Robert Parry, the founding editor of Consortium News, wrote this profile in 2004 of Colin Powell, who died at 84 of Covid-19 on Monday.
By Robert Parry
Special to Consortium News
Nov. 26, 2004
Colin Powell’s admirers – especially in the mainstream press – have struggled for almost two years to explain how and why their hero joined in the exaggerations and deceptions that led the nation into the disastrous war in Iraq. Was he himself deceived by faulty intelligence or was he just acting as the loyal soldier to his commander-in-chief?
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. 9, 1995]
As longtime readers of Consortium News 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 Colin Powell?”
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 to death?”
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 treatment.
Although Powell’s 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, American troops had committed an act that would stain forever the reputation of the U.S. Army.
On March 16, 1968, a bloodied American 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 irrigation ditches.
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 to safety.
Several months later, the Americans’ 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 American 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 American 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 American 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 American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
Powell’s findings, of course, were false, though they were exactly what his superiors wanted to hear.
It would take another American 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 American comrades who had participated in the massacre.
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 American’s brutality. In a chilling passage, Powell explained the routine practice of murdering unarmed male Vietnamese.
“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 American 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.
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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 American 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 your hair.”
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 brigade commander.”
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 against Donaldson.
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 American voters.
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 rationalizations.
Colin Powell’s 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 “water-walker.”
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 Boland Amendment.
Handling 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 later.
Congressional attorney 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 stockpiles.
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 Security Agency.
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 recollection.”
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 Colin Powell.
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 Journey.
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.
Weinberger officially 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 testified.
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 Iran-Contra testimony.
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.
Major Christopher 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 to Iran.
“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 notified.
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 7, 1986.
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 shipments.
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 presidency.
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 Nicaraguan contras.
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 Iran.”
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 of responsibility.”
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.
Nevertheless, Powell’s 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 operation.
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 new assignment.
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 flour, however.]
When asked once too often about the failure to capture Noriega, Powell told a reporter to “stick it.”
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 time.”
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 charges.
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 people.”
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.
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“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 civilian areas.
“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 (Schwarzkopf).
But the behind-the-scenes reality often was different. Time and again in the march toward a ground war in Kuwait and Iraq, Powell wavered between siding with Schwarzkopf, who was willing to accept a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal, and lining up with President George H.W. Bush, who hungered for a clear military victory.
The tension peaked in the days before the ground war was scheduled to begin. Iraqi forces already had been pummeled by weeks of devastating allied air attacks both against targets in Iraq and Kuwait. As the clock ticked toward a decision on launching a ground offensive, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to hammer out a cease-fire and a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. 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.
Conservative columnists 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 Kuwait.”
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 heavy weapons.
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 chemical attack.”
But Bush was set: “If they crack under force, it is better than withdrawal,” the president said. In My American Journey, Powell expressed sympathy for Bush’s predicament. “The President’s problem was how to say no to Gorbachev without appearing to throw away a chance for peace,” Powell wrote.
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 president.
The next day, at 10:30 a.m., a Friday, Bush announced his ultimatum. There would be a Saturday noon deadline for the Iraqi withdrawal, as Powell had recommended.
Schwarzkopf and his field commanders in Saudi Arabia watched Bush on television and immediately grasped its meaning. “We all knew by then which it would be,” Schwarzkopf wrote. “We were marching toward a Sunday morning attack.”
When the Iraqis predictably missed the deadline, American and allied forces launched the ground offensive at 0400 on Feb. 24, Persian Gulf time. Though Iraqi forces were soon in full retreat, the allies pursued and slaughtered thousands of Iraqi soldiers in the 100-hour war. U.S. casualties were light, 147 killed in combat and another 236 killed in accidents or from other causes.
“Small losses as military statistics go,” wrote Powell, “but a tragedy for each family.”
On Feb. 28, the day the war ended, Bush celebrated the victory. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all,” the president exulted.
Though hailed as a hero of the Persian Gulf War, Powell found he was not quite through with the Iran-Contra affair.
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 Congress.
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 “diaries.”
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 prospective witness.
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 testimony.
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 campaign.
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 Office.
Newsweek 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 American 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 American headquarters conducted a cursory investigation and dismissed the young soldier’s concerns.
Only later did other American 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 striving.”
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 American soldiers?
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 voters.
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 likely.
But as Forrest Gump’s momma famously said in a different context, “stupid is what stupid does.”
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.
The late investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s and started Consortium News in 1995.
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