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Contra Wilkerson

4:07 PM, May 14, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has a new story out claiming that the Bush administration authorized the Egyptians to waterboard top al Qaeda camp commander Ibn al Shaykh al Libi in order to generate phony intelligence connecting Iraq and al Qaeda. But, Wilkerson's story doesn't square with the known facts.

I'm not going to recount all of the ins and outs of the intelligence debate concerning al Libi's interrogation here. The bottom line is: Al Libi initially said that al Qaeda had sent trainees to Iraq for specialized chemical weapons training, but later recanted that testimony. To this day, some of the officials involved (including former CIA Director George Tenet) say they cannot tell whether al Libi's initial story or his recantation was accurate. The problem is that al Libi recanted everything, including his admitted role inside al Qaeda, which no one seriously denies. Al Libi was clearly a terrorist training camp commander. And Tenet says that the testimony of another senior al Qaeda operative was consistent with al Libi's original story. Other intelligence officials, of course, dismiss the reporting entirely.

Now, Wilkerson purports to offer new details concerning al Libi's interrogation. Wilkerson writes (emphasis added):

Likewise, 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.

Wilkerson's facts do not add up. Al Libi's original testimony regarding Iraq-al Qaeda links occurred months before Wilkerson says waterboarding was used to get this admission out of him. We know this because the DIA filed a report saying that it did not trust al Libi's testimony regarding the training of al Qaeda operatives in Iraq in February 2002 -- two months before Wilkerson says the Bush administration authorized the Egyptians to use harsh interrogation methods on al Libi.

So, when Wilkerson writes that "the [Bush] administration authorized [the] harsh interrogation [of al Libi] in April and May of 2002" and al Libi "had not revealed any al Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts" until then, he is clearly wrong. Al Libi, according to the DIA, first discussed this putative tie between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda before Wilkerson says that harsh interrogation techniques were authorized by Vice President Cheney.

Say what you will of al Libi's testimony, which was cited by Secretary Powell in his presentation before the UN in February 2003. There is legitimate room for debate, according to the intelligence professionals, on the veracity of his original story.

It is doubtful that any part of Wilkerson's story is true. However, Wilkerson's new tale does demonstrate how some former officials never give up their political rivalries. It is no secret that Wilkerson utterly disdains VP Cheney. But, that doesn't give him the right to make up his own facts.