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Profile: James R. Wilkinson
Positions that James R. Wilkinson has held:
- Deputy White House communications director
- Head of the Coalition Information Center (CIC) war room
James R. Wilkinson was a participant or observer in the following events:
The New York Times is the first to report that the Office of Strategic Influence, a secret Pentagon office established shortly after the September 11 attacks (see Shortly after September 11, 2001), is “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.” The article reports that many inside the government are opposed to these plans. “[S]everal senior officials have questioned whether its mission is too broad and possibly even illegal,” the Times says. “[T]hey are disturbed that a single office might be authorized to use not only covert operations like computer network attacks, psychological activities, and deception, but also the instruments and staff of the military’s globe-spanning public affairs apparatus.” Critics are also concerned that “disinformation planted in foreign media organizations, like Reuters or Agence France-Presse, could end up being published or broadcast by American news organizations.” [New York Times, 2/19/2002] The Washington Post similarly reports that discussions on the use of disinformation “have sparked widespread concern inside the Defense Department among officials who feel that the new office, by seeking to manipulate information and even knowingly dispense false information, could backfire and discredit official Pentagon statements.” [Washington Post, 2/25/2002] News of the Defense Department’s initiative causes an immediate public outcry and the Pentagon denies that it is considering plans to disseminate disinformation. “The Department of Defense, this secretary and the people that work with me tell the American people and the people of the world the truth,” Donald Rumsfeld insists. [Washington Post, 2/21/2002] Jim Wilkinson, deputy White House communications director and head of the Coalition Information Center (CIC) war room, likewise states, “The president is a plain-spoken, truthful man and he expects that same high standard from every public affairs spokesperson in the government.” [Washington Post, 2/25/2002] Some of the most strenuous objections center around the use of the Army’s Psychological Operations unit to carry out OSI programs. [Rich, 2006, pp. 32] Rumsfeld, facing mounting criticism, closes the office a few days later (see February 26, 2002).
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announces the closure of the Office of Strategic Influence (see Shortly after September 11, 2001), after news of the Pentagon propaganda initiative causes a public stir (see February 19, 2002). “The office has clearly been so damaged that it is pretty clear to me that it could not function effectively,” he tells reporters. “So it is being closed down.” Asked if he instructed Rumsfeld to close the office, President Bush says: “I didn’t even need to tell him this. He knows how I feel about this.” [New York Times, 2/27/2002] Nine months later, Rumsfeld says that after the OSI was closed, “I went down that next day and said fine, if you want to savage this thing fine I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have.” [US Department of Defense, 11/18/2002] Much of its operations are apparently shifted to another unit called the Information Operations Task Force. Some operations are farmed out to the Rendon Group, a private public relations firm with extensive experience marketing wars and foreign policy for Republican administrations (see May 1991 and Late May 2001). [Rolling Stone, 11/17/2005; Rich, 2006, pp. 189]
White House chief of staff Andrew Card forms the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, which aims to “educate the public” about the alleged threat from Iraq. WHIG is formed concurrently with the Office of Special Plans (see September 2002). A senior official involved with the group will later describe it as “an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities.” [Washington Post, 8/10/2003] According to White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan, the WHIG is “set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the [Iraq] war,” and will continue “as a strategic communications group after the invasion had toppled Saddam [Hussein]‘s regime.” McClellan, who will become a full-fledged member of the WHIG after rising to the position of senior press secretary, will write: “Some critics have suggested that sinister plans were discussed at the WHIG meetings to deliberately mislead the public. Not so. There were plenty of discussions about how to set the agenda and influence the narrative, but there was no conspiracy to intentionally deceive. Instead, there were straightforward discussions of communications strategies and messaging grounded in the familiar tactics of the permanent campaign.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 142] Author Craig Unger will sum up the WHIG’s purpose up more bluntly: “to sell the war.” Members of the group include White House political advisers Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, James R. Wilkinson, and Nicholas E. Calio, and policy advisers led by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, her deputy Stephen Hadley, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. They meet weekly in the White House Situation Room. A “strategic communications” task force under the WHIG is charged with planning speeches and writing position papers. [Washington Post, 8/10/2003; Unger, 2007, pp. 241]
Marketing Fear, Idea of Invasion as Reasonable - After Labor Day 2002—and after suitable test marketing—the group launches a full-fledged media marketing campaign. The images and storyline are simple and visceral: imminent biological or chemical attack, threats of nuclear holocaust, Saddam Hussein as a psychopathic dictator who can only be stopped by American military force. A key element of the narrative is forged documents “proving” Iraq sought uranium from Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002). One of the main objectives is to swing the dialogue ever farther to the right, creating the assumption in the public mind that war with Iraq is a thoughtful, moderate, well-reasoned position, and delegitimizing any opposition. To that end, Cheney stakes out the “moderate” position, with statements like “many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon” (see August 26, 2002), and neoconservatives such as Michael Ledeen pushing the extremes ever rightward with calls to invade not only Iraq, but Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia (see September 20, 2001, August 6, 2002, and September 4, 2002). The real push is delayed until the second week of September. As Card reminds the group, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” (see September 6, 2002). The first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is a perfect opportunity to launch the new campaign (see September 8, 2002). [Unger, 2007, pp. 250-251] Wilkinson, the group’s communications director, is tasked with preparing one of the group’s first public releases, a white paper that will describe the “grave and gathering danger” of Iraq’s “reconstituted” nuclear weapons program. Wilkinson will claim that Iraq “sought uranium oxide, an essential ingredient in the enrichment process, from Africa.” [CounterPunch, 11/9/2005]
'Push[ing] the Envelope' - According to an intelligence source interviewed by the New York Daily News in October 2005, the group, on “a number of occasions,” will attempt “to push the envelope on things.… The [CIA] would say, ‘We just don’t have the intelligence to substantiate that.’” [New York Daily News, 10/19/2005] In 2003, three unnamed officials will tell a Washington Post reporter that the group “wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence,” what author and reporter Charlie Savage will call “a stark display of the political benefits that come with the power to control information.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 357] In 2008, McClellan will write of “the heightened rhetoric on Iraq, including unequivocal statements that made things sound more certain than was known.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 137]
Using Friendly Media Outlets - An important part of the WHIG strategy is to feed their messages to friendly journalists, such as New York Times reporter Judith Miller. James Bamford, in his book A Pretext for War, will write: “First OSP [Office of Special Plans] supplies false or exaggerated intelligence; then members of the WHIG leak it to friendly reporters, complete with prepackaged vivid imagery; finally, when the story breaks, senior officials point to it as proof and parrot the unnamed quotes they or their colleagues previously supplied.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 325]
Entity Tags: Stephen J. Hadley, Scott McClellan, Saddam Hussein, Nicholas E. Calio, White House Iraq Group, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Condoleezza Rice, Mary Matalin, Andrew Card, Craig Unger, James Bamford, Charlie Savage, Karen Hughes, James R. Wilkinson, Karl C. Rove
Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing
The White House publishes a 26-page government white paper titled, “A Decade of Deception and Defiance,” which seeks to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein represents a serious and imminent threat to the United States. The report, written by White House Iraq Group member James Wilkinson, relies primarily on public sources, including reports that have been published by human rights groups and the State Department, as well as various newspaper articles, including two by the New York Times. [Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 48] Section 5 of the report deals with “Saddam Hussein’s support for international terrorism,” though it makes no attempt to tie Hussein’s government to al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. It lists six points linking Saddam Hussein to terrorist activities, some dating as far back as the ‘70s. One of the points criticizes Iraq for its ties to the Mujahadeen-e Khalq Organization (MKO), an obscure militant Iranian dissident group whose main office is in Baghdad. The report says: “Iraq shelters terrorist groups including the Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO), which has used terrorist violence against Iran and in the 1970s was responsible for killing several US military personnel and US civilians.” The paper notes that the US State Department classified MKO as a “foreign terrorist organization” in 1997, “accusing the Baghdad-based group of a long series of bombings, guerilla cross-border raids and targeted assassinations of Iranian leaders.” [Newsweek, 9/26/2002 Sources: Richard Durbin] The administration is quickly ridiculed for making the claim when, two weeks later, Newsweek reports that MKO’s front organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has a small office in the National Press Building in Washington, DC. It is also reported that only two years beforehand this very group had been supported by then-Senator John Ashcroft and more than 200 other members of Congress. On several issues the senator and his colleagues had expressed solidarity with MKO at the behest of their Iranian-American constituencies. [Newsweek, 9/26/2002] Another allegation included in the paper states that Iraqi defector Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a civil engineer, “had visited twenty secret facilities for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.” According to the White House dossier, Haideri “supported his claims with stacks of Iraqi government contracts, complete with technical specifications.” Ten months earlier, the CIA had debriefed Haideri in Bangkok and concluded from the results of a polygraph that Haideri account was a complete fabrication (see December 17, 2001). [Executive Office of the President, 9/12/2002 ]
US military officials insist that US and British aerial attacks against targets in Iraq are being conducted only in response to Iraqis firing on planes patrolling the so-called “no-fly” zones. The increased number of aerial strikes (see June 2002-March 2003) is a response, they say, to Iraq’s increased hostility toward US and British jets, not preparation for a ground attack as some critics have suggested. “The Iraqi regime has increased its attacks on the coalition, so the coalition has increased its efforts to protect its pilots,” Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for the US Central Command in Tampa, says. “Every coalition action is in direct response to Iraqi hostile acts against our pilots, or the regime’s attempts to materially improve its military infrastructure south of the 33rd parallel.” But according to the Washington Post, these officials have also “acknowledge[d] that military planners are taking full advantage of the opportunity to target Iraq’s integrated air defense network for destruction in a systemic fashion that will ease the way for US air and ground forces if President Bush decides war is the only option for disarming Iraq.” Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute who has ties to defense contractors and the Pentagon, says the attacks on Iraq’s southern air defenses will allow the US military “to send in almost anything it wants—bombers, fighters, and helicopters with Special Operations Forces” when the official invasion begins. It will also make it safer for the slow-moving C-17 transports to move troops inside Iraq. Similarly, retired Air Force Col. John Warden, who helped plan the US air campaign against Iraq in 1991, explains, “Anything that would need to be knocked out that is knocked out now saves some sorties once the war starts.” The attacks, he notes, have “some obvious value in the event of a war.” Anthony H. Cordesman, a former defense official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also disputes the notion that the increased US air attacks are purely retaliatory. “You enforce containment when you carry out these strikes, and you deter Iraq from any kind of military adventure,” he explains. “And when you conduct these strikes, you are preparing part of the battleground for a war.” [Washington Post, 1/15/2003]
Vice President Dick Cheney’s interest in former ambassador and current Iraq whistleblower Joseph Wilson is renewed when Wilson informs New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that he was the special envoy who went to Niger in February 2002 to investigate the uranium claims (see February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002). When Kristof publishes the information (see May 6, 2003), according to a CIA official, “a request came in from Cheney that was passed to me that said ‘the vice president wants to know whether Joe Wilson went to Niger.’ I’m paraphrasing. But that’s more or less what I was asked to find out.” Cheney, of course, knew Wilson had gone to Niger (see (February 13, 2002)). The campaign to discredit and besmirch Wilson begins again (see March 9, 2003 and After), this time in a much more intensified manner. “Cheney and Libby made it clear that Wilson had to be shut down,” the CIA official will later say. “This wasn’t just about protecting the credibility of the White House. For the vice president, going after Wilson was purely personal, in my opinion.” Cheney is heavily involved in this second phase of the anti-Wilson campaign as well, pushing CIA officials to find out everything they can about Wilson. Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley also pressures State Department officials to send information they have on Wilson to his attention at the NSC. It is also at this time that Cheney and at least some members of his staff learn that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, is a covert CIA officer. At least one meeting is held in the Office of the Vice President to discuss possible strategies to use against Wilson. According to a State Department official, Cheney is not at this particular meeting: “Libby [Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby] led the meeting. But he was just as upset about Wilson as Cheney was.” [USA Today, 4/29/2004; Truthout (.org), 2/9/2006] In a 2005 interview, Wilson will tell a reporter that he believes others in the White House’s communications and public relation staffs, including Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, and James Wilkinson, all become aware of Plame Wilson’s secret CIA status, as does Hadley, his boss, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and White House chief of staff Andrew Card. “That would be the natural group because they were constituted to spin the war, so they would be naturally the ones to try to deflect criticism,” Wilson will say. [Raw Story, 7/13/2005] In 2008, current White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan will acknowledge that “Cheney and his staff were leading a White House effort to discredit Joe Wilson himself.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 171]
Entity Tags: Office of the Vice President, Karen Hughes, Joseph C. Wilson, James R. Wilkinson, Condoleezza Rice, Central Intelligence Agency, Andrew Card, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Nicholas Kristof, US Department of State, Valerie Plame Wilson, Scott McClellan, Mary Matalin, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Stephen J. Hadley
Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing
National Security Council spokesman Jim Wilkinson engages in rather unusual tactics against former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, in response to Clarke’s recent criticisms of the Bush administration’s lack of preparation for the 9/11 attacks (see March 22, 2004 and March 24, 2004). Wilkinson is abetted by CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer.
'X-Files Stuff' - In the CNN studio, Wilkinson twists a passage from Clarke’s book Against All Enemies, saying: “He’s talking about how he sits back and visualizes chanting by bin Laden and how bin Laden has some sort of mind control over US officials. This is sort of ‘X-Files’ stuff.” [CNN, 3/30/2004] (The precise quote, as reported by the New York Times’s Paul Krugman, is: “Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed.… It was as if Osama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush.” Krugman writes: “That’s not ‘X-Files stuff’: it’s a literary device, meant to emphasize just how ill conceived our policy is. Mr. Blitzer should be telling Mr. Wilkinson to apologize, not rerunning those comments in his own defense.”) [New York Times, 4/2/2004]
'Weird Aspects in His Life' - For his part, Blitzer later says in a question to CNN’s John King: “What administration officials have been saying since the weekend, basically that Richard Clarke from their vantage point was a disgruntled former government official, angry because he didn’t get a certain promotion. He’s got a hot new book out now that he wants to promote. He wants to make a few bucks, and that his own personal life, they’re also suggesting that there are some weird aspects in his life as well, that they don’t know what made this guy come forward and make these accusations against the president.”
CNN Clarification - Blitzer’s use of innuendo (“weird aspects in his life”) from unnamed administration sources causes enough of a backlash that Blitzer issues a “clarification” of his remarks: “I was not referring to anything charged by so-called unnamed White House officials.… I was simply seeking to flesh out what Bush National Security Council spokesman Jim Wilkinson had said on this program two days earlier.… Other than that… White House officials were not talking about Clarke’s personal life in any way.” As author and media critic Frank Rich will point out, Blitzer’s clarification is disingenuous in his implicit denial that his administration sources were anonymous, when in fact they were not. [CNN, 3/30/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 114-119] (Krugman, who blasted Blitzer in his column, responds to Blitzer’s clarification by writing, “Silly me: I ‘alleged’ that Mr. Blitzer said something because he actually said it, and described ‘so-called unnamed’ officials as unnamed because he didn’t name them.”) [New York Times, 4/2/2004] Blitzer eventually admits that his source was not multiple administration officials, but a single official (whom he refuses to name), and that the “weird aspects” of Clarke’s life were nothing more than his tendency to obsess over terrorist attack scenarios. [CNN, 3/30/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 114-119]
Rear Admiral Frank Thorp, who falsely told reporters that captured Private Jessica Lynch “fired her weapon” at her captors “until she had no more ammunition” in initial military press briefings (see April 3, 2003), discusses his misleading statements with staffers of the House Oversight Committee, which is investigating the possibility that the US military used the Lynch story as propaganda (see April 24, 2007). Thorp, who was later promoted and became the chief public relations officer for then-Joint Chief Chairman Richard Myers, writes: “As I recall, this was a short interview and media desperately wanted me to confirm the story that was running in the States.… I never said that I had seen any intel or even intimated the same.… I may have said I am familiar with ‘the reports’ meaning the press reports, but as you can see I did not confirm them.… We did have reports of a battle and that a firefight had occurred.… That is what I stated.” Thorp says he does not recall ever seeing any classified battlefield intelligence reports concerning Lynch, and says he does not now remember if his remarks were based on such reports. When asked if he knew at the time that Lynch had, in fact, not gotten off a shot at her attackers, Thorp replies, “I would absolutely never, ever, ever, ever say anything that I knew to not be true.” At the time of the Lynch rescue, the chief public affairs official for CENTCOM briefings was Jim Wilkinson, the director of strategic communications for CENTCOM commander, General Tommy Franks. Wilkinson tells the committee that he was not a source for the media reporting concerning Lynch, and that he didn’t know any details of her capture and rescue: “I still, to this day, don’t know if those details are right or wrong. I just don’t know. I don’t remember seeing any operational report.” Thorp and Wilkinson claim not to know who provided such misleading information to reporters. And neither can explain why initial reports were relatively accurate (see March 23, 2003) but subsequent reports were so suddenly, and so luridly, inaccurate. [Editor & Publisher, 7/14/2008]
The recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report on misleading, exaggerated, and inaccurate presentations of the prewar Iraqi threat by the Bush administration (see June 5, 2008) leaves out some significant material. The report says that the panel did not review “less formal communications between intelligence agencies and other parts of the executive branch.” The committee made no attempt to obtain White House records or interview administration officials because, the report says, such steps were considered beyond the scope of the report. Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus notes that “[o]ne obvious target for such an expanded inquiry would have been the records of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a group set up in August 2002 by then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.” WHIG (see August 2002) was composed of, among other senior White House officials, senior political adviser Karl Rove; the vice president’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, and James Wilkinson; legislative liaison Nicholas Calio; and a number of policy aides led by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley.
WHIG Led Marketing of War - Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, recently wrote in his book What Happened that WHIG “had been set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the war to the public.… The script had been finalized with great care over the summer [for a] “campaign to convince Americans that war with Iraq was inevitable and necessary.” On September 6, 2002, Card hinted as much to reporters when he said, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” (see September 6, 2002). Two days later, the group scored its first hit with a front-page New York Times story about Iraq’s secret purchase of aluminum tubes that, the story said, could be used to produce nuclear weapons (see September 8, 2002). The information for that story came from “senior administration officials” now known to be members of WHIG. The story was the first to make the statement that “the first sign of a ‘smoking gun’ [proving the existence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program] may be a mushroom cloud” (see September 4, 2002); that same morning, the same message was repeated three times by various senior administration officials on the Sunday talk shows (see September 8, 2002, September 8, 2002, and September 8, 2002). WHIG did not “deliberately mislead the public,” McClellan claimed in his book, but wrote that the “more fundamental problem was the way [Bush’s] advisers decided to pursue a political propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people.… As the campaign accelerated,” caveats and qualifications were downplayed or dropped altogether. Contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or simply disregarded.”
Records Perusal Would 'Shed Light' - If indeed the White House “repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even nonexistent,” as committee chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) has said, then an examination of WHIG’s records would, Pincus writes, “shed much light” on the question. [Washington Post, 6/9/2008]
Entity Tags: New York Times, Karen Hughes, John D. Rockefeller, James R. Wilkinson, Condoleezza Rice, Bush administration (43), Andrew Card, Karl C. Rove, Mary Matalin, Senate Intelligence Committee, Stephen J. Hadley, Walter Pincus, White House Iraq Group, Nicholas E. Calio, Scott McClellan, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda
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