Flashback—Ex-Bush Official, Col. Wilkerson: “I am Willing to Testify” If Dick Cheney is Prosecuted for Torture

I was reminded yesterday of an interview on Democracy Now! with Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.) in 2011, in which he was asked about Vice President Dick Cheney’s recently released memoir. As many readers know, Col. Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell (2002-2005). What he said in 2011 is highly relevant today.

An excerpt of the interview (below) starts with a statement by Glenn Greenwald, which provides the context and is also important because Col. Wilkerson adds, “I agree with almost everything” Greenwald said. But the key line is Col. Wilkerson’s statement that he would be “willing to testify” against Cheney.

This was no idle statement. In 2010, Col. Wilkerson had submitted a declaration, which was highly critical of the interrogation program and the actions of senior Bush officials, in the case of Adel Hassan Hamad, a former Guantánamo detainee who was seeking compensation from the U.S. government.

Amy Goodman: Colonel Wilkerson, we also have Glenn Greenwald on the line with us from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is a constitutional law attorney, political and legal blogger for Salon.com. His recent article on Cheney’s book is called “The Fruits of Elite Immunity.” Glenn, explain.

Glenn Greenwald: One of the most significant aspects of the rollout of Dick Cheney’s book is that he’s basically being treated as though he’s just an elder statesman who has some controversial, partisan political views. And yet, the evidence is overwhelming, including most of what Colonel Wilkerson just said and has been saying for quite some time, and lots of other people, as well, including, for example, General Antonio Taguba, that Dick Cheney is not just a political figure with controversial views, but is an actual criminal, that he was centrally involved in a whole variety not just of war crimes in Iraq, but of domestic crimes, as well, including the authorization of warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens in violation of FISA, which says that you go to jail for five years for each offense, as well as the authorization and implementation of a worldwide torture regime that, according to General Barry McCaffrey, resulted in the murder—his word—of dozens of detainees, far beyond just the three or four cases of waterboarding that media figures typically ask Cheney about.

And yet, what we have is a government, a successor administration, the Obama administration, that announced that there will be no criminal investigations, no, let alone, prosecutions of any Bush officials for any of these multiple crimes. And that has taken these actions outside of the criminal realm and turned them into just garden-variety political disputes. And it’s normalized the behavior. And as a result, Dick Cheney goes around the country profiting off of this, you know, sleazy, sensationalistic, self-serving book, basically profiting from his crimes, and at the same time normalizing the idea that these kind of policies, though maybe in the view of some wrongheaded, are perfectly legitimate political choices to make. And I think that’s the really damaging legacy from all of this.

Amy Goodman: Colonel Wilkerson, do you think the Bush administration officials should be held accountable in the way that Glenn Greenwald is talking about?

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson: I certainly do. And I’d be willing to testify, and I’d be willing to take any punishment I’m due. And I have to say, I agree with almost everything he just said. And I think that explains the aggressiveness, to a large extent, of the Cheney attack and of the words like “exploding heads all over Washington.” This is a book written out of fear, fear that one day someone will “Pinochet” Dick Cheney.

There are several important implications to Col. Wilkerson’s statement regardless of whether one thinks Vice President Cheney should or will ever see the inside of a courtroom. I’d like to highlight three implications.

1. Historical understanding: Did some senior administration officials know, or should they have known, that the interrogation program was illegal at the time? Col. Wilkerson appears to be saying that Vice President Cheney in particular understood full well. [See also Wilkerson’s more recent interview on December 9, 2014 with Chris Hayes where he states that Cheney was “the one who has read in … the need for the law to covertheir rear ends … He was the man in the shadows, orchestrating all of this fromhis position in the White House.”]

2. Public space to criticize: Having credible insiders such as Col. Wilkerson take public positions opens up space for what is “sayable”—the willingness of other people to assign blame to former colleagues and to accept responsibility themselves, potentially including others with even more direct knowledge of events.

3. Vice President Cheney’s public standing and reputation: I have heard dismay from former senior officials that Vice President Cheney is on the media circuit “representing” the views of the prior administration on the torture program, especially Cheney’s statements such as “I’d do it again in a minute.” Col. Wilkerson’s vocalizing his views helps to shape the narrative around people like Cheney—whether they will be seen at dinner parties and newsrooms as elder statesmen or “unindicted criminals.” 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.