Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff, on Bush Admin 9/11 responsibility
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Nine years ago the 9/11 events took place, helped lead to the war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq. And millions of people around the world don’t believe they know the real story. Now helping us to analyze this is Lawrence Wilkerson. He was Colin Powell’s chief of staff, now teaches at a couple of universities here in Washington. Thanks for joining us, Larry.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Good to be here.
JAY: So do you think we know the real story of 9/11? Did the 9/11 Commission get to the truth?
WILKERSON: I don’t think so. I don’t think commissions like this, by their very nature, get to the truth, not even, say, 60 percent of the truth. The Warren Commission investigating President Kennedy’s assassination, for example, was in my view a whitewash. I can’t say that about the 9/11 Commission yet, ’cause the research is not all done. But the political power that looms over such commissions prohibits their—except by serendipity, and that rarely exists—getting to the complete truth.
JAY: We’ll have to talk about the Warren Commission in a separate segment, and I think we should, because I think it’s important that there are precedents for what an administration is capable of doing. A lot of the speculation around the 9/11 events was that the Bush administration either deliberately ignored intelligence that something was coming. We know Condoleezza Rice sits down and reads a memo saying Osama bin Laden plans to attack inside the United States, and seems to have done next to nothing after reading the memo. But what do you think are the big unanswered questions?
WILKERSON: I think there are some huge unanswered questions with regard to the culpability, the negligence of the administration—and I use those terms very carefully. I would use those terms to a certain extent about Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, but I have to temper them with FDR, because FDR took decisive action. He reprimanded the—he set up the various commissions. He reprimanded the general and the admiral who were in charge in Honolulu. You can argue about whether he got the right people or not, but he was seen as taking decisive action. Same thing with JFK, John Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He fired the most powerful man, probably, in the intelligence business, Allen Dulles, and others responsible for that operation. George W. Bush did nothing. He did not fire a single, solitary soul that I’m aware of. He kept everyone there. And more people died as a result of 9/11 than as a result of Pearl Harbor. I think it was 3,000 or so and 2,400 or so. Not that that’s any measure, but in terms of disaster, 9/11, certainly for the American psyche, if not for its institutional fabric, was as bad as Pearl Harbor, and yet President Bush took no action.
JAY: Now, some of the people who have raised some of the bigger questions about 9/11 point to Pearl Harbor, meaning there’s a document a lot of people are aware of called Project for a New American Century, which a lot of the neocons are authors of, and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.
WILKERSON: Richard Armitage even signed that document.
JAY: And I believe Cheney is either on the document or around it. And in the document, it’s the vision for a new American foreign policy, which essentially is the projection of post-Soviet empire: we’re now the empire, so let’s project our power and make—.
WILKERSON: And one of our principal missions is protecting Israel.
JAY: And they say, at one point in the document, to accomplish this new world we’ll probably need another Pearl Harbor. So a lot of people have talked about 9/11 as being their other Pearl Harbor. And the question people raise is: do they know something’s coming and let it happen? First of all, do you think it’s even possible that they could form such an intent?
WILKERSON: I don’t think anyone could have pinpointed Pearl Harbor and said with 90 percent and even firmness in their own belief that the Japanese would attack there. I don’t think anyone could have done that about 9/11, either. They could have said airplanes may be used. They could have said it’s going to be a target in the United States, as I believe George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence did say. They could say that traffic has increased enormously amongst the most likely group to do this, and we think it’s aimed at us, as, again, Tenet said, I think. They could say any number of things. But until they come up with a target, a location, a name, even, Timothy McVeigh is going to hit the federal building in Oklahoma City or whatever, it’s very difficult to get the United States government seized of a specificity that will allow it to act.
JAY: But there’s things that suggest that they didn’t want to know, at the very least. For example, the demotion of Richard Clarke from a cabinet-level position, Richard Clarke being the antiterrorism czar under Clinton, gets demoted after Bush comes to power. But this is after he’s given a memo to Condoleezza Rice saying al-Qaeda is your critical threat you need to face. They’re inaugurated at the beginning of January. Clarke sends this memo. It more or less gets buried. There’s other evidence that other people try to support that same position at the National Security Council or meetings of the main security agencies and are literally not invited back to the meetings because they’re apparently told they tell the administration, well, yes, al-Qaeda, something’s coming, you need to deal with it. You have the FBI office in Minneapolis find someone taking flight lessons to take off and not wanting to know how to land, etc., and the FBI closes down the investigation. There’s a whole culture throughout the security apparatus that we’re not interested in any of this.
WILKERSON: All this looks so clean now in retrospect because all the background noise is gone, and believe me, after 40 years in government, I know the background noise is pretty constant and pretty high. I would say a number of things, though. One, I would say the demotion of Dick Clarke is more or less a president’s prerogative, but it does show that he’s showing everyone his priorities. For example, he didn’t just demote Dick Clarke; he demoted John Negroponte, too, because Bill Clinton had moved Madeleine Albright up to—when she was ambassador, to the status of cabinet level for her ambassadorship to the UN. Bush was saying, I am demoting the UN in my priorities by moving Mr. Negroponte down to just a regular ambassador. He did the same thing with Dick Clarke. It was not necessarily saying, I’m disregarding you; it was saying, I’m not prioritizing you as high as the previous administration did. And we can look back on that and say that was a mistake, and it clearly was.
JAY: How do you come to power not being on the inside of the intelligence briefings? Like, not really inside. I suppose once you’re a candidate for president they start briefing you to some extent, but I’m not sure who does those briefings. But you get into power. Within days, a cabinet-level guy tells you—.
WILKERSON: Look what you had going on. What you had going on, which most Americans do not realize, is you had this move already by decision makers within the government to what we call “see the raw intelligence”. They don’t trust the CIA, they don’t trust the DIA, they don’t trust any of that bureaucracy, because they’ve been burned so many times by that bureaucracy. That’s another issue, the incompetence of our intelligence bureaucracy, now consisting of 17 different entities spending $60 billion plus a year. They don’t trust it, and so they wanted to see the raw intelligence. This predates Bush and Cheney, but it comes to a screaming head, an apotheosis, with Cheney. He becomes his own intelligence interpreter. He reads the raw intelligence every day in his office. So Cheney is becoming quickly the intelligence interpreter for the president of the United States. And Cheney—I can’t prove this, but Cheney seems to have deemphasized almost instantly al-Qaeda and threats that al-Qaeda might present to the United States.
JAY: Based on what?
WILKERSON: Based on his reading of the raw intelligence.
JAY: When his own CIA guy, Tenet, saying Clark’s right, that apparently Tenet’s running around, another guy with his hair on fire. Neither of us would know about that, but—.
WILKERSON: These decision makers are setting themselves up in competition with the intelligence agencies and saying, we don’t trust you to read this raw intelligence, so give us the raw intelligence. When I was on the policy planning staff at State, I was given access to a special compartmented facility—/skIf/, we call it—where I could go in and read the raw intelligence. I refused to do it, because I know from being a military man what the raw intelligence is. It’s bull. If you don’t have an expert there to put it all together, to discard the chaff, to pick out the wheat, to correlate it and organize it and connect the dots, it’s ridiculous. That’s how they’ve built up the stories of al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, the stories of WMD and so forth and so on in Iraq. They built it up by selectively taking these little bits of intelligence out of the raw data and making them look as if they were professional intelligence.
JAY: Why do you do this? Why do you, within days of coming into power, discount what the head of CIA is saying, your counterterrorism czar is saying?
WILKERSON: Because you have other priorities.
JAY: ‘Cause you have an agenda.
WILKERSON: You have other priorities and you have an agenda, yeah, if you want to put it that way, yes. Their priorities were—.
WILKERSON: No. Their priorities initially were to abrogate the ABM Treaty [Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty] and to build ballistic missile defense. That’s their foreign priority. Their domestic priorities were sort of education, which Bush got right into big-time, and Bush had that portfolio. Cheney had the national security portfolio. Lowering taxes—and both the president and the vice president had that one, but that was because the president screwed part of it up. The vice president took it over so he’d make sure he got his capital gains cuts and so forth built into the package. But they had these priorities, and that’s what they were after. They were not after al-Qaeda. They were not even after what I would call traditional national security threats. They were after what they thought—ballistic missiles fired by rogue nations, for example—were the real threats to this country.
JAY: Do you think it’s possible they conformed the intent that something may be coming, maybe Clarke’s onto something, maybe the CIA knows something, and maybe we don’t want to do anything about it?
WILKERSON: If I thought that they had deliberately done that with malice of forethought, I don’t—you know, I’m not sure I’d still be living in this country. I do not think that anyone in this group of characters—and they are a rogue’s gallery in many respects. David Addington, Scooter Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, they are a rogue’s gallery. But I do not think that they did anything that they did without believing, at least part of the time, that it was in the national interests of their country. They were dead wrong, often.
JAY: Condoleezza Rice tells the 9/11 Commission that after reading a memo that says Osama bin Laden plans to attack inside the United States—.
WILKERSON: But where?
JAY: Hold on. She claims that she then speaks to the FBI and gets them to task 56 FBI offices to be on the alert for terrorist activity in the United States. The 9/11 Commission lawyers and investigators get in touch with the 56 FBI offices, and it turns out, if my memory serves me correctly, two actually had something mentioned to them, 54 had said they had never been put on alert. How do you read a memo like that and not at the very least alert the FAA and the FBI that we have a memo that there’s credible intelligence that something might be coming?
WILKERSON: Let’s examine the bureaucracy here now. Dr. Rice, as national security advisor, does not talk to FBI agents; she talks to the director of the Bureau. That’s the only person she talks to (if he’s not available, perhaps the deputy or one of the deputies). So Dr. Rice told the director of the FBI bureau, and the FBI director told someone else, who told someone else, who told someone else, or failed to tell someone else. So we just don’t understand the gargantuan spider-like nature of the US bureaucracy now. We have so many people working in government that it is astonishing that we get anything done. As David Rothkopf has said very truthfully in his book Running the World, it is amazing how dysfunctional the United States government is. I can testify to that in spades. I’m not trying to excuse them; I’m just saying that Dr. Rice doesn’t talk to individual FBI agents.
JAY: We understand that, but it was very unclear, because the head of the FBI, in front of the 9/11 Commission, was very ambiguous whether Rice had actually ever given him these instructions, ’cause he was confronted with this.
WILKERSON: In the same way my boss, Secretary Powell, was somewhat ambiguous and others were ambiguous. I helped build Condi Rice’s testimony to the 9/11 Commission with her principal writer, John Bellinger, her lawyer at the time. And I will tell you that there were two occasions in my four years at the State Department that I felt so disgusted that I almost resigned, and I feel, when I think about them today, still disgusted with myself for not resigning. One of them was when I helped Powell prepare himself to testify before the 9/11 Commission and thus got insight into what the administration was doing with the information. And the other was when we presented, at the UN Security Council in February 2003, the Powell presentation that said Saddam Hussein had failed to disarm and still had WMD.
JAY: Rice says about that memo in front of the 9/11 Commission that this was about some historical events, when clearly, if you—once the memo got released, ’cause I think at the time of the actual—her testimony, the memo itself hadn’t gone public yet. It did later. When you read the memo, it’s clearly about a predicted, possible threat. It’s not a historical document. It’s a straightforward lie.
WILKERSON: Well, I can’t sit here and tell you that I didn’t see information in the presentations that both my boss and the national security advisor, Dr. Rice, gave to the 9/11 Commission that, since I had foreknowledge of that information, and background information, too, wasn’t close to a lie. I wouldn’t say that we actually told an outright lie, but I would say we massaged the information considerably, so that it looked like the Bush administration was far more attentive to al-Qaeda and its threat pre-9/11 than it really was.
JAY: There’s a great reluctance, certainly, in the American media and the American political class to suggest motives that there may have been an actual intent not to stop something that might be coming. But if you go back to the Johnson-Nixon relationship during the negotiations with the North Vietnamese, Johnson we now have on tape—’cause they’ve been released by the Johnson archives—Johnson accuses Nixon of treason.
LYNDON JOHNSON, US PRESIDENT: Some of our folks, including some of the old China lobby, are going to the Vietnamese Embassy and saying, please notify the president that if you’ll hold out till November 2, they could get a better deal. Now, I’m reading their hand, Everett. I don’t want to get this in the campaign.
EVERETT DIRKSEN, US SENATOR (R-IL): That’s right.
JOHNSON: And they oughtn’t to be doing this. This is treason.
JAY: We know Richard Nixon, unless Johnson’s lying, and there’s no reason [inaudible]
WILKERSON: Which I would not—you know, after—I just finished reading Gordon Goldstein’s book on McGeorge Bundy, Lessons in Disaster. And Lyndon Johnson was a great man in many respects, but telling the truth all the time was not one of them.
JAY: But he’s talking to Dirksen, who’s a Republican, and Dirksen’s—he says to Dirksen, this is traitorous activity, and Dirksen says, yes, I know. Dirksen doesn’t deny Nixon’s doing this stuff, and he’s Nixon’s majority, I believe, head of the Senate at the time, majority leader in the Senate. So we know this kind of intent can be formed. And I guess what I’m getting at, are we not left with enough profound questions about all of this—and we started this interview by you saying the 9/11 Commission didn’t really get to it, that should there not still be an independent inquiry about what really happened, given how much 9/11 helped shape the events and what came afterwards?
WILKERSON: You know, theoretically I could say yes, but practically I have to say, what good would it do? Because ultimately the people who will have to implement the recommendations, whether they be punitive in nature or whether they be ameliorative in nature, of that commission or whatever, are the same people who are in the government now, and they’re not going to do it, or they’re going to do it in a perfunctory way.
JAY: Doesn’t it—don’t Americans need to understand, in order to understand their political elite and what they do and what they’re capable of?
WILKERSON: That’s a different matter, and it’s one reason I teach. I try to teach my young people that they don’t know their leadership. They don’t know their democratic republic anymore, if indeed it is a democratic republic anymore. I try to teach them that the people in the White House are not the best people in the world. They’re not on some pedestal. Often our presidents are middle intellect, if that, and that what we’re dealing with is increasingly a leadership that is disconnected from the American people and makes increasingly bad decisions, and that they need to be aware of that, and that the only way to change that is to get more and more good, high-intellect, highly capable people, young, interested in government and into government. So I’m agreeing with you that we have a lot of people in the Congress and a lot of people in the White House who have almost no bona fides for being there.
JAY: In my point of view it remains a very important question in two ways. Number one, people who at the very best may have been negligent—and at a level of criminal negligence is one possible interpretation.
WILKERSON: It’s difficult for me to find criminality in this, just as it is with Donald Rumsfeld. I mean, Donald Rumsfeld made some egregious mistakes. One of the biggest ones was promulgating a policy throughout the ranks that essentially amounted, at the private level, to carte blanche to torture. But I don’t believe Donald Rumsfeld understood, at the very pinnacle he was sitting at, what he was doing as he sent that instruction out through the ranks. I mean, his postscript on that December 2002 (I think it was) memo, where he wrote, I stand for, you know, eight hours a day; what’s wrong with him standing? Infamous comment, but very revealing, I think. The man simply didn’t know what he was about. He didn’t know what he was talking about.
JAY: But go back to the testimony. You said you helped to shape Rice’s testimony for the 9/11 Commission.
WILKERSON: M’hm, so that hers and Powell’s would not be contradictory, in essence.
JAY: The statements, for example, of the—tasking the FBI offices, which turns out apparently not to be true, the ability to read this memo and say it’s a historical take on something when clearly that wasn’t the case, the—.
WILKERSON: Dr. Rice has made some egregious statements since, too, with regard to her culpability in this. And I must say that unlike President Bush, who stayed quiet, which I applaud, and Dick Cheney, who’s been vocal until his recent bout looking for a new heart, Dr. Rice has only occasionally spoken out, but when she has, I’ve bit my tongue, bit my cheek, winced. She has a categorical way of denying any responsibility for some of the things that she clearly had responsibility vis-à-vis, and I find that very disturbing in a person who’s been national security advisor of the United States. In this book I was just telling you about, for example, McGeorge Bundy is having an epiphany, finally, and admitting about the mistakes he made in ’64 and ’65 when he was advising LBJ to go, go, go for Vietnam, increase the troops and so forth, when he knew, and he admits in this book, and he quotes, he knew there was no military purpose for it. It was a preposterous purpose to demonstrate American commitment. Even if we lose, he says, we will have demonstrated our commitment [inaudible] 58,000 names on that black wall over there that I go visit every November.
JAY: And another example of what’s possible, if not directly from the president, those around him, because the Gulf of Tonkin incident we now know was more or less a fabricated false flag operation.
WILKERSON: Yeah. And great insight here, I think, and it comes from others, like Andrew Preston’s book War Council and elsewhere, but Johnson’s political instincts tell him that he can make hay with the Tonkin Gulf incident with the Congress, which is where he came from. He knows the Congress, especially the Senate. And so even advice to the contrary to the president at this time—don’t exploit the Tonkin Gulf incident—is disregarded by Johnson, because he sees it as a wonderful political opportunity.
JAY: We know Gulf of Tonkin was a false flag operation to help instigate or draw Johnson into the war.
WILKERSON: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. I would characterize it as an incident that happened, the reporting was bad (subsequent reporting, by the way, cleared it up), and as the bad reporting came in, there were people, including the president, who said, A-ha, I know how to use that.
WILKERSON: Yeah. It recently happened in Iran. Remember just a few years ago when we had the incident right south of the Persian Gulf, where the Iranians were supposed to have done something, and a Navy skipper reported that they were doing it, and so forth? It turned out to be nothing, but by the time it got to Washington, it was exploited by everybody and sundry. You know, oh, the Iranians are attacking, the Iranians are attacking. I’m sure this Navy skipper down there, when he found out the truth, was going, oh my God, what have I done? You’ve got to be careful what you report from a battlefield.
JAY: So let’s go back to this issue of an independent inquiry, why it would still be useful. If, first of all, millions of Americans have these type of questions in their minds—and some go much further, as we know. There’s people that are even talking about the possibility of—.
WILKERSON: There are always conspiracy theories.
JAY: And sometimes there are conspiracies.
WILKERSON: Yes, sometimes even paranoids are right.
JAY: Yeah. All the engineering questions in the buildings, I mean, I personally don’t know what to make of any of this. I’m not an engineer.
WILKERSON: I don’t, either.
JAY: But what is a fact is there are millions of Americans that have these type of questions, which is interesting as a thing in itself that they do. There’s many, many more that have the questions about whether this was somehow an issue of intent rather than negligence in terms of not stopping things. Gordon Thomas, who wrote the book, I think it’s called Israel’s Secret Army, which is the history of the Mossad, he’s reported that Mossad had infiltrated an al-Qaeda cell in the United States that was involved in the 9/11 conspiracy. He says that Mossad tried to tell the CIA and FBI what they knew, and all they got back was, what the hell were you doing operating in our country? So they went and told—I believe it was France and Egypt, and asked them to tell the CIA. Nobody wanted to hear it.
WILKERSON: I certainly don’t know if that’s true, but it really rings true with regard to our bureaucracy.
JAY: Example after example after example, which is either incredible negligence, the result of a horrible bureaucracy, or a deliberate attempt to create a culture, which starts with the demotion of Richard Clarke and other types of such events that make it right into the FBI, but they don’t even want to hear what Minneapolis bureau has found, this—a culture of we want to shut down this conversation about terrorism.
WILKERSON: A president and a vice president have to be very careful about what they say, especially if they’re in a large, formal National Security Council meeting, or even a small meeting with extra people attending, because what they say is taken as gospel. And if they are interpreted as having these priorities and not these priorities, then these priorities will wither. If people—.
JAY: And they know that.
WILKERSON: Well, I can’t say that—
JAY: The people in power know that.
WILKERSON: —about George W. Bush. I certainly can say that about Dick Cheney.
JAY: But Dick Cheney, as you’ve said many times, we were dealing with the presidency of Dick Cheney more than George Bush in those first few years.
WILKERSON: It’s 2006, I think, before George Bush gets his feet on the ground. That’s a long time. But I just said we don’t make intellectual giants presidents anymore. Cheney certainly should have known that if he deemphasized this, he was going to, you know, put it out of the ken of most of the agencies and departments, because you can only focus on so many things.
JAY: Do not Americans need to know whether or not this was negligence, or something more than negligence, simply myopia, like we have this agenda and not this? Or is there more to it? Is there any way to—isn’t this of such historical importance? And also, in terms of the responsibilities of the Obama administration, a new administration comes into power, so many issues of accountability of the previous administration, and nothing—and not only that, George Bush not much longer gets appointed to go become the savior of Haiti with Bill Clinton. He becomes canonized now.
WILKERSON: There is a major inhibition to investigating the previous administration, and it’s very human, and it’s very bureaucratic, but it exists and it is powerful, and that is simply that if I do it to them, they’ll do it to me, and it doesn’t get done. Now, there are other reasons, too. I mean, President Obama has expressed some of these reasons: I want to move on; I don’t want to spend the energy and money and what I do have in capital on something that’s in the past; what’s in the past is in the past; let’s move on; let’s look at the present and future. That’s very American, by the way. That’s the reason we’re lousy strategists. We’re great tacticians, but we’re lousy strategists. We don’t do strategy at all. We go from day to day, and our democracy muddles through those days. And because we’ve had so much power since 1945 [inaudible] Now that our power is dwindling and other power is rising, we’re going to have to learn to be smart or we’re going to disappear.
JAY: When you are working on this, Rice’s testimony for 9/11 Commission, did it occur to you that you she was hiding something?
WILKERSON: No. What occurred to me was that we were covering our asses, that we were trying, desperately in some instances, to show that we were in fact not culpable, not negligent pre-9/11. I don’t think there was any deliberate culpability or negligence. I think they just had a different set of priorities, and it just turned out, as it did for FDR in ’41 (lesser extent, maybe), that their priorities in one case weren’t right.
JAY: Well, certainly—.
WILKERSON: And I think FDR had his eye on World War II from probably at least 1936, maybe ’35, on. Certainly he had it on it in ’39 when he started creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, when he started building, essentially, an army.
JAY: But we know with the document Project for a New American Century, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and the whole group had their eye on a new world order and an Iraq War.
WILKERSON: I’m not so sure that’s accurate.
JAY: And whether it’s deliberate—. Well, it’s in the document.
WILKERSON: They had their—no. They had their eye on regime change. And it could be done by clandestine force, as well as by overt force. And the Clinton administration, I think, bought the clandestine force angle, didn’t buy the overt force angle, but never really actualized the covert [inaudible]
JAY: But the idea that within days of 9/11 the Bush administration was already talking about Iraq.
WILKERSON: It gave them the opportunity. It gave them the opportunity to do what they were going to do anyway a lot faster.
JAY: So in the final analysis what do you think? Does there need to be an independent inquiry to find out about all of [inaudible]
WILKERSON: Well, I’m like the president in this instance, for different reasons. I hate to waste such treasure and energy and time on something that’s not going to be acted on or not acted on in any way that’s going to be helpful. If we’re just looking for catharsis—.
JAY: Well, it could be acted on by Americans who can say, we’re not going to vote for this whole gang anymore.
WILKERSON: Oh, au contraire, we don’t have that choice anymore. We get two idiots to vote for every year, whose campaigns say all manner of things, but whose actual actions are not—I’ll quote Ralph Nader here—virtually are not any different from Tom and Jerry. I mean, the two of them are going to do the same thing, because basically what we have today is a corporatocracy: we have the presidents and the Congress in the hands of big food, big pharmacy, big oil, finance, insurance, and real estate. Look at Tim Geithner and Larry Summers. They’re quintessential representatives of those communities. And that’s who runs this country now. The president doesn’t run this country, the secretary of defense and the secretary of state don’t run these people, and God help us, the American people don’t run this country. Big money runs this country.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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