You might think a journalist like myself has special insight into the way news cycles work, but I must say that for every feeding frenzy that I predict, there is a story like this one that strikes me as huge, but is mostly ignored.
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld covered up that hundreds of innocent men were sent to the Guantánamo Bay prison camp because they feared that releasing them would harm the push for war in Iraq and the broader War on Terror, according to a new document obtained by The Times.
The accusations were made by Lawrence Wilkerson, a top aide to Colin Powell, the former Republican Secretary of State, in a signed declaration to support a lawsuit filed by a Guantánamo detainee. It is the first time that such allegations have been made by a senior member of the Bush Administration.
Colonel Wilkerson, who was General Powell’s chief of staff when he ran the State Department, was most critical of Mr Cheney and Mr Rumsfeld. He claimed that the former Vice-President and Defence Secretary knew that the majority of the initial 742 detainees sent to Guantánamo in 2002 were innocent but believed that it was “politically impossible to release them”.
General Powell, who left the Bush Administration in 2005, angry about the misinformation that he unwittingly gave the world when he made the case for the invasion of Iraq at the UN, is understood to have backed Colonel Wilkerson’s declaration.
The central news here is stunning — a former Bush Administration official asserting under oath that his bosses knowingly kept hundreds of innocent men imprisoned. Beyond that, there is the curiously phrased assertion that Colin Powell “is understood to have backed” these allegations. What exactly does that mean? I find it hard to imagine circumstances that would cause me to phrase something that way in a reported piece.
As far as I can tell, only Fox News has done the obvious follow-up reporting.
Peggy Cifrino, principal assistant to Powell, said in a written statement to Fox News, “General Powell has not seen Colonel Wilkerson’s declaration and, therefore, cannot provide a comment. Nor, obviously, can ‘it be understood that he backed’ the declaration as reported by Tim Reid of The Times.”
I am hesitant to skewer Colin Powell here since the strangeness of all this reporting makes it difficult to know exactly what is going on, but here is my tentative thought: Either President Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld are being slandered, and deserve for Gen. Powell to speak up on their behalf, or else they’ve committed grave injustices, in which case Powell owes it to the country to say as much. Instead we get a weaselly statement that neither confirms nor denies anything on the dubious ground that Powell hasn’t seen Colonel Wilkerson’s declaration. Am I wrong in imagining that if he wanted a copy he wouldn’t have much trouble getting ahold of it? Or that he is perfectly capable of commenting on the general question of whether the Bush Administration knowingly held innocents?
Perhaps General Powell is preparing a statement even as I type this. If not, I certainly hope he’ll come under pressure to reveal what he knows about this matter, whether its effect is to confirm or repudiate his former aide’s accusations.