, Mr. Wilkerson was the guest for a special one-on-one discussion Inside Iraq.

I realize that a transcript of an interview between two people who are relatively obscure will not draw the same level of interest as a transcript of an exchange between Jon Stewart and John McCain, but I post it here because it offers a rare inside glimpse at the workings of the Bush White House in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Mr. Wilkerson worked closely with Secretary of State Colin Powell in preparing the presentation to the United Nations Security Council on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's supposed ties to international terrorism.
Jasim Azzawi: In February 2003, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell stood before the United Nations Security Council and presented his country's case for war against Iraq. Critics charge that presentation was weak, inaccurate and full of fraudulent evidence, but most people did not know at the time, Powell believed in those words despite some nagging doubts.

Our guest today is aware of those nagging doubts. Our guest today is former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff Larry Wilkerson. Welcome to this special edition of Inside Iraq, Mr. Wilkerson. Those nagging doubts: were they born as a result of lack of evidence, lack of information, or the misinterpretation and potential misinterpretation of that evidence?

Larry Wilkerson: Thank you for having me here. That's a good question. I think the doubts came mostly from the fact that we had predominantly circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence, while convincing, is not the kind of evidence that you would like to have for such a fateful decision, to send a nation to war. And also because what we had was evidence that came from other sources. That is to say, the United States did not have real intelligence sources on the ground in Iraq, and so we had to rely heavily on other intelligence services: the British, the Germans, the French, the Israelis, the Jordanians. We had not had any "eyes on the ground" in Iraq since President Clinton had bombed Iraq in 1998, and Saddam Hussein had essentially severed the relationship with the inspectors, and so forth, and removed them from his country, and so there was quite a period of years that all we could do is depend on other people's intelligence sources and depend on our national technical means, satellites and so forth, for what they could render about his programs. That obviously was not adequate.

Azzawi: Perhaps that's unprecedented, somehow, for the U.S. to rely on other countries for such a weighty enterprise, and that is to go to war, on evidence they could not corroborate. Having said that, many intelligence agencies within the US had their doubts, they had dissension. Was this dissension presented to Colin Powell?

Wilkerson: We have 5 really prominent intelligence agencies that we were dealing with routinely, and we have another 10 or so that we have to deal with in what we call the "intelligence community." This is everything from the Central Intelligence Agency, with which most everyone is familiar now, to the National Security Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency, and so forth. The man who speaks for all those agencies is — in the past was the Director of Central Intelligence, at that time, George Tenet, and his deputy, the DDCI, John McLaughlin. So when they spoke, they spoke for all of the elements in the US intelligence community, and they spoke in a decisive way. That is to say, George Tenet was the person advising the President of the United States and the National Security Council, of which Colin Powell was a member. So, if there was dissension in the intelligence community — and, as you indicate, there was some dissension — then that dissension is handled, managed, by the DCI. The DCI makes the decision as to which side of an argument, if there are sides, that he comes down on. The President and the Secretary of State and others listen to the DCI, and they take (normally) what the DCI says as the verdict of the intelligence community.

Azzawi: Mr. Wilkerson, that begs the question: you and Secretary Powell spent days, if not perhaps weeks, in Virginia, in the headquarters of the CIA, perhaps next door to George Tenet. You were presented with most of the information, all of the information, and yet you are saying that those dissensions, some of those internal e-mails within the community, were not given to the very man who was going to present the case for the United States in front of the international community.

Wilkerson: That is correct. Some made it through to us; for example, our own intelligence bureau, which is one of those other 15 entities that I was telling you about — our own intelligence bureau in the State Department dissented on the nuclear program. They maintained that Saddam Hussein had no active nuclear program. That dissent was made a footnote to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which was the estimate we used as our backdrop, so to speak, as we prepared the Secretary's presentation.

Azzawi: Are you referring here to the aluminum tubes, or are you referring to something else?

Wilkerson: Here I'm referring to the comprehensive decision to say, Yes, he's got an active nuclear program, [or] No, he doesn't have a program. In this case, INR said their best evidence, their best analysis, showed that he did not have an active nuclear program. The remainder of the intelligence community, however — and importantly the DCI, who's over that community — said that they believed he did have an active nuclear program, and of course that involved, as an ingredient of that assessment, the aluminum tubes.

Azzawi: Earlier you mentioned the reliance on others, and one of the names that had become synonymous, perhaps, with this war and the potential damage to US interests for the long run is "Curveball," and within the dissension there were a couple of e-mails regarding the inaccuracies and perhaps the fraudulent information garnered by Curveball. In your opinion, why were those e-mails not presented to Colin Powell, when the CIA had them?

Wilkerson: This is an issue of major concern to me now, after the presentation has been made and I've done research and I've discovered some of the things that you said —

Azzawi: Did you come up to a conclusion?

Wilkerson: Well, I have listened to Tyler Drumheller, who was the head of CIA operations in Europe. I don't see any reason why he would be lying or fabricating. He has said that there was information available during the time that we were preparing, and that information discounted the reliability of a source, who I have since learned was the principal source for the mobile biological laboratories. This is your "Curveball." We never heard about that doubt, we never saw that doubt expressed by the DCI or the DDCI. We never knew that there was a single source only; we were told there were four independently corroborated sources for the biological labs. So, yes, I have deep concern over that now, as to why George Tenet and John McLaughlin did not tell the Secretary about that doubt, which Tyler Drumheller says he talked to them about extensively.

Azzawi: The Germans, who had possession of Curveball, said, you know, he's a liar.

Wilkerson: That's my understanding. My understanding is not just the Germans, but also, as I said, the head of the European division of the CIA, Tyler Drumheller, actually talked on the phone with John McLaughlin about his own doubts, and when he saw the script that we were preparing for Powell to give in New York, he weighed in again and said that Powell should not be saying this, because the information was unreliable. And yet that never made it to the Secretary of State.

Azzawi: Mr. Wilkerson, let's come to the case officer of Curveball, the master of Curveball, if you like: Ahmed Chalabi (أحمد الجلبي). Did he actively — was he critical in the US going to war based upon the fraudulent information that he furnished the US?

Wilkerson: In my subsequent research, I think I have found that Chalabi had an inordinate amount of influence, and his Iraqi National Congress in the context that they created had an inordinate amount of influence over the compilation of intelligence that was done by Douglas Feith's office in the Pentagon, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Feith. I think that information, essentially, was the information that made it into the script that Secretary Powell was originally given by Scooter Libby in the Vice President's office at the White House, for his presentation at the UN Security Council.

Azzawi: And yet, listening to Douglas Feith, he discounts very much the influence of Ahmed Chalabi, whether on Secretary Rumsfeld or on Wolfowitz or on him.

Wilkerson: I differ with that opinion, obviously. I believe Chalabi had significant influence on a number of decision-makers, including Vice President Cheney.

Azzawi: Let's come to the second pillar, the second reason for the US going to war, and that is the nexus between the Iraqi government and terrorism. Were the US convinced that Iraq really is involved in international terrorism, again despite the dissension of other intelligence agencies?

Wilkerson: Well, here's another area where I have some deep concern about what happened at the CIA in those five, six days that I virtually lived at Langley. We were debating the portions of Secretary Powell's presentation that described Saddam's contacts with terrorists. We almost got to the point where we were throwing the majority of it out; that is to say, Secretary Powell didn't believe any of it, didn't think it was relevant, didn't think it proved anything — we were about to eliminate him. We had a last-minute presentation on an interrogation of, as it was put at the time, and this is almost a direct quote, "a high-level Al Qaeda operative."

Azzawi: You are referring to —

Wilkerson: Later I determined that that was [Ibn al] Shaykh al-Libi (ابن الشیخ اللبّی), and that he had confessed, and in that confession he had owned up to the fact that there were direct contacts between Saddam Hussein's people and Al Qaeda, and in fact those contacts included training by Saddam Hussein's Mukhabarat and training Al Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons. Well, this was stunning. This was coming from a high-level operative whom we had captured, and it was delivered to the Secretary of State, it was delivered to me, and we decided that we would put that information in Secretary Powell's presentation, and it became the heart of his presentation on terrorism with regard to Saddam Hussein.

Azzawi: Mr. Wilkerson, before we take a break, was that evidence, that statement by him, taken under duress?

Wilkerson: I have subsequently learned that he was tortured in Egypt, that no US personnel were present during that torture, and that he "confessed," as it were.

Azzawi: Mr. Wilkerson, we'll take a short break now, but when we come back, I'll ask you about Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council. Stay with us.

Welcome back to this special episode of Inside Iraq. My guest today is Larry Wilkerson; he was the former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell. In his presentation in February '03 to the Security Council, Powell talked about Ansar al-Islam (انصار الاسل) — this is a small Islamic radical fringe group — that they had a small base in northern Iraq, a part of Iraq that was not under the control of the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. How was it possible for Powell to extrapolate that Iraq is supporting terrorism, knowing full well that Baghdad's writ does not extend all the way to the border between Iraq and Iran?

Wilkerson: Both the Secretary and I asked John McLaughlin, and George Tenet, and other analysts that they presented to us, those questions about, why were we looking at an area that should've been under the control of the Kurds, and obviously under our surveillance, because we virtually, in terms of the no-fly zones, were "owners" of the southern and northern portions of Iraq. The answers we got were that that was a wild and wooly area in Iraq, and that no one — not even the Kurds — really had constant visibility over that area, and that's the reason the terrorist group had selected it to be its poison factory, where it put together various chemicals and so forth to make poisons. And that was the extent of the information that the intelligence community gave to the Secretary.

Azzawi: And how did they tie it to Baghdad?

Wilkerson: Well, it wasn't necessarily tied to Baghdad —

Azzawi: The way it came out, in the presentation —

Wilkerson: Well, actually, it was tied to Iraq. If you tie it to Iraq —

Azzawi: That's good enough?

Wilkerson: — you've tied it by implication to Baghdad.

Azzawi: And he mentioned also Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (أبومصعب الزرقاوي) being in Baghdad, or frequent appearer to Iraq, and that turned out to be also not true.

Wilkerson: Well, we went through quite a bit of discussion about that, with the Secretary, with myself and Mr. Tenet and Mr. McLaughlin and others, and the conclusion we came to was, at least what we believed they were telling us was, that Zarqawi was seeking some sort of medical treatment in Baghdad and that because of the fact that no one could be in Baghdad without Saddam Hussein's people knowing it, that Saddam Hussein was essentially a host while he was there receiving medical treatment.

Azzawi: Coming to the ace in the hole, the pièce de résistance within the administration, the presentation that, as outlined by Powell at the Security Council, was the mobile lab. Was he really convinced that Iraq had those labs? We only saw sketches; there was no hard evidence at all that Baghdad has it.

Wilkerson: Well, as I said before, we were presented with four different sources, each of which had, independent of one another, corroborated the presence of the labs — not just what we eventually showed, which was a mock-up of trucks that plied Iraq's highways and had hide positions in Iraq, but also on rail cars that were in certain hide areas also. And on these rail cars and in these trucks, which constituted a less than 1% portion of the trucks that plied the roads of Iraq, for example — virtually unfindable — these facilities were available to make, on the spot, if you will, batches of biological weapons. And it came across from the CIA analyst, who, remember now —

Azzawi: These are actual US sources? These four sources?

Wilkerson: No, these four sources were not revealed to us, in terms of whether they were run by the British, run by the United States, run by Germany, run by Jordan, run by the INC — they were not revealed to us, except that, because they were trying to protect their sources and methods, except that they were sources with impeccable credentials, and that they independently corroborated each other. Now, the one that was revealed to us in some detail, was an Iraqi major who had actually worked in one of these laboratories. He had been present when an accident had occurred in the laboratory, had injured and even killed some people, and he was the one who was able, because of having worked in the laboratory, to sketch for the CIA artist exactly what you saw presented at the UN, the sketches of the mobile biological laboratories. This was a very convincing presentation.

Azzawi: Did he pan out to be right?

Wilkerson: He turns out, apparently, to have been Curveball, camouflaged so the Secretary of State would not see that it was Curveball, would not see that it was a source in Germany, would not see that the Germans had possession of him and not us, would not see the things, the details that would normally be available. He was camouflaged as a source that was "impeccable."

Azzawi: Now, all along, this begs a question: Colin Powell, a man who spent all his years of life in the service of his country, and here again he is presenting the case for his country to the Security Council, and he's putting his personal credibility, let alone the credibility of the United States. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and four years and now you are teaching most of this here in the Virginia area, was it a deliberate machination by part of the US government to make Powell a fall guy, or was it just circumstances conspired against him?

Wilkerson: At the time that we made the presentation, and in the months that came later, when Mr. Tenet and Mr. McLaughlin had to call the Secretary and tell him that major pillars in his presentation were false, I thought that it was just a colossal intelligence failure. I still think that was a major part of it, and not just a failure on the part of the United States, but also of some of our friends and allies. But after, as you said, doing a lot of research, listening to people, talking to people, looking at some of the data that's come out, I can't explain, especially, those two instances, the one of Curveball, the other with regard to Shaykh al-Libi, because the Defense Intelligence Agency dissented on Shaykh al-Libi's "confession" immediately, because it was gained under coercion. I can't explain why those two, in particular, very important parts of his presentation, weren't made available to Secretary Powell at the time so that he could make a decision as to whether he included them in his presentation, so I have to conclude now that there was some, not just politicization of intelligence, some cherry-picking of intelligence, which I've always thought there was, but I have to conclude now that there were some people in this process who actually colluded to make a false picture, and make that –

Azzawi: This was a deliberate effort, in order to trap Colin Powell?

Wilkerson: Well, not necessarily to trap Colin Powell. More accurately, to trap the international community and the American people and the UN Security Council into voting for a war with Iraq.

Azzawi: Because the people in the Middle East, as well as the rest of the world, may have the following theory: when Colin Powell went to George Bush, as the drum for war was beating, that you need an international cover, you need a United Nations resolution, otherwise it's not going to pan out, it's not going to work out. People surrounding the President — Dick Cheney, Feith, Wolfowitz — said, "That's what the Secretary wants, international cover, legitimacy, let us give it to him, and let's put him in front of the Security Council." Do you buy that argument? Somehow he got what he wanted, but in the process he was cheated?

Wilkerson: I buy the argument, something a little bit more sophisticated than you just delivered it.

Azzawi: Let me hear it.

Wilkerson: I buy the argument, something like this: the Vice President of the United States, who was the most powerful member of this administration from 2001 to 2004, when I observed it — the Vice President of the United States essentially weighed in and must've said something like this: "Powell wants to go to the UN? Let him go. If he fails, no harm done; if he succeeds, then we'll have their support." So Powell was sent to the United Nations to deliver the message, the message of circumstantial evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and therefore presented, if not an imminent, certainly a considerable threat to the United States and to the region. Colin Powell was sent — unlike Adlai Stevenson being sent during the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguably a much more serious crisis, Colin Powell was sent — the Secretary of State was sent — because he had high poll ratings and the most credibility of anyone in the administration. And that's the only conclusion I think anyone who's not naïve must come to these days.

Azzawi: Iraq is in a crisis now. The United States is in crisis right now. Almost it's a Catch-22: they cannot leave and they cannot stay. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, four years of research, and before that you were in the very heart of the US political decision-making, why was it? What was the very reason for the war? Was it oil? Was it forward bases? Was it war of choice? Exactly how would you describe this, what Madeleine Albright said, "The worst single American misadventure in the history of the United States, since the creation of the Republic"?

Wilkerson: First, let me tell you that I knew there were going to be problems, because I was with Powell in 1990 and 1991 when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and we talked another President Bush out of going to Baghdad. I knew all of the reasons we had come up with to persuade the President that he shouldn't go to Baghdad. That is to say, "quit while you're ahead." So, here we fast-forward to 2002 and 2003, and I'm listening to arguments that we are going to Baghdad now, that we are going to take Iraq, a nation of some 20+ million people, and we're going to essentially "own" that nation, so I had ample reservations even at that time, but looking back on it, as you said now, I think you have to ask me which person advising President Bush are you talking about, before I can give you a motivation, and let me just give you some examples: I think with Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the motivation was freedom and democracy, utopia, that sort of thing. It also was very much the oil. Paul Wolfowitz even said that Iraq was "swimming" in oil. So, if you look at others, like the Vice President, then I have to tell you that I think the principal reason was both oil and the nexus of potential nuclear weapons, in particular, but WMD in general, and terrorist groups. If you're looking at other people in the administration, Colin Powell, for example, I think the motivation was closing off a policy that was becoming increasingly a failure. The sanctions régime was failing; we hadn't, after all, ended the war in 1991: all Norm Schwarzkopf had done in the desert was sign a cease-fire. So for Colin Powell, it was bringing closure to a policy that was increasingly failing, against a threat that, while it might not be "imminent," still needed to be dealt with. For others in the administration, the motivations were different things. The motivation for Douglas Feith, I think, was Israel; I think Douglas Feith probably was indeed a card-carrying member of the Likud Party.

Azzawi: On that note, Mr. Wilkerson, perhaps I can tell you that is the dominant sentiment in the Middle East: all along, it was oil and Israel. Thank you for being on this special episode of Inside Iraq. That's all the time we have for this week; join me next week when we take another look Inside Iraq.
Inside Iraq airs every Friday at 17:30 UTC, which is 1:30 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, 10:30 A.M. PDT, and repeats several times through the weekend. Check the Al Jazeera English schedule page for air times in your time zone. (Note: it's better to choose your time zone from the pulldown menu, rather than the map, if you are on Daylight Savings Time.) You can watch the low-bandwidth feed on the web for free, or buy a monthly subscription for the broadband feed.

In this interview, we have the direct and damning allegation that the Bush Administration distorted and manipulated the intelligence, not only to dupe the Congress, the public, and the United Nations, but even to dupe its own cabinet officials. Colin Powell placed his own personal credibility on the line before the UNSC, based on the smoke and mirrors of turning one "Curveball" into four impeccable, independently corroborated sources. The lies that were told to Secretary Powell were nothing short of treasonous, because their purpose was to subvert the government of the United States, and their effect was to give aid and comfort to our enemies. George Tenet has a new book out, in which he argues that the intelligence flaws weren't his fault, and that his "slam dunk" comment has been misconstrued. Tyler Drumheller also has a book out in which he squarely blames the Bush White House for "compromising" American intelligence.

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