House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still under fire for her words that the Central Intelligence Agency misled her about enhanced interrogation techniques. Many responded with surprise and some with outrage at the claim, but should we really expect America’s chief spy agency, known for its covert operations and layers of secrecy, to tell Congress everything?
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson says not necessarily. He was the Chief of Staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Wednesday.
Chetry: You say it’s a common practice for the CIA not to tell Congress everything they’re doing. It might not be policy, but you say it happens all the time. Give us some examples.
Wilkerson: Well, it does happen. And let me say right off the bat - let me just say something about my bona fides, as opposed to Michael Gerson’s, for example, writing on the op-ed page of the "Washington Post" this morning. The "Post" continues to stun me with what they allow to appear on their op-ed pages, lambasting the Democratic and others who might as he calls it "attack the CIA."
Well, Michael Gerson has no bona fides. I’ve got 35 years of bona fides. I have used tactical, operational, strategic intelligence from the agency for 35 years from Vietnam all the way forward to Iraq. I’ve studied it as an academic. I know about its origins in the OSS during World War II. I know about its institution in the 1947 National Security Act. And I know the crimes and the ravages that have been perpetrated in the name of the American people, the blood and the treasure that's been expended by the CIA over that half century. Plus, I also know the successes that it’s achieved. So, it's a mixed bag.
But to answer your question directly – the CIA does not have the leadership, not the good people in the ranks of the CIA, but the leadership of the CIA does not have a stellar record about telling the full and unequivocal truth about its covert operations.
Chetry: So, you're speaking about the leadership. Leon Panetta is now the new director of the CIA. He wrote in a memo to CIA staff, "Let me be clear, it is not our policy or our practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values." Are you saying that Panetta is not necessarily being truthful?
Wilkerson: Absolutely not. I hope that Leon Panetta believes that and I hope that will be his practice as the leader of the agency. But what I'm telling you is that was not the practice of people in the past. I can give you example after example of George Tenet, the DCI (Director Central Intelligence) at the time, before we created the DNI (Director National Intelligence), and of John McLaughlin, his deputy, essentially fabricating truths for Colin Powell getting ready for his preparation for the U.N. presentation on 5 February 2003. I was in the room. I was in the room for five days and five nights with the DCI and the DDCI (Deputy Director Central Intelligence). I know I was lied to.
Chetry: There were many who said those 16 words should not have appeared and those were kept in there, but it’s not necessarily the fault of the CIA…
Wilkerson: It was much more than 16 words…
Chetry: You're referring to the alleged yellowcake uranium from Niger?
Wilkerson: I'm referring to aluminum tubes. I’m referring to al Qaeda operatives who were tortured in order to get information about links between Baghdad and al Qaeda. I'm talking about “Curveball.” I'm talking about the pillars of Colin Powell's presentation, which were politicized and in my view, were lied about by the DCI and the DDCI to the secretary of state of this country.
Chetry: We have House Minority Leader John Boehner now essentially calling Speaker Pelosi's bluff on her allegations she was misled. He's saying “If the speaker's accusing the CIA and other intelligence officials of lying or misleading the Congress, then she should come forward with evidence and turn that over to the Justice Department so they can be prosecuted. And if that’s not the case, I think she ought to apologize to our intelligence professionals around the world." What do you make of the possibility that she could produce this evidence? Is this rhetoric or could they really be prosecuted?
Wilkerson: I doubt very seriously if she has the kind of power - and I mean this seriously - to cause evidence to come forward from the CIA that would be self-incriminating. I just don’t think that's going to happen. Bobby Kennedy couldn't even do that as attorney general for his brother Jack when Bobby Kennedy essentially ran clandestine operations out of the Attorney General's Office for his brother. This is not something that can happen. And it is also, I think, a tempest in a teapot, because what we've got here is the Republicans trying to attack the Democrats over an issue that's incidental to what’s happening. I know the press loves it because blood on the street and so forth, but we need to get on the central issue here, and the central issue is torture and harsh interrogation, which is against international law and against domestic law.
Chetry: The CIA is saying that it stands by its briefings. It also did say that the records are essentially subjective. They're called from notes. They're memos and recollections in some cases. And as you've talked about this, you’ve been briefed by the CIA. These are classified meetings, but can anything be done to make a more clear record so that all sides can be held accountable as we try to move forward on issues, very sensitive issues like enhanced interrogation?
Wilkerson: I do agree that we could have less-speckless leadership in the Congress in terms of oversight. And I am not just talking about the Select Committees in the House and the Senate for Intelligence. I'm talking about the leadership in the Congress. This has been the most feckless Congress ever since 2000 that I've seen in my 65 years. I just don't think there's leadership over there. It's spineless, it lacks courage, it lacks political will. I shutter for the fact that we’ve got to face these economic and financial challenges we face - Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and other things - and we don't have a Congress that has any leadership.