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Former Powell aide details debate over interrogations

WASHINGTON -- A top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell said yesterday 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" and the Geneva Conventions are irrelevant.

In an interview, former Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson also said President Bush was ''too aloof, too distant from the details" of postwar planning. Underlings exploited Bush's detachment, Wilkerson said.

He blamed Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and like-minded aides. He said Cheney must have sincerely believed that Iraq could be a spawning ground for new terror 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 other fronts in the war on terrorism, Wilkerson said Bush heard two sides of an impassioned argument within his administration. Abuse of prisoners and even the deaths of some have bruised the US image abroad and undermined support for the Iraq war.

Cheney's office and Rumsfeld aides 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, Wilkerson said, were Powell, others at the State Department, top military brass, and occasionally Condoleezza Rice, who was then national security adviser.

Wilkerson said Bush tried to work out a compromise recognizing 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. But the policy was almost immediately undermined in practice, Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson, who left government with Powell in January, said he is now somewhat estranged from his former boss.

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