On May 2, Lawrence Wilkerson, a close confidant of Colin Powell who served as chief-of-staff during Powell’s tenure as secretary of state, raised eyebrows when he told Current TV that reports of Syrian chemical weapons use might have been Israeli “false flag operations.” His pronouncement—which was part speculation and part sourced to his friends in the intelligence community—was quickly picked up and rebroadcast as fact by such outlets as Iran’s Press TV and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar.
As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) points out, this is hardly the first time Wilkerson has made bizarre accusations, but CAMERA does not go far enough. Wilkerson acted as a definitive source for any number of stories throughout the Bush administration until now. As Powell’s chief-of-staff, journalists accepted his pabulum uncritically, never asking whether Wilkerson was at meetings for which he purported to offer first-hand accounts. The fact is that chiefs-of-staff do not go to meetings; they manage offices. Many of those whom Wilkerson pretends to have had conversations with say they never met him.
Nevertheless, Wilkerson remains central to some of the most pernicious—and false—rumors and conspiracies surrounding George W. Bush’s tenure:
- Craig Unger, a prolific journalist who frequently contributes to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, used Wilkerson as a source in his conspiratorial polemic about so-called neoconservatives (Unger uses the term more synonymously with Jews than with the true meaning of the movement) and the Christian Right.
- Alan Kennedy-Shaffer, an Obama campaign operative and Huffington Post contributor, used Wilkerson as a source to slander Vice President Dick Cheney and to cast blame for intelligence failures overshadowing Operation Iraqi Freedom.
- Much of the demonstrated falsehood regarding an alleged 2003 Iranian grand bargain offer that Iran lobbyist Trita Parsi put forward in his two books rests on conversations with Wilkerson.
- Both the Washington Post and the New York Times regularly used Wilkerson to tar Republicans.
- Journalists like Laura Rozen and Jeff Stein, and the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin (formerly of USA Today and The Washington Times), also relied disproportionately on Lawrence Wilkerson to confirm wild conspiracy theories. They appear to have been so consumed with partisan animus that they did not bother to fact-check his allegations with those who had first-hand knowledge of events he purported to describe.
- Steve Clemons—one of Chuck Hagel’s staunchest supporters—worked tirelessly to promote Wilkerson and his views.
- Scott Bonn, an academic at Drew University, also cited Wilkerson to support the notion that Bush lied in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Wilkerson was a source for journalists not only after Powell retired from government, but also during his tenure. The only difference was before 2005 he would speak on background, while after 2005 he would let his hatred for anyone with whom he disagreed shine through. That Wilkerson is a fabulist who prioritizes polemic over truth should be readily clear as his outbursts become increasingly bizarre. That no journalist has yet to go back and trace how many stories they accept as conventional wisdom were based on rotten foundations is a testimony to how unprofessional many of the writers, journalists, and bloggers cited above can be. Those who quoted Wilkerson became his willing accomplices. Together, they represent the rot that permeates the Fourth Estate.
The story does not stop there, however. It is unlikely that Powell was ignorant of Wilkerson’s actions; rather, Powell appeared all too willing to turn a blind eye in a dirty game to win a policy debate by tarring his opponents. Nor was Powell likely unaware of Wilkerson’s dangerous obsession with American policymakers who happened to be Jewish. It is quite easy to interpret Powell’s persistent silence and failure to repudiate a man whose credibility is solely based on his relationship to Powell as an endorsement for Wilkerson’s hateful views. Wilkerson’s shame is Colin Powell’s as well. Powell’s silence shows his own character is likely not much different from that of the colonel who was his closest aide.