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Larry Wilkerson tells the story of Powell’s fateful speech to the UN that prepared the way for the invasion; he’s asked why he and Powell didn’t quit – Col. Lawrence Wilkerson joins TRNN’s Paul Jay

Story Transcript

LARRY WILKERSON: “We have just learned from interrogation of a high level al Qaeda operative of significant contacts between the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s secret police, and al Qaeda to include the Mukhabarat’s training al Qaeda in using chemical and biological weapons.” Powell turned to me and said, “Put it all back in, LW.”


PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

We’re continuing our discussion about the film Vice with Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Here’s another little clip from the film.


DICK CHENEY: That should let everyone know the lay of the land.

ADAM MCKAY: Dick Cheney is a mystery. He is a hard nut to crack.

DICK CHENEY: I’m CEOs of large company. I have been secretary of defense, and-

LYNNE CHENEY: The youngest chief of staff in history. I’m going to give you a kiss right here in the White House.

ADAM MCKAY: This guy changed history as much as anyone.

So what’s the plan?

To take over the damn place.

ADAM MCKAY: Yet everything he did was in the shadows. He never wanted to be the guy in the spotlight.

DICK CHENEY: Neither branch has oversight of the VP.

ADAM MCKAY: This was the guy who had his hand at the wheel, and quietly changed our lives more than anyone.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Bush approved all of this?


ADAM MCKAY: He could do whatever he wanted to do.

DICK CHENEY: I’m going to show the world the true power of the American presidency.

ADAM MCKAY: He was the greatest combination of intelligence, ambition, and bureaucratic knowledge ever seen.

SPEAKER: This isn’t something that a vice president really does.

DICK CHENEY: Well, it is now.


PAUL JAY: As I said, we have the script of the film. And here’s a little scene that involves the depiction of Larry Wilkerson:

“Interior: CIA conference room. Day. Cheney and Scooter Libby talk to a female CIA analyst.

Dick: Did he or did he not meet with Al Qaeda? [Obviously speaking about Saddam Hussein]

Female CIA Analyst: They had no operational contact.

Dick: Hogwash.

Interior: White House West Wing hallway. Day. Powell storms down the hallway holding some papers. He stops Colonel Wilkerson, 57 [meaning his age], Powell’s Chief of Staff at State.

Colonel Colin Powell: Larry, have you read this speech?

Lawrence Wilkerson: Yes. It’s beyond thin. I saw five pieces of disproved Intel in there.

Colin Powell: Who wrote it?

Lawrence Wilkerson: They claimed it was from the president, but I think you can guess who really wrote it.

Interior: Scooter Libby’s office. Day. Scooter on the phone.

Scooter Libby: There’s no need to yell, Larry. Yes, we reviewed the speech and gave some notes.

David Addington enters and silently listens.

David Addington: Powell really doesn’t have a clue, does he?”

Now joining us to discuss the film Vice and talk about what really happened with Colin Powell and Larry Wilkerson in the lead-up to the Iraq war is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Thanks for joining us.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

PAUL JAY: One more time, Larry is a retired United States Army soldier, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he teaches at the College of William and Mary.

So how real is that scene? Did something like that happen?

LARRY WILKERSON: It’s fairly real. It’s a condensation, if you will, of a really wider scene that occurred. I might point out that we knew that Scooter Libby and John Hannah, now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and working hard to get the United States into war with Iran, were the two writers of that script. And it was quite obvious that the script was unsourced, not an intelligence document in other words, and was basically just reporting from the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and so forth, written like a legal script as you might suspect Scooter Libby and John Hannah would write. So in essence, the scene did disclose the opposition that we at State had to the script and the provenance of the script.

PAUL JAY: I’m not sure. Are they talking about the address Powell’s supposed to be giving at the UN?

LARRY WILKERSON: They’re talking about the weapons of mass destruction part of it, yeah. There were three parts, the WMD part, the terrorism part, which was written by Phil Mudd, now a distinguished commentator for CNN, and the human rights part was written at the State Department. So those were glued together to make the presentation at the United Nations.

PAUL JAY: Do you, at some point before the speech, come to the conclusion that Cheney has deliberately shaped this speech and deliberately falsified the intelligence?

LARRY WILKERSON: I come to that conclusion somewhat shortly after the presentation, sadly enough, and I come to it because of the pillars of the presentation, the mobile biological labs, the nuclear program and the contacts with al Qaeda, which were probably the most powerful part of the presentation with regard to the American people, all falling apart literally within a month or two of the presentation having been given. And there’s one story that I write in my manuscript that reveals Cheney’s Machiavellian approach to this whole thing. I think George Tenet knew that it was from his really good analysts, none of whom were allowed to get to Powell, by the way. He only allowed to analysts to get to Powell: Robert Walpole and Larry Gershwin, who were both Cheney’s men in my view.

So here we are with Powell having essentially told me, “Take everything in the presentation out that we have in there about terrorism and Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda,” because he thought it stunk. I think he thought I was going to protest because he was very forceful when he told me this. And I looked at him and I said, “Done, boss.” And he was suddenly calm again because I wasn’t objecting. I took it all out, or went to Lynne Davidson, the speechwriter who was working it, and told her to take it all out. John McLaughlin was the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence and truly, truly a Machiavellian character. He lied to the Secretary of State, was listening. I should have suspected something when he slipped out of the room where Lynne was and disappeared.

We resumed the rehearsal that night with Powell, Condi Rice and others in the DCI conference room. And Tenet, in the middle of the rehearsal, which he was not wont to do, got up and left. I figured he was taken a telephone call or something, an important call. He came back in about 30 minutes and he sat down beside Powell. And Powell was going through the rudimentary rehearsals, they were very rudimentary at that time, and Tenet leans over and he says to Powell, and I’m sitting there so I know what he said, verbatim I can almost quote it, “We have just learned from interrogation of a high level al Qaeda operative of significant contacts between the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s secret police, and al Qaeda to include the Mukhabarat’s training al Qaeda in using chemical and biological weapons.” Powell turned to me and said, “Put it all back in, LW.”

So here was something I found out later occurred, because Shaykh al Libi, an al Qaeda operative, was tortured in Egypt with no U.S. personnel present. A week or two after he was tortured, he was waterboarded furiously, a week or so after, he recants, the Defense Intelligence Agency puts out a burn notice on his testimony therefore, saying get rid of it, it’s not reliable. We’re never shown that burn notice, we’re never told that. We’re just told by the DCI to the Secretary of State, in front of the National Security Advisor, that there are contacts. And we put it all back in the presentation. That was the most powerful part of the presentation.

John McLaughlin was lying, Tenet was fabricating things. I don’t think he believed what he was saying, but he wasn’t lying as straightforwardly as John was. I later find out from the director of European Operations, Tyler Drumheller, he’s dead now, but I find out from Tyler that he not only had told Tenet, he had also told McLaughlin, for example, at length about the unreliability of the guy who came to be known as Curveball. This is the pillar of mobile biological weapons labs. John McLaughlin never communicated any of that to Powell, nor did George Tenet.

PAUL JAY: Why didn’t Powell and yourself listen more seriously to Hans Blix, who was leading the inspector teams, who said none of this was going on?

LARRY WILKERSON: I never met with Hans Blix.

PAUL JAY: Blix kept saying, “Well, if you know so much, tell us and we’ll go look.”

LARRY WILKERSON: I was in the office on one occasion.

PAUL JAY: Because I remember we did this story, I was producing this show Counterspin in Canada at the time, and right at the time of Powell’s speech there was every reason to believe that most of it was a crock.

LARRY WILKERSON: Unfortunately, when you’re in the Ivory Tower, whether you’re the Secretary of State in your Ivory Tower or you’re the president in your Ivory Tower, all this stuff that comes up later as being, “Oh, why didn’t you understand that that was the truth,” is either not afforded you or is afforded you in a very biased and prejudiced way.

PAUL JAY: Blix was saying it at the time.

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, Powell was listening to Blix.

PAUL JAY: Was not listening to Blix.

LARRY WILKERSON: Powell was listening to Blix. Powell went for the November resolution, got it passed 15 to 0 in the Security Council, and as a result of that, thought we were going to allow inspectors full time and mandate to determine yea or nay with regard to weapons of mass destruction. Only later in January, when I attend the meeting in the White House situation room where Doug Feith makes an absolute ass of himself, do we understand, begin to understand, that it doesn’t matter. This administration is going to war. Hans Blix could say, “Give me another month, Mr. Secretary, and I’ll come back and tell you with 99 percent certainty whether he’s got weapons of mass destruction or not.” That didn’t matter. We knew we were going to war. And out of that evolved the presentation at the UN and, I think, Powell’s determination that he was going to be a loyal soldier.

PAUL JAY: Once you find out, once Powell finds out that essentially Cheney lied the United States into war, lead the lying into war, why didn’t Powell quit, why didn’t you quit?

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, I tried, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Call it cowardice, call it I thought if I left, Powell’s flanks would be exposed,call it I knew where the skeletons were and I thought I could protect Powell. For him, I don’t know, you’ll have to let him speak about it. We both knew that Saddam Hussein–andI think this was a fairly accurate appraisal–would have returned to all three of his weapons of mass destruction programs, including the most dangerous one, the nuclear one, once the international focus was off of him, once the international community and the United States lost interest in him, that he or his successor would return to those programs. We were quite confident of that.

PAUL JAY: But there’s no reason to think that would have happened. During the Clinton years, in fact, Clinton was bombing Iraq.

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, the timing was bad. Arguably, in 1998, when Clinton conducted his bombing campaign, four days around the clock bombing, he did more damage than we actually did in the first Gulf War to those programs in which we were still concerned. So we had devastated those programs and we simply, here again, the intelligence community failed. We simply didn’t know to the extent that we had devastated those programs and other things about the ministries and so forth in Iraq. We found it out when we got there in 2003, there was nothing, virtually nothing. You couldn’t even make a telephone call in Baghdad because everything was so completely decimated.

PAUL JAY: But in the film, and you say this is more or less realistic, you’re seeing this script written by, we’re assuming, Cheney, or someone for Cheney, and you’re saying–I think in the film, your character says “bullshit.”

LARRY WILKERSON: But that was a screw up. Remember, once I told Mr. Tenet, “This script is bullshit, I’m getting rid of it, we’re not using it,” he then came back at me. And here, I admit, a failure on my part, I thought I had succeeded in getting rid of the script and making sure that we were at least 60, 70 percent down the road toward something that was accurate because. Mr. Tenet’s response to me, and in retrospect I think he planned this and I was too stupid to understand it, he said, “Oh, then let’s turn to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. That is a fully vetted intelligence document, the Congress has seen that. Let’s use that. And me, fat dumb and happy me, said, “Okay, fine let’s do that.” And so, we used the October 2002 official Intelligence Estimate from the CIA. That gave us some confidence that what we were doing, in terms of sources and methods and so forth, was reasonably accurate.

PAUL JAY: But did you understand that–

LARRY WILKERSON: We threw the script, out in other words, totally.

PAUL JAY: But did you understand that from day one of certainly post 9/11, but in fact if you go back into Cheney, Rumsfeld and the whole neocon foreign policy cabal right from ’97, ’98, they were preaching regime change in Iraq.

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, the Congress passed regime change as official U.S. policy.

PAUL JAY: Which President Clinton signs. So this agenda of regime change in Iraq predated 9/11, this was their ambition. And when they’re shaping this intelligence–

LARRY WILKERSON: The same things exists with regard to Iran today. If you went on everything that Congress does with regard to statutory statement about a country or countries or a threat or threats, you’d be constantly bogged down in trying to figure out where the United States is going next, because the Congress sanctions or doesn’t like half the world. So we’re looking at the same thing with Iran right now, but are we going to war with Iran now? I’d be one to say that there are people who want to go to war with Iran, just like there were people who wanted to go to war with Iraq, but the fact that the Congress has passed legislation making that official U.S. policy is not necessarily–

PAUL JAY: But I think it’s pretty clear.

LARRY WILKERSON: They’re using the system.

PAUL JAY: Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, the whole gang, who are most of them actual signatories to the Project for the New American Century and the report, who are totally up to here in the military industrial complex, Cheney himself actually running Halliburton and so on, the Iraq regime change, invasion of Iraq, was on the agenda perhaps from the very first day these guys become elected and take over the White House. They certainly don’t think terrorism is the threat. George Tenet testified at the 9/11 Commission that he told President Bush that the number one national security threat to the United States was bin Laden and al Qaeda, and nobody took him seriously.

LARRY WILKERSON: Nobody. The only person who did was Powell and that was because we feared another attack on an embassy like in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam or USS Cole in port Yemen, October 2000. We felt we were going to get hit overseas. And so, we asked Dick Clark to come back for a second briefing, even. That’s the only reason we were concerned. We thought we knew we were going to get hit again overseas, we never thought we were going to get hit in the United States.

PAUL JAY: Richard Clarke writes in his book, Dick Clark, that the attitude of the Bush administration was a terrorist attack on American soil wasn’t an existential threat. It’s the cost of doing business for a superpower.


PAUL JAY: And that’s the attitude they took to all this incoming intelligence, much of which, if you follow the joint congressional investigation into 9/11 and the Saudi connection and so on, and much of what came out in the 9/11 Commission and subsequently, there was a lot of intelligence being gathered that would suggest that there’s an attack coming. And some of it, if it had been followed up, might have prevented the attack. Certainly, Senator Bob Graham, who chaired that Joint Congressional Committee thinks so.

LARRY WILKERSON: I would have thought, as steeped as I am now after teaching this for six years in the war colleges and fourteen years in civilian universities that, for example, everyone would have known Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked in 1941. But the truth is that government at the highest levels is so difficult to do with regard to intelligence, strategic intelligence in particular, and with regard to genuinely good, actionable information and intelligence, that it’s difficult to say, even knowing what I know today, that the prediction wouldn’t have been, “Oh, it’ll be in the Philippines,” or “It will be here, it will be there, it will not be in Hawaii.” Because Hawaii is so far, and you have to give Yamamoto credit for being able to pull that off, it was a really close-run thing for the Japanese.

So I can see that they would have realized something was coming and that something would probably get them in the war, and therefore they’d be able to fight Hitler, although I don’t think they thought Hitler would declare war on them the next day or whatever it was, stupid man. But I can see all of that. In retrospect, I can see it and I can say I’m not blaming FDR, but I can see that FDR probably knew something was coming, didn’t know where, didn’t know when, did what he could, but didn’t do enough. And the same thing goes for 9/11. As people have said, Condi has said this, “George, you didn’t tell me where, you didn’t tell me when and you didn’t tell me how, so how was I supposed to act on the fact that you said this vast nation is going to be struck by bin Laden and that’s a terrible threat, I mean, how am I going to put a priority on that?”

I can say also, had I been there, I like to think I would have put a higher priority than they did. I would have had an NSC meeting well before August. I mean, here we are in August, just before the attacks, before we even have a National Security Council meeting that discusses the threat of terror.

PAUL JAY: Richard Clarke says, and Tenet was saying, their hair was on fire with the amount of data that was coming in. They couldn’t get a meeting of the principals.

LARRY WILKERSON: It does look like extraordinary–

PAUL JAY: Again, bin Laden’s planning to attack America. Nothing happens.

LARRY WILKERSON: It does look like extraordinary negligence in retrospect, but so does Pearl Harbor.

PAUL JAY: Well, let’s go back to the Pearl Harbor reference, because in that report from the PNAC, Project for the New American Century, there’s this quote which lots of people talked about, but let me read the quote because a lot of people haven’t followed all this as closely as we have. So the report is talking about the need for this massive increase in military expenditure, regime change in Iraq, the modernization of the military, which is going to involve tons more money. The fundamental concept of this document is that because this is now a single superpower world, America should use that power to reshape the world as it deems fit.

LARRY WILKERSON: Which interestingly pulls in the messianics, that pulls in the Samantha Powers’, the Susan Rices, the people who want to bring peace, democracy, prosperity, joy, liberty, Jeffersonian principles to the world.

PAUL JAY: On the edge of their bayonettes.


PAUL JAY: Here’s the quote from the document: “Further, the process of transformation,” which is all these things I just said, “the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event like a new Pearl Harbor.” That’s a direct quote from the report. Cheney, he’s part of this PNAC group, he didn’t author the report, but he’s certainly influenced and informed part of this cabal, he goes to Halliburton, cashes in, becomes vice president. According to Senator Bob Graham and the Joint Congressional Committee, but Graham personally, and I’ve got several interviews with him where he says this, he thinks Cheney, he also credits Bush, I don’t think he thinks Bush is quite out of it as some others think, but certainly primarily Cheney at the very least deliberately created a culture in the intelligence agencies of not wanting to know.

And Richard Clarke writes that he was getting bypassed, Richard Clarke was the antiterrorism czar. And I think this is very important. After Bush hears from George Tenet that the number one security threat is bin Laden and al Qaeda, then you demote your antiterrorism czar as your next move? I mean, even if you don’t want to believe in such a threat as Tenet says, then replace Clark if you don’t like Clark. Put into a loyalist of your own. But why would you demote somebody that has cabinet access level and put him to someone who can’t even get a meeting of the principals called? The agenda of the Iraq war seems to have been very early in the presidency, but really it’s from ’97, ’98. This is the call for what they thought Clinton should have done. And the 9/11 attacks, at the very least, we’re awfully convenient, and there seems to be a lot of data that if Cheney’s is evil as you say he is, why not that he he was in on, at the very least, helping facilitate the conditions that this thing doesn’t get stopped?

LARRY WILKERSON: First of all, my assessment of Cheney as being evil has to require, I think, more of a view in retrospect than it does a view contemporaneously. And that view, in retrospect, is a view of a man who has had an ample opportunity to equivocate, to do anything to attenuate the knowledge we now have of his nefarious, dangerous, incredibly damaging to U.S. interests behavior when he was vice president. He’s done none of that. And one of the things this movie does, at least in the sense that it accentuates that, is just that. It does emphasize that at the end, for example, when Cheney goes through some words that are, as I understand it and as I know it the exact words he spoke. They’re compiled, but they’re the exact words he spoke. There’s no apology, there is no sorrow, he would do it again and again and again and again.

Now, I either have to judge him intellectual midget, which I’ll not do for a moment because I know he wasn’t, or I have to judge him as different, amoral, apolitical, a-whatever you want, he is evil, and that’s my definition of evil. He actually believes in his heart of hearts, such as it is, that he did exactly what was necessary at exactly the right time and exactly the right way. He still believes that. Now, that’s not a man who’s lusting after the forty billion dollars that Halliburton made off Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s part of it, yes, that’s part of the lifestyle of these people. That’s a man who actually thinks that he did best for his country when the Middle East is in flames and will be for years to come, when every decision that he made about national security turned out to be a first class disaster.

And the only way I can reconcile that is that Dick Cheney believes that in the long term, history will bless him, history will show that he made the best action, so he’s sticking to his guns. That’s evil, in my view, because anybody can see that that’s not the truth today. How could you possibly claim that creating Zarqawi and ISIS, that leaving the region in Iran’s hands, that destroying the balance of power in the Gulf, that setting chaos afoot amongst 400 million people is a positive achievement for America’s security. How does build that hegemony you’re talking about? It doesn’t, it detracts from it, it destroys it, it eats it, it has put America today as one of the most isolated powers in the world.

PAUL JAY: But he’s no anomaly.

LARRY WILKERSON: No. He is the fruition of what I would call the extreme right-wing, if you will, that’s a much abused term, but he is the fruition of this Wolfowitz, McChrystal, Perle, Cheney, Rumsfeld wing of my political party, the Republican Party. And it got a lot of allies in the Democratic Party too, not least of which was Hillary Clinton at times. But this is what, in essence, brought about Donald Trump. Historians are going to play with this for years to come, if they have years to come, but this is what brought about what we have today.

PAUL JAY: And this group of political ideologues and political practitioners, because they’re not just sitting in universities, these guys wind up running the Bush administration, they are the reflection representative–

LARRY WILKERSON: They’re trying to run the Trump administration.

PAUL JAY: John Bolton, who’s one of the signatories of the Project for the New American Century and that letter calling for regime change in Iraq, is now–

LARRY WILKERSON: And he couldn’t have a better ally than Mike Pompeo at State.

PAUL JAY: They reflect the interests of these arms manufacturers. And as you said earlier, there’s a revolving door where they go in and go out, but that’s who’s dominating U.S. foreign policy.

LARRY WILKERSON: It is, and to the detriment of this country to the extent that the American people need to wake up to.

PAUL JAY: In the next segment of our discussion with Larry Wilkerson, we’re going to kind of veer off the film, because I want to pick up one of the themes of this Project for the New American Century report and some of the things that’s been happening recently with the upgrading of America’s nuclear arsenal, Space Command, a Space Force, and picking up something from a series of interviews we did recently with Daniel Ellsberg about nuclear winter and just how the Pentagon thinks about military strategy, to be polite. So please join us for the next section of our series of interviews with Larry Wilkerson on The Real News Network.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.