Published November 29, 2005
WASHINGTON – Former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff says President Bush was "too aloof, too distant from the details" of post-war planning, allowing underlings to exploit Bush's detachment and make bad decisions.
In an Associated Press interview Monday, former Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson also said that wrongheaded ideas for the handling of foreign detainees after Sept. 11 arose from a coterie of White House and Pentagon aides who argued that "the president of the United States is all-powerful," and that the Geneva Conventions were irrelevant.
Wilkerson blamed Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and like-minded aides. Wilkerson said that Cheney must have sincerely believed that Iraq could be a spawning ground for new terror assaults, because "otherwise I have to declare him a moron, an idiot or a nefarious bastard."
Wilkerson suggested his former boss may agree with him that Bush was too hands-off about Iraq.
"What he seems to be saying to me now is the president failed to discipline the process the way he should have and that the president is ultimately responsible for this whole mess," Wilkerson said.
He said Powell now generally believes it was a good idea to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but may not agree with either the timing or execution of the war. Wilkerson said Powell may have had doubts about the extent of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein but was convinced by then-CIA Director George Tenet and others that the intelligence girding the push toward war was sound.
Powell was widely regarded as a dove to Cheney's and Rumsfeld's hawks, but he made a forceful case for war before the United Nations Security Council in February, 2003, a month before the invasion. At one point, he said Saddam possessed mobile labs to make weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
Wilkerson criticized the CIA and other agencies for allowing mishandled and bogus information to underpin that speech and the whole administration case for war.
He said he has almost, but not quite, concluded that Cheney and others in the administration deliberately ignored evidence of bad intelligence and looked only at what supported their case for war.
A newly declassified Defense Intelligence Agency document from February 2002 said that an Al Qaeda military instructor was probably misleading his interrogators about training that the terror group's members received from Iraq on chemical, biological and radiological weapons. Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi reportedly recanted his statements in January 2004.
A presidential intelligence commission also dissected how spy agencies handled an Iraqi refugee who was a German intelligence source. Codenamed Curveball, this man who was a leading source on Iraq's purported mobile biological weapons labs was found to be a fabricator and alcoholic.
On the question of detainees picked up in Afghanistan and other fronts on the war on terror, Wilkerson said Bush heard two sides of an impassioned argument within his administration. Abuse of prisoners, and even the deaths of some who had been interrogated in Afghanistan and elsewhere, have bruised the U.S. image abroad and undermined fragile support for the Iraq war that followed.
Cheney's office, Rumsfeld aides and others argued "that the president of the United States is all-powerful, that as commander in chief the president of the United States can do anything he damn well pleases," Wilkerson said.
On the other side were Powell, others at the State Department and top military brass, and occasionally then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Wilkerson said.
Powell raised frequent and loud objections, his former aide said, once yelling into a telephone at Rumsfeld: "Donald, don't you understand what you are doing to our image?"
Wilkerson also said he did not disclose to Bob Woodward that administration critic Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, joining the growing list of past and current Bush administration officials who have denied being the Washington Post reporter's source.