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October 20, 2005

Powell Aide Blasts Rice, Cheney-Rumsfeld 'Cabal'

by Jim Lobe

As top officials in the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's office await possible criminal indictments for their efforts to discredit a whistleblower, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday accused a "cabal" led by Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld of hijacking U.S. foreign policy by circumventing or ignoring formal decision-making channels.

Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Powell's chief of staff from 2001 to 2005 and when Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces during the administration of former president George H.W. Bush, also charged that, as national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice was "part of the problem" by not ensuring that the policymaking process was open to all relevant participants.

"In some cases, there was real dysfunctionality," said Wilkerson, who spoke at the New America Foundation, a prominent Washington think tank. "But in most cases … she [Rice] made a decision that she would side with the president to build her intimacy with the president."

"[T]he case that I saw for four-plus years," he said, "was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberrations, bastardizations, and perturbations in the national-security [policymaking] process," he added.

"What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made."

Wilkerson also stressed that the "extremely powerful" influence of what he called the "Oval Office Cabal" of Cheney and Rumsfeld, both former secretaries of defense with a long-standing personal and professional relationship, adding that both were members of the "military-industrial complex" that former President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation against in his 1961 Farewell Address. "[D]on't you think they aren't among us today in a concentration of power that is just unparalleled," he warned.

Wilkerson's remarks came as the administration is besieged by record-low approval ratings and anticipation that a special prosecutor will hand down indictments of top aides to both Bush and Cheney, including Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, and Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, in connection with efforts to discredit retired ambassador Joseph Wilson.

In July 2003, Wilson publicly challenged the administration's prewar depiction of Iraq's alleged nuclear-weapons program, and particularly its assertion that Baghdad had sought to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger, an assertion that Wilson himself investigated and rejected in early 2002 after traveling to Niger as part of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mission.

White House officials, including Rove and Libby, told reporters that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and played a role in selecting him for the mission.

On Wednesday, Capitol Hill was rife with rumors that Cheney himself may also be indicted or resign over the scandal. They were given more credence by an anecdote recounted that Powell had told a prominent Republican senator that Cheney had become "fixated" on the relationship between Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, after he and Bush learned about it directly from Powell.

Since his departure from the administration, Powell has declined to publicly criticize U.S. policy or his former cabinet colleagues. Until now, Wilkerson has also kept his counsel, although he publicly opposed John Bolton's confirmation as UN ambassador. At that time, most analysts believed that Wilkerson reflected Powell's private views on Bolton.

That would not be surprising, as Wilkerson worked directly with or for Powell for some 16 years out of their 30-plus-year military and government careers. At the same time, Wilkerson said he had paid a "high cost" in his personal relationship with Powell for publicly speaking out.

"Wilkerson embodies Powell and [Powell's deputy secretary of state, Richard] Armitage," who is also a retired military officer, Steve Clemons, who organized Wilkerson's NAF appearance, told IPS. "That's how his remarks should be seen."

If so, it appears that Powell and Armitage have little but disdain for Rice's performance as national security adviser, although Wilkerson was more complimentary about her work at the State Department and the relative success she has enjoyed in steering U.S. policy in a less confrontational direction compared to the frustrations that dogged Powell.

He attributed her success to several factors, including her "intimacy with the president" and the fact that the administration "finds itself in some fairly desperate straits politically and otherwise."

Most of his remarks, however, addressed what he described as national-security policymaking apparatus that was made dysfunctional by secrecy, compartmentalization, and distrust, as well as the machinations of the Cheney-Rumsfeld "cabal."

"You've got this collegiality there between the secretary of defense and the vice president," he said. "And then you've got a president who is not versed in international relations – and not too much interested in them either. And so it's not too difficult to make decisions in this, what I call the Oval Office Cabal, and decisions often that are the opposite of what you thought were made in the formal [decision-making] process."

"Why did we wait three years to talk to the North Koreans? Why did we wait four-plus years to at least back the EU-3 approach to Iran?" he asked. "… The formal process … camouflaged the efficiency of the secret decision-making process. So we got into Iraq."

"And then when the bureaucracy was presented with those decisions and carried them out, it was presented in such a disjointed, incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn't know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out," he said.

"If you're not prepared to stop the feuding elements in the bureaucracy as they carry out your decisions, you are courting disaster," he said. "And I would say that we have courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran."

Wilkerson was particularly scathing about former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, citing Gen. Tommy Frank's famous description of the neoconservative ideologue as the "f*cking stupidest guy on the planet."

"Let me testify to that," he said. "He was. Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man. And yet, after the [Pentagon is given] control, at least in the immediate postwar period in Iraq, this many is put in charge. Not only is he put in charge, he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere. … That's telling you how decisions were made and … how things got accomplished."

He also denounced the abuse of detainees and said Powell was particularly upset by it. "Ten years from now, when we have the whole story, we are going to be ashamed," he said. "This is not us. This is not the way we do business. I don't think in our history we've ever had a presidential involvement, a secretarial involvement, a vice-presidential involvement, an attorney general's involvement in telling our troops essentially, carte blanche is the way you should feel. You should not have any qualms because this is a different kind of conflict."

"You don't have this kind of pervasive attitude out there unless you've condoned it," he said adding that "it will take years to reverse the situation" within the military. He said it was a "concrete example" of the result of the way the cabal worked.

Wilkerson also contrasted Bush's diplomacy very unfavorably with his father's. Referring to Bush's first meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, Wilkerson noted: "When you put your feet up on a hassock and look at the man who's won the Nobel Prize and is currently president of South Korea and tell him in a very insulting way that you don't agree with his assessment of what is necessary to be reconciled with the North, that's not diplomacy; that's cowboyism."

"It's very different when you walk in and find something you can be magnanimous about, that you can give him, that you can say he or she gets credit, that's diplomacy. You don't say, 'I'm the big mother on the block and everybody who's not with me is against me.' That's the difference between father and son."

At the same time, Bush had been "wonderful" in "put[ting] his foot down" against a more aggressive policy on North Korea, at one point saying, according to Wilkerson, "I do not want a war on the Korean peninsula."

"That was very helpful, very helpful," said Wilkerson. "It helped us fight off some less desirable results."

Cheney, he said, was a "good executive" as defense secretary under George H. W. Bush but appeared to change as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "I think [he] saw 9/11 and the potential for another 9/11 with nuclear weapons and suddenly became so fixated on that problem that it skewed his approach," Wilkerson said, adding that neither he nor Rumsfeld could be considered neoconservatives.

On Iraq, he said he was "guardedly optimistic" because "we may have reached the point where we are actually listening to the Iraqis." U.S. troops will likely have to remain in Iraq for between five to eight years, however, because "it is strategic in the sense that Vietnam was not."

He predicted that a precipitous withdrawal "without leav[ing] something behind we can trust, we will mobilize the nation, with five million men and women under arms to go back and take the Middle East within a decade," due to the U.S. dependence on the region's energy sources.

He disclosed that the Department's policy planning bureau had a discussion about "actually mounting an operation to take the oil fields in the Middle East, internationalize them under some sort of UN trusteeship, and administer the revenues and the oil accordingly."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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