Secretary of State Colin Powell appears to have widened his credibility
gap with his latest attempt to shift the blame for bogus evidence about
Iraqi weapons of mass destruction onto mid-level intelligence analysts –
and away from himself and other senior officials.
In an interview with ABC News, Powell fingered
“some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that
some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and
they didn’t speak up. That devastated me.”
But he spared from criticism high-ranking Bush
administration colleagues as well as then-CIA director George Tenet. As
for his personal feelings about his false WMD testimony before the
United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, Powell told ABC’s Barbara Walters that
he saw the incident as a “blot” on his reputation.
“It was painful,” Powell said. “It’s painful now.”
However, in shifting the blame down the line of
command, Powell also seems to have touched a raw nerve with a number of
CIA veterans and everyday Americans, who e-mailed us over our story
about Powell’s interview, “Colin
Powell Being Colin Powell.”
Our article put Powell’s blame-shifting in the
context of his lifelong record of protecting his superiors and his own
image. But one reader, Ava, took us to task for relying on ABC’s
cleaned-up transcript of Powell’s words.
In the actual broadcast, Ava noted, Powell was less
articulate, interspersing his comments with phrasing errors and the
utterance, “uh,” that ABC deleted from the quotes used in its Web
article about the interview.
“Powell is obviously
fumbling on the broadcast interview. The impression the smooth
alteration gives doesn’t imply that to the reader of ABC’s Web story,”
Ava wrote. [For details on her objections, see
The Common Ills blog.]
Other readers, including former CIA analysts,
challenged Powell’s comments as disingenuous because they are certain
the former secretary of state knew how thin the WMD evidence was at the
time and how aggressively the administration was stretching it.
Indeed, Powell may have been one of the best
positioned officials to know that the threat from Iraq was being
exaggerated. In February 2001, Powell personally cited the effectiveness
of the UN sanctions in crippling Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities.
“Frankly, they have worked,” Powell said of the
sanctions. “He [Hussein] has not developed any significant capability
with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project
conventional power against his neighbors.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, however,
the Bush administration began zeroing in on oil-rich Iraq as a target of
opportunity. Whereas before, Powell and other officials downplayed the
Iraqi threat; now they were playing it for all it was worth.
By summer 2002, this pattern of exaggeration was
evident to virtually anyone involved in the process. On July 23, 2002,
in the so-called Downing Street Memo, the chief of British intelligence
reported back to Prime Minister Tony Blair about a recent trip to
Washington and said bluntly that the facts were being “fixed around the
“This is not the way intelligence is done,” former
CIA analyst Ray McGovern told me. “You don’t just decide to have a war
and then arrange the intelligence.”
As the recent CNN documentary, “Dead
Wrong,” also made clear, many senior intelligence officials,
especially inside Powell’s State Department, were aware of the shoddy
intelligence behind the Iraqi WMD claims.
Greg Thielmann, who monitored WMD issues for the
State Department’s bureau of intelligence, said his unease dated back to
August 2002, when Vice President Dick Cheney declared that “there is no
doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction” and that
“we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear
Cheney was drawing from alarmist intelligence being
collected by a special Pentagon office established by Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld and staffed by neoconservative policymakers set on war
“That speech it seemed to me was basically a
declaration of war speech,” Thielmann said. “That’s when I, for the
first time, became really alarmed about where we were going on this.”
As recently as this summer, Bush has continued to
deny that in that time period, “we had made up our mind to go – to use
military force to deal with Saddam,” adding “there is nothing farther
from the truth.”
Resigned to War
But the evidence is clear that the die was cast for
war by summer 2002. As the Downing Street Memo shows, all that was left
was lining up public support.
The CNN documentary, which aired on Aug. 21, 2005,
reported that by September 2002, “the Pentagon has quietly positioned
forces in countries around the Persian Gulf. The United States will be
ready to move against Saddam in as little as 60 days.”
According to former CIA counterterrorism expert
Michael Scheuer, “There was just a resignation within the agency that we
were going to war against Iraq and it didn’t make any difference what
the analysis was or what kind of objections or countervailing forces
there were to an invasion. We were going to war.”
In that climate, any scrap of information about
Iraq’s WMD was scooped up by the administration and often passed on to
the news media. For instance, when aluminum tubes were discovered
heading to Iraq, one inexperienced CIA analyst came up with the dubious
conclusion they must be for enriching uranium.
Nuclear experts, including those at Powell’s State
Department and inside the Energy Department, concluded otherwise, that
the tubes matched the requirements for conventional Iraqi rockets and
weren’t suitable for nuclear enrichment. But the administration embraced
the nuclear-tube argument.
“Why would you immediately jump to the conclusion
that these were for their nuclear program?” asked Carl Ford, former
assistant secretary of state running the State Department’s bureau of
intelligence. “Once an analyst starts believing their own work and quits
doubting themselves and starts saying, ‘I'm going to prove to you that
they've got nuclear weapons,’ watch out.”
Next, the nuclear-tube story was leaked to a credulous New York Times,
which put the article – coauthored by Judith Miller – on the front page
of the Sept. 8, 2002, editions. The story contained what would become an
administration refrain: “The first sign of a smoking gun may be a
Having succeeded in planting this one bogus claim,
the Bush administration went to work on another, that Saddam Hussein’s
secular dictatorship was somehow in league with al-Qaeda, a group of
Islamic fundamentalists who publicly had condemned Hussein.
Again, the Bush administration brushed aside
evidence that contradicted the desired rationale. Former CIA analyst
Scheuer told CNN that a careful review of intelligence information over
nearly a decade “could find no connection in the terms of a state
sponsored relationship with Iraq … but it apparently didn’t have any
Instead, Bush’s national security adviser
Condoleezza Rice stripped the claim of any uncertainty. “Clearly, there
are contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraq that can be documented. There
clearly is testimony that some of these contacts have been important
contacts and there’s a relationship there,” she said.
By fall 2002, Bush had requested authority from
Congress to launch a preemptive war against Iraq, but still had not
ordered up a formal National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD. So,
Congress took the extraordinary step of requesting one directly from the
“Totally unusual,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.,
told CNN. “The agencies understand that if we're about to take a major
military action or even consider one, you bring all your intelligence
agencies together and say, ‘what do you know, and what do you know for
sure before we put our troops in harm’s way, before we risk the
reputation and treasure and bodies of our servicemen? What do we know?’”
During the NIE process – despite the objections from the experts at
State and Energy – Tenet defended the opinion of the inexperienced CIA
analyst who had come up with the nuclear-tube theory.
In perhaps the most remarkable disclosure in the
CNN documentary, the CIA may have prevailed in this key debate because
the Energy Department had sent over the wrong analyst.
“The Department of Energy was present but did not
have the right individual there to argue the case,” said then-CIA deputy
director John McLaughlin. “So when confronted with the data, this
individual was not quite prepared to say, ‘well, let me lay out all of
the technical reasons why we would have a different view.’ It's one of
those elements of life and bureaucracy that intervened at a critical
moment to make a difference in what the final product said.”
In other words, the U.S. government lurched down a
course toward war rather than have someone stop the meeting and insist
that the Energy Department send over the right briefer. An open-minded
intelligence debate on war and peace would not have allowed such a
bureaucratic snafu to play a decisive role.
Powell’s own intelligence agency remained skeptical
of the case being constructed about Iraq’s supposed nuclear program. “We
couldn't really buy on to any of the things being said so the State
Department's intelligence bureau put in a very deliberate and strong and
lengthy dissent,” said intelligence chief Ford.
Still, with the dissenting views largely buried, the NIE helped secure
congressional approval for Bush’s war plans.
Soon, however, the fragile case on Iraq’s WMD began
to crack. At the CIA, doubts grew about WMD claims from Iraqi defectors,
including one codenamed “Curveball” who had asserted that Iraq had
mobile WMD labs, but who was suspected of fabrication.
Tyler Drumheller, former chief of the CIA’s
European Division, said his office had issued repeated warnings about
Curveball’s accounts. “Everyone in the chain of command knew exactly
what was happening,” said Drumheller, who scoffed at claims by Tenet and
McLaughlin that they didn’t know about Curveball’s credibility problems.
[Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2005]
UN inspectors also had returned to Iraq and were
not finding evidence of WMD at sites that had been considered the most
likely locations of weapons caches.
The crumbling evidence prompted the White House to
dig up another questionable charge for Bush’s State of the Union speech
in January 2003, that Iraq had sought enriched uranium in Africa. The
claim raised more eyebrows among intelligence professionals.
By the time Powell was assigned to make the case
for war before the UN Security Council in February 2003, the secretary
of state was among the growing list of officials nervous about the
quality of the WMD intelligence.
Col. Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s longtime friend and
chief of staff, told CNN that Powell was upset with the White House
instructions about what to highlight in his speech.
“He came through the door that morning and he had
in his hand a sheaf of papers and he said this is what I’ve got to
present at the United Nations according to the White House and you need
to look at it,” Wilkerson said. “It was anything but an intelligence
document. It was as some people characterized it later, some kind of
Chinese menu from which you could pick and choose. …
“There was no way the secretary of state was going
to read off a script about serious matters of intelligence that could
lead to war when the script was basically unsourced.”
Powell’s skepticism led to his legendary “four day
and four night” encampment at the CIA reviewing the intelligence.
Despite assurances from CIA Director Tenet, Powell recognized the
shakiness of the case.
Wilkerson said Powell “turned to the DCI, Mr.
Tenet, and he [Powell] said, ‘everything here, everything here, you
stand behind?’And Mr. Tenet said, ‘absolutely, Mr. Secretary.’ And he
[Powell] said, ‘well, you know you’re going to be sitting behind me
tomorrow. Right behind me. In camera.”
But Powell didn’t give any indication of his
internal doubts when he performed confidently in his hour-long UN
speech. “What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid
intelligence,” Powell said.
At one point, for dramatic effect, he held up a
small vial to demonstrate how lethal some of Iraq’s alleged poisons
were. “Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of
between 100 and 500 tons of chemical-weapons agent,” Powell said.
“That’s enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets.”
Powell also asserted that some of the WMD was in
four bunkers observed by U.S. spy satellites. The proof that these were
WMD bunkers was the presence of decontamination vehicles, Powell said.
But State Department WMD expert Thielmann later
told CBS News that “these particular vehicles were simply fire trucks.”
UN inspector Steve Allinson also said some trucks spotted by U.S.
satellites were fire trucks and other vehicles were so unused that they
had cobwebs inside.
At another point in his UN speech, Powell
embellished on quotes pulled from intercepts of Iraqi conversations to
make the words seem more incriminating.
Trying to prove that Iraqis were removing illegal
weapons before a UN inspection team arrived, Powell read from one
supposed transcript of an Iraqi official
giving orders: “We sent you a message yesterday to clean out all of the
areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing
What the full State
Department transcript said, however, was: “We sent you a message to
inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas.” There was no order to
“clean out all of the areas” and there was no instruction to “make sure
there is nothing there.” [Powell’s apparent fabrication of the intercept
was first reported by Gilbert Cranberg, a former editor of the Des
Moines Register’s editorial pages.]
Powell also trotted out
the CIA’s disputed claims about the aluminum tubes, noting that while
“there is controversy about what these tubes are for, most U.S. experts
think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich
But Houston Wood, a
consultant who worked on the Oak Ridge analysis of the tubes, later told
CBS News that Powell’s presentation was misleading, since the nuclear
experts, who were concentrated in the Energy Department, knew the tubes
were unsuited for uranium enrichment.
“I thought when I read
that there must be some other tubes that people were talking about,”
Wood added. “I was just flabbergasted that people were still pushing
that those might be centrifuges.” [CBS
News, Feb. 4, 2004]
UN inspector Allinson described the reaction of the
UN team as it watched Powell’s much ballyhooed address.
“Various people would laugh at various times
because the information he was presenting was just, you know, didn’t
mean anything, had no meaning,” Allinson said, adding that the
conclusion of the inspectors after Powell’s speech was that “they have
Though many WMD experts didn’t buy the Bush
administration’s case, Powell’s speech worked wonders with the U.S. news
media. Almost across the board, American commentators and pundits – long
enamored of Powell’s glittering reputation – hailed Powell’s evidence as
overwhelming and unassailable.
After the speech, however, Colin Powell was one
person who knew how shaky the evidence really was. The savvy insider
turned to his friend Wilkerson and “said words to the effect of, I
wonder how we’ll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and
march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing,”
Wilkerson told CNN.
For his part, Wilkerson now says, “I look back on
it and I still say it’s the lowest point in my life. I wish I had not
been involved in it.”
When CBS News asked former State Department WMD
analyst Thielmann why Powell would distort the findings of his own
intelligence agency, Thielmann responded that “I can only assume that he
was doing it to loyally support the President of the United States and
build the strongest possible case for arguing that there was no
alternative to the use of military force.” [CBS
News, Feb. 4, 2004]
To this day, Powell is still trying to make the
case that he was blindsided by bad intelligence, the fault of some
lower-level bureaucrats who kept the reality from Tenet, Bush and Powell
Yet this case for Powell’s innocence is undercut
further by the fact that some journalists and independent experts were
challenging the WMD evidence months before Powell’s UN address – and
were disclosing the pressure being brought on U.S. intelligence
officials to toe the White House line on Iraq’s supposed WMD.
For instance, Knight Ridder’s Warren Strobel and
Jonathan Linday reported in October 2002 that “intelligence
professionals and diplomats … privately have deep misgivings about the
administration’s double-time march toward war. These officials charge
that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses.”
These contemporaneous articles also reported
complaints from U.S. officials about administration efforts to squelch
dissent and pressure analysts to produce intelligence reports that would
support Bush’s case for preemptive war.
One anonymous official told the reporters that
“analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling
very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books.”
To believe Powell now – that he was oblivious to
the doubts within the U.S. intelligence community – would require
accepting that this knowledgeable secretary of state was unaware of
disclosures in the news media as well as the internal dissension within
the intelligence bureau of his own State Department.
It’s much more logical to conclude that
Powell did what he had done many times before – that he chose to do the
bidding of his superiors and protect his status within the Washington
more on Powell’s biography, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Colin
Powell Being Colin Powell."]