Think back six years. How often
did we hear then-Secretary of State Colin Powell tout his intense four-day
vigil at CIA headquarters preparing the speech he would give to the
United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003? Retired Army
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff, who was asked by
Powell to herd cats in putting that speech together, recently threw
light on why it turned out to be such an acute embarrassment.
Surrogates of Vice President Dick Cheney
were insisting on giving prominence to highly dubious reports of operational
ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq, but on this particular issue (unlike
the phantom WMD) CIA and State department intelligence analysts had
stood firm in the face of heavy pressure. Indeed, the CIA ombudsman
saw fit to tell Congress that never in his 32 years as a CIA analyst
had he witnessed a more aggressive "hammering" on analysts to change
their minds and give credence to reporting that was trash.
How was it, then, that Secretary Powell
ended up citing a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist
network" to depict a relationship that did not exist? Fair labeling:
Reading what follows may not make you quite as ill as reading the Department
of Justice torture memos, but it may well sicken-and anger-you just
According to Col. Wilkerson, just days
before trying to sell the invasion of Iraq to the United Nations, his
boss Colin Powell had decided not to regurgitate the dubious allegations
about Saddam Hussein's ties to al-Qaeda. Just in the nick of
time, however, top CIA officials produced a "bombshell" report alleging
such ties. The information was more than a year old and apparently
extricated via torture, but Powell took the bait.
Wilkerson says the key moment occurred
on Feb. 1, 2003, as the two men labored at the CIA over Powell's presentation
to the U.N. Security Council four days later.
"Powell and I had a one-on-one
- no one else even in the room - about his angst over what was a
rather dull recounting of several old stories about Al Qa'ida-Baghdad
ties [in the draft speech]," Wilkerson said.
"I agreed with him that what we had was bull___t, and Powell decided
to eliminate all mention of terrorist contacts between AQ and
"Within an hour, [CIA Director
George] Tenet and [CIA Deputy Director John] McLaughlin dropped a bombshell
on the table in the director's conference room: a high-level AQ detainee
had just revealed under interrogation substantive contacts between AQ
and Baghdad, including Iraqis training AQ operatives in the use of chemical
and biological weapons."
Although Tenet and McLaughlin wouldn't
give Powell the identity of the al-Qaeda source, Wilkerson said he now
understands that it was Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who had been captured
15 months earlier; who later claimed he gave the CIA false information
in the face of actual and threatened torture; and who now seems to be
Presumably not realizing that the "new"
intelligence was tainted, "Powell changed his mind and this information
was included in his UNSC presentation, along with more general information
from a previous draft about Baghdad's terrorist tendencies," Wilkerson
Wilkerson's account provides insight
into how the need to justify war gave impetus to the use of torture
for extracting information, and how the Bush administration's reliance
on harsh interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects helped grease the skids
to war. Both.
Sealing the Deal
Powell, whose credibility essentially
sealed the deal for war as far as millions of Americans were concerned,
let himself be manipulated by senior CIA officials who kept him in the
dark about crucial details, including the fact that the Defense Intelligence
Agency had thrown serious doubt on al-Libi's credibility. Wilkerson
"As you can see, nowhere were
we told that the high-level AQ operative had a name, or that he had
been interrogated [in Egypt] with no US personnel present or much earlier
rather than just recently (the clear implication of Tenet's breathtaking
"And not a single dissent was
mentioned (later we learned of the DIA dissent)
... All of this was hidden from us
- the specific identity, we were informed, due to the desire to protect
sources and methods as well as a cooperative foreign intelligence service....
"As for me in particular, I learned
the identity of al-Libi only in 2004 and of the DIA dissent about the
same time, of al-Libi's recanting slightly later, and of the entire
affair's probably being a Tenet-McLaughlin fabrication
- to at least a certain extent - only after I began to put some
things together and to receive reinforcement of the
'fabrication' theme from other examples."
Among those other examples, Wilkerson
said, was the case of the Iraqi defector codenamed Curveball, who supplied
false intelligence about mobile labs for making biological and chemical
weapons, and various Iraqi walk-ins who spun bogus stories about an
Iraqi nuclear weapons program.
Though some of those sources appear
to have concocted their tales after being recruited by the pro-invasion
exiles of the Iraqi National Congress, al-Libi told his stories-he
later claimed-to avoid or stop torture. This is a central point
in the current debate about why torture was used and whether it saved
Torture Can Produce
For those of you distracted by the
Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) spotlight on "what-did-Pelosi-know-about-torture-and-when-did-she-
know-it," please turn off the TV long enough to ponder the case of
the recently departed al-Libi. According to a Libyan newspaper,
al-Libi has died in a Libyan prison, a purported suicide.
The al-Libi case might help you understand
why, even though information from torture is notoriously unreliable,
President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the me-too
officials running U.S. intelligence ordered it anyway.
In short, if it is untruthful
information you are after, torture can work just fine! As the distinguished
Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham put it during a Senate hearing
on May 13-with a hat-tip to the Inquisition-"One of the reasons
these techniques have been used for about 500 years is that they work."
All you really need to know is what
you want the victims to "confess" to and then torture them, or render
them abroad to "friendly" intelligence services toward the same
Poster Child for Torture
Al-Libi, born in 1963 in Libya, ran
an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2000. He was detained
in Pakistan on Nov. 11, 2001, and then sent to a U.S. detention facility
in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was deemed a prize catch, since it was
thought that he might know of, or at least be induced to "confess"
to, Iraqi training of al-Qaeda.
The CIA successfully fought off the
FBI for first rights to interrogate al-Libi. FBI's Dan Coleman, who
"lost" al-Libi to the CIA (at whose orders, I wonder?), said, "Administration
officials were always pushing us to come up with links" between
Iraq and al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, at the Guantanamo Bay prison
in Cuba, Maj. Paul Burney, a psychiatrist sent there in summer 2002,
says, "A large part of that time we were focused on trying to establish
a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, and we were not successful," according
to Burney's recent testimony to the Senate. Burney added:
"The more frustrated people got
in not being able to establish that link...there was more and more pressure
to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."
CIA interrogators elicited some "cooperation"
from al-Libi through a combination of rough treatment and threats that
he would be turned over to Egyptian intelligence with even greater experience
in the torture business.
By June 2002, al-Libi had told the
CIA that Iraq had "provided" unspecified chemical and biological
weapons training for two al-Qaeda operatives, an allegation that soon
found its way into other U.S. intelligence reports. Al-Libi's claim
was well received even though the DIA was highly suspicious.
"He lacks specific details" about
the supposed training, DIA observed. "It is possible he does not know
any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally
misleading the debriefers. Ibn al-Shaykh has been undergoing debriefs
for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers
that he knows will retain their interest."
Despite his cooperation, al-Libi was
still shipped to Egypt where he underwent more abuse, according to a
declassified CIA cable from 2004; the year al-Libi recanted his earlier
statements. The cable reported that al-Libi said Egyptian interrogators
wanted information about al-Qaeda's connections with Iraq, a subject
"about which [al-Libi] said he knew nothing and had difficulty even
coming up with a story." (This, despite the limited "success"
CIA interrogators claimed to have had on this issue.)
According to the CIA cable, al-Libi
said his interrogators did not like his responses and "placed him
in a small box" for about 17 hours. After he was let out of the box,
al-Libi was given a last chance to "tell the truth."
When his answers still did not satisfy,
al-Libi says he "was knocked over with an arm thrust across his chest
and fell on his back" and then was "punched for 15 minutes."
And, sure enough, as Sen. Lindsay Graham
has noted, this stuff really works! For it was then that al-Libi expanded
on his tales about collaboration between al-Qaeda and Iraq, adding that
three al-Qaeda operatives had gone to Iraq "to learn about nuclear
weapons." Al-Libi added that the treatment he received improved
after he told that to his interrogators.
In any case, al-Libi's stories apparently
were music to the ears of Colin Powell, who was under pressure to establish
in his U.N. speech some evidence of a "sinister nexus" between Iraq
and al-Qaeda-the "axis-of-evil" kind of epithet he ended up using
to try to justify invading Iraq.
Al-Libi recanted his claims in January
2004. This prompted the CIA, a month later, to recall all intelligence
reports based on his statements, a fact recorded in a footnote to the
report issued by the 9/11 Commission. But he was really a big
help before he recanted!
Just What the Doctor Ordered
George Bush relied on al-Libi's false
confession for his crucial speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002,
just a few days before Congress voted on the Iraq War resolution. Bush
declared, "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members
in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases."
Colin Powell relied on it for his own
speech to the U.N. on Feb. 5, 2003: "I can trace the story
of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in
these [chemical and biological] weapons to al-Qaeda. Fortunately, this
operative is now detained, and he has told his story."
Bear in mind that before the attack
on Iraq on March 19, 2003, polls showed that some 70 percent Americans
believed that Saddam Hussein had operational ties with al-Qaeda and
thus was partly responsible for the attacks of 9/11. Worse still,
about half of the American people had been led to believe that Saddam
was actually involved in 9/11.
For a while, al-Libi was practically
the poster boy for the success of the Cheney/Bush torture regime; that
is, at least until it was learned that he recanted, explaining that
he only told his interrogators what he thought would stop the torture.
In his disingenuous memoir, At the
Center of the Storm, George Tenet sought to defend the CIA's acceptance
of the original claims made by al-Libi in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Tenet even suggested that al-Libi may have been right the first time-that
it may have been his subsequent recantation that was not genuine.
"He clearly lied," Tenet
wrote. "We just don't know when. Did he lie when he first said
that Al Qaeda members received training in Iraq or did he lie when he
said they did not? In my mind, either case might still be true."
I am not making this up. That
incisive analysis appears on page 353 of Tenet's book.
Tenet, of course, is hardly a disinterested
observer. If there was a CIA plan to extract a false confession, it's
likely he was a key participant. After all, he devoted 2002-03
to the mission of manufacturing a "slam-dunk" WMD-case for
invading Iraq, in order to please his bosses. He had both the motive
and the opportunity to commit this crime and, later, huge incentive
to cover it up.
If al-Libi is now dead - strangely
our embassy in Tripoli has been unable to find out for sure - this
means the world will never hear his own account of the torture he experienced
and the story he made up and then recanted. And we have already
been asked to believe he "committed suicide" even though al-Libi
apparently was a devout Muslim, and Islam prohibits suicide.
Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan-American
and a prominent critic of the Gaddafi regime, explained to Newsweek,
"This idea of committing suicide in your prison cell is an old story
in Libya." He added that, throughout Gaddafi's 40-year rule,
there have been several instances in which political prisoners were
reported to have committed suicide, but that "then the families get
the bodies back and discover the prisoners had been shot in the back
or tortured to death."
Am I suggesting...?
Anatomy of a Crime
Commenting on what he called the "Cheney
interrogation techniques," Col. Wilkerson, writing for The Washington
Note on May 13, made the following points:
"...as the administration authorized
harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 - well before the Justice
Department had rendered any legal opinion - its principal priority
for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack
on the U.S. but on discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq to al-Qaeda.
"So furious was this effort on one
particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to
Cheney's office that their detainee 'was compliant' (meaning the
team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to
continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad
"As far as al-Libi is concerned,
his harsh interrogation ceased after, under waterboarding in Egypt,
he 'revealed' such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi
revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop."
Cheney Family Honor
Stung by Wilkerson's criticism of
her father, Liz Cheney, who worked in the State Department during the
Bush/Cheney administration, lashed out publicly at Wilkerson on Sunday,
charging he has made "a cottage industry out of fantasies" about
the former Vice President. All that Ms. Cheney could manage in
support of her contention was to point out that al-Libi was not among
the three al-Qaeda detainees the CIA has said it waterboarded.
After his article in The Washington
Note, I asked Col. Wilkerson for a retrospective look at how it
could have been that the torture-derived information from al-Libi was
not recognized for what it was and thus kept out of Secretary Powell's
speech at the UN.
Since al-Libi had been captured over
a year before the speech and had been put at the tender mercies of the
Egyptian intelligence service, should he and Powell not have suspected
that al-Libi had been tortured?
Wilkerson responded by e-mail with
the comments cited above regarding Tenet and McLaughlin interrupting
Powell's evaluation of the Iraqi WMD intelligence with their new -just
I asked Col. Wilkerson: "Were
there no others from the State Department with you at CIA headquarters
on Feb. 1, 2003. Was the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR),
State's very professional, incorruptible intelligence unit, not represented?
"When I gathered
'my team' - some were selected for me, such as Will Toby from
Bob Joseph's NSC staff and John Hanna from the VP's office
- in my office at State to give them an initial briefing and marching
orders, I asked Carl [Ford, then head of INR] to attend. I wanted
Carl - or even more so, one of his deputies whom I knew well and trusted
completely, Tom Fingar - to be on
"Carl stayed after the meeting
and I asked him straightforwardly to come with me or to send someone
from INR. Carl said that he did not need to come
or to send anyone because he had the Secretary's ear (he was right on
that) and could weigh in at any time he wanted to.
"Moreover, he told me, the Secretary
knew very well where INR stood, as did I myself (he was right on that
"As I look back, I believe one
of my gravest errors was in not insisting that INR send someone with
"Fascinating and completely puzzling
at first was the total absence of a Department of Defense representative
on my team; however, after 3-4 days and nights I figured out
... DoD was covering its own butt, to an extent, by having no direct
fingerprints on the affair - and being directly wired into Cheney's
office, Rumsfeld's folks knew they were protected by Toby and Hanna.
"When we all arrived at CIA, we
were given the NIC [National Intelligence Council] spaces and staff.
[But] I could not even get on a computer!! Protests to Tenet and McLaughlin
got me perfunctory CIA-blah blah about security clearances, etc.
- and me with 7 days and nights to prepare a monumentally important
"[It took] 24 hours before George
or John acknowledged I could be on a computer.... From there on, it
was a madhouse.
"But at the end of the day, had
I had an INR rep, had I had better
support, had I been more concerned with WHAT I was assembling rather
than HOW on earth I would assemble it and present it on time, I'm not
sure at all it would have made any difference in the march to war."
Not the Only Criminal Activity
So there you have it folks, the anatomy
of a crime - one of several such already on the record, with some
of the same dramatis personae.
Mention of Carl Ford and Tenet and
McLaughlin remind me of another episode that has gone down in the annals
of intelligence as almost equally contemptible. This one had to do with
their furious attempt to prove there were mobile biological weapons
labs of the kind Curveball had described.
Remember, Tenet and McLaughlin had
been warned about Curveball long before they let then-Secretary of State
Powell shame himself, and the rest of us, by peddling Curveball's
wares at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. But the amateur
attempts at deception did not stop there. After the war began, CIA intrepid
analysts, still "leaning forward," misrepresented a tractor-trailer
found in Iraq outfitted with industrial equipment as one of the mobile
On May 28, 2003, CIA analysts cooked
up a fraudulent six-page report claiming that the trailer discovered
earlier in May was proof they had been right about Iraq's "bio-weapons
They then performed what in Army parlance
is called a "midnight requisition," finding the only Defense Intelligence
Agency analyst sympathetic to their position and getting him to provide
DIA "coordination," (which was almost immediately withdrawn by DIA).
On May 29, President George W. Bush,
visiting Poland, proudly announced on Polish TV, "We have found the
weapons of mass destruction." (For a contemporaneous debunking of
the CIA-DIA report, see "America's Matrix," https://www.consortiumnews.com/2003/060103a.html)
When the State Department's Intelligence
and Research (INR) analysts realized that this was not some kind of
Polish joke, they "went ballistic," according to Carl Ford, who
immediately warned Powell there was a very large problem. Tenet,
in turn, must have learned of this quickly, for he called Ford on the
carpet, literally, the following day. No shrinking violet, Ford held
his ground. He told Tenet and McLaughlin, "That report is one of the
worst intelligence assessments I've ever read."
What seems clear is that Tenet and
McLaughlin learned nothing from their decision just four months earlier
to play fast and loose with intelligence-regardless of the risk of
heavy embarrassment to the Secretary of State or, in this case, the
"They Should Have Been Shot"
This episode-and several like it-are
described in Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling
of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, who say that
Ford is still angry over the fraudulent paper. Ford told the authors:
"It was clear that they [Tenet and
McLaughlin] had been personally involved in the preparation of the [bio-weapons
labs] report. As it turned out, that analysis was unprofessional
and even unethical. People did funny thing with the evidence...It wasn't
just that it was wrong. They lied...they should have been shot." (Page
Small wonder Ford has remained angry-like
Wilkerson. It was all just too much. Ford knew he had made
a huge mistake in early Feb. 2003, by assuming that Colin Powell would
face down the blandishments of Tenet, McLaughlin, and the White House
members of Wilkerson's team.
The way these things normally work,
it was not unreasonable for Ford to assume further that he would have
the opportunity, in extremis, to trade on his credibility with,
and entree to, Secretary Powell to thwart the CIA seniors, if they
peddled their meretricious wares at CIA headquarters.
In the end, Powell went along; Col.
Wilkerson was left to twist slowly in the wind, so to speak. Bush,
Cheney, and their courtiers prevailed and our country embarked on what
the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal termed the "supreme international
crime"-a war of aggression.
Sad. Very sad. Criminal,
I would say.