Cheney, 9/11 and The New American Century

Uploaded by TheRealNews on 11.06.2011

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. We're continuing
our series of interviews with Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. Thanks for joining us again, Larry.
So, in December 2000, Colin Powell's appointed the new - is going to be the new secretary
of state. You've already been working for him privately for a few years. So what was
that? And then talk about the conversation about come join me at the State Department.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, we'd been doing all manner of things. He went to observe the
election of Obasango in Nigeria, for example, with Carter, former president Carter. We did
some prep work for that. I was working for him in the DC public schools, did so for about
ten years, as a matter of fact, finding out what the worst failed school system in America
looked like. We'd done a number of sort of off-the-wall things together. And in December,
when it became clear that George W. Bush, due to the Supreme Court decision, was going
to be president, the next president of the United States, it was just sort of assumed
that I would transfer my allegiance from a private one to a public one by moving with
him into the transition office in the State Department. So I think it was 20 December
we went down to the transition office at Foggy Bottom, and I assumed my position there, and
then, later, in February, took the oath and became a member of the policy planning staff
at the State Department.
JAY: So with the beginning of the Bush administration, what's your feelings about President Bush
and Vice President Cheney at the start?
WILKERSON: Well, I'd seen Vice President Cheney as secretary of defense, of course, when Powell
was chairman. For over three years I'd seen - well, four years, I'd seen Cheney as secretary of
defense. And he was a very competent secretary of defense. Next to James Forrestal, I would
probably have pronounced him the best secretary of defense since World War II, since the position
was created. Bush I didn't know anything about at all, except as governor of Texas, and I
knew, having been a resident of Texas at one time, that that was a feckless position. He
didn't do much as governor of Texas. So I had some concern about Bush. Plus one of Powell's
dearest friends had told me, don't go to work for President Bush; he's a jerk; he's a complete
and utter jerk. She refused to come back and go to work for President Bush.
JAY: This is your friend.
WILKERSON: Yeah. She was asked to. I believe she stayed out in Nevada to be chief of staff
to the governor of Nevada at the time.
JAY: And who's this?
WILKERSON: Marybel Batjer. And she based her negative view of Bush on No Child Left Behind
and what she thought he was going to do to the school system, plus other things too.
But I didn't pay any attention to her. I was listening to the siren call of my now, what,
14-year association with Colin Powell.
JAY: Now, were you or Powell concerned about who Cheney had grouped around him? I mean,
you know, Wolfowitz, and you have these -.
WILKERSON: Well, we'd seen these characters before in the George H. W. Bush administration,
and Bush had summed them up quite well: the crazies in the basement of the Pentagon. I
think there were those who thought this was not the best team in the world, perhaps, but
there was no one, including my boss, who didn't think they could handle them, didn't think
they could, you know, run circles around them, ultimately.
JAY: Were you aware that this document, Project for a New American Century - you know the document
now, but were you aware then of the document and what these guys that were grouping around
Cheney had an agenda?
WILKERSON: I was aware of the document, because Rich Armitage, the deputy secretary of state,
had signed the document. I didn't think that the document was anything - well, I thought
it was like most documents that come from think tanks: it sits on the shelf and gathers
dust after it's made money for the people who wrote it or the organization that promoted
it. You don't worry about those things too much. And I think there has been some hype
about how influential it was in influencing the Bush administration to do what it did.
I think it's the other way around. I think the people and the type of people who participated
in that project were the people who influenced the Bush administration from their place in
office, or, like Richard Perle [crosstalk] on the outside.
JAY: Yeah, I think that's the point, that it's an expression of what was in the minds
of the people that came to power.
WILKERSON: And as Powell said to me one time when we were putting together -. We started
out putting together the national security strategy in the State Department policy planning
staff, and then Dr. Rice took it over on the NSC staff. And then we get a version of it
back over. A contractor had written it, as I recall. And we get a version of it. And
we're looking at Section 5, which is the part that everybody looks at. It talks about preemptive
war and so forth. And, you know, there was no real reaction on our part at that time,
because we thought, well, this has always been our policy. Under Article 51 of the UN
Charter you have the right to self-defense. If someone's putting a rocket up and going
to shoot it at you, you can knock it down. That's how we looked at it at the time. We
didn't take it as being this all-consuming change in American national security strategy
that would become the dominant aspect of that strategy, which some would argue the Iraq
War in 2003 exemplified.
JAY: Because the PNAC document's pretty explicit that international law might have made some
sense when there's another superpower, but we don't need international law when we're
the only bully in town.
JAY: And number two, now is the time to project US military power and make the world, shape
the world as we think it should be, which is a pretty radical motion to certainly put
in print. And these guys now take over the vice presidency and the Defense Department.
WILKERSON: But you don't see that kind of language in the national security strategy.
You do see some forward-leaning language - there's no question about that, especially in Section
5. But you don't see that kind of language incorporated and signed by the president of
the United States as the national security strategy of the United States. Now, you can
say that you see that sort of strategy implemented in Iraq, and I'm not going to disagree with
you there. And would it have gone on had we been more successful? Would we then have done
Syria and Iran? And, you know, the ultimate target is Egypt and so forth, as some of the
neocons held. I don't know. I don't think so, because I really believe Cheney's hold
on power and his influence over the president in terms of foreign policy and national security
decision making was such that Iraq was it, and Iraq was oil. It was all about oil. Once
you're in Iraq, once you got boots on the ground in Iraq, you're in the middle of the
oil. You're there. And so you don't need the other places. I really don't think Dick Cheney
would have marched on to Syria, marched on to Iran, and so forth. Now, would he if it
had been singularly easy to do so, you know, if Iraq had really been a piece of cake and
we'd been met with flowers in the street and so forth like he predicted? I don't know.
Maybe he would have. He's a pragmatist. He might have gone on if he thought he could
do the same thing in other places.
JAY: Two thousand and one, you just joined Powell. You're now working at the State Department.
Now, we know from the 9/11 Commission that Richard Clarke is trying to get a hearing,
saying that there are a great deal of evidence and information and intelligence coming that
something's coming, there could be a terrorist attack. Clarke says at the 9/11 Commission,
our hair was on fire, but we couldn't get anyone to hear us, meaning Condoleezza Rice.
Are you aware that this is going on in the summer, that Clarke and his gang - and, in
fact, that Clarke had been demoted when Bush came to power? He was, like, a cabinet-level
antiterrorism czar under Clinton, gets demoted under Bush. So are you aware of all this?
Or is it kind of off your radar?
WILKERSON: I knew that Clarke had been stepped down from cabinet-level responsibility to
below that by Dr. Rice. I knew that my boss, Richard Haass, Ambassador Richard Haass, the
director of policy planning, was talking with Condi virtually every day. And I will say
this: I never heard al-Qaeda mentioned in the entire time period up to September 11,
2001. Never.
JAY: It doesn't make sense when the number one person on the FBI Most Wanted list for
four or five years prior to 9/11 is bin Laden. You have Clarke, and I understand George Tenet,
when he does his first national security briefings, says al-Qaeda's the number one problem. And
then nothing.
WILKERSON: I think it's best reflected by what I'm told Paul Wolfowitz said, and that
was, why are you talking to me about al-Qaeda? Talk to me about Iraq. And you can say that
Wolfowitz was an aberration. You can say he didn't speak for the administration. He was
the number two man in the Defense Department. He was the deputy secretary of defense. I
do know that my boss, Colin Powell, was somewhat concerned about al-Qaeda, but he was concerned
about a terrorist attack on an embassy overseas, because we'd had an attack in Dar es Salaam
and in Nairobi. And of course there'd been the attack on Cole, USS Cole, in Port Aden,
Yemen. And so we knew we were probably going to get hit again by a terrorist attack overseas.
So we were asking for billions of dollars to make our embassies safer, make our consulates
safer, build new embassy buildings, new embassies and consulates, and so forth, get blowback
distance from streets. We were very interested in that. But we weren't focused on al-Qaeda
attacking the United States. One would say the secretary of state had no responsibility
to be so focused. But I heard it nowhere else in the government. I heard all manner of other
things. Ballistic missile defense just dominated all the conversations about national security.
Lowering taxes dominated all the domestic conversation. So everywhere I went, meeting
after meeting after meeting, the conversation was not about al-Qaeda.
JAY: I mean, what we know now, looking back - and I'm asking what did you know then - when Tenet
says it's our number one threat, and then it disappears, somebody has to decide, well,
we're not going to listen to Tenet. Either he doesn't know, or we don't care, or something
WILKERSON: I don't think it was a question of Dick Cheney, who after all is running national
security policy from the very beginning. I don't think he said something like that. I
think what he implied and what he acted on was higher priorities. And the higher priorities
were things like Iraq, Iran, ballistic missile defense, abrogation of the ABM Treaty, which
we had to do in order to build ballistic missile defense. This is all I heard about. This is
what everybody talked about day in and day out. So I think it wasn't necessarily true
that Cheney didn't think al-Qaeda and George Tenet's briefings on al-Qaeda were important;
it was that there were dozens of things that were more important. And so al-Qaeda took,
if you will, a back seat.
JAY: Now, when this memo comes saying bin Laden plans to attack America - I may not be
quoting it exactly, but I think I'm close - and Condoleezza Rice gets it, are you aware in
the State Department that there is such a memo?
WILKERSON: My boss, Secretary Powell, may have been, and Deputy Secretary Armitage may
have been, because they were plugged into the CIA pretty well and into Condi pretty
well. No, I was not. And as I said, Richard Haass, my boss, my boss in policy planning,
was plugged into Dr. Rice pretty well, and I don't recall Richard ever mentioning al-Qaeda.
JAY: So 9/11 happens. Now, after not considering al-Qaeda and bin Laden such a priority, it
seemed like within hours of the 9/11 attack it's already being pinned on bin Laden. So
if you think that, something doesn't compute there, that within a day you can say it's
bin Laden, and the day before it wasn't a priority.
WILKERSON: Well, I think you had to do that for two reasons, really. One, it probably
was true [incompr.] like Paul Hughes, who was in the Pentagon at the time, the moment
the plane hit the Pentagon and he contemplated what had happened, he said, I know the only
organization in the world that would have done this is al-Qaeda. I mean, he says this
on film. So I think that's kind of the reaction people had. They're - you know, you run through
a mental list, who did this, and you come to al-Qaeda. We'd already had, as I said,
the embassy in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, and we'd had a warship, US warship, hit in
port. So, I mean, this is kind of what people thought as they ran through their mental list
of who did this. I do increasingly - as I do my research, I have come to believe that there
was a sort of epiphany in Cheney's office, and the epiphany probably was accompanied
by subsidiary epiphanies, if you will, by Karl Rove and others on a different basis - a
political basis in Rove's case. And it was not only is this bad because it happened on
our watch, and therefore we have to stop it from happening again, but wow, look at the
opportunity here on Rove's part politically - man, we milk this baby and we can be in power for
a long time. The politics of fear is, after all, very effective. And on the side of Dick
Cheney, wow, all the things that I really wanted to do that I was contemplating having
problems doing, like invade Iraq, they've suddenly become very simple. All I've got
to do is associate them with this catastrophe. And so, while I think there was this angst,
this psychological angst about, ooh, my God, this happened on my watch, I can't let it
happen again, I've got to be draconian in my attempts to keep it from happening again;
there's also this kind of opportunistic side. And it maybe came a little bit later, but
it came nonetheless, and it was we can exploit this and we can exploit it for a number of
JAY: Now, I've asked you about this in previous interviews, but I'll ask you again. In the
Project for a New America Century, one of the things it says is we should be asserting,
projecting US power. But it says American public opinion is not in favor of this, and
we're going to need a new Pearl Harbor before we could ever get the American public behind
this. And this is something that people [who] believe that there's more going on here than
we know have often pointed to. Given the demotion of Clarke, given the lack of attention to
al-Qaeda and this kind of a potential attack, even after Tenet says what he says, is it
possible in your mind that they could have said, well, this isn't a priority, and if
something happened, it ain't so bad?
WILKERSON: I don't think I've grown that cynical yet. Perhaps one day I will. I don't attribute
that much competence to any national security team to be able to actually plan something
like 9/11 or to anticipate -.
JAY: Well, I'm not even going that far. I'm going -.
WILKERSON: Well, you're going the anticipation route.
JAY: Well, I'm saying that we're hearing stuff from, apparently, according to various sources,
Mossad tried to tell the FBI and CIA that something was coming. I believe Egyptian intelligence,
French intelligence. There's the way the FBI was instructed. Don't - like, the FBI doesn't
have to worry about foreign policy issues, but they were told don't worry about terrorism.
And when Coleen Rowley and her group in Minneapolis tried to tell the FBI headquarters that there's
a guy learning how to take off and he isn't learning how to land, they're told: don't
look into his computer. I mean, so many of these things - as Clarke winds up saying, our
hair was on fire. It would seem to me you would say, we should pay some attention to
this. And if you don't say that, some thinking goes behind not saying that.
WILKERSON: I think it's fair to say Dick Clarke's hair was on fire. I don't think Dr. Rice or
Dick Cheney or Paul Wolfowitz or Donald Rumsfeld -
JAY: No, no. Clarke and his gang. Yeah.
WILKERSON: - I don't think their hair was on fire. Their hair was on fire for abrogating
the ABM Treaty, building ballistic missile defense, lowering taxes, instituting No Child
Left Behind. This was an administration that came in with six or seven priorities, and
it was fixated on them. Nine-Eleven gave them opportunity to implement a couple of those
priorities a lot faster than they'd thought, and they were very opportunistic, and clever,
even, in getting that to happen. Lied a lot, too, I think, in order to get that to happen.
But I don't think it was a case of let's just push all this aside so that when it happens
it'll be a profound crisis that we can exploit. I'm not that cynical yet.
JAY: Okay. That is what happened. We're not necessarily agreeing on how much they were
involved in it.
JAY: Okay. Alright. Where are you on 9/11? And how does it affect your view of the world?
WILKERSON: Well, I'd just given a talk early in the morning, a breakfast talk, and I was
coming back to the State Department and getting out of the taxi, and the radio reported the
first tower being hit.
JAY: Alright. In the next segment of our interview, let's pick up where you were on 9/11 and how
it affected your view of the world. Please join us for the next segment of our interview
with Larry Wilkerson on The Real News Network.