6:15 p.m. September 20, 2013

Colin Powell's Former Chief of Staff: "This Is How Empires Collapse"

"We've created a national security state, and now it's giving us what its main product, which is war."

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But, in a candid conversation with NSFWCORP, the former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell says that too much knowledge may be even more dangerous, and more costly. If Col. Lawrence Wilkerson had his way, he would cut the intelligence community in half and save tens of millions in the process.

In 1989, Col. Wilkerson became the assistant to Colin Powell, then National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Thirteen years later, Powell, as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, tasked Wilkerson with reviewing classified information from the CIA in the lead-up to a presentation on Iraq to the United Nations Security Council. Wilkerson was given just one week to prepare.

He would later tell PBS, "My participation in that presentation at the UN constitutes the lowest point in my professional life. I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations Security Council."

Since his retirement from government, Wilkerson has been intensely critical not just of the Bush Administration and his personal role in the "hoax" on the public in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, but of the intelligence community as a whole. As he explained to me, classified briefings have "very little" oversight "because the two committees - the one in the House and the one in the Senate - that are supposed to oversee the intelligence community don't really know what they're doing, and moreover, are told only what the intelligence community wants to tell them about its activities. And that's never the full sheet."

Asked how the process could be improved, Wilkerson sighed. "You got two or three days?"

"The first step I would take is to realign the entire seventeen entities of the intelligence community. I wouldn't have the organization that we have right now. I wouldn't have the command structure, the leadership structure that we have.

"And then, I would begin to implement personnel policies that would, more or less, begin to generate people that were more professional, less sycophantic, less politically oriented."

Wilkerson is realistic of the time scales involved in that kind of change. "I think it would probably take a generation to create the kind of organizations that we really need and get rid of the sort of organizational ineffectiveness, leadership ineffectiveness, management ineffectiveness that we have now…"

The sheer size of the intelligence community, Wilkerson says, is what, in part, makes it so uncontrollable. "I could do what's being done right now for $80 - $100 million for less than $40 [million], and I could do it with, probably, fifty percent of the personnel power that we have today and probably less than fifty percent of the building structure and the establishment that we have. It's way too big, it's way too unwieldy, it spends far too much money for the little success it achieves. I'd redesign the entire intelligence community."

He continued, "We've shot up from somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 or 60,000 people with top- secret code word clearances - to over 840,000, I think at last count. We've got a lot of private contractors who are in the business, which is why we get things like Edward Snowden. We've got a lot of waste, a lot of fraud and abuse, if you will. We've got just a whole hell of a lot of duplication."

Despite Wilkerson's desire to trim the intelligence and defense fat, he acknowledges that it is an unpopular idea to many. “We've created so many constituencies for them. [Intelligence] from private contractors to what Eisenhower called the 'military industrial complex' to congressmen who have facilities in their district - we've created all these people who are heavily invested in these agencies and these institutions' existence.

"It becomes impossible to not just cut them, but it becomes impossible to do anything but grow them - that's how empires collapse. We've created a national security state. We've got exactly what we started out in 1947 to build and now it's giving us what its main product, which is war."

Wilkerson suggests that the enormity of the intelligence community is what prevents the thorough scrutiny of simple concepts. Fighting violence with violence, Wilkerson told me, is "totally feckless. I think it's ridiculous… it is half-baked.

"They haven't asked themselves the question you're asking me, or the question you're intimating, and that is, 'What's next? What happens when it doesn't work?' Because it isn't going to work."