WASHINGTON — A top aide to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Monday that wrongheaded ideas for the handling of foreign detainees arose from White House and Pentagon officials who argued that "the president of the United States is all-powerful."
In an interview, Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, also said that President Bush was "too aloof, too distant from the details" of postwar planning. Underlings exploited Bush's detachment and made poor decisions, Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson blamed Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and like-minded aides. He said Cheney must have sincerely believed that Iraq could be a spawning ground for new terrorist assaults, because "otherwise I have to declare him a moron, an idiot or a nefarious bastard."
On the question of detainees picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Wilkerson said Bush heard two sides of an impassioned argument within his administration.
Cheney's office, Rumsfeld aides and others argued "that the president of the United States is all-powerful, that as commander in chief the president of the United States can do anything he damn well pleases," Wilkerson said.
On the other side were Powell, others at the State Department and top military brass, and occasionally Condoleezza Rice, then the national security advisor, Wilkerson said.
Powell raised frequent and loud objections, his former aide said, once yelling into a telephone at Rumsfeld: "Donald, don't you understand what you are doing to our image?"
Wilkerson said Bush tried to work out a compromise in 2001 and 2002 that recognized that the war on terrorism was different from past wars and required greater flexibility in handling prisoners who don't belong to an enemy state or follow the rules themselves.
Bush's stated policy, which was heatedly criticized by civil liberties and legal groups at the time, was defensible, Wilkerson said. But it was quickly undermined in practice, he said.
In the field, the United States followed the policies of hard-liners who wanted essentially unchecked ability to detain and harshly interrogate prisoners at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere, Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson left government with Powell in January. He became a surprise critic of the Iraq war-planning effort and other administration decisions this fall, and he has said that Powell did not put him up to it.