Lawrence Wilkerson Drops an Iraq-Torture Bombshell

By Bob Fertik,, May 14, 2009

On Wednesday, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson dropped a bombshell (h/t Heather):
what I have learned is that 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 discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

So furious was this effort that 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 contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

There in fact were no such contacts. (Incidentally, al-Libi just "committed suicide" in Libya. Interestingly, several U.S. lawyers working with tortured detainees were attempting to get the Libyan government to allow them to interview al-Libi....)
On April 21, McClatchy's Jonathan Landay first suggested the Bush Administration used torture to intentionally extract false confessions linking Al Qaeda (and 9/11) to Iraq, to give Bush a false "casus belli" to invade Iraq.

Landay's suggestion was shocking. I called it the "Iraq-Torture Scandal" because of its similarity to the Iran-Contra Scandal, where two seemingly unconnected scandals (Reagan's illegal sale of weapons to Iran and his illegal funding of the Nicaraguan contras) were suddenly linked. Paul Krugman called it the "Grand unified scandal":
Let’s say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link.

There’s a word for this: it’s evil.
A number of prominent progressives came to the same conclusion, including Keith Olbermann (who calls it "backfilling"), Rachel Maddow, Ron Suskind, Frank Rich, and Dan Froomkin. But serious coverage of this humongous scandal did not go beyond progressives.

Why? First, because Landay is not a TV regular like investigative reporters Seymour Hersh or Michael Isikoff, although his work is just as good. Second, because his two sources didn't quite prove the scandal.

His first source was anonymous - "a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue" - which undercut his/her impact. And this source made the "Iraq-Al Qaeda" motive secondary to "preventing another attack."
"There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."
Landay's second source was former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, who
told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under "pressure" to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.

"While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq," Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. "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."
Landay did not specify when Burney's interrogations were taking place, but it was October 2002. That was still during the pre-war sales campaign (the invasion began on March 19, 2003), but it was after the fall "product rollout" when Bush, Cheney, and Rice repeatedly insisted they had proof from Al Qaeda captives of Iraq ties. That story came from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, whose false confession in Egypt was much earlier - in February 2002. (See Update 3 below for correction.)

So Wilkerson's account is a bombshell for three reasons. First, he is well-known - and credible. Second, he says the desire to manufacture an Iraq-Al Qaeda link was the principal priority - not secondary to preventing another attack.
its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.
Third, he pushes the timeline back to "April and May of 2002" - not as far back as February 2002, but getting close.

The "smoking gun" of the Iraq-Torture Scandal will be proof that the CIA took Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi away from the FBI in February 2002 and sent him to Egypt for one specific reason: to use torture to extract a false confession of Iraq-Al Qaeda ties.

Lawrence Wilkerson's account takes us much closer to finding that "smoking gun." And al-Libi's mysterious death guarantees that everyone will be looking for it.

Update 1: Liz Holtzman just reminded me that Bush decided on February 7, 2002 to exclude Al Qaeda detainees in Afghanistan from the Geneva Conventions. Obviously that opened the door for the CIA to torture them. al-Libi was captured in on December 18, 2001, so he may have decided to revoke Geneva with al-Libi in mind.

Update 2: Former NBC News investigative producer Robert Windrem ties Cheney's office to a waterboarding request after the invasion of Iraq in April 2003:
*Two U.S. intelligence officers confirm that Vice President Cheney’s office suggested waterboarding an Iraqi prisoner, a former intelligence official for Saddam Hussein, who was suspected to have knowledge of a Saddam-al Qaeda connection.

*The former chief of the Iraq Survey Group, Charles Duelfer, in charge of interrogations, tells The Daily Beast that he considered the request reprehensible.

*Much of the information in the report of the 9/11 Commission was provided through more than 30 sessions of torture of detainees.
This isn't a smoking gun for the Iraq-Torture Scandal because it followed the invasion, but it's another piece of evidence that the Buseviks used torture to try to link Iraq and al Qaeda.

Meanwhile Windrem is trying to get a formal response from Cheney. '

Update 3: According to the Senate Armed Services Committee report, Burney arrived in Guantanamo in June 2002. He was immediately seconded by Maj. Gen. Michael Dunleavy into Task Force 170 - the military interrogation team - because it lacked a psychiatrist. TF-170 started formally using "harsh" interrogation in October 2002 on Gen. James Hill's vocal approval, before Rumsfeld signed off on them. Prisoner "063", Mohammed al-Qahtani, was earlier subjected to "certain types of deprivation and psychological stressors."

Update 4: Andrew Sullivan reaches the same conclusion:
Lawrence Wilkerson has a must-read on what he now believes is the real reason Cheney was so insistent on torturing prisoners - he needed proof of an al Qaeda-Saddam connection to justify the war he had already decided to wage. This really is the explosive charge, because it reveals the real danger of torture in the hands of big government: it means our leaders can manufacture facts to justify anything. It gives them the crucial weapon they need to, as Ron Suskind's famous source explained, "create reality"
Indeed they did.

Update 5: Dan Froomkin cites Wilkerson in writing:
I've been amazed at how little media pickup there's been of the revelation by the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the White House started pushing the use of torture not when faced with a "ticking time bomb" scenario from terrorists, but when officials in 2002 were desperately casting about for ways to tie Iraq to the 9/11 attacks.

Update 6: Josh Marshall cites Wilkerson too:
Next you have a flurry of claims that a key motive behind the push to torture was to elicit 'confessions' about an alliance between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida, which was of course the key predicate for the invasion of Iraq. That again has to create much more pressure to clarify what happened. The basis of most of the anti-torture push has been the assumption that torture was used for the purpose of eliciting information about future terrorist attacks. Whether it was illegal, wrong-headed, misguided, immoral -- whatever -- most have been willing to at least give the benefit of the doubt that that was the goal. If the driving force was to gin up new bogus intel about the fabled Iraq-al Qaida link, politically it will put the whole story in a very different light. And rightly so.
Update 7: Marcy Wheeler drills down on Dick Cheney's role:
Wilkerson is stating, clearly, that in early 2002, Dick Cheney ordered Ibn Sheikh al-Libi to be tortured even after the interrogation team reported that al-Libi was compliant.

While we can't be sure of the date when Cheney started ordering people to be waterboarded even after they were compliant, we know this order had to have occurred before February 22, 2002--because that's when al-Libi first reported on ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. From DIA's report on that day:

"This is the first report from Ibn al-Shaykh [al-Libi] in which he claims Iraq assisted al-Qa'ida's CBRN efforts. However, he lacks specific details on the Iraq's involvement, the CBRN materials associated with the assistance, the location where the training occurred. It is possible he does not know any futher 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."

So sometime in February 2002--when Bush was declaring that the Geneva Convention did not apply to al Qaeda and when Bruce Jessen was pitching torture to JPRA--Cheney was personally (according to Wilkerson) ordering up waterboarding. The DIA immediately labeled the result of this session of waterboarding probable disinformation.

And a month later, when the CIA captured Abu Zubaydah, James Mitchell immediately set up as a contractor so he could waterboard Abu Zubaydah.

We chose waterboarding--not simply torture, but waterboarding itself--knowing it'd be unreliable. Or rather, Dick Cheney chose it.
I'm not sure Cheney ordered up waterboarding in particular because it would produce disinformation. I think he chose waterboarding because it was the only form of outright torture that American officials had experience with (thanks to the SERE program). That meant it could be administered by Americans (Jessen and Mitchell) and also could be "sold" to the numerous American intelligence agencies as producing reliable information.

As I argued previously, I believe Cheney had to in-source torture (by America) because the out-sourced torture (by Egypt) produced results that an American intelligence agency - the DIA - rejected as unreliable.

Update 8: Andy Worthington recaps the investigative reporting that preceeded Wilkerson's revelation. He also raises some useful questions about Wilkerson's timeline.

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