This talk by Larry Wilkerson was the keynote speech given at an event sponsored by the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, American University History Department, American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute on Oct 21,2009 at American University in Washington DC.

Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence describes itself as “a movement of former CIA colleagues and other associates of former intelligence analyst Sam Adams, who hold up his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power”.

Story Transcript

LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. STATE DEPT. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Let me express my appreciation for all of you coming out tonight. It’s late, and we’re on a college campus, and this is really rare to get this many people out.

I spoke at East Tennessee State University not too long ago, and we had 1,200 people in the auditorium. We were talking about the cabal. This was a couple of years ago. And I was really impressed with the students’ interest in what did I mean by a cabal, what did I mean by a national security decision-making process that had been captured by not the president of the United States, as was statutorily intended by the 1947 National Security Act, and by extension the Constitution of the United States of America as it was originally conceived, but by people who were in some cases unelected, not subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.

How about the national security adviser, one of the most powerful people in the American panoply of governance now, not subject to the advice and consent of the Senate and not elected? Wow. Henry Kissinger is co-president, in Bob Dallek’s eloquent phrase in his new book Nixon and Kissinger. And he was. Henry Kissinger was making presidential decisions, particularly toward the end, when Dick Nixon was drinking more than he wasn’t and he was wrapped up in Watergate. If you’ve seen the movie about Frost and Nixon, or better you’ve watched the 13 hours of tape and listened to James Reston talk about it, who was the adviser to David Frost as he went after Nixon, you understand the depth of Nixon’s failure, both personal–that is, character-wise–and decision-making-wise. And so Kissinger stepped in to–began to make decisions, unelected, not subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. This is an extraordinary thing. Kissinger also took two jobs simultaneously: national security adviser and secretary of state. Extraordinary. The American people didn’t even blink. The founding fathers were rolling in their graves, I assure you.

Interestingly, intriguingly, the two men that will take Henry Kissinger out are none other than Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Why? Because Henry Kissinger had decided that the defeat in Vietnam, which Ray gave us some insight into, was so dramatic and had set our prestige back so much, our power was [so] diminished, that we needed détente with the Soviet Union, we needed peaceful coexistence, we needed some room to recover, to recoup, and to recognize the fact that other nations were rising and our power therefore was changing the world. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld didn’t like that at all, and so they were the people who maneuvered Kissinger eventually out of a power position, certainly out of his two positions, and eventually out of the Ford administration. We later got them and their beliefs and their decision-making capabilities and so forth in the White House, and you see what it produced.

I think everyone, even on the extreme right in my party today, recognizes something about /CHEE-nee/–and that is the way they say it in Wyoming. In fact, the town is called /CHEE-nee/–/CHAY-nee/ in our jargon today. They recognized that Cheney was different, if nothing else, the most unprecedentedly powerful vice president in our history–I’ve said in public the most dangerous man in America since Aaron Burr. Joe Biden said the most dangerous man in America, period. I said, um, let’s look at Aaron Burr. After all, Burr wanted to go out west, form an army, and attack Washington, and form his own country, and the only reason he wasn’t convicted of treason was John Marshall hated Thomas Jefferson so much that John Marshall decided that on a technicality Aaron Burr would be let off. So, very dangerous man, in my view.

What’s that got to do with Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq or war in general? Well, it’s got a hell of a lot to do with it. And I’m going to play academic here for a minute. I’m going to take you back to 1947, and I’m going to tell you, in 1947 a constellation of world leaders, and principally US leaders, realized that there had been a massive change in power in the world. And let’s just sum it up simplistically by saying that the United States looked at being not the rather democratic republic it had been for 150-plus years prior, but the new Rome. Now, the founders had their feet in the Roman camp. The founders like the Roman Senate. They like the idea of Cincinnatus. They like the idea of the citizen soldier. After all, Washington was a quintessential Cincinnatus. Had he not been, we wouldn’t be here today, or at least we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in today. He refused power not once but twice, dramatically–actually three times, because he refused to run for a third term when everyone would’ve probably voted for him. So they like that part of Rome.

But I think it’s fair to say Imperial Rome they shied away from. But what we were looking at in 1947 was being Imperial Rome. And so Harry Truman, James Forrestal, James Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Ferdinand Eberstadt, and a host of others tried to design a system, through the ’47 act, essentially, and the precedents set thereafter, principally by Truman and Eisenhower, that would manage this new power without sacrificing what had gotten us to that point in the first place–our civil liberties, our freedom, indeed our entire set of political and cultural values. Until 2000, I would maintain, those presidents had done a fair or a good or a not-so-good but average job of maintaining the tension between those two fundamental sides of us–the past, the present, and future. (That’s three, but I’ll throw the present and the future into one.)

When we get to 2000, we decide that that’s no longer the way we’re going to do things. Let me back up just for a moment and say that in 1961 probably the most capable man to assume the presidency in the 20th century in his farewell address warned us about what was happening with regard to the tension between what we had had and what we had created. I’ll call it the national security state, as Michael Hogan has and others, and I’ll call it a well-governed democratic republic on the other hand. Some have called it the welfare state. That has a pejorative sense. I’ll call it a well-governed democratic republic.

That tension Eisenhower described in his farewell address as having a real sneaking, insidious, powerful problem. It was called the military-industrial (and he wanted to say, but he was advised against it and accepted that advice, congressional) complex. And if you go back and you watch the grainy black-and-white tape of that speech, it is striking, it is stunning, the seriousness with which Eisenhower delivers that message. The military-industrial complex, congressional-military-industrial complex, is not an insidious force out there sneaking up on us and riding down Pennsylvania Avenue to take over Washington, but it is enormous power that is basically unchecked, not overseen adequately; and in particular, since the end of the Cold War, when contractors have moved together and become primes and subs and colluded and monopolistic, it has become a real and constant danger to this country, certainly to the democratic republic that we like to think we are. When war is as profitable as it was for Lockheed Martin, who leads this clan of defense contractors, that your share price goes from about $25-3/4 on March 19, 2003, to a year later about $126, $127 a share, when war is that profitable, you’re going to have more of it, you’re going to have presidents who turn to the war instrument more and more often.

Incidentally, since the end of the Cold War that’s exactly what we’ve done. Some people say it’s because the restraints of the Cold War were released–we no longer have a rival superpower to keep us in check. That’s part of it, but part of it is also the fact that the war instrument is the instrument of choice for presidents of the United States.

Now, that’s a brief, brief summary. Let me tell you where that’s got us right now, and then I’ll come in the back door to Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s got us to bankruptcy. This country is the greatest debtor nation in human history now.

Lawrence Wilkerson

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.