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Larry Wilkerson and Paul Jay discuss whether empire abroad requires brutal methods and eroding rights at home

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

The report on torture conducted by the CIA that was carried out by the Senate committee has caused a great deal of controversy.

Now joining us to talk about all of that is Larry Wilkerson.

Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So there’s kind of two parts of this question for me, which is–one is, first of all, why did the Senate get so up in arms about all this after rubberstamping the CIA for so long? Why now? Well, let’s start with that, because my part two is actually a defense of the CIA. I want to defend the CIA. But I’ll do that as–first you answer the first part.

WILKERSON: I think there are a number of reasons, but the two most important ones in my mind–and I think most would agree with me on this, most who understand this issue–is that first of all the Senate Select Committee and the House Select Committee, the two intelligence oversight committees that were formed as a result of the Pike and the Church commissions earlier in the ’70s, didn’t get the truth.

Now, in some cases, Republicans mostly, I would suspect, my political party, they didn’t want the truth, so they didn’t ask the right questions. In other cases, the CIA actually lied to them. That’s the CIA’s business. They’re the most accomplished liars in the world. That’s their business. They didn’t tell them what’s in this report. They just told them they were using enhanced interrogation techniques and so forth.

JAY: Well, it’s–what do they call it? Giving you plausible deniability.

WILKERSON: Plausible deniability.

JAY: Which they did. They gave them that.

WILKERSON: Second, and perhaps more disturbing (if that’s not disturbing enough, government agency lying to the Congress and its oversight committees), the CIA–I have to be very careful what I say here–the CIA had a mission that it botched, it botched horribly. It’s as bad as the fact that they tortured, in many respects. When you talk about the institution, you talk about what they did post-9/11, you talk about what they were designed to do in the 1947 National Security Act, what Truman and the Congress at that time thought they were creating and so forth, they have come to a pinnacle of incompetence, a pinnacle of being detrimental to the national security of the United States rather than positive. I’m not just talking about torture; I’m talking about all the things that institutionally produced a George Tenet, produced a John McLaughlin, produced a John Brennan, and produced a leadership that led this institution into what we’ve seen reflected only a small portion of in this sissy report. Those two things, I think, meant you had to reveal this, you had to put this out.

Now, you can go on and say there was political motivation, that it didn’t get a majority of the Republicans–if it got any other than John McCain. And there’s probably some validity to that. But when Dianne Feinstein took the floor of the Senate–and I rolled my car off to the side of Highway 95 to listen to her speak because I couldn’t believe what she was saying–I regained a little modicum of faith in the United States governmental system when I listened to her. I don’t care why she was on that floor; she said the truth: you cannot let this happen in a democratic federal republic without doing something about it. And if all we do is reveal it in this heavily redacted report, that’s not enough, I will admit, but it’s a start.

JAY: Okay. Here’s my defense of the CIA. I was going to do this as a commentary for your end, but we’re running out of time, so I’m going to do it here. If you can apologize, cover up, defend an illegal war that killed perhaps a million people–a crime, I think, of far greater scale than any of the torturing–if you can conduct a foreign policy that allows that–and I’m talking now both Republicans and Democrats, ’cause since President Obama has been in office, not only did he not charge Bush-Cheney with conducting an illegal war, but he’s a bit apologizing for the war ever since, even really defending it–then how can you talk about the hypocrisy or the practice of the CIA? That’s even on a smaller scale. What else does one expect? If you’re going to have a foreign policy rooted that we’re going to dominate the world, if you’re going to have foreign policy rooted in we need to be the global empire, then you’d better be willing to have atrocities committed by your security services and give up your constitutional rights at home, ’cause they don’t go together.


JAY: ‘Cause you’re going to get blowback. That’s why.

WILKERSON: From 1950 to 1960, basically under the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower, we were arguably the most successful economic machine in the history of the world. We had a security and a–.

JAY: Yeah, but you had a kind of nice table set for you with all the major economies in the world destroyed after World War II.

WILKERSON: No question. All it requires then is better leadership today.

JAY: No, not–.

WILKERSON: Are you saying that the dominion of the United States is necessarily negative?

JAY: Yeah.

WILKERSON: I’m saying that the dominion of the United States–economically, financially, name your poison–is not necessarily negative.

JAY: For Americans.

WILKERSON: It could be positive.

JAY: For Americans.

WILKERSON: No, for the globe.

JAY: Oh, no.

WILKERSON: It could be positive.

JAY: Well–.

WILKERSON: If it were enlightened leadership–,

JAY: If wishes were horses. If wishes were horses.

WILKERSON: –it could be positive.

Well, I would submit to you that it has been positive from time to time under enlightened leadership.

JAY: I will give you a few moments of that, yeah, but–.

WILKERSON: And to say that you need an instrumentality like the CIA to be evil is to say you don’t care about your republic.

JAY: When was the instrumentality of the CIA not evil? When were these–.

WILKERSON: When it was doing what its job was institutionally designed to be.

JAY: Oh, come on. Organizing coups, organizing coups in Chile, organizing coups in Iran.

WILKERSON: No, no, no. No. You’re missing 50 percent or better of the CIA’s mission. The designed mission of the CIA–

JAY: I’m not talking about the analytical part. I’m–.

WILKERSON: –was strategic intelligence.

JAY: I’m talking about the operations part.

WILKERSON: That’s not even in the 1947 act.

JAY: Okay, but it’s certainly in the real–

WILKERSON: It was created.

JAY: –it’s certainly in real life, in real practice,–

WILKERSON: It was created.

JAY: –from Mosaddegh in Iran to Lumumba in the Congo. Go on and on and on. This is what the operations–.

WILKERSON: I will readily admit, if I were going to disestablish a portion of the CIA, that would be the first one, covert operations.

JAY: Yeah, but then you would have to start thinking about giving up being the world dominant player.

WILKERSON: No, you wouldn’t. No, you wouldn’t.

JAY: Well, we haven’t seen it.

WILKERSON: Why does the world’s dominant player have to overthrow the governments in other countries? Why?

JAY: Well, we haven’t seen it otherwise with this dominant player. They want to control the outcomes of all societies.

WILKERSON: Well, that’s a different proposition altogether. That’s not a democratic federal republic.

JAY: Okay. Well, that’s–a lot of people argue, including the libertarians, who are consistent, argue you can’t have both, you can’t be empire and democratic republic. You’ve got to choose one.

WILKERSON: I think you’re probably right if you’re talking about an empire in the historical terms of empire, that is, territorial aggrandizement and so forth and so on. If you’re talking about an empire of ideas, if you’re talking about an empire of intellectual concepts like Jefferson was talking about, like Washington envisioned–and he did. Washington was more prescient than Jefferson, Franklin. He might not have been that articulate, but he was more prescient, if you read his letters. Envisioning an empire of enlightenment, an empire of rationality, an empire of freedom and liberty, is very different from envisioning an empire of commercial or trade or territory or whatever.

JAY: Okay. But I’m talking about–

WILKERSON: We’ve just bastardized those ideas in the process.

JAY: Okay. Well, then, I’m talking about that. I’m not talking about your model. I’m talking about the actual practice of empire since World War II, which starts with the bombing of–

WILKERSON: Let’s look at your institution for a minute, the CIA.

JAY: –let me–bombing of Japan with nuclear weapons. Let’s start from there, ’cause from that point on–.

WILKERSON: Well, let’s just look. Let’s go right back down on the nitty-gritty here with your institution, the Central Intelligence Agency. There are lots of people who work at the Central Intelligence Agency, and at the National Security Agency and so forth. I would submit to you that my experience in government, now spanning almost 40 years, indicates to me quite solidly that 80 percent of the people at work there are decent, reputable, truthful, trustworthy citizens.

JAY: I have no reason to doubt what you’re saying is true.

WILKERSON: The fact that leaders like George Tenet and John McLaughlin and John Brennan and a host of others you could name and I could name corrupt the institutions they lead is not a reason to condemn those institutions.

JAY: Well, I’m not–my point wasn’t about condemning the institution. I started this off with a defense of the CIA.

WILKERSON: I know. You’re doing a Colbert well.

JAY: No, no, no. I mean it in this sense, that it’s like policeman. Policeman aren’t–there’s terrible violence of police against ordinary people in Baltimore, where we’re located. There’s been many killings of ordinary people. And, yes, individual policeman might be racist. But the real problem is the institution of the police is to be a buffer between people that own stuff and people that don’t. So institutionally they have to enforce laws that reinforce a whole set of social relationships that lead to chronic poverty.

WILKERSON: Social relationships that were enshrined in our constitution, as a matter fact.

JAY: Absolutely, ’cause they did defend property first and foremost. Okay. Same thing on the international scale. I mean, I’m not talking about a hypothetical model. The real practice of the American empire over the–.

WILKERSON: If I lift that up, am I going to find Karl Marx’s Manifesto?

JAY: No. You could actually probably find Ron Paul’s manifesto too, if you want.

WILKERSON: Might at that.

JAY: You might at that.

The practice has been–and you–actually, I’m quoting Larry Wilkerson, because you go back to the interviews that we’re now going to post right next to this one, which was my early series–in fact, the first time we met, we did, like, a seven, eight part series where Larry Wilkerson told me American foreign policy is about commercial advantage. It’s banal. It’s about profit. It’s about making money. And if your empire is about that and then you have to assert military power to reinforce that commercial advantage–.

WILKERSON: What’s wrong with making money, though, if you share that money equitably with those from which you extract it?

JAY: Nothing. It’s just that isn’t what’s happening.


JAY: Okay.

WILKERSON: I agree. So the empire has gone haywire. We destroyed our own middle class. That’s how haywire we’ve gone.

JAY: So what I’m getting at–yes, I agree with that. So what I’m getting at is, with all the emphasis either on police locally or the emphasis on the abuses of the CIA–and, of course, they’re abuses and they’re illegal and so on. But what we’re asking of them institutionally is the real crime.

WILKERSON: Is the corrupting factor. I don’t necessarily disagree with that. I don’t. The policy objectives we set before them–

JAY: (Did you hear that, Karl?)

WILKERSON: –often corrupt them. Yes.

JAY: And the same thing in terms of domestic issues, like, in terms of people giving up civil rights. I mean, the whole rubric for the NDAA, where the army can start arresting anybody accused of terrorism and throw them in jail without trial, the whole rubric for the Patriot Act, and all these things that are undoing any real sense of constitutional rights is this blowback as a result of U.S. foreign policy. And I’m not saying it’s not real. I mean, there was a real blowback. And, frankly, what else are you going to do if you’re over there? It’s the only way you could actually fight back. So this asymmetrical kind of terrorist attack on the United States–.

WILKERSON: Is clearly understandable. It’s clearly understandable, even if it’s exercised by someone like a thug, Zarqawi in Iraq, or by someone who’s a little, maybe, above being a thug, an ascetic like bin Laden, or anyone you could throw out and say, look, that person has a gripe and there’s no way that person can exercise that gripe in a political world, a calm political world of nonviolence; therefore they’ve got to be violent. Absolutely. I understand why blacks–biggest question in my mind about blacks in America, Paul, is why they haven’t risen up and killed us all.

JAY: It’s hard to follow that. In fact, I had such a good line ready, and now I can’t think of it.

My major point is this: don’t–and I’m talking to the people in Congress who voted for the Iraq War Resolution; I’m talking for people even like President Obama that was opposed to the war and then defends that war–don’t try so many tears about the torture when you’re defending the death of maybe a million people killed in a war that was illegal. That’s–.

WILKERSON: You’ve got me there. I can’t argue with that, except to say that we aren’t not going to do about the torture, so what about the bigger issues?

JAY: Yeah, that’s the real question. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: And thank you for joining us 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.