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Mainstream media has been quick to highlight WikiLeaks’ cable reporting a statement from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that the US should attack Iran, because it is a danger to the region. Larry Wilkerson, the former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, gives The Real News a series of reasons why such information requires questioning. He questions the media’s willingness to treat the cables as the gospel truth, as well as pointing out that a Saudi King would have reasons beyond security to want an attack on Iran. Namely it would hinder an oil competitor and financier of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah which Saudi Arabia opposes, while also causing the price of oil to sky rocket.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. The world is still abuzz about the WikiLeaks leak. Most of the press coverage in newspapers across the globe today has been about Iran and the revelations, we are told, of Arab leaders who support a US attack on Iran. Today in Iran, the Iranian government responded. President Ahmadinejad said this wasn’t a leak; this is a planned release and part of a misinformation campaign on the part of the United States. Also today, some would suggest coincidentally, others are suggesting not (at least the Iranians are saying it’s not a coincidence), two Iranian nuclear scientists were attacked. One was killed, another wounded. Now joining us to help us make sense of what’s happening with WikiLeaks and Iran and some of the other issues involved is Lawrence Wilkerson. Lawrence was the chief of staff for Colin Powell at the State Department. He’s a retired naval officer, and he now teaches at George Washington University in Washington. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: Army. What did I say?

WILKERSON: You said naval.

JAY: Ah.

WILKERSON: It’s alright. You’re forgiven.

JAY: Okay. So what do you make of what the–the Iranians are saying this isn’t a leak, this is a planned release, and it’s part of a propaganda campaign in favor of an attack on Iran. We saw it in Jerusalem Post yesterday, saying essentially that this release is a vindication of Israeli contention about–that Iran is a threat to the region. So start with this idea of Iran, that this actually is something planned, not this kind of leak.

WILKERSON: Quite a deal of serendipity there. I happened to read that same Jerusalem Post article, and I had the same thought that probably President Ahmadinejad did, and that was that this seems a little too clever by a touch or two. My first inclination is, wow, how did this private in solitary confinement at Quantico, Virginia, I’m told, download close to a million, if not over a million documents, principally from the SIPRNet, the DOD-managed net that has secret and below on it, without anybody in his chain of command knowing about it?

JAY: Well, let’s assume he did what he’s accused of.

WILKERSON: Yeah, we’re all going to operate on that assumption.

JAY: Yeah. Or, I mean, I don’t think we yet know with any–even direct accusation that this particular leak came from the same private anyway.

WILKERSON: That’s what I’m being told.

JAY: Yeah.

WILKERSON: That’s what I’m being told. The whole mother lode is this particular individual.

JAY: Let’s say it was. The headlines, as I said, is all about Iran, and primarily, as The Jerusalem Post says, this is what they call a “vindication”, that Iran is not just a threat to Israel, it’s a threat to the region. Now, look, the leaders of several of these Arab countries, mostly–as one of my colleagues pointed out, almost all of their first names are King–they say Iran is a threat to the region. So, first of all, how much do we think this is legitimate information?

WILKERSON: I think you have to look at that from a number of perspectives. First of all, you don’t know it’s legitimate information, in the sense that the person writing it might not be the best person to be interpreting the events for you. That’s one sense. The second sense is that the person giving the information, Abdullah or an ambassador or whatever, maybe he knows where that message is heading, ultimately, and so he may be spinning, our ambassador or our deputy chief of mission or whomever is taking the message in and writing the message afterwards. So you’ve got the potential for spin coming from the person being interviewed or the person being catalogued, as it were, described, and you’ve also got the possibility of unintentional spin coming from the person writing the cable. So it’s not right to look at this as given, as the god’s truth or whatever. And the third aspect of this is we don’t seem to understand what kind of traffic this is, in large part, at least what I’ve seen reported in El País, Le Monde, Guardian, Der Spiegel, and others, The New York Times, and that is it’s the kind of things that diplomats do every day. That’s why I think probably this is not going to be anything but a tempest in a teapot for the diplomatic corps wherever, in Germany, in France, in Japan, or wherever, because they understand what’s happened. They lament, I am sure, the embarrassment, and they lament the fact that the United States can’t do any better job in protecting this kind of private information, but they understand we’re not going to go to war over a WikiLeak.

JAY: Now, we know that when the evidence of–the supposed evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was being looked for, the White House wasn’t very interested in reports that didn’t lead to there are weapons of mass destruction. If you’re working at the CIA and you had some evidence that there aren’t weapons of mass destruction, it was not very easy to move that up the chain so that it actually got shown to anyone. And we know that people–.

WILKERSON: Yeah. If you were an Iraqi and you came to Washington to tell us that they didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, you weren’t listened to.

JAY: And we know from people like Greg Thielmann at the State Department, John Bolton was specifically filtering out any of Thielmann’s stuff. And Thielmann was head of intelligence dealing with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He was telling Bolton there aren’t any weapons in Iraq, and Bolton wouldn’t even let that information filter up high, clearly ’cause up high was saying, we don’t want it. So is it possible that some of this stuff we’re hearing is similar? Like, we know what the people that want to go to war with Iran want to hear, so we’re making sure we’re sending that and not something else.

WILKERSON: I don’t discount the possibility. I don’t discount the possibility of a fairly sophisticated disinformation campaign here, playing on top of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and what they knew they were going to do anyway. Were I the CIA and I saw an opportunity–or any intelligence service, and I saw the opportunity, the opportunistic opportunity, if you will, to actually come in and do something with something that was going to happen anyway and to limit the damage and maybe even exploit it, I’d certainly do it, and I don’t put that past the realm of possibility with regard to Iran.

JAY: Okay. Let’s go another step. Let’s assume that King Abdullah did say this to an American diplomat and that this is a legitimate report–let’s “cut off the head of the snake” is the quote that everybody’s using, meaning if you get rid of the leadership of Iran, not only do you take out the regime of Iran, but you weaken Hezbollah, you weaken Hamas, and you weaken a lot of forces that the king of Saudi Arabia’s not very happy about. So it’s not implausible that various leaders in the Middle East of Arab countries would like to see–I’m asking you the question.

WILKERSON: No, it’s not implausible at all.

JAY: I mean, the reasons one would–I would theorize, at any rate, is, number one, I mean, the most banal of which, and I’m not saying this is the only reason, but if you’re sitting on oil, a war with Iran, I don’t know what it would do with the price of oil. It would have to go through the–sky high.

WILKERSON: Oh, it’d probably go through the rafters, particularly if Iran does what some intelligence people are saying it will do, which is to mine the Strait of Hormuz, which you may recall it did rather inexpertly in the middle ’80s when we reflagged Kuwaiti tankers. And that’s how we almost lost a major combatant. She saw she was in a minefield, backed rapidly, but hit a mine anyway. And that sort of pitched us into Operation Praying Mantis, which is where we sank an Iranian destroyer. We forget this. We have no memory in this country. We sank an Iranian destroyer and went after a second one, put a bomb down her stack, and asked permission to sink her, too, and Washington said, no, gone far enough, and she limped back to port. We essentially destroyed probably 20 percent of the Iranian Navy that day and did it in a fairly short time. They took some lessons from that, I’m sure, and their mining of the strait would be a little bit more efficient, probably, and with better mines and better techniques today.

JAY: Which might disrupt your oil flow if you’re Saudi Arabia or one of the–or Emirates for a while.

WILKERSON: Insurance rates would climb.

JAY: But eventually you cash in on a price of oil that’s probably never been seen before.

WILKERSON: Yeah. You know, your theory holds water.

JAY: Okay. Number two, the–.

WILKERSON: Plus you knock the Iranians, probably, out of the spot market or maybe even the market for a short period of time, as they try to deal with the problems they’ve got, rather than pump oil.

JAY: Number two, the contention over Iraq, the idea of a Shia government very friendly to Iran right next door, a major oil competitor. And if I understand correctly, the section of Saudi Arabia where most of the oil is is actually a more populated Shia population than a Sunni population. So the Sunni-Shia divide here, even though it’s pitched as an ethnic-religious fight, and I’m sure that there’s a lot of medievalism amongst some of these leaders, and I’m sure they in a medieval way believe all this stuff, underneath it there’s enormous contention for oil between the Iranian and Saudi powers, with Iraq in the middle. This has got to have something to do with it.

WILKERSON: I think it probably does. You haven’t even mentioned Mubarak’s comment about if we–we made a tragic mistake in invading Iraq, and that if we leave, within a few years there will be another major takeover of the government by some probably Sunni general, and we’ll be right back to where we were before. I think this is the way the thought pattern runs in the Middle East. And would Mubarak rather have a dictator, Sunni, come back to Baghdad than have the Shia apparently in control of Iraq? Probably.

JAY: Part of why I’m suggesting all this is that when you look at the headlines in New York Times and all the other media, most of the other media today, nobody’s contextualizing if the Saudis said this.

WILKERSON: They don’t have that capability.

JAY: The Saudi reasons have nothing to do with, necessarily, of Iran being a threat to the region. It’s about inter-power politics in the region.

WILKERSON: They don’t have the capability. They don’t do nuance anymore. They don’t do foreign policy anymore. The media does blood leads, it does titillating, Dancing with the Stars, it does WikiLeaks. It does a bad job, even, of explaining how to interpret a cable from the State Department. It simply doesn’t do this sort of thing very well anymore, and that’s to be lamented also.

JAY: Number three. I think I’m at three. I might be at four. The day before WikiLeaks leaked, there was sort of a this is what’s coming, and one of the things that was coming was (in the leaks) that Saudi Arabia is still the major source of financing–now, it didn’t say the government–

WILKERSON: For Al-Qaeda.

JAY: –for Al-Qaeda type forces. Now, the next day, Saudi Arabia is now the great ally who sees Iran as a threat to the region, but I don’t see any focus now on, hang on here, how come King Abdullah, you’re not doing something about the people in your kingdom–assuming it’s not you–who are funding Al-Qaeda.

WILKERSON: You always have to count on the Saudis as betting on more than one horse.

JAY: And you can see the same game going on in Qatar, where you have CENTCOM–or the headquarters for all the military operations in the Middle East–in Qatar down that street.

WILKERSON: And one of the largest airfields.

JAY: And down this street you have Al Jazeera Arabic releasing bin Laden messages.

WILKERSON: Covering all the bases.

JAY: And in one of these cables they say Qatar is hands-off. Like, everybody, any terrorist that wants to come in or come out–.

WILKERSON: These people are living in a dangerous neighborhood. They know what they are in terms of being autocrats. They know what their wealth means to their lifestyle and everything else. You’ve got to have at least one or two sugar daddies. You’ve got to have the United States. You’ve got to have your own backup for the United States. You’ve got to have an alternative plan. You’ve got to have an off ramp. And I don’t blame them for being that way. I blame us for taking one of those perceptions and gluing it to the wall and making our foreign policy correspond with it, when we know that there are three or four different reasons that they’re doing these things. And we need to stay sophisticated and interpret each of those reasons and play those reasons like playing a symphony, rather than just going black and white after one of them that happens to comport with what we believe at the moment.

JAY: Which–meaning Iran.

WILKERSON: Yeah. And that’s what we do all the time. It’s insane. And we simply don’t seem to be capable of what I call exquisite diplomacy anymore.

JAY: Now, in one of our earlier interviews a few months ago, we talked about the aim of US foreign policy. And one of the things that you mentioned, we talked about, is some of it’s just quite banal. Like, a lot of it is about just people in various places just trying to make money.

WILKERSON: Yeah. It has a commercial aspect to it always, I think. The main reasons that people operate in the world today are not territorial aggrandizement, they’re not I want your kingdom. Their reasons are financial and economic. And I think that’s increasingly the case, whether you’re a democracy or whether you’re the worst dictatorship in the world. Money is what people are after. I’m not sure that hasn’t always been the case to a certain extent, but it certainly is the case today.

JAY: It’s just important because it’s still–the positioning on Iran is they are a threat to our safety. The war on terrorism is about defending a threat to our safety. And it’s not that there’s no threat to safety. There must be some. But this isn’t so much about safety or bringing freedom and democracy.

WILKERSON: You’re too young to remember Smedley Butler, Marine general who spent his lifetime in the Caribbean. And he went before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Marine two star general, and he essentially said, I never went to war, I never fixed a bayonet, I never loaded my rifle for anything but commercial interests.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Larry.


JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And let me just suggest, we have–I don’t know if you call it a commercial interest, but we do have a donate button there and there. If we’re going to keep doing this, you need to help us by doing that.

End of Transcript

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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.