Former Powell Chief of Staff: Cheney "Fears Being Tried as a War Criminal"

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson defends Colin Powell in wake of Cheney memoir

August 30, 2011, 2:31 PM

Aug. 30, 2011— -- Former Vice President Dick Cheney's memoir, "In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir," is out Tuesday, and it's full of criticism and attacks on his Bush administration colleagues -- from describing Condoleezza Rice as "tearfully admitting" he was right on the war in Iraq to revealing private conversations with George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq war.

He reserves much of his ire for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and now Powell and his longtime aide and chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, are attempting to set the record straight. In no uncertain terms. Cheney, Wilkerson told ABC News, "was president for all practical purposes for the first term of the Bush administration" and "fears being tried as a war criminal."

In his memoir, Cheney claims Powell undermined President Bush. "It was as though he thought the proper way to express his views was by criticizing administration policy to people outside the government," Cheney writes, adding that he encouraged Powell's removal from the administration after the 2004 election, writing Powell's resignation "was for the best."

Powell himself called Cheney's criticism "cheap shots" during an interview this past Sunday on CBS News' Face the Nation.

"What really sort of got my attention was this way in which he characterized it: it's going to 'cause heads to explode,'" Powell said. "That's quite a visual. And in fact, it's the kind of headline I would expect to come out of a gossip columnist, or the kind of headline you might see one of the supermarket tabloids write. It's not the kind of headline I would have expected to come from a former vice president of the United States of America."

Before serving as Powell's chief of staff while Powell was Secretary of State, Wilkerson worked in the first Bush administration as a special assistant to Powell, who was then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cheney was serving as Secretary of Defense. He's known Cheney for decades, but says now, "I simply don't recognize Mr. Cheney anymore" and calling him a "very vindictive person."

"I think he's just trying to, one, assert himself so he's not in some subsequent time period tried for war crimes and, second, so that he somehow vindicates himself because he feels like he needs vindication. That in itself tells you something about him," Wilkerson told ABC News, explaining that Cheney may have "angst" because of receiving deferments instead of serving in the Vietnam War like Wilkerson and others in the administration.

"He's developed an angst and almost a protective cover, and now he fears being tried as a war criminal so he uses such terminology as 'exploding heads all over Washington' because that's the way someone who's decided he's not going to be prosecuted acts: boldly, let's get out in front of everybody, let's act like we are not concerned and so forth when in fact they are covering up their own fear that somebody will Pinochet him," Wilkerson said alluding to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested for war crimes.

Cheney told NBC News that his revealing memoir would have "heads exploding all over Washington."

Wilkerson said Powell was "simply not opposed to the war," citing the former Secretary of State's now infamous trip to the United Nations in February 2003 in which he testified that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction as proof that he wasn't undermining Bush. Instead, Wilkerson said he actually criticized Powell for "expressing too much support" for the war and explained that he used his own military experience to advise Powell that the U.S. military wasn't finished with its job in Afghanistan and the military would be stretched too thin. He said he registered "all manner of objections" to Powell, adding that "some of those probably leaked" but that Powell wasn't objecting to the war.

"From what I've read, Cheney seems to criticize everyone, including President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, [Deputy Secretary of State] Rich Armitage, and a host of others except himself. Waterboarding is a war crime, unwarranted surveillance… all of which are crimes. I don't care whether the president authorized him to do it or not, they are crimes," Wilkerson said. "Cheney was a good secretary of defense in my view. In fact I would put him up amongst the top three in the short history of the position. No longer do I feel that way, and I don't know what happened to Cheney."

Wilkerson levels a serious charge that he believes Powell was misled before going to the United Nations in 2003, beginning the march to war in Iraq.

"I think he was misled by the DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] George Tenet, by the deputy DCI John McLaughlin and by the vice president of the United States who had put Tenet and McLaughlin under such pressure that they dared not respond except with the message that the vice president wanted them to respond with," Wilkerson said. "[Cheney] had been out there [to the CIA] a dozen times to put his personal imprint on George Tenet, John McLaughlin and others so that they would know positively what he wanted, and what he wanted was war with Iraq."

Tenet declined to comment for the article, but he paints a different picture in his own memoir, "At the Center of the Storm," about how the U.N. speech came about.

Wilkerson added that he was struck that Cheney doesn't seem to admit any mistakes or backtrack any of the decisions he made during his time in the administration.

"There are plenty of people who have written their memoirs and have had battles to fight in those memoirs who have not been as acidic or acerbic as Cheney is and I can't think of anyone … who have not at least admitted to a mistake here and there or at least given some extenuating circumstances. Cheney doesn't seem capable of that," Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson adds, "Something happened to Dick Cheney and it wasn't just 9/11," which Cheney cites as deeply changing him. Wilkerson said the former vice president always "coveted power" and that Cheney was "fully expecting that he was going to be vice-president" when he headed up the search team for Bush.

"I can't speak to the psychosomatic or the genetic problems with heart attacks or whatever, but I can speak to power," Wilkerson said. "He wanted desperately to be president of the United States … he knew the Texas governor was not steeped in anything but baseball, so he knew he was going to be president and I think he got his dream. He was president for all practical purposes for the first term of the Bush administration."