Debating Colin Powell’s Guilt

Updated: A decade ago, President George W. Bush launched an unprovoked invasion of Iraq and probably no one person could have stopped him. But one who might have given Bush pause was Colin Powell, who instead joined the war chorus, prompting a debate between his ex-chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson and anti-war activist David Swanson.

By David Swanson (Updated with comment from ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern on Feb. 21, 2013)

When I wrote about MSNBC’s documentary, Hubris, on Iraq war lies this week, I linked to an earlier blog post of mine that drew heavily on a House Judiciary Committee report on the same topic, as well as to Lawrence Wilkerson’s recent debate with Norman Solomon on Democracy Now!

When Brad Friedman reposted my Hubris review, he suggested I ask Wilkerson for a response.  I did and here it is:


Secretary of State Colin Powell testifying before the UN’s Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, presenting what turned out to be false claims about Iraq’s WMD.

“Several misleading and even spurious bullets and headlines that make strong claims that are not supported in the surrounding narrative. For example, no one ever DID warn [then-Secretary of State Colin] Powell about Curveball, in fact quite the opposite. This particular source — billed as an Iraqi engineer who had defected — was George Tenet’s — the DCI’s–strongest weapon. And incidentally, the title “Curveball” was never heard until well after the 5 Feb [2003] presentation [before the United Nations Security Council by Powell].

“Your use of [the State Department’s intelligence unit] INR’s assessment of ‘weak’ [intelligence to support the Iraq War] repeatedly, is weak itself. INR was at the time one of 15 intelligence entities in the US intelligence architecture at the federal level. (Add Israel  France, the UK, Jordan, Germany, et al, and of course you get even more).

“INR’s assessments were often viewed — indeed still are — as maverick within that group (and were particularly so viewed by George Tenet and his deputy John McLaughlin. Indeed, INR’s insistence on putting a footnote in the October 2002 NIE with regard to its doubts about Saddam’s having an active nuclear weapons program was only grudgingly acknowledged and allowed by Tenet. And in truth, INR itself concurred in the overall NIE’s finding that chems and bios [chemical and biological weapons] existed (and the NIE was the root document of Powell’s 5 Feb presentation).

“I have admitted what a hoax we perpetrated. But it actually spoils or desecrates a fair condemnation of what is already a bad enough set of misstatements, very poor intelligence analysis, and — I am increasingly convinced, outright lies — to take the matter to absurdity with one man, in this case Powell.

“To see my point dramatically, one must realize that whether Powell had given his presentation or not, the President [George W. Bush] would have gone to war with Iraq. That doesn’t relieve Powell or me or any of us who participated in preparing Powell of responsibility; it simply places the bulk of that responsibility squarely where it should rest.

“You, Ray McGovern, and I will never reach accord on this I’m certain; but I must say that just as I may have biases from my long association with Powell, I believe both of you should examine your biases with regard to the man. Just as it was very difficult for me to face the fact I had participated in a hoax, it probably is just as difficult that you two admit you may be too aggressively critical of Powell. Both our conditions are recognizably human and yours more forgiveable than mine to be sure. Lawrence Wilkerson

Here’s my reply:

“Larry, Thanks for this response. Here’s my reply to your reply.

“Whether or not anyone told Powell of Curveball’s reputation, Powell’s own staff, the INR, told him the claims were weak, the claims that came from Curveball and from numerous other sources. The INR told him the claims were weak and questionable and even implausible.

“Powell used fabricated dialogue [in his UN presentation]. He used evidence from a source who had admitted all the weapons had been destroyed years ago, but failed to mention that bit. Again, here is the catalog of bogus claims:

“You yourself in Hubris state that claims you’d rejected were put back in. That is a moment to resign in protest, not to move forward and dismiss the INR, the State Department’s own experts, as ‘maverick.’

“When the Pentagon and the White House build a transparently fraudulent case for war, rejected by countless experts, many nations, and much of the public, the State Department’s job is to support fact-based analysis regardless of whether it is ‘maverick.’

“You recently accused Norman Solomon on DemocracyNow! and all other truth tellers of that time of having failed to warn you — as if we weren’t shouting into every available microphone. If word had slipped through to you, it seems you would have rejected it as ‘maverick.’

“This is highly discouraging. If analysis within our government consciously engages in groupthink, where will we find the whistleblowers necessary to prevent the next war?

“Please do not imagine that any of us suppose the President wasn’t intent on going to war at all costs. It was the transparency of that intention that created the largest public protest in world history. But to suggest that Powell and you did no harm by supporting a war that might have gone ahead even if you’d resisted is a complete breakdown in morality.

“I don’t believe blame works that way. Blaming Bush more doesn’t blame Powell or you less. It just blames Bush more. Blame is not a finite quantity born of a drive for vengeance and distributable to a limited number of people. Blame is what we each deserve when we fail to take the best actions available, as explained here. David Swanson.

Update: Response from Ray McGovern

There are very few people still around with the kind of integrity that leads me to give them virtually implicit trust (allowing for the fact that all of us are nonetheless human).  One such person is Larry Wilkerson.

It seems to me that a lot hinges on whether Powell and Wilkerson could bring themselves to believe that [CIA Director George] Tenet and [his deputy John] McLaughlin would lie to their faces about Curveball. Tenet is the mother of all con men, and one can argue that Powell and Wilkerson should have been quite aware of that.

Still, I can readily believe that Powell and Wilkerson found it difficult to conclude that Tenet was making stuff up on such a critical issue, that — assured of backing by Cheney — Tenet and McLaughlin would feel free to let Powell dangle softly in the wind … for the greater cause, of course.

Sizing up Powell, Tenet and McLaughlin might well have concluded that, as long as Cheney was around to protect them (and that he would badmouth Powell to the President if Powell stepped out of line), Powell would not dare accuse them of outright lying. If that was part of their calculation, they appear to have been right.

What incredible fear Cheney inspires — still!  Let’s see what Powell says if Cheney ever dies!

I looked into all this at some length earlier this month.  For what it’s worth, this is how I came out:

Ray McGovern

David Swanson’s books include “War Is A Lie.” He blogs at and and works for He hosts Talk Nation Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook.  


12 comments for “Debating Colin Powell’s Guilt

  1. Paul Haider
    February 24, 2013 at 00:22

    Is is so terrible that Colin “Cancer” Powell did, in fact, explicitly deceive the United Nations by claiming that his urine sample was Iraqi uranium? The great news about our nation’s misadventure and exorbitant waste of taxpayer money in the ten-year-old (!) Iraq War is that Halliburton was finally able to maximize all of its profits for Dickhead Cheney. Am I the only one here among the commentators who has all of his stocks and bonds invested solely in Halliburton and Walmart? I did this in the name of capitalism in memory of St. Ronald Raygun (“Ray” refers to the rays of sunshine/smoke that Reagan blew up the fat butts of the American people for eight years, and “gun” refers to the fact that Ronnie continued pandering to the NRA in spite of the fact that he was nearly killed by a gun in late March of 1981).

  2. Paul Haider
    February 24, 2013 at 00:15

    Colin “Cancer” Powell cannot possibly feel any less guilt about his deception regarding the nonexistent/invisible “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq than the lack of guilt that Clarence “Uncle Tom” Thomas feels when he thinks about sexually harrassing Anita Hill and lying about it to Congress. If Powell was an honorable man, although he is not, then he would admit that he was holding up his urine sample in front of the United Nations and claimed that it was uranium. In fairness to the man, “urine” and “uranium” sound somewhat similar.

  3. Curmudgeon
    February 23, 2013 at 21:01

    I will not claim to be as erudite and as well-informed as some of the previous commentators. Certain things do still stand out for me. We may never know the full extent to which Gen. Powell knowingly presented false information to the U.N. What does stand out for me is that the Neocons had no reservations whatsoever of besmirching this citizen-soldier’s reputation and using him to further their already predetermined course toward war with Iraq. During the election I told my friends that if W got himself elected (I still don’t believe he did), we would be at war in Iraq within no more than two years. I believe that without 9/11, we would have been there sooner.
    I believe that Nancy Pelosi was derelict in her responsibilities as Speaker of the House by promising “no impeachments.” I believe that our current government remains hypocritical while claiming to be a champion for peace and that that hypocrisy is exacerbated the longer we protect Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Libby, et al, from being brought to the World Court to face to face trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Our refusal to do this perpetuates the image that much of the world has that the U.S. considers itself “above the law.”
    Getting back to Powell, I find him to be a very complex man and it will be years before we know the full extent of his culpability in this deadly hoax.
    The biggest mystery to me is that he continues to self-identify as a member of the GOP. He has gotten his little bits of payback by endorsing (I believe sincerely) Obama for POTUS. But his party hung him out to dry, to literally dangle in the wind. I find him to be a tragic figure and must admit to some sympathy toward him. He was a life long soldier. The notion of going against his Commander-in-Chief must have presented a terrible moral conundrum for him. That said, he made his bed and must now lay in it. I cannot judge him; I cannot imagine being placed in such a challenging situation.

  4. Gus Wynn
    February 23, 2013 at 17:16

    Wilkerson-bashing is counterproductive in the present moment. I don’t see anyone else saying “I will testify” against what Cheney, McGlaughlin and Tenet did.

    Wilkerson is not being the “perfect” whistleblower, but nobody else this high up the food chain has come forward. Wilkerson has been like the tortured conscience of Powell who remains a wishy-washy spectator in the aftermath of Hubris.

    I admire Mr. Swanson, but we do “blame Bush less” if we expend time writing faulting Wilkerson instead of Cheney. Melvin Goodman of for example, recently wrote about the failure of the Washington Post to spot the Iraq Team “bullshit” in recent coverage.

    Also food for thought:

    – from the start of his whistleblowing, Wilkerson has always said Powell believed WMD could be found in country, which effectively could have made moot the idea that he “knowingly lied”. Powell might have been banking on this as he cowered from Cheney’s onslaught…

    – the statement above that Powell’s presentation “is widely credited with turning the tide” in favor of invading Iraq might speak to public support, but operationally speaking, this is just an afterthought. Judith Miller’s NYT article of 9/8/02 predated Powell’s speech by about 5 months and got much of Congress on board. See this timeline at MotherJones for more.

    – Wilkerson, who eventually did step down in protest, could have had defensible reasons. Suppose he wanted to gather documentation first without blowing his cover. Maybe he felt he was still going to be able to do something good from inside one of the nation’s senior most foreign policy positions. He also had to consider his resignation at any time would have a coffin nail for his boss. It was effectively the end of Powell when Wilkerson did finally come out…

    Mr. McGovern reminds us Wilkerson has earned credibility where Powell has not, seemingly been dragging Powell as he’s gone public with the story. But in continuing to give Powell the benefit of the doubt, Wilkerson is undermined by Powell himself.

    Wilkerson made his charges on PBS seven years ago already. Powell has left him in limbo throughout. But even when Powell said something with teeth, the US media failed to cover it. In February 2011, as Curveball was all over US media (NYT, 60 Minutes, etc.) confirming he’d lied all along, Powell was questioned by The Guardian about his role, replying:

    “It has been known for several years that the source called Curveball was totally unreliable…[t]he question should be put to the CIA and the DIA as to why this wasn’t known before the false information was put into the NIE sent to Congress, the president’s state of the union address and my 5 February presentation to the UN.”

    Yes, that sounded like a call for an investigation, but we never heard this in our media – indeed, when Powell published his memoir in May 2012, he blamed the VP and CIA for bad intel but didn’t call for action of any kind.

    Continuing to have it both ways as he tours the lecture circuit, Powell’s bio is aptly named “It Worked For Me”.

  5. hammersmith
    February 22, 2013 at 19:27

    To claim Powell in not guilty is to insult his intelligence (IQ).

  6. BillB
    February 21, 2013 at 12:49

    How can Powell and others claim they didn’t know the contents of his speech at the UN were false when knowledgeable Middle East reporters such as Robert Fisk spotted the lies immediately after they exited Powell’s mouth? It was also patently obvious to anyone with a modicum of street smarts that Powell’s dishonesty was preceded by a constant litany of mendacity from Bush and his administration. And, what does it say about the American people that they keep re-electing guilty politicians who voted aggressively for this war with one now serving as vice president and are apparently willing to have another become president in 2016?

  7. Hillary
    February 21, 2013 at 08:25

    Intelligence failure and Mission Accomplished.

  8. Hillary
    February 21, 2013 at 08:17

    Debating Colin Powell’s Guilt or anything here is more than difficult because of censorship.
    in an interview at ‘Meet the Press’, Collin Powell defended his lies at United Nations about Iraqi WMDs in 2003. “We were basing all of our actions on a national intelligence estimate that the Congress asked for and was provided to the Congress by the CIA. And all of us in the Bush administration at that time accepted the judgment of our 16 intelligence communities. I presented it to the U.N. Three months before I presented it to the U.N., Congress passed a resolution, also supported by Senator Hagel and many other senators that would give the president the authority to go to war. They weren’t half-truths is what we were being told by the intelligence community. We subsequently found out that a lot of that information was not accurate and that is very unfortunate but that’s the way it unfolded,” said Powell.
    According to independent media, the Iraqi WMD information like the names of 19 Arab hijackers who carried the 9/11 – were provided to CIA by Israeli Mossad.
    Colin Powell was fully aware that Iraq probably did not have WMD – if only
    because CIA’s Mss. Susan Lindauer personally warned him so – before he went to UN to give his speech, and yet he later complained on national TV that no one in the intelligence community had warned him that this was so. With General Powell’s reputation,one would never expect him to lie and put on a show on TV in order to protect himself and the “official story”, and yet he did so, and you will find all this in Lindauer’s book.

  9. F. G. Sanford
    February 20, 2013 at 22:15

    There’s an old saying about leadership: “A fish stinks from the head”. This article seems to me to be another version of, “Everybody was responsible, so nobody’s guilty”. It’s a typical Republican way of looking at things: “It couldn’t have been a conspiracy, because it was a collective effort”. At least Colonel Wilkerson has had the courage to tell what he knows about the events as he saw them. Where else are we seeing even a modicum of honesty from other members of the administration who surely know the truth? The bottom line is that prosecution of anybody would require prosecution of everybody. Nobody had then or has now the courage to go after the ringleaders. Trying to guilt on Wilkerson is just finger-pointing.

  10. incontinent reader
    February 20, 2013 at 21:40

    For some time I’ve been curious as to whether the claims made by Susan Lindauer in her book “Extreme Prejudice” were real and/or could be confirmed by others, and if, as she says, they were communicated to the President through her second cousin Andrew Card, and to Secretary Powell the night before his speech to the UN, and also to Congress- including Senators McCain and Feinstein and their partners in crime. Whether or not she is right, Saddam’s overtures wouldn’t have mattered to Bush anyway since they were inconsistent with his plan to take him out and create a new paradigm in the Middle East as MSNBC’S recent documentary “Hubris” makes clear, but it would have made Powell’s decision to misrepresent the facts before the UN and the rest of the world that much more egregious. Col. Wilkerson has been one of the few from the Bush Administration that have acknowledged that the Iraq war was a terribe mistake, and since that time have been urging a reset of our foreign policy, though very recently he seemed to backtrack and assert that Powell’s speech, which he himself drafted, was not necessarily an unfair approximation of what they knew at the time. So, I wonder if anyone has ever asked him about Lindauer.

    It is now widely accepted that the march to war with Iraq was all a massive con job, (though our invasion of Afghanistan is still not widely questioned), but it was a big lie, of such magnitude that a poorly informed and undiscerning public might be forgiven for having believed it. No one who now has the facts, except possibly the most unrepentant and/or psychopathic of the neocons such as, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle and Feith, can continue to maintain with a straight face that Iraq had WMD, or at least reasonable to believe. Yet, the Administration has been following the same basic foreign policy of taking out each and every country on the original list, albeit with different tactics in its targeting and manner of waging war; and it has continued to hold all materials and relevant information about 9/11 and its aftermath, even up to the the present wars, under State Secrets wraps and away from public view- including, credible testimony about what happened, facts about all those who were responsible, what they did, and why. As a result, it has been left to the 9/11 A&E Truthers to march forward undaunted seeking answers that should have been declassified a dozen years ago. Where does that leave us today? We are still mired in the “War on Terror”, or “War of Chaos”, or whatever it might be called, which is in reality a policy of perpetual war intended and designed to contain our former Cold War enemies, and to neutralize, dismember and atomize all of the non-aligned Third World so that we might expand our hegemonic reach and control, while using our allies in a form of ‘pay for play gang rape’ to achieve it; and, we are still tied up in a web of national security legislation and Executive Orders, to defend ourselves at home against mostly imaginary terrorists- i.e., persons and groups who may or may not have been appropriately classified as such under these laws- and, yet, because of the deference of the courts to the Presidential War Power, we’ll never know if the original findings that they were terrorists were, or still are, correct or not.

    Moreover, even if they are terrorists, it may still be hard to know whose they really are.
    And, as our civilization has advanced into the 21st century and we no longer hire Hessians to shoot enemies of the Empire, we find our government outsourcing our wars and our interrogations, or a portion thereof, to shadowy military contractors, and in a true spirit of cooperation, and as part of a COIN strategy without a “positive purpose”, encouraging our putative allies to hire mercenary jihadists, which we then train to spread terror, and even behead or maim their victims- the argument being that we must terrorize the population to turn it against its government and then save it, and must make a complete break with the past and replace it with a clean canvas on which to paint our image of “democracy” and “human rights” for our most favored dictatorships to ignore.

    I see it all as part of that inevitable march toward world government, where every nation, except the U.S., and every citizen of every nation, except the 1% of the 1%, is a castrati serving the boss. So, watch out, because those who are making the rules no longer see national borders or national sovereignty, or a UN Charter, or Geneva Conventions as particularly practical or relevant anymore, but instead are promoting multinational treaties such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which from most accounts is already a done deal everywhere else in the Pacific region, and that the kingmakers think will be a slam dunk in the U.S. Senate, even if (like the targeted assassination memos) no one voting on it in Congress is supposed to have seen any of it (though don’t count on Feinstein-Blum, or Kerry-Heinz, or Clinton-Clinton being in the dark). And don’t expect anything different with the Keystone project. The deal has already been cut, and the EIR prepared under Hillary’s watch, but which she has been careful not to address so as not to offend her future constituency- i.e., those who love her even while she is picking their pocket- will, together with House and gubernatorial support, give Obama the ammo he needs to sign off and “put the ‘Tiger’ in the tank” (i.e, with a redeemed Woods on the green helping the President sell his plan to the energy companies, while Jesse’s son is packed and on his way to jail.)

    So, this is turning out for those marginalized on the left to be a race during Obama’s second term to make more sense of the past, and stop too much more of the bad stuff from happening before it overwhelms us, and maybe even make enough noise to prod the government finally to change course for the future. As more and more of the story seeps out, and Congress embarrasses itself in the Hagel and Brennan hearings, it is becoming clearer and clearer that those who could have, and should have protected the public interest ought now to have the decency to resign, or give up their chairmanships and step aside for others who are serious about fixing the mess and are less tainted by it. For example, it is appalling that Democratic leaders like Pelosi and Feinstein and Levin, and dinosaurs from earlier Administrations, such as Madeline Albright, should still be so supportive of our President’s targeted assassination program, a program they have shielded themselves from fully understanding, and still don’t get. Albright escaped with murder on her hands in Yugoslavia and is still living off of a reputation she built off of the carnage we wreaked, and propaganda war we waged to legitimize it- and off of the Dayton Accords which would not have been necessary if Clinton had been willing to accept a more inclusive deal that our allies had proposed in Lisbon Conference eighteen months earlier. War is a racket, war is hell, and war won’t work in a world too big for one or a few countries to control in this day and age, unless we commit genocide to get what we want and maybe blow ourselves up in the process.

  11. cộng đồng
    February 20, 2013 at 21:30

    There’s one simple explanation for the continuing reluctance on the part of former S of S Powell and his staff to “come completely clean” about the whole run-up and justification of the 2003 invasion of Iraq — there is, so far as I’m aware, no statute of limitations on the crime of starting an unjustified war; the fear that in some better time (better in the sense that a majority of people will finally free themselves here or in other democracies from the knee-jerk, highly ingrained mindset of “American exceptionalism” and its consequent impunity), keeps these former officials from admitting their culpability in the face of eventual prosecution in our own courts, or, much more likely, in the courts of one of those other democracies. Our former officials’ not completely forthright discussions of that time are thus motivated by a self-referential interpretation of Luke 6:37 – “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.” Let’s hope in the long-run they are wrong…

    • incontinent reader
      February 20, 2013 at 21:40

      So right you are about the Statute of Limitations.

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