SPIEGEL Interview with Lawrence Wilkerson 'The Germans Share in the Responsibility'

As Colin Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson helped the former US Secretary of State make the case for the invasion of Iraq. But much of that case was based on false information. SPIEGEL spoke with Wilkerson about Germany's share of the guilt and the failures of the CIA

Lawrence Wilkerson was intimately involved in preparing Powell's Security Council speech.

Lawrence Wilkerson was intimately involved in preparing Powell's Security Council speech.

SPIEGEL: It was five years ago that Colin Powell gave his speech before the United Nations Security Council. How do you see that speech from the perspective of today?

Wilkerson: I can remember the whole day very well. It was a terribly cold day, and I remember leaving the UN being dead tired on my feet. I just walked around for a few minutes and thought 'that was a total failure.' His appearance at the Security Council was the first time I heard the entire speech, uninterrupted, from A to Z. The whole time I looked over at the Iraqi ambassador and I thought to myself: 'Jeez, this is all circumstantial bullshit, it will never wash.' After I had gotten some sleep and then read a few newspapers, I realized the polls were saying it had been significantly effective. I’ve had ample opportunity to spend a lot of time researching that time now at the university where I teach and I’m back to what I thought that day. But it is even worse, that morning was the lowest point of my professional life.

SPIEGEL: You were intimately involved in the preparation of the speech. How important was the information that came from 'Curveball?'

Wilkerson: It was absolutely essential because it was the central pillar for the accusation that Saddam Hussein had mobile biological labs. And that claim was one of the pillars of the whole speech, next to the claim that the aluminum tubes were for an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program and next to the claim that there were close ties between al-Qaida and Baghdad. Both points were found to be as wrong as claims about biological weapons.

SPIEGEL: Were you aware that the CIA had huge doubts about 'Curveball' and his information prior to the war, and that the CIA had never actually spoken to the source?

Wilkerson: That’s the point. We were never told that the information originated in Germany. The CIA simply failed to tell us that. The CIA Director George Tenet and his team presented to us the information about mobile biological weapons labs as iron clad, absolutely confirmed intelligence coming from four separate sources who independently corroborated one another. One intelligence analyst told me off line that the most important source was an individual, an Iraqi engineer who had been turned and that he was an eyewitness to a deadly accident as a result of biological agents produced in the lab. There was not a word of doubt from anyone. And I blame the CIA for that to this day.

SPIEGEL: Didn't the intelligence community have an opportunity to express their doubts to you?

Wilkerson: An opportunity? There was ample opportunity. We sat with them for five days and nights nights, 24 hours a day, we were embedded with them in the days before the speech. Not one person whispered a word of doubt or anything in that direction.

SPIEGEL: When did you finally hear that there were serious problems with 'Curveball?'

Wilkerson: That was much later -- it was in August or September 2003. The CIA believed in the mobile biological weapons labs until the very last minute. I can remember when the call came. Secretary of State Powell and I had adjoining offices. He stood suddenly at my door and looked into my office and said, ‘well, now the CIA has admitted the mobile labs were probably a false case.’ Looking rather dejected he just went back into his office.

SPIEGEL: What did you think?

Wilkerson: I just thought, that’s it. I wanted to resign. It wasn’t the first time the CIA withdrew information. The other major claims of the speech, like the aluminum tubes and the significant connection to al-Qaida were all proven false. I had my resignation letter typed out, it was sitting in the center desk drawer. I would regularly take it out, look at it, and massage it a bit and that’s what I did on that day. I wish now I had submitted my resignation on that day.

SPIEGEL: Since then you’ve spent a lot of time examining the period leading up to the war and have even done some research of your own. What is your appraisal of the role played by the Germans?

Wilkerson: I can’t exclude the Germans completely here from their share of guilt. They share in the responsibility. They did not just send their information about 'Curveball' as a chance operation. It was carefully considered what they sent to us, each and every word was weighed very carefully. The Germans did not want to injure the relationship between German and American intelligence because they were very interested in maintaining their access to American intelligence information. Let’s not be naïve here. There is real trade in intelligence information and all of our allies are dependent on the United States for certain intelligence information, for example satellite imagery and wiretaps. No one wants to endanger that access. If they don’t appear cooperative, if they don’t give us some good juicy stuff every once in a while, then they won’t be getting all the good stuff from us.

SPIEGEL: But are you saying that the Germans oversold and sexed up the information provided by 'Curveball?'

Wilkerson: I will leave that judgment to others. In the United States, former CIA chief George Tenet and his deputy John McLaughlin should bare the burden for the major part of the blame. Not only can they be criticized for uncritically using the German information about 'Curveball,' but they also ignored signals of caution and warning from their own community -- CIA head of operations in Europe Tyler Drumheller comes to mind. It was their responsibility to inform our Secretary of State about the warnings they had heard. Apparently they lacked the courage. Instead of presenting their doubts, they presented the information to us as if it was iron clad infallible evidence.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel that you made mistakes?

Wilkerson: Of course. It still makes me feel even worse when I just think about it because I was a part of it. Back then I felt I had done a bad job. Everything happened too fast, it was too hurried, everything was jammed through. Why did we agree that Powell would do the UN presentation? Why didn’t we insist that the US Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte do the presentation -- just like Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban Missile Crisis? That all came together and I even began to regret it back then. But I also know -- what were we supposed to do? We were dependent on the information of the intelligence services.

SPIEGEL: Do you ever think that Powell was set up?

Wilkerson: Well I am increasingly convinced that, for a part of the Bush administration, the argument “weapons of mass destruction” was just a camouflage, just subterfuge for their real goals and reasons of the war.

SPIEGEL: What are they?

Wilkerson: I am convinced that the vast oil resources of Iraq weigh heavier for me now when I do the strategic analysis as reasons for the war than I thought back then.

SPIEGEL: Who do you mean specifically? George W. Bush?

Wilkerson: I am not sure. But I would be very interested to look at the documents chronicling Dick Cheney’s pre-war conversations with leading figures of the energy business and with oil magnates. Maybe one day historians will be able to get their hands on those documents and come to a judgment about that -- if and when the classified documents become open to the public.

Interview conducted by John Goetz and Marcel Rosenbach


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