As mentioned yesterday, Colin Powell’s former State Department chief of staff, ret. Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, posted at The Washington Note that an “investigation” he was conducting determined that the Bush administration torture program existed primarily to manufacture “a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida” to justify an invasion. That’s a line of inquiry suggested by the Senate Armed Services Committee’s recently-declassified torture investigation. But Wilkerson went further, writing that former Vice President Dick Cheney’s office took a particular interest in the torture of al-Qaeda detainee Ibn Shaikh al-Libi — who recently was found dead in a Libyan prison — evidently believing he could provide such a smoking gun:

[E]ven 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.

Did Wilkerson mean to say that? And what was the genesis of that “investigation,” anyway? I caught up with Wilkerson via email.

["Investigation" is] just a term I use.  Probably more appropriate to say “research”, as I am an academic now.

In 2004, just before the Abu Ghraib photos were plastered over the country, Secretary Powell walked in to my office and told me the photos were going to be revealed and to find out what had happened.  He said that Will Taft, his Legal Advisor, was working on the legal aspects and he wanted me to work on the political aspects as well as how we got to where we were–a chronology and such.  From that point on, I have been “investigating”.  I have not ceased.

Wilkerson didn’t specify a timeline for the torture of al-Libi, but he did write that manufacturing the “smoking gun” was the context for the Bush administration’s top-level deliberations in “April and May of 2002″ about adopting an “enhanced interrogation” program for use on Abu Zubaydah, then the senior-most al-Qaeda captive in CIA custody. Al-Libi, however, was in CIA custody at the end of 2001 and rendered to Egypt for torture in or around January 2002. Thomas Joscelyn did some inferential reading at the Weekly Standard’s blog to refute Wilkerson:

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.

As Joscelyn writes, the DIA indeed filed a February 2002 notice indicating distrust for al-Libi’s claims about Iraq assisting al-Qaeda’s efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. “It is more likely that this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers,” a DIA report known as DITSUM #044-02 reads. “Ibn al-Shaykh [al-Libi] has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may describing [sic] scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest.” Yet al-Libi’s dubious information made its way into the intelligence bloodstream, all the way up to Colin Powell’s since-discredited 2003 speech to the United Nations justifying the invasion — the first draft of which had a big assist from Cheney’s office, including then-chief of staff Scooter Libby. In March 2004, after the invasion, the CIA withdrew its support for al-Libi’s claims.

Joscelyn wrote, “It is doubtful that any part of Wilkerson’s story is true.” I asked Wilkerson if he wished to respond.

If their account is the accurate one, explain to me why Tenet and McLaughlin [then the director and deputy director of the CIA] came to Secretary Powell in February 2003–yes, 2003–with the information about al-Libi as if it were fresh as the morning dew. Powell was ready to throw out almost everything Tenet had given him on the contacts of Baghdad with terrorists, particularly al-Qa’ida. Suddenly, on 1 Feb, there was the shocking revelation of a high-level al-Qa’ida operative who had just revealed significant contacts between al-Qa’ida and Baghdad. Powell changed his mind and that information went into his presentation to the [United Nations Security Council] on 5 Feb 2003. We were never told of the DIA dissent.

And what about the timeline — or suggested timeline — in the original post?

I am basing my conclusions on the fact that DCI Tenet and DDCI McLaughlin presented the information about al-Libi to Secretary Powell in Feb 2003 and not in Feb 2002.  The strong impression was that the interrogation had just occurred or, at a minimum, that Tenet had just received the information (otherwise, why wouldn’t they have given it to Powell much earlier, say when he first expressed concerns over the terrorist links some days earlier?). I have no idea when the Egyptians waterboarded al-Libi other than what Tenet and McLauglin implied in their presentation to Powell–which, incidentally, was quite effective on him. 

Who says the Egyptians tortured al-Libi in Feb 2002?   I’m prepared to modify my views if that can be proved.  But not by much because that is a minor part of my position.

Crossposted to The Streak.