But there is another, less flattering explanation
that fits with the evidence of Powell’s life story: that the outgoing
secretary of state has always been an opportunist who consistently put
his career and personal status ahead of America’s best interests.
From his earliest days as a junior officer in
Vietnam through his acquiescence to George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure,
Colin Powell repeatedly has failed to stand up against actions that were
immoral, unethical or reckless. At every turning point, Powell protected
his career above all else.
Yet, Powell’s charisma – and the fact that he is a
prominent and successful African-American – have protected him from any
clear-eyed assessment of his true record. Even when Powell has publicly
defended war crimes, such as the shooting of defenseless “military-aged
males” in Vietnam, national journalists have preferred to focus on
Powell’s sparkling style over his troubling substance.
This infatuation with Powell’s image was perhaps
best captured when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd plunged into
mourning after Powell backed away from a flirtation with a presidential
candidacy in 1995.
"The graceful, hard male
animal who did nothing overtly to dominate us yet dominated us
completely, in the exact way we wanted that to happen at this moment,
like a fine leopard on the veld, was gone," Dowd wrote, only
slightly tongue-in-cheek. "'Don't leave, Colin
Powell,' I could hear myself crying from somewhere inside." [NYT, Nov.
As longtime readers of Consortiumnews.com know, we
always have tried to resist Powell’s personal magnetism. In one of our
first investigative projects, Norman Solomon and I examined the real
story of Colin Powell. [To read the full series, start at “Behind
Colin Powell’s Legend.”]
I’ve updated the series a couple of times: when
Powell failed to protest Bush’s disenfranchisement of thousands of
African-Americans during the disputed Florida election in 2000 and when
Powell made his over-the-top presentation on Iraq in February 2003.
After Powell’s UN speech – while both liberal and conservative
commentators swooned over Powell’s WMD case – we entitled our story: “Trust
What we found in our investigation of Powell’s
legend was not the heroic figure of his press clippings, but the story
of an ambitious man with a weak moral compass. He either hid in the
reeds when others were standing up for what they knew to be right or he
contributed to the wrongdoing (albeit often while wringing his hands and
confiding to reporters that he really wasn’t entirely comfortable).
Another amazing aspect of Powell’s life story was
his Forrest-Gump-like quality to show up in frame after frame of
turning-point moments in recent American history, except in Powell’s
case, he almost never did the right thing. Indeed, one could argue that
the reason Powell found himself in the middle of so many historical
moments was that he never sacrificed his career on the altar of
challenging corrupt or foolish superiors.
That pattern began in the earliest days of his
military career when he was part of an extraordinary group of early U.S.
military advisers that President John F. Kennedy dispatched to Vietnam.
As a 25-year-old Army captain, Powell was assigned
to advise a 400-man unit of South Vietnamese troops in the A Shau
Valley, near the Laotian border. When he arrived on Jan. 17, 1963, the
conflict was at a pivotal juncture.
The South Vietnamese
army, known as the ARVN, was losing the war, suffering from poor
discipline, ineffective tactics and bad morale. Already, many U.S.
advisers, most notably the legendary Col. John Paul Vann, were voicing
concerns about the ARVN’s brutality toward civilians. At the time, the
dominant counterinsurgency strategy was to destroy rural villages and
forcibly relocate inhabitants while hunting down enemy forces.
But Colin Powell was
untainted by these worries. Powell's ARVN unit punished the civilian
population systematically. As the soldiers marched through mountainous
jungle, they destroyed the food and the homes of the region's
Montagnards, who were suspected of sympathizing with the Viet Cong. Old
women cried hysterically as their ancestral homes and worldly
possessions were consumed by fire.
"We burned down the
thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters,"
Powell recalled in his memoir, My American Journey. "Why were we
torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said the people
were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam. ... We tried to solve
the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of
war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him
Soon after his arrival,
Powell and his South Vietnamese army unit left for a protracted patrol
that fought leeches as well as Viet Cong ambushes. From the soggy jungle
brush, the Viet Cong would strike suddenly against the advancing
government soldiers. Often invisible to Powell and his men, the VC would
inflict a few casualties and slip back into the jungles.
While on one patrol,
Powell fell victim to a Viet Cong booby trap. He stepped on a punji
stake, a dung-poisoned bamboo spear buried in the ground. The stake
pierced Powell's boot and infected his right foot. The foot swelled,
turned purple and forced his evacuation by helicopter to Hue for
recovery from the foot infection was swift, his combat days were over.
He stayed in Hue, handling intelligence data and overseeing a local
airfield. By late autumn 1963, Powell's first Vietnam tour ended.
On his return to the
United States, Powell chose not to join Vann and other early American
advisers who were warning their superiors about the self-defeating
counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. In 1963, Vann carried his
prescient concerns back to a Pentagon that was not ready to listen to
doubters. When his objections fell on deaf ears, Vann resigned his
commission and sacrificed a promising military career.
Powell stayed silent,
however, recognizing that his early service in Vietnam put him on a fast
track for military advancement.
On July 27, 1968, Major
Colin Powell returned to Vietnam to serve as an executive officer at an
outpost at Duc Pho. But history again was awaiting Colin Powell.
To the north, Americal
division commander Major General Charles Gettys saw a favorable mention
of Powell in the Army Times. Gettys plucked Powell from Duc Pho and
installed him on the general's own staff at Chu Lai, headquarters for
the Americal division, which had been engaged in some of the cruelest
fighting of the Vietnam War. Though it was still a secret when Powell
arrived at Chu Lai, Americal troops had committed an act that would
stain forever the reputation of the U.S. Army.
On March 16, 1968, a
bloodied Americal unit had stormed into a hamlet known as My Lai 4. With
military helicopters circling overhead, revenge-seeking American
soldiers rousted Vietnamese civilians -- mostly old men, women and
children -- from their thatched huts and herded them into the village's
As the round-up
continued, some Americans raped the girls. Then, under orders from
junior officers on the ground, soldiers began emptying their M-16s into
the terrified peasants. Some parents used their bodies futilely to
shield their children from the bullets. Soldiers stepped among the
corpses to finish off the wounded.
The slaughter raged for
four hours. A total of 347 Vietnamese, including babies, died in the
carnage. But there also were American heroes that day in My Lai. Some
soldiers refused to obey the direct orders to kill and some risked their
lives to save civilians from the murderous fire.
A pilot named Hugh
Clowers Thompson Jr. from Stone Mountain, Ga., was furious at the
killings he saw happening on the ground. He landed his helicopter
between one group of fleeing civilians and American soldiers in pursuit.
Thompson ordered his helicopter door gunner to shoot the Americans if
they tried to harm the Vietnamese. After a tense confrontation, the
soldiers backed off. Later, two of Thompson's men climbed into one ditch
filled with corpses and pulled out a three-year-old boy whom they flew
Several months later, the
Americal's brutality would become a moral test for Major Powell, too. A
letter had been written by a young specialist fourth class named Tom
Glen, who had served in an Americal mortar platoon and was nearing the
end of his Army tour. In the letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams, the
commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, Glen accused the Americal
division of routine brutality against civilians.
Glen's letter was
forwarded to Americal headquarters at Chu Lai where it landed on Major
Powell's desk. Glen's letter contended that many Vietnamese were fleeing
from Americans who “for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into
Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the
people themselves.” Gratuitous cruelty was also being inflicted on Viet
Cong suspects, Glen reported.
“What has been outlined
here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have
worked with, and I fear it is universal,” Glen wrote.
In 1995, when we
questioned Glen about his letter, he said he had heard second-hand about
the My Lai massacre, though he did not mention it specifically. The
massacre was just one part of the abusive pattern that had become
routine in the division, he said.
The letter's troubling
allegations were not well received at Americal headquarters. Powell
reviewed Glen's letter, but did so without questioning Glen or assigning
anyone else to talk with him. Powell simply accepted a claim from Glen's
superior officer that Glen was not close enough to the front lines to
know what he was writing about, an assertion Glen denied to us.
After that cursory
investigation, Powell drafted a response on Dec. 13, 1968. He admitted
to no pattern of wrongdoing by the Americal division. Powell claimed
that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat Vietnamese
courteously and respectfully. "In direct refutation of this [Glen's]
portrayal," Powell concluded, "is the fact that relations between
Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
Powell's findings, of
course, were false, though they were exactly what his superiors wanted
It would take another
Americal hero, an infantryman named Ron Ridenhour, to piece together the
truth about the atrocity at My Lai. After returning to the United
States, Ridenhour interviewed Americal comrades who had participated in
On his own, Ridenhour
compiled this shocking information into a report and forwarded it to the
Army inspector general. The IG's office conducted an aggressive official
investigation, in marked contrast to Powell's review. Confirming
Ridenhour's report, the Army finally faced the horrible truth. Courts
martial were held against officers and enlisted men who were implicated
in the murder of the My Lai civilians.
In his best-selling 1995
memoir, Powell didn’t mention his brush-off of Tom Glen’s complaint. But
Powell did include another troubling recollection that belied his 1968
official denial of Glen's allegation that American soldiers "without
provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves."
After a brief mention of
the My Lai massacre in My American Journey, Powell penned a
partial justification of the Americal's brutality. In a chilling
passage, Powell explained the routine practice of murdering unarmed male
"I recall a phrase we
used in the field, MAM, for military-age male," Powell wrote. "If a helo
spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a
possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he
moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next
burst was not in front, but at him.
"Brutal? Maybe so. But an
able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West
Germany], Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire
while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of
many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine
perceptions of right and wrong."
While it's certainly true
that combat is brutal, the mowing down of unarmed civilians in cold
blood does not constitute combat. It is murder and, indeed, a war crime.
Neither can the combat death of a fellow soldier be cited as an excuse
to murder civilians in retaliation. Disturbingly, that was precisely the
rationalization the My Lai killers cited in their own defense.
Yet, in 1995, even as
Powell promoted his book which contained these recollections, the U.S.
press corps didn’t challenge him on this passage.
By the time Powell
returned home from Vietnam in 1969, he was proving himself the
consummate team player. He even rallied to the defense of another
Americal officer who was accused of murdering Vietnamese civilians.
In a court martial
proceeding, Powell sided with Brig. Gen. John W. Donaldson, who had been
accused by U.S. helicopter pilots of gunning down civilians almost for
sport as he flew over Quang Ngai province.
In 1995, a senior Army
investigator from the Donaldson case told me that two of the Vietnamese
victims were an old man and an old woman who were shot to death while
bathing. Though long retired -- and quite elderly himself -- the
investigator still spoke with a raw disgust about the events of a
quarter century earlier. He requested anonymity before talking about the
behavior of senior Americal officers.
"They used to bet in the
morning how many people they could kill -- old people, civilians, it
didn't matter," the investigator said. "Some of the stuff would curl
For eight months in Chu
Lai during 1968-69, Powell had worked with Donaldson and apparently
developed a great respect for this superior officer. After the Army
charged Donaldson with murder, Powell submitted an affidavit dated Aug.
10, 1971, which lauded Donaldson as "an aggressive and courageous
Powell did not
specifically refer to the murder allegations, but added that helicopter
forays in Vietnam had been an "effective means of separating hostiles
from the general population."
In the interview with me,
the investigator in the Donaldson case said "we had him [Donaldson] dead
to rights," with the testimony of two helicopter pilots who had flown
Donaldson on his shooting expeditions. Still, the investigation
collapsed after the two pilot-witnesses were transferred to another Army
base and apparently came under pressure from military superiors. The two
pilots withdrew their testimony, and the Army dropped all charges
After returning from
Vietnam, thousands of veterans, including John Kerry, joined the
anti-war movement and denounced the excessive brutality of the war. For
his testimony about war crimes in Vietnam, Kerry continued to pay a
price more than three decades later, during Campaign 2004 when
supporters of George W. Bush effectively accused Kerry of treason. The
charges proved crucial in damaging Kerry’s reputation with millions of
By contrast, Powell held
his tongue in the early 1970s and maintained that silence during
Campaign 2004 although Powell knew that many of Kerry’s statements about
the Vietnam War were true. Indeed, Powell had acknowledged many of the
same facts in My American Journey, except surrounding them with
post-Vietnam career was a time for networking and advancement. He won a
promotion to lieutenant colonel and was granted a prized White House
fellowship that put him inside Richard Nixon's White House. Powell's
work with Nixon's Office of Management and Budget brought Powell to the
attention of senior Nixon aides, Frank Carlucci and Caspar Weinberger,
who soon became Powell's mentors.
When Ronald Reagan swept
to victory in 1980, Powell's allies -- Weinberger and Carlucci -- took
over the Defense Department as secretary of defense and deputy secretary
of defense, respectively. When they arrived at the Pentagon in 1981,
Powell, then a full colonel, was there to greet them.
But before Powell could
move to the top echelons of the U.S. military, he needed to earn his
first general's star. That required a few command assignments in the
field. So, under Carlucci's sponsorship, Powell received brief
assignments at Army bases in Kansas and Colorado. By the time Powell
returned to the Pentagon in 1983, at the age of 46, he had a general's
star on his shoulder. In the parlance of the Pentagon, he was a
When newly minted Brig.
Gen. Colin Powell became military assistant to Secretary Weinberger, top
Pentagon players quickly learned that Powell was more than Weinberger's
coat holder or calendar keeper. Powell was the "filter," the guy who saw
everything when it passed into the Secretary for action and who oversaw
everything that needed follow-up when it came out.
In 1984-85, Powell’s
“filter” role put him near the center of the emerging Iran-Contra
operations. Indeed, Weinberger was one of the first officials outside
the White House to learn that Reagan had put the arm on Saudi Arabia to
give the contras $1 million a month in 1984, as Congress was cutting off
the CIA's covert assistance to the contras through what was known as the
contra-funding arrangements was Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar, a close
friend of both Weinberger and Powell. Bandar and Powell had met in the
1970s and were frequent tennis partners in the 1980s. So it was
plausible -- perhaps even likely -- that Bandar would have discussed the
contra funding with Powell, Weinberger or both. But exactly when
Weinberger learned of the Saudi contributions and what Powell knew
remain unclear to this day.
One fact that has emerged
is that on June 20, 1984, Weinberger attended a State Department meeting
about the contra operation. He scribbled notes citing the need to "plan
for other sources for $." But secrecy would be vital, the defense
secretary understood. "Keep US fingerprints off," he wrote.
On another front, the
White House was maneuvering into dangerous territory in its policy
toward Iran. The Israelis were interested in trading U.S. weapons to
Iran's radical Islamic government to expand Israel's influence. It was
also believed that Iran might help free American hostages held by
Islamic extremists in Lebanon.
Carrying the water for
this strategy within the Reagan administration was National Security
Adviser Robert McFarlane. He circulated a draft presidential order in
June 1985, proposing an overture to supposed Iranian moderates. The
paper passed through Weinberger's "filter," Colin Powell.
In his memoir, Powell
called the proposal "a stunner" and a grab by McFarlane for "Kissingerian
immortality." After reading the draft, Weinberger scribbled in the
margins, "this is almost too absurd to comment on."
On June 30, 1985, as the
paper was circulating inside the administration, Reagan declared that
the United States would give no quarter to terrorism. "Let me further
make it plain to the assassins in Beirut and their accomplices, wherever
they may be, that America will never make concessions to terrorists,"
the president said.
But in July 1985,
Weinberger, Powell and McFarlane met to discuss details for doing just
that. Iran wanted 100 anti-tank TOW missiles that would be delivered
through Israel, according to Weinberger's notes. Reagan gave his
approval, but the White House wanted to keep the operation a closely
held secret. The shipments were to be handled with "maximum
compartmentalization," the notes said.
On Aug. 20, 1985, the
Israelis delivered the first 96 missiles to Iran. It was a pivotal
moment for the Reagan administration. With that missile shipment, the
Reagan administration stepped over a legal line. The transfer violated
laws requiring congressional notification for trans-shipment of
U.S. weapons and prohibiting arms to
Iran or any other nation designated a terrorist state. Violation of
either statute was a felony.
The available evidence
from that period suggests that Weinberger and Powell were very much in
the loop, even though they may have personally opposed the arms-to-Iran
policy. On Aug. 22, 1985, two days after the first delivery, Israel
notified McFarlane of the completed shipment. From aboard Air Force One,
McFarlane called Weinberger.
When Air Force One landed
at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, McFarlane rushed to the
Pentagon to meet Weinberger and Powell. The 40-minute meeting started at
7:30 p.m. That much is known from the Iran-Contra public record. But the
substance of the conversation remains in dispute. McFarlane said that at
the meeting with Weinberger and Powell, he discussed Reagan's approval
of the missile transfer and the need to replenish Israeli stockpiles.
If that is true,
Weinberger and Powell were in the middle of a criminal conspiracy. But
Weinberger denied McFarlane's account, and Powell insisted that he had
only a fuzzy memory of the meeting without a clear recollection of any
completed arms shipment.
"My recollection is that
Mr. McFarlane described to the Secretary the so-called Iran Initiative
and he gave to the Secretary a sort of a history of how we got where we
were that particular day and some of the thinking that gave rise to the
possibility of going forward ... and what the purposes of such an
initiative would be," Powell said in an Iran-contra deposition two years
Joseph Saba asked Powell if McFarlane had mentioned that Israel already
had supplied weapons to Iran. "I don't recall specifically," Powell
answered. "I just don't recall." When
Saba asked about any notes, Powell
responded, "there were none on our side."
In a later interview with
the FBI, Powell said he learned at that meeting that there "was to be a
transfer of some limited amount of materiel" to
Iran. But he did not budge on his
claim of ignorance about the crucial fact that the first shipment had
already gone and that the Reagan administration had promised the
Israelis replenishment for the shipped missiles.
This claim of only
prospective knowledge would be key to Powell's Iran-Contra defense. But
it made little sense for McFarlane to learn of the missile delivery and
the need for replenishment, then hurry to the Pentagon, only to debate a
future policy that, in reality, was already being implemented.
The behavior of Powell
and Weinberger in the following days also suggested that they knew an
arms-for-hostage swap was under way. According to Weinberger's diary, he
and Powell eagerly awaited a release of an American hostage in Lebanon,
the payoff for the clandestine weapons shipment to Iran.
In early September 1985,
Weinberger dispatched a Pentagon emissary to meet with Iranians in
Europe, another step that would seem to make little sense if Weinberger
and Powell were indeed in the dark about the details of the
arms-for-hostage operation. At the same time, McFarlane told Israel that
the United States was prepared to replace 500 Israeli missiles, an
assurance that would have required Weinberger's clearance since the
missiles would be coming from Defense Department stockpiles.
On Sept. 14, 1985, Israel
delivered the second shipment, 408 more missiles to Iran. The next day,
one hostage, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, was released in Beirut. Back at
the Pentagon, Weinberger penned in his diary a cryptic reference to "a
delivery I have for our prisoners."
But when the Iran-Contra
scandal broke more than a year later, Weinberger and Powell would plead
faulty memories about the Weir case, too. Attorney Saba asked Powell if
he knew of a linkage between an arms delivery and Weir's release. "No, I
have no recollection of that," Powell answered.
After Weir's freedom, the
job of replenishing the Israel missiles fell to White House aide Oliver
North who turned to Powell for logistical assistance. "My original point
of contact was General Colin Powell, who was going directly to his
immediate superior, Secretary Weinberger," North testified in 1987. But
in their later sworn testimony, Powell and Weinberger continued to
insist that they had no idea that 508 missiles had already been shipped
via Israel to Iran and that Israel was expecting replenishment of its
Powell stuck to that
story even as evidence emerged that he and Weinberger read top-secret
intelligence intercepts in September and October 1985 in which Iranians
described the U.S. arms delivery. One of those reports, dated Oct. 2,
1985, and marked with the high-level classification, "SECRET SPOKE ORCON,"
was signed by Lt. Gen. William Odom, the director of the National
According to Odom's
report, a sensitive electronic intercept had picked up a phone
conversation a day earlier between two Iranian officials, identified as
"Mr. Asghari" who was in Europe and "Mohsen Kangarlu" who was in
Teheran. "A large part of the conversation had to do with details on the
delivery of several more shipments of weapons into Iran," wrote Odom.
In 1987, when
congressional Iran-contra investigators asked about the intercepts and
other evidence of Pentagon knowledge, Powell again pleaded a weak
memory. He repeatedly used phrases such as "I cannot specifically
recall." At one point, Powell said, "To my recollection, I don't have a
When asked if Weinberger
kept a diary that might shed more light on the issue, Powell responded,
"The Secretary, to my knowledge, did not keep a diary. Whatever notes he
kept, I don't know how he uses them or what he does with them. He does
not have a diary of this ilk, no." As for his own notebooks, Powell
said he had destroyed them.
In the next phase of the
Iran operation, the direct delivery of U.S. missiles, Powell played an
even bigger role. Indeed, the Iran-Contra scandal might never have
happened, or might have stopped much sooner, except for the work of
In early 1986, Powell
short-circuited the Pentagon covert procurement system that had been put
in place after an earlier scandal involving a covert operation known as
Yellow Fruit. Defense procurement officials said that without Powell's
interference, the new system would have alerted the military brass that
thousands of TOW anti-tank missiles and other sophisticated weaponry
were headed to Iran, designated a terrorist state.
But Powell used his
bureaucratic skills to slip the missiles and the other hardware out of
U.S. Army inventories. The story of Powell's maneuvers can be found in a
close reading of thousands of pages from depositions of Pentagon
officials, who pointed to Weinberger's assistant as the key Iran-Contra
action officer within the Defense Department.
Powell insisted that he
and Weinberger minimized the Pentagon's role. Powell said they delivered
the missiles to the CIA under the Economy Act, which regulates transfers
between government agencies. "We treated the TOW transfer like garbage
to be gotten out of the house quickly," Powell wrote in My American
But the Economy Act
argument was disingenuous, because the Pentagon always uses the Economy
Act when it moves weapons to the CIA. In his public account, Powell also
obscured his unusual actions in arranging the shipments without giving
senior officers the information that Pentagon procedures required.
handed Powell the job of shipping the missiles to Iran on Jan. 17, 1986.
That was the day Reagan signed an intelligence "finding," a formal
authorization to pull arms from U.S. stockpiles and ship them to Iran.
In testimony, Powell
dated his first knowledge of the missile transfers to this moment, an
important distinction because if he had been aware of the earlier
shipments – as much evidence suggests – he potentially would have been
implicated in a felony.
A day after Reagan's
"finding," Jan. 18, 1986, Powell instructed Gen. Max Thurman, then
acting Army chief of staff, to prepare for a transfer of 4,000 TOW
anti-tank missiles but Powell made no mention of Iran. "I gave him
absolutely no indication of the destination of the missiles," Powell
Though kept in the dark,
Thurman began the process of transferring the TOWs to the CIA, the first
step of the journey. Powell's orders "bypassed the formal [covert
procedures] on the ingress line," Thurman acknowledged in later
As Powell's strange
orders rippled through the top echelon of the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Vincent
M. Russo, the assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, called
Powell to ask about the operation. Powell immediately circumvented
Russo's inquiry. In effect, Powell pulled rank on his superior officer
by arranging for "executive instructions" commanding Russo to deliver
the first 1,000 TOWs, no questions asked.
"It was a little
unusual," commented then Army chief of staff, Gen. John A. Wickham Jr.
"All personal visit or secure phone call, nothing in writing -- because
normally through the [covert logistics office] a procedure is
established so that records are kept in a much more formal process."
On Jan. 29, 1986, thanks
to Powell's orders, 1,000 U.S. TOWs were loaded onto pallets at Redstone
Arsenal and transferred to the airfield at Anniston, Ala. As the
shipment progressed, senior Pentagon officers grew edgier about Powell
withholding the destination and other details. The logistics personnel
also wanted proof that somebody was paying for the missiles.
Simpson, who was making the flight arrangements, later told Iran-Contra
investigators that Gen. Russo "was very uncomfortable with no paperwork
to support the mission request. He wasn't going to 'do nothin', as he
said, without seeing some money. ...'no tickey, no laundry.'"
The money for the first
shipment was finally deposited into a CIA account in Geneva on Feb. 11,
1986. Three days later, Russo released the 1,000 TOWs to the CIA. The
first direct U.S. arms shipment to Iran was under way, although the
Israelis were still acting as middlemen.
Inside the Pentagon,
concerns grew about Powell's unorthodox arrangements and the identity of
the missile recipients. Major Simpson told congressional investigators
that he would have rung alarm bells if he had known the TOWs were headed
"In the three years that
I had worked there, I had been instructed ... by the leadership ...
never to do anything illegal, and I would have felt that we were doing
something illegal," Simpson said.
Even without knowing that
the missiles were going to Iran, Simpson expressed concern about whether
the requirement to notify Congress had been met. He got advice from a
Pentagon lawyer that the 1986 intelligence authorization act, which
mandated a "timely" notice to Congress on foreign arms transfers, had an
"impact on this particular mission."
Major Simpson asked Gen.
Russo, who got another legal opinion from the Army general counsel who
concurred that Congress must be notified. The issue was bumped up to
Secretary of the Army John Marsh. Though still blind about the
shipment's destination, the Army high command was inclined to stop the
peculiar operation in its tracks.
At this key moment, Colin
Powell intervened again. Simpson said, "General Powell was asking
General Russo to reassure the secretary of the Army that notification
was being handled, ... that it had been addressed and it was taken care
of." Despite Powell's assurance, however, Congress had not been
Army Secretary Marsh
shared the skepticism about Powell's operation. On Feb. 25, 1986, Marsh
called a meeting of senior Army officers and ordered Russo to "tell
General Powell of my concern with regard to adequate notification being
given to Congress," Russo later testified.
Army chief of staff
Wickham went further. He demanded that a memo on congressional
notification be sent to Powell. "The chief wanted it in writing," stated
Army Lt. Gen. Arthur E. Brown, who delivered the memo to Powell on March
Five days later, Powell
handed the memo to President Reagan's national security adviser John
Poindexter with the advice: "Handle it ... however you plan to do it,"
Powell later testified.
Poindexter's plan for
"timely notification" was to tell Congress on the last day of the Reagan
presidency, Jan. 20, 1989. Poindexter stuck the Pentagon memo into a
White House safe, along with the secret "finding" on the Iran missile
While debate over
notification bubbled, others in the Pentagon fretted over the possibly
illegal destination of the missiles. Col. John William McDonald, who
oversaw covert supply, objected when he learned that key Army officials
had no idea where the weapons were headed.
"One [concern] was
inadvertent provision of supplies to the [Nicaraguan] contras in
violation of the Boland Amendment," which prohibited military shipments
to the contras, McDonald testified. "The second issue was inadvertent
supply to countries that were on the terrorist list."
When McDonald was asked
by congressional investigators how he would have reacted if told the
weapons were going to Iran, he responded, "I would have told General
Thurman ... that I would believe that the action was illegal and that
Iran was clearly identified as one of the nations on the terrorist list
for whom we could not transfer weapons."
But when McDonald joined
other Pentagon officers in appealing to Powell about the missile
shipment's destination, they again were told not to worry. Powell
"reiterated [that it was] the responsibility of the recipient" agency,
the CIA, to notify Congress, "and that the Army did not have the
responsibility to do that."
In March 1986, Powell
conveyed a second order, this time for 284 HAWK antiaircraft missile
parts and 500 HAWK missiles. This time, Powell’s order set off alarms
not only over legal questions, but whether the safety of U.S forces
might be jeopardized.
The HAWK order would
force a drawdown of U.S. supplies to a dangerous level. Henry Gaffney, a
senior supply official, warned Powell that "you're going to have to
start tearing it out of the Army's hide."
But the Pentagon again
followed Powell's orders. It stripped its shelves of 15 spare parts for
HAWK missiles that were protecting U.S. forces in Europe and elsewhere
in the world.
"I can only trust that
somebody who is a patriot ... and interested in the survival of this
nation ... made the decision that the national policy objectives were
worth the risk of a temporary drawdown of readiness," said Lt. Gen.
Peter G. Barbules.
If there had been an air
attack on U.S. forces in Europe during the drawdown, the HAWK missile
defense batteries might not have had the necessary spare parts to
counter an enemy attack. Implemented by Colin Powell, the Iran
initiative had taken priority over both legal safeguards inside the
Pentagon and over the safety of U.S. soldiers around the world.
But Powell wasn’t in
Washington when the Iran-Contra scandal broke wide open in November
1986. By then, he had gone to serve as commander of the V Corps in West
Germany, ironically troops whose safety was put at risk by the HAWK
shipments to Iran.
The Iran-Contra affair
would soon bring Powell back to Washington, however. In late 1986, Frank
Carlucci, who had stepped in as national security adviser to handle
damage control, placed a call to his old protégé in West Germany.
Carlucci was looking for some cool heads with great contacts, someone
like Powell who could help contain the scandal and save Reagan’s
Though Powell had helped
arrange the Iran shipments, he had not yet been tainted by the spreading
scandal. Reagan, however, was reeling from disclosures about the
reckless arms-for-hostage scheme with Iran and diversion of money to the
Powell was reluctant to
heed Carlucci’s request. “You know I had a role in this business,”
Powell told the new national security adviser. But Carlucci moved
adroitly to wall Powell off from the scandal. On Dec. 9, 1986, the White
House obtained from the FBI a statement that Powell was not a criminal
suspect in the secret arms deals.
Carlucci also sought
assurances from key players that Powell would stay outside the scope of
the investigation. The next day, Carlucci asked Defense Secretary
Weinberger, Powell’s old boss, "to call Peter Wallison, WH Counsel -- to
tell them Colin had no connection with Iran arms sales -- except to
carry out President's order."
Weinberger wrote down
Carlucci’s message. According to Weinberger’s notes, he then "called
Peter Wallison -- Told him Colin Powell had only minimum involvement on
The statement wasn’t
exactly true. Powell had played a crucial role in skirting the
Pentagon’s stringent internal controls over missile shipments to get the
weapons out of Defense warehouses and into the CIA pipeline. But with
the endorsement of Weinberger, Carlucci was satisfied that his old
friend, Powell, could sidestep the oozing Iran-contra contamination.
On Dec. 12, 1986, Reagan
formally asked Powell to quit his post as commander of V Corps and to
become deputy national security adviser. “Yes, sir,” Powell answered.
“I’ll do it.” But Powell was not enthusiastic. According to his memoir,
My American Journey, Powell felt he “had no choice.”
Powell flew back to
Washington and assumed his new duties on Jan. 2, 1987. Powell took to
his task with skill and energy. His personal credibility would be
instrumental in convincing official Washington that matters were now
back under control.
By that time, too, the
White House already was pressing ahead with a plan for containing the
Iran-Contra scandal. The strategy evolved from a "plan of action"
cobbled together by chief of staff Don Regan immediately before the
Iran-Contra diversion was announced on Nov. 25, 1986. Oliver North and
his colleagues at the National Security Council were to bear the brunt
of the scandal.
"Tough as it seems, blame
must be put at NSC's door -- rogue operation, going on without
President's knowledge or sanction" Regan had written. "When suspicions
arose he [Reagan] took charge, ordered investigation, had meeting with
top advisers to get at facts, and find out who knew what. … Anticipate
charges of 'out of control,' 'President doesn't know what's going on,'
'Who's in charge?'"
Suggesting that President
Reagan was deficient as a leader was not a pretty option, but it was the
best the White House could do. The other option was to admit that Reagan
had authorized much of the illegal operation, including the 1985 arms
shipments to Iran through Israel, transfers that Weinberger had warned
Reagan were illegal and could be an impeachable offense.
By February 1987, the
containment strategy was making progress. A presidential commission
headed by former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, was finishing a report that
found no serious wrongdoing but criticized Reagan's management style. In
its Feb. 26 report, the Tower Board said the scandal had been a "failure
On matters of fact,
however, the Tower Board accepted Reagan's assurances that he knew
nothing about Oliver North's secret efforts to funnel military supplies
to the Nicaraguan contras and that the president had no hand in the
White House cover-up of the Iran-Contra secrets.
But Reagan was not always
cooperative with the cover-up plan to shift the blame onto North and
other "cowboy" NSC staffers. In one press exchange about North's secret
contra-supply operation, Reagan blurted out that it was "my idea to
begin with." North, too, would tell the congressional investigation that
the official version was a "fall-guy plan" with him as the fall guy.
personal credibility helped persuade key journalists to accept the White
House explanations. Soon, Washington's conventional wisdom had bought
into the notion of Reagan's inattention to detail and North's rogue
At the start of George
H.W. Bush's presidency in 1989, Powell wanted a respite from Washington
and got it by assuming command of Forces Command at Fort McPherson in
Georgia. That posting also earned the general his fourth star.
But his sojourn into the
regular Army would be brief, again. By August 1989, President Bush and
his defense secretary, Richard Cheney, were urging Powell to return to
Washington where he would become the
first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell accepted the
In mid-December 1989,
tensions between the United States and Panama exploded when four
American officers in a car ran a roadblock near the headquarters of the
Panamanian Defense Forces. PDF troops opened fire, killing one American.
Another American officer and his wife were held for questioning. After
their release, the officer alleged that he had been kicked in the groin
and that his wife was threatened with rape.
When word of this
humiliation reached Washington, Bush saw American honor and his own
manhood challenged. Powell also saw the need for decisive action. On
Dec. 17, 1989, he recommended to Bush that a large-scale U.S. military
operation capture Panama’s dictator, Gen. Manuel Noriega, and destroy
the Panamanian Defense Force.
On Bush's orders, the
invasion began on Dec. 20, with Powell and Cheney monitoring
developments at the Pentagon. The high-tech American assault force,
using the F-117 Stealth aircraft for the first time, incinerated the PDF
headquarters and the surrounding civilian neighborhoods.
Hundreds of civilians --
possibly thousands, according to some human rights observers -- perished
in the first few hours of the attack. An estimated 315 Panamanian
soldiers also died, as did 23 Americans. But Noriega eluded capture.
Despite the temporary
setback, Powell followed his dictum of putting the best spin on a story.
Stepping before cameras at the Pentagon, Powell declared victory and
played down the disappointment over Noriega's disappearance. "This reign
of terror is over," Powell declared. "We have now decapitated [Noriega]
from the dictatorship of his country."
In the following days, as
U.S. forces hunted for the little dictator, an edgy Powell demonized
Noriega over the supposed discovery of drugs and voodoo artifacts in his
safehouse. Powell started calling Noriega "a dope-sniffing,
voodoo-loving thug." [The white powder would turn out to be tamale
When asked once too often
about the failure to capture Noriega, Powell told a reporter to "stick
The tragedies on the
ground in Panama could sometimes be worse. On Dec. 24, 1989, shortly
after midnight, a nine-months-pregnant Panamanian woman, Ortila Lopez de
Perea, went into labor. She was helped into the family Volkswagen which
was marked by a white flag. With her husband, her mother-in-law and a
neighbor, she headed to the hospital.
At a U.S. military
roadblock on the Transisthmian Highway, the car stopped. The four
Panamanians requested an escort, but were told that wasn't necessary.
After being waved through, they drove another 500 yards to a second
checkpoint. But at this spot, young American troops mistook the speeding
Volkswagen for a hostile vehicle. The soldiers opened up with a
10-second barrage of automatic rifle fire.
When the shooting ended,
Lopez de Perea and her 25-year-old husband Ismael were dead. The
neighbor was wounded in the stomach. The mother-in-law, though unhurt,
was hysterical. The unborn baby was dead, too.
The U.S. government
acknowledged the facts, but refused any compensation to the family. The
Southern Command concluded that its investigation had found that the
incident "although tragic in nature, indicate[s] that the U.S. personnel
acted within the parameters of the rules of engagement in effect at that
On the same day as the
tragic shooting, Manuel Noriega finally re-emerged. He entered the papal
nuncio's residence and sought asylum. The United States demanded his
surrender and bombarded the house with loud rock music. On Jan. 3, 1990,
in full military uniform, Noriega surrendered to U.S. Delta Forces and
was flown in shackles to Miami for prosecution on drug-trafficking
With Noriega's surrender,
the Panamanian carnage was over. Two days later, the victorious Powell
flew to Panama to announce that "we gave the country back to its
In his memoir, Powell
noted as downsides to the invasion the fact that the United Nations and
Organization of American States both censured the United States. There
were also the hundreds of civilian dead. They had been, in effect,
innocent bystanders in the arrest of Manuel Noriega.
"The loss of innocent
lives was tragic," Powell wrote, "but we had made every effort to hold
down casualties on all sides." Some human rights organizations
disagreed, condemning the application of indiscriminate force in
"Under the Geneva
Accords, the attacking party has the obligation to minimize harm to
civilians," one official at Americas Watch said. Instead, the Pentagon
had shown "a great preoccupation with minimizing American casualties
because it would not go over politically here to have a large number of
U.S. military deaths."
The Persian Gulf War of
1990-91 solidified Powell’s reputation in Washington. An enduring image
was the picture of the two top generals – Colin Powell and Norman
Schwarzkopf – celebrating the 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
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 George H.W. Bush, who hungered for a clear military
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. But Bush and his political leadership desperately
wanted a ground war to crown the American victory.
According to insiders,
Bush 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. 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.
Rowland Evans and Robert Novak were among the few who described Bush's
obsession publicly at the time. 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.
"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,"
Evans and Novak wrote.
But 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. Powell wavered between the two camps.
"Neither Powell nor I
wanted a ground war," Schwarzkopf wrote in his memoir, It Doesn't
Take a Hero.
But at other times,
Powell objected to his field commanders’ need for more time. In
mid-February 1991, Powell 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
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.
"I could guess what was
going on," Schwarzkopf wrote. "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."
On Feb. 20, 1991,
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.
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
But when Powell arrived
at the White House late that evening, he found Bush angry about the
Soviet peace initiative. Still, according to Bob 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
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
Powell sought Bush's
attention. "I raised a finger," Powell wrote. "The President turned to
me. 'Got something, Colin?'," Bush asked. But Powell didn’t 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 shattered 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
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
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
"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.
Though hailed as a hero
of the Persian Gulf War, Powell found he was not quite through with the
In testimony to
Iran-Contra independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, Powell had denied
knowing about illegal missile shipments to Iran through Israel in 1985.
But in 1991, Iran-Contra investigators stumbled upon Defense Secretary
Weinberger's long-lost notes filed away in a corner of the Library of
Among those papers was a
note dated Oct. 3, 1985, indicating that Weinberger had received
information from a National Security Agency intercept that Iran was
receiving "arms transfers," a notice that would have gone through
Powell, Weinberger’s military assistant.
The belated discovery of
Weinberger's diaries led to the former defense secretary's indictment
for obstruction of justice. The notes also prompted Powell to submit a
pro-Weinberger affidavit that contradicted Powell's own earlier sworn
testimony in which he had insisted that Weinberger maintained no
In the new version, dated
April 21, 1992, Powell argued that he regarded Weinberger's daily notes
as a "personal diary" and that it was "entirely possible" that
Weinberger would not have understood these personal papers to be within
the scope of the Iran-Contra document requests.
Beyond this apparent
contradiction on the question of whether a "diary" existed or not, the
greater threat to Powell's reputation was the pending Weinberger trial
which was scheduled to start in January 1993. Powell was listed as a
At trial, the general
might have had to maneuver through a legal mine field created by his
unlikely claims of ignorance about the illegal Iran weapons in 1985. If
evidence emerged demonstrating what seemed most likely -- that Powell
and Weinberger both knew about the 1985 shipments -- Powell could face
questions about his own credibility and possibly charges of false
So, in late 1992, Powell
joined an intense lobbying campaign to convince President Bush to pardon
Weinberger. The president had his own reasons to go along. Bush's
participation in the scandal also might have been exposed to the public
if the trial went forward. Bush's insistence that he was "not in the
loop" on Iran-Contra had been undermined by the Weinberger documents,
too, damaging Bush's reelection hopes in the final weekend of the
On Christmas Eve 1992,
Bush dealt a retaliatory blow to the Iran-Contra investigation, granting
pardons to Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants. The pardons
effectively killed the Iran-Contra probe. Weinberger was spared a trial
-- and Powell was saved from embarrassing attention over his dubious
role in the whole affair.
A Press Favorite
In 1994-95, back in
private life, Colin Powell was still remembered as the confetti-covered
hero of Desert Storm. A star-struck national press corps seemed eager to
hoist the retired four-star general onto its shoulders and into the Oval
was one of the first publications to catch the Powell presidential wave.
In its Oct. 10, 1994, issue, the magazine posed the hyperbolic query:
"Can Colin Powell Save America?" Not to be outdone, Time endorsed
Powell as the "ideal candidate" for president. In Time's view,
Powell was "the perfect anti-victim, validating America's fondest
Horacio Alger myth that a black man with few advantages can rise to the
top without bitterness and without forgetting who he is." [Time,
March 13, 1995]
But the newsmagazines
were not alone in the accolades. Surveying the media scene, press critic
Howard Kurtz marveled at how many supposedly hard-edged journalists were
swooning at Powell's feet. "Even by the standards of modern media
excess, there has never been anything quite like the way the press is
embracing, extolling and flat-out promoting this retired general who has
never sought public office," Kurtz wrote. [Washington
Post, Sept. 13, 1995]
In one rare dissent,
The New Republic's
Charles Lane reviewed Powell's second year-long stint in Vietnam in
1968-69. The article focused on the letter from Americal soldier Tom
Glen who complained to the U.S. high command about a pattern of
atrocities against civilians, encompassing the My Lai massacre. When
Glen's letter reached Powell, the fast-rising Army major at Americal
headquarters conducted a cursory investigation and dismissed the young
Only later did other
Americal veterans, most notably Ron Ridenhour, expose the truth about My
Lai and the abuse of Vietnamese civilians. "There is something missing,"
Lane observed, "from the legend of Colin Powell, something epitomized,
perhaps, by that long-ago brush-off of Tom Glen." [The New Republic,
April 17, 1995]
After Lane's article, a
prominent Washington Post columnist rallied to Powell's defense.
Richard Harwood, a former Post ombudsman, scolded Lane for his
heresy, for trying "to deconstruct the image of Colin Powell." Harwood
attacked this "revisionist view" which faulted Powell for "what he
didn't do" and for reducing Powell's "life to expedient bureaucratic
Harwood fretted that
other reporters might join the criticism. "What will other media do with
this tale?" Harwood worried. "Does it become part of a new media
technique by which indictments are made on the basis of might-have-beens
and should-have-dones?" [Washington
Post, April 10, 1995]
But Harwood's fears were
unfounded. The national media closed ranks behind Powell. Not only did
the media ignore Powell's troubling actions in Vietnam, but the press
turned a blind eye to Powell's dubious roles in the Iran-Contra scandal
and other national security foul-ups of the Reagan-Bush era.
For the media, it was
time for “Powell-mania,” a phenomenon that reached a frenzied climax in
fall 1995 with the general's book tour and the will-he-or-won't-he drama
about Powell running for president. Then, in early November 1995, Powell
said no to entering the presidential race and the media's balloon
deflated with an almost audible whoosh.
Though also smitten by
Powell’s charisma, Frank Rich recognized that political reporters were
acting a lot like love-sick adolescents. "The press coverage will
surely, with hindsight, make for hilarious reading," Rich observed. [NYT,
Nov. 11, 1995]
In the years that
followed -- as Powell remained a figure of great national respect,
earning millions of dollars on the lecture circuit -- there was little
of that critical hindsight. His selection as secretary of state by
President-elect George W. Bush -- as Bush's first appointment following
his tainted victory in Election 2000 -- was hailed by the news media
with near universal praise.
Two years later, Powell’s
long love affair with the Washington press corps ensured media support
for Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD when Powell embraced those arguments
in his February 2003 speech to the UN. Rather than examine Powell’s
dubious assertions – based largely on satellite photos of trucks and
snippets of intercepted conversations that didn’t seem to prove anything
– the U.S. news media, from liberal to conservative, agreed that
Powell’s testimony sealed the deal.
So, over the subsequent
months as no WMD stockpiles were found, there has been much press
confusion. Why, many journalists have wondered, would Colin Powell give
a speech that now looks like cheap propaganda that helped send the U.S.
to war under false pretenses and led to the deaths of more than 1,200
The fallout over his
bogus UN testimony has caused Powell more public humiliation than he has
ever experienced. His reputation as a straight-shooter of
unchallengeable integrity was badly tarnished. Still, rather than
resigning in protest of Bush’s war policy, Powell stayed on as secretary
of state, continuing to protect Bush’s standing with centrist American
The news media’s favored
explanation for Powell’s choice was that he was simply acting like the
“good soldier” putting loyalty to his commander-in-chief ahead of his
own judgment. Some of Powell’s media supporters argued, too, that he
remained at State as a matter of public sacrifice, acting as a force of
moderation in an otherwise reckless and ideological administration.
But those arguments
assume that Powell has always been a man of principle and
self-sacrifice, a conclusion not supported by his real public record.
The notion that Powell has injected a healthy dose of moderation into
the Bush administration is also a hard argument to sustain. What Powell
actually did was to give Bush and his neoconservatives “moderate” cover
for the Iraq invasion.
Indeed, Powell may have
been the only person who had a chance to stop Bush’s rush to war. If
Powell had resigned in late 2002 or early 2003, that action would have
been a powerful signal to Middle America about the dangerous course that
Bush had chosen. Even if a Powell resignation couldn’t have prevented
the war, at least it would have made Bush’s second term much less
But as Forrest Gump’s
momma famously said in a different context, “stupid is what stupid
By sticking with his
longstanding pattern of acquiescing to wrongheaded actions by his
superiors, Powell achieved what might be the worst of all possible
worlds. He gave the disastrous invasion of Iraq his imprimatur. He then
stayed in office long enough to ensure Bush’s second term. Now, after
the election, Powell’s ouster as secretary of state eliminates even his
muted dissent from a Cabinet of “yes” men and women.
These misjudgments may
still confuse some of Powell’s ardent media apologists, but his mistakes
shouldn’t surprise anyone who has removed the rose-colored glasses and
taken a hard look at the real Colin Powell: the opportunist whose clever
career-building over four decades finally outsmarted itself.