Today in a long interview session with a number of Associated Press correspondents, former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson offered important commentary on the White House’s role in establishing a permissive environment that led to detainee abuse and torture.
This from a breaking AP report by Anne Gearan, which has just hit the wires:
A top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that wrongheaded ideas for the handling of foreign detainees arose from White House and Pentagon officials who argued that “the president of the United States is all-powerful” and the Geneva Conventions irrelevant.
In an Associated Press interview, former Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson also said President Bush was “too aloof, too distant from the details” of postwar planning. Underlings exploited Bush’s detachment and made poor decisions, Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson blamed Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and likeminded aides. He said 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.”
On the question of detainees picked up in Afghanistan and other fronts in 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 support for the Iraq war.
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 Condoleezza Rice, who was then national security adviser, 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 said Bush tried to work out a compromise in 2001 and 2002 that recognized that the war on terrorism was different from past wars and required greater flexibility in handling prisoners who don’t belong to an enemy state or follow the rules themselves.
Bush’s stated policy, which was heatedly criticized by civil liberties and legal groups at the time, was defensible, Wilkerson said. But it was undermined almost immediately in practice, he said.
In the field, the United States followed the policies of hardliners who wanted essentially unchecked ability to detain and harshly interrogate prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, Wilkerson said.
Read the rest.
Lawrence Wilkerson is a powerful critic of the administration — not only because of his proximity to then Secretary of State Colin Powell — but also because he was diligent about keeping records of interactions with and directives from the White House on the subject of prisoner treatment.
— Steve Clemons