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Trust Colin Powell?

A Retrospective
February 6, 2003

The U.S. news media promoted two "themes" about Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the United Nations where he buttressed George W. Bush’s case for war with Iraq by presenting satellite photographs of trucks outside buildings and snippets of intercepted conversations.

While the “evidence” on its face didn’t seem to prove much of anything, the media's first "theme" was that Powell is a trustworthy man of principle, a straight talker who wouldn't be part of some cheap propaganda ploy. The second "theme" was that Powell’s appearance before the United Nations was a kind of sequel to Adlai Stevenson’s convincing case that Soviet missiles had been installed in Cuba in 1962.

But both themes – Powell’s trustworthiness and the Cuban missile precedent – may be misleading, as articles below from the Consortiumnews.com Archives will demonstrate.

Powell’s press clippings aside, his real history is one of consistent political opportunism. For the full picture, see the series, “Behind Colin Powell’s Legend” or read the excerpt below that recounts how Powell advanced his political standing with the first Bush administration at the expense of the U.S. field commanders during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

On the second "theme," instead of the Cuban missile crisis, a better historical parallel may be the Reagan administration’s fabricated presentation to the UN following the Soviets’ downing of the Korean Airlines Flight 007 after it flew over Russian territory. Though the evidence supported a case of outrageous Soviet bungling, that was not enough for the Reagan administration, which was determined to exaggerate the case and chose to willfully mislead the American people and the world community by insisting that the incident was cold-blooded murder.

To achieve that propaganda coup, U.S. diplomats manipulated the release of intercepted radio communications from the Soviet military to give the impression of premeditation. This disinformation caper was later admitted by a participant in the scheme, Alvin A. Snyder in his book, Warriors of Disinformation. Snyder explained that in such situations, "the key is to lie first." The Consortiumnews.com's full story about the KAL 007 incident is republished below.

First, an excerpt on Powell's behind-the-scenes role in the Persian Gulf War drawn from “Behind Colin Powell’s Legend” written by Robert Parry and Norman Solomon:

Powell & the Persian Gulf War

An enduring image from the Persian Gulf War is the picture of the two generals -- Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf -- celebrating the 1991 military victory in ticker-tape parades.

They seemed the perfect teammates, a politically smooth chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Powell) and the gruff field commander (Schwarzkopf).

But the behind-the-scenes reality often was different. Time and again in the march toward a ground war in Kuwait and Iraq, Powell wavered between siding with Schwarzkopf, who was willing to accept a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal, and lining up with President Bush, who hungered for a clear military victory.

The tension peaked in the days before the ground war was scheduled to begin. Iraqi forces already had been pummeled by weeks of devastating allied air attacks both against targets in Iraq and Kuwait.

As the clock ticked toward a decision on launching a ground offensive, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to hammer out a cease-fire and a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. President Bush and his political leadership desperately wanted a ground war to crown the American victory.

Schwarzkopf and some of his generals in the field felt U.S. goals could be achieved through a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal that would end the slaughter and spare the lives of U.S. troops. With a deadline for a decision looming, Powell briefly joined the Schwarzkopf camp.

On Feb. 21, 1991, the two generals hammered out a cease-fire proposal for presentation to the National Security Council. That last-minute peace deal would have given Iraqi forces one week to march out of Kuwait while leaving their armor and heavy equipment behind. Schwarzkopf thought he had Powell’s commitment to pitch the plan at the White House.

But Bush was fixated on a ground war. According to insiders, he saw the war as advancing two goals: to inflict severe damage on Saddam Hussein’s army and to erase the painful memories of America’s defeat in Vietnam.

At the NSC meeting, Powell reportedly did reiterate his and Schwarzkopf’s support for a peaceful settlement, if possible. But sensing Bush’s mood, Powell substituted a different plan, shortening the one-week timetable to an unrealistic two days and, thus, making the ground war inevitable.

Set on a Ground War

Though secret from the American people at that time, Bush had long determined that a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait would not be tolerated. Indeed, U.S. peace initiatives in early 1991 had amounted to window-dressing, with Bush privately fearful that the Iraqis might capitulate before the United States could attack.

To Bush, exorcising the "Vietnam Syndrome" demons had become an important priority of the Persian Gulf War, almost as central to his thinking as ousting Saddam's army from Kuwait.

Conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak were among the few who described Bush's obsession publicly at the time. On Feb. 25, 1991, they wrote that the Gorbachev initiative brokering Iraq's surrender of Kuwait "stirred fears" among Bush's advisers that the Vietnam Syndrome might survive the Gulf War.

"There was considerable relief, therefore, when the President ... made clear he was having nothing to do with the deal that would enable Saddam Hussein to bring his troops out of Kuwait with flags flying," Evans and Novak wrote.

"Fear of a peace deal at the Bush White House had less to do with oil, Israel or Iraqi expansionism than with the bitter legacy of a lost war. 'This is the chance to get rid of the Vietnam Syndrome,' one senior aide told us."

In the book, Shadow, author Bob Woodward confirmed that Bush was adamant about fighting a war, even as the White House pretended that it would be satisfied with an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal.

“We have to have a war,” Bush told his inner circle of Secretary of State James Baker, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Powell, according to Woodward.

“Scowcroft was aware that this understanding could never be stated publicly or be permitted to leak out. An American president who declared the necessity of war would probably be thrown out of office. Americans were peacemakers, not warmongers,” Woodward wrote.

On Jan. 9, 1991, when Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz rebuffed an ultimatum from Baker in Geneva, “Bush was jubilant because it was the best news possible, although he would have to conceal it publicly,” Woodward wrote.

The Air War

On Jan. 15, U.S. and allied forces launched a punishing air war, hitting targets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities as well as Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Weeks of devastating bombing left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, according to estimates.

The Iraqi forces soon seemed ready to crack. Soviet diplomats were meeting with Iraqi leaders who let it be known that they were prepared to withdraw their troops from Kuwait.

Still, Bush recognized the military and psychological value of a smashing ground offensive. A ground war could annihilate the Iraqi forces as they retreated while proving America’s war-fighting mettle once again.

But Schwarzkopf saw little reason for U.S. soldiers to die if the Iraqis were prepared to withdraw and leave their heavy weapons behind. There was also the prospect of chemical warfare that might be used by the Iraqis against advancing American troops. Schwarzkopf saw the possibility of heavy U.S. casualties.

Powell found himself in the middle. He wanted to please Bush while still representing the concerns of the field commanders. Stationed at the front in Saudi Arabia, Schwarzkopf thought Powell was an ally.

"Neither Powell nor I wanted a ground war," Schwarzkopf wrote in his memoirs, It Doesn't Take a Hero.

At key moments in White House meetings, however, Powell sided with Bush and his hunger for outright victory. "I cannot believe the lift that this crisis and our response to it have given to our country," Powell told Schwarzkopf as American air sorties pummeled Iraq.

In mid-February 1991, Powell also bristled when Schwarzkopf acceded to a Marine commander's request for a three-day delay to reposition his troops.

"I hate to wait that long," Powell fumed. "The President wants to get on with this." Powell explained that Bush was worried about the pending Soviet peace plan which sought to engineer an Iraqi withdrawal with no more killing.

"President Bush was in a bind," Powell wrote in My American Journey. "After the expenditure of $60 billion and transporting half a million troops 8,000 miles, Bush wanted to deliver a knock-out punch to the Iraqi invaders in Kuwait. He did not want to win by a TKO that would allow Saddam to withdraw with his army unpunished and intact."

On Feb. 18, Powell relayed a demand to Schwarzkopf from Bush's NSC for an immediate attack date. Powell "spoke in the terse tone that signaled he was under pressure from the hawks," Schwarzkopf wrote. But one field commanders still protested that a rushed attack could mean "a whole lot more casualties," a risk that Schwarzkopf considered unacceptable.

"The increasing pressure to launch the ground war early was making me crazy," Schwarzkopf wrote. "I could guess what was going on. ... There had to be a contingent of hawks in Washington who did not want to stop until we'd punished Saddam.

“We'd been bombing Iraq for more than a month, but that wasn't good enough. There were guys who had seen John Wayne in 'The Green Berets,'  they'd seen 'Rambo,' they'd seen 'Patton,' and it was very easy for them to pound their desks and say, 'By God, we've got to go in there and kick ass! Got to punish that son of a bitch!'

“Of course, none of them was going to get shot at. None of them would have to answer to the mothers and fathers of dead soldiers and Marines."

Dodging Peace

On Feb. 20, Schwarzkopf sought a two-day delay because of bad weather. Powell exploded. "I've got a President and a Secretary of Defense on my back," Powell shouted. "They've got a bad Russian peace proposal they're trying to dodge. ... I don't think you understand the pressure I'm under."

Schwarzkopf yelled back that Powell appeared to have "political reasons" for favoring a timetable that was "militarily unsound." Powell snapped back, "Don't patronize me with talk about human lives."

By the evening of Feb. 21, however, Schwarzkopf thought he and Powell were again reading from the same page, looking for ways to avert the ground war. Powell had faxed Schwarzkopf a copy of the Russian cease-fire plan in which Gorbachev had proposed a six-week period for Iraqi withdrawal.

Recognizing that six weeks would give Saddam time to salvage his military hardware, Schwarzkopf and Powell devised a counter-proposal. It would give Iraq only a one-week cease-fire, time to flee from Kuwait but without any heavy weapons.

"The National Security Council was about to meet," Schwarzkopf wrote, "and Powell and I hammered out a recommendation. We suggested the United States offer a cease-fire of one week: enough time for Saddam to withdraw his soldiers but not his supplies or the bulk of his equipment. ...

“As the Iraqis withdrew, we proposed, our forces would pull right into Kuwait behind them. ... At bottom, neither Powell nor I wanted a ground war. We agreed that if the United States could get a rapid withdrawal we would urge our leaders to take it."

An Angry President

But when Powell arrived at the White House late that evening, he found Bush angry about the Soviet peace initiative. Still, according to Woodward’s Shadow,  Powell reiterated that he and Schwarzkopf “would rather see the Iraqis walk out than be driven out.”

Powell said the ground war carried serious risks of significant U.S. casualties and “a high probability of a chemical attack.” But Bush was set: “If they crack under force, it is better than withdrawal,” the president said.

In My American Journey, Powell expressed sympathy for Bush’s predicament. "The President's problem was how to say no to Gorbachev without appearing to throw away a chance for peace," Powell wrote.

"I could hear the President's growing distress in his voice. 'I don't want to take this deal,' he said. 'But I don't want to stiff Gorbachev, not after he's come this far with us. We've got to find a way out'."

Powell sought Bush's attention. "I raised a finger," Powell wrote. "The President turned to me. 'Got something, Colin?'," Bush asked. But Powell did not outline Schwarzkopf’s one-week cease-fire plan. Instead, Powell offered a different idea intended to make the ground offensive inevitable.

"We don't stiff Gorbachev," Powell explained. "Let's put a deadline on Gorby's proposal. We say, great idea, as long as they're completely on their way out by, say, noon Saturday," Feb. 23, less than two days away.

Powell understood that the two-day deadline would not give the Iraqis enough time to act, especially with their command-and-control systems severely damaged by the air war. The plan was a public-relations strategy to guarantee that the White House got its ground war.

"If, as I suspect, they don't move, then the flogging begins," Powell told a gratified president.

The next day, at 10:30 a.m., a Friday, Bush announced his ultimatum. There would be a Saturday noon deadline for the Iraqi withdrawal, as Powell had recommended.

Schwarzkopf and his field commanders in Saudi Arabia watched Bush on television and immediately grasped its meaning. "We all knew by then which it would be," Schwarzkopf wrote. "We were marching toward a Sunday morning attack."

When the Iraqis predictably missed the deadline, American and allied forces launched the ground offensive at 0400 on Feb. 24, Persian Gulf time.

Though Iraqi forces were soon in full retreat, the allies pursued and slaughtered tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers in the 100-hour war. U.S. casualties were light, 147 killed in combat and another 236 killed in accidents or from other causes.

"Small losses as military statistics go," wrote Powell, "but a tragedy for each family."

On Feb. 28, the day the war ended, Bush celebrated the victory. "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all," the president exulted.

 

Second, a 1998 story by Robert Parry on the KAL-007 incident and the modern Republican tendency to use propaganda as an everyday tool of politics.

GOP & KAL-007: 'The Key Is to Lie First'

By Robert Parry

It's not entirely clear when the Republican Party made disinformation a political weapon of choice.

Some trace the pattern back to the late 1940s when Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon used an exaggerated Red Scare to throw the Truman administration on the defensive and clear the way for the GOP's Cold War dominance of the White House.

Others argue, however, that Republican lying is nothing special; that it's just the nature of politics; that it's always been that way; that the Democrats -- or the Greens and the Libertarians, for that matter -- are no better.

But I believe there are shades of gray in politics, that a disingenuous "spin" or a defensive equivocation are not the same as an outright falsehood intended to defame an enemy or to inflame the public. It seems to me that the modern Republican Party is unusual in that it not only steps across the line from time to time, but has relocated on the wrong side. Distortion and character assassination have become almost a political way of life.

My personal experience with this disturbing trend started in December 1980, when I worked for The Associated Press and was part of the AP's Special Assignment Team. In my earlier reporting career -- covering state politics in Rhode Island and congressional politics in Washington -- I had seen lots of the lighter forms of lying from both parties. Indeed, most of my early investigative stories were about Democratic misdeeds and damage control.

But in covering the emerging U.S. policy toward Central America in late 1980, I encountered a systematic strategy of lying. The incoming Reagan administration apparently saw "disinformation" as just one more ideological weapon in the Cold War arsenal, with the ends justifying the means.

The victorious Republicans didn't blink, for instance, in protecting political murderers in El Salvador, even when the victims were four American churchwomen who were raped and butchered by a right-wing military.

Coming as he did from movies, President Reagan seemed to have only a casual relationship with the truth anyway. But his persistent acts of deception over his eight years in the White House cannot be so glibly explained or excused. In his handling of foreign policy, in particular, Reagan routinely misled the American people.

The KAL Deception

One of the baldest -- and now admitted -- lies was the case of Korean Air Lines flight 007. On the night of Aug. 30, 1983, the KAL 747 jumbo jet strayed hundreds of miles off-course and penetrated some of the Soviet Union's most sensitive air space, by flying over military facilities in Kamchatka and Sakhalin Island.

Over Sakhalin, KAL-007 was finally intercepted by a Soviet Sukhoi-15 fighter. The Soviet pilot tried to signal the plane to land, but the KAL pilots apparently did not see the repeated warnings. Amid confusion about the plane's identity -- a U.S. spy plane had been in the vicinity hours earlier -- Soviet ground control ordered the pilot to fire. He did, blasting the plane out of the sky and killing all 269 people on board.

The Soviets soon realized they had made a horrendous mistake. U.S. intelligence also knew from sensitive intercepts that the tragedy had resulted from a blunder, not from a willful act of murder (much as on July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes fired a missile that brought down an Iranian civilian airliner in the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people, an act which Reagan explained as an "understandable accident").

But in 1983, the truth about KAL-007 didn't fit Washington's propaganda needs. The Reagan administration wanted to portray the Soviets as wanton murderers, so it brushed aside the judgment of the intelligence analysts. The administration then chose to release only snippets of the taped intercepts packaged in a way to suggest that the slaughter was intentional.

"The Reagan administration's spin machine began cranking up," wrote Alvin A. Snyder, then-director of the U.S. Information Agency's television and film division, in his 1995 book, Warriors of Disinformation.

USIA director Charles Z. Wick "ordered his top agency aides to form a special task force to devise ways of playing the story overseas. The objective, quite simply, was to heap as much abuse on the Soviet Union as possible," Snyder recalled.

In a boastful but frank description of the successful disinformation campaign, Snyder noted that "the American media swallowed the U.S. government line without reservation. Said the venerable Ted Koppel on the ABC News 'Nightline' program: 'This has been one of those occasions when there is very little difference between what is churned out by the U.S. government propaganda organs and by the commercial broadcasting networks.'"

Of course, if the journalists hadn't gone along, they could have expected to be flogged for disloyalty. So, most Washington reporters ran with the pack. Newsweek published a cover line: "Murder in the Sky," exactly the "theme" that the White House wanted conveyed to the public.

Mistranslation

At the AP, I made a small contribution to questioning the official story. I felt the released intercepts were suspicious. So I took the English language translation, as well as the original Russian, to Russian language experts, including one who taught Pentagon personnel how to translate Russian military transmissions.

The Russian language experts noted one important error in the English translation released by the State Department. In the context of the Soviet pilot trying to communicate with the KAL plane, the administration translated the Russian word "zapros," or inquiry, as "IFF" for "identify: friend or foe." The AP's experts, however, said "zapros" could mean any kind of inquiry, including open radio transmissions or physical warnings.

The significance of the mistranslation was central to the administration's case. U.S. officials had extrapolated from "IFF" to advance the "murder in the sky" argument. Since an IFF transmission can only be received by Soviet military aircraft, that was further proof that the Russians made no attempt to warn the civilian airliner.

Still, the mistranslation was only one of the ways the tapes were doctored, as Snyder discovered when the intercepts were delivered to his office for transfer into a video presentation that was to be made at the United Nations.

"The tape was supposed to run 50 minutes," Snyder observed. "But the tape segment we [at USIA] had ran only eight minutes and 32 seconds. ... 'Do I detect the fine hand of [Nixon's secretary] Rosemary Woods here?' I asked sarcastically.'"

But Snyder had a job to do: producing the video that his superiors wanted. "The perception we wanted to convey was that the Soviet Union had cold-bloodedly carried out a barbaric act," Snyder noted.

Only a decade later, when Snyder saw the complete transcripts -- including the portions that the Reagan administration had hidden -- would he fully realize how many of the central elements of the U.S. presentation were false.

The Soviet pilot apparently did believe he was pursuing a U.S. spy plane, according to the intercepts, and he was having trouble in the dark identifying the plane. At the instructions of Soviet ground controllers, the pilot had circled the KAL airliner and tilted his wings to force the aircraft down. The pilot said he fired warning shots, too. "This comment was also not on the tape we were provided," Snyder stated.

It was clear to Snyder that in the pursuit of its Cold War aims, the Reagan administration had presented false accusations to the United Nations, as well as to the people of the United States and the world. To these Republicans, the ends of smearing the Soviets had justified the means of falsifying the historical record.

In his book, Snyder acknowledged his role in the deception and drew an ironic lesson from the incident. The senior USIA official wrote, "The moral of the story is that all governments, including our own, lie when it suits their purposes. The key is to lie first."

'Public Diplomacy'

Another key to the propagandists' success has been to soften up the Washington news media, to ensure that journalists were ready to accept whatever lies were told. To that end, Reagan assigned aggressive "public diplomacy" teams to intimidate and discredit the few Washington journalists who asked pointed questions and tried to get at the truth. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]

In this regard, another interesting disclosure in Snyder's book is the quasi-official USIA role played by Accuracy in Media's Reed Irvine. Irvine is commonly described as a "media watchdog" and is addressed personably as "Reed" when he appears on Koppel's "Nightline." According to Snyder, however, Irvine also was an adviser to the Reagan administration's propaganda apparatus.

During Reagan's second term, Irvine -- along with conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie and Joe McCarthy's legendary counsel Roy Cohn -- vetted the selection of a new Voice of America director, Snyder reported. When the leading candidate, former ABC News president William Sheehan, refused to answer the group's questions about his personal vote in the presidential election, Sheehan was blackballed from getting the job.

Irvine's unpublicized collaboration with Reagan's propaganda machinery also surfaced during the Iran-contra hearings in 1987. A White House document, dated May 20, 1983, described how USIA director Wick held a private White House fund-raiser which generated $400,000 for Irvine's organization and other conservative groups.

While working behind the scenes with USIA and receiving secret subsidies arranged by the government, Irvine carried out vituperative attacks on skeptical journalists. I was one of the reporters who was a frequent target of AIM.

Bringing It Home

But the end of the Cold War did not end the Republicans' reliance on propaganda. They seem to have just taken the lessons domestic. Many of the same individuals who thrived during the Reagan-Bush years, such as Irvine, are employing similar disinformation tactics against the Clinton administration.

It is as if President Clinton has replaced the former Soviet Union as the target for the Right's "ends-justify-the-means" deceptions. Instead of lies about KAL-007 -- or "yellow rain" chemical warfare or the KGB role in the pope's shooting or Nicaraguan Sandinista "anti-Semitism" or a host of other propaganda "themes" -- the disinformationists now are linking Clinton to a variety of crimes: Vincent Foster's "murder," drug trafficking out of the Mena, Ark., "death squad" operations in Arkansas, etc.

Indeed, in early May, congressional Republicans mounted one remarkable disinformation operation that echoed the KAL-007 story from 15 years earlier. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., released selective excerpts from private prison conversations that Clinton pal Webster Hubbell had with family, friends and lawyers.

The handpicked snippets suggested that Hubbell was under White House pressure to lie and was covering up for criminal over-billing by Hillary Clinton when she worked at the Rose Law Firm. The Washington media had a field day, with front-page stories that accepted Burton's spin on the tapes.

But, just as the Reagan administration had done in the KAL-007 case, Burton had withheld exculpatory statements from the released excerpts. For instance, Burton chose to leave out Hubbell's declaration in the same conversation that Mrs. Clinton had "no idea" about illegal over-billing schemes and that he was not receiving hush money.

A red-faced news media ran clarifications. But the Washington press corps still seems unwilling to draw lessons from the past. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and other Republicans might insist that their interest now is a principled pursuit of "the whole truth" about the "Clinton scandals." But the party's 50-year record -- from Nixon and McCarthy to Reagan and Bush -- leave many with an understandable sense of skepticism.

In the situational ethics of GOP politics, Snyder's advice still rings loudly: "The key is to lie first." 


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