Fourth Anniversary of Powell's Lies
Editor’s Note: On Feb. 5, 2003, Colin Powell – then considered one of the most trustworthy leaders in the United States – went before the United Nations and made the case for a preemptive invasion of Iraq, a presentation that we now know was replete with false claims and exaggerated evidence.
But the impact of Powell’s speech on U.S. public opinion then cannot be overstated. Powell effectively de-legitimized the war’s opponents and turned the major U.S. news media into a virtual monolith of misguided consensus for the invasion.
Now, on the fourth anniversary of Powell’s speech, the consequences are painfully clear. More than 3,000 American soldiers are dead, along with possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis; many more thousands have been grievously injured; Iraq has been thrust into a hellish civil war; and the U.S. image in the world is in tatters.
But there are important lessons to be drawn from the troubling case of Colin Powell's false credibility. For one, a more skeptical and less star-struck press corps would never have been swept up in Powell-mania. Diligent journalists would have more carefully scrutinized Powell’s real history and explained to the public the disturbing reality behind this hero’s legend.
After Powell’s speech, Consortiumnews.com was one of the few news outlets voicing dissent about Powell’s trustworthiness. Our headline the next day read: “Trust Colin Powell?” It then linked to an earlier series about Powell’s true biography by Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, entitled “Behind Colin Powell’s Legend.”
On this fourth anniversary of this momentous speech, we are publishing below an excerpt by Parry from the upcoming book, Neck Deep: George W. Bush & the Assault on the American Republic:
To make his case for war before the U.N., George W. Bush dispatched the most credible official in his administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Yet, when Powell was assigned to make the case for war, he already counted himself among the growing list of U.S. officials nervous about the quality of the WMD intelligence. 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 had cited the effectiveness of the U.N. 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.”
But Bush called on Powell to put his loyalty to the President first, over his own personal doubts. Col. Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s longtime friend and chief of staff, later 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 “four day and four night” encampment at the CIA reviewing the intelligence. Despite assurances from CIA Director George 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. … Right behind me. In camera.” So, on Feb. 5, 2003, Powell sat at the curved table of the U.N. Security Council – with CIA Director Tenet and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte behind him.
Revealing none of his internal doubts, Powell calmly presented what he claimed was a convincing factual case that “Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort – no effort – to disarm as required by the international community. Indeed, the facts and Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.”
Powell’s speech was a classic example of persuading an audience of someone’s guilt by piling on one suspicious incident after another. Even if no single example proved the point, the mind numbed to the volume of accusations and surrendered to the impression that the accumulation of pseudo-evidence must add up to something.
That’s especially true if the target of the allegations is a figure of disdain and the person making the charges is respected. Rarely could that imbalance have been greater than Saddam Hussein versus Colin Powell. Even a determined skeptic, punching holes in one dubious accusation after another, would grow weary offering innocent explanations of Hussein’s suspicious behavior.
Powell’s case to the U.N. was a collection of Bush favorite accusations, albeit with some additions and omissions. For instance, Powell left out the Niger-yellowcake claim that Bush had cited in his State of the Union Address. But the strength of Powell testimony came primarily from his personal reputation and his presumption of credibility, much of it based on Powell’s legend.
Though conveying an image of integrity, Powell actually had compiled a long record of opportunism and obedience, not courage and principle. But as he made his presentation to the U.N., Powell’s myth was at its zenith.
Powell argued that Iraq’s insistence that it didn’t have WMD was itself proof of its defiance, even though the U.N. inspectors had failed to find anything.
“This council placed the burden on Iraq to comply and disarm and not on the inspectors to find that which Iraq has gone out of its way to conceal for so long,” Powell said. “Inspectors are inspectors; they are not detectives.”
The Secretary of State then laid out the case that Iraq had a lot to hide.
“The material I will present to you comes from a variety of sources,” Powell said. “Some are U.S. sources. And some are those of other countries. Some of the sources are technical, such as intercepted telephone conversations and photos taken by satellites. Other sources are people who have risked their lives to let the world know what Saddam Hussein is really up to.
“I cannot tell you everything that we know. But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling. What you will see is an accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behavior.”
One of Powell’s techniques was to play intercepted Iraqi telephone conversations in which the precise topic was unclear, but Powell took the worst possible interpretation. In one such conversation, an Iraqi official said, “we evacuated everything. We don’t have anything left.”
So Powell added, “Note what he says: ‘We evacuated everything.’ We didn’t destroy it. We didn’t line it up for inspection. We didn’t turn it into the inspectors. We evacuated it to make sure it was not around when the inspectors showed up.” But Powell was speculating that the “everything” referred to WMDs.
In another excerpt, Powell embellished an original State Department translation to cast more suspicion on the Iraqis.
To prove that Iraqis were removing illegal weapons before a U.N. 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 there.”
What the original 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 later reported by Gilbert Cranberg, a former editor of the Des Moines Register’s editorial pages, when he compared Powell’s testimony with the original State Department translations.)
Powell used the doctored transcript to draw a powerful conclusion. “This is all part of a system of hiding things and moving things out of the way and making sure they have left nothing behind,” he said. “They were trying to clean up the area to leave no evidence behind of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. And they can claim that nothing was there. And the inspectors can look all they want, and they will find nothing.”
Powell dismissed Iraq’s U.N. submissions about its compliance with U.N. resolutions as bald-faced lies.
“Everything we have seen and heard indicates that, instead of cooperating actively with the inspectors to ensure the success of their mission, Saddam Hussein and his regime are busy doing all they possibly can to ensure that inspectors succeed in finding absolutely nothing,” Powell said.
As Powell continued with his indictment of Iraq, he assured the U.N. that “every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
Trying to remind the public of Adlai Stevenson’s dramatic presentation of aerial reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Powell displayed photos of trucks and other items whose presence was given a sinister cast.
Powell seemed to sense the weakness of this photographic evidence, so he prefaced the display by stressing the sophistication of U.S. photo analysts.
“The photos that I am about to show you are sometimes hard for the average person to interpret, hard for me,” he said. “The painstaking work of photo analysis takes experts with years and years of experience, poring for hours and hours over light tables. But as I show you these images, I will try to capture and explain what they mean, what they indicate to our imagery specialists.”
But what the photos often showed were simply bunkers that could be used for a variety of purposes and trucks that – while Powell insisted they were chemical contamination vehicles – were actually just water trucks that could have multiple purposes. U.N. inspector Steve Allinson said some trucks spotted by U.S. satellites were fire trucks, while other vehicles were so neglected that they had cobwebs inside.
At other times, Powell sounded like a conspiracy theorist, posing sinister questions about seemingly innocuous events like the arrival of trucks at one military facility.
“We don’t know precisely what Iraq was moving, but the inspectors already knew about these sites, so Iraq knew that they would be coming,” Powell said. “We must ask ourselves: Why would Iraq suddenly move equipment of this nature before inspections if they were anxious to demonstrate what they had or did not have? … Where did Iraq take all of this equipment? Why wasn’t it presented to the inspectors?” Innocent explanations would not be entertained.
Powell then launched into a litany of claims made by various Iraqi “defectors,” many of whom were fed to U.S. intelligence by the Iraqi National Congress. [For details on the INC operation, see Consortiumnews.com’s “How Neocon Favorites Duped U.S.”]
“One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq’s biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents,” Powell said. “Let me take you inside that intelligence file and share with you what we know from eyewitness accounts. We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. …
“In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War. Although Iraq’s mobile production program began in the mid-1990s, U.N. inspectors at the time only had vague hints of such programs. Confirmation came later, in the year 2000.
“The source was an eyewitness, an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities. He actually was present during biological agent production runs. He was also at the site when an accident occurred in 1998. Twelve technicians died from exposure to biological agents. … This defector [apparently the infamous “Curve Ball”] is currently hiding in another country with the certain knowledge that Saddam Hussein will kill him if he finds him. His eyewitness account of these mobile production facilities has been corroborated by other sources.”
Powell provided a detailed account of how these mobile weapon labs supposedly worked, how many there were (18), and what dangerous toxins they could produce.
“In fact, they can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people,” Powell intoned.
He also added the requisite conspiratorial question: “How long do you think it will take the inspectors to find even one of these 18 trucks without Iraq coming forward, as they are supposed to, with the information about these kinds of capabilities?”
Iraq was supposed to somehow prove that fictitious mobile weapons labs didn’t exist.
The Low End
As for chemical weapons, Powell used another rhetorical technique, estimating a range for Iraq’s alleged stockpiles and then taking the low end of the range to emphasize the careful reliability of his presentation. 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. “Even the low end of 100 tons of agent would enable Saddam Hussein to cause mass casualties across more than 100 square miles of territory, an area nearly five times the size of Manhattan. …
“We have sources who tell us that he recently has authorized his field commanders to use [chemical weapons]. He wouldn’t be passing out the orders if he didn’t have the weapons or the intent to use them.”
Again, the alternative explanation that the sources were lying was not taken into account.
Then, Powell turned to the issue of nuclear weapons. Though Powell didn’t reiterate Bush’s claim about the Niger yellowcake, he did play up the aluminum tubes that were supposedly for centrifuges although U.S. government experts in the Energy and State departments thought the tubes were more suitable for rocket launchers as the Iraqis said.
“There is controversy about what these tubes are for,” Powell acknowledged before adding: “Most U.S. experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium. …
“I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but just as an old Army trooper, I can tell you a couple of things: First, it strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets. Maybe Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don’t think so.”
But Houston Wood, a consultant who worked on the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge analysis of the aluminum 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 said. “I was just flabbergasted that people were still pushing that those might be centrifuges.” [CBS News, Feb. 4, 2004]
U.N. inspector Allinson described the reaction of the U.N. 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 nothing.”
After the speech, Colin Powell was another 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 said.
For his part, Wilkerson added, “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.” [CNN, “Dead Wrong,” Aug. 21, 2005]
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. The next day – Feb. 6, 2003 – The Washington Post’s editorial pages stood as a solid phalanx behind Powell’s presentation.
The newspaper’s editorial board judged Powell’s WMD case “irrefutable” and added: “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”
That opinion was echoed across the Post’s Op-Ed page.
“The evidence he [Powell] presented to the United Nations – some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail – had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them,” wrote Post columnist Richard Cohen. “Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.”
Post columnist Jim Hoagland demanded the surrender of any Bush-doubting holdouts: “To continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence. I don’t believe that. Today, neither should you.”
In this climate, U.S. journalists knew intuitively that to question Powell’s truthfulness or Bush’s leadership could be fatal to one’s career.
News organizations and individual journalists concluded that their corporate and personal financial interests were best served by waving the Red-White-and-Blue, instead of raising red warning flags.
Competing with Fox News to “brand” its news product as super-patriotic, MSNBC fired host Phil Donahue because his show allowed on too many war critics. Also, reflecting its new direction, MSNBC devoted day-long coverage to a diner that renamed “French fries” as “freedom fries.”
Bush and his friends stepped up pressure, too, on longtime allies, such as France and Germany, because they had urged caution. Pro-Bush activists launched boycotts of French and German products; some poured French wine into gutters; a Capitol Hill restaurant also renamed “French fries” as “freedom fries”; aboard Air Force One, “French toast” became “freedom toast”; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denigrated France and Germany as part of “Old Europe”; and pro-Bush media outlets ridiculed anti-war Europeans as the “axis of weasels.”
As the United States slipped into full “war fever,” both right-wing and mainstream news outlets veered between mocking anti-war demonstrators and just ignoring them. When Bush was asked about the millions of demonstrators protesting the upcoming invasion, Bush dismissed them as a “focus group” and signaled to his backers that it was okay to intimidate Americans who questioned his case for war.
So conservative pundits saw no problem in painting former weapons inspector Scott Ritter as a “traitor” when he objected to Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD.
Actor Sean Penn lost work because of his Iraq War opposition, later prompting pro-Bush MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough to chortle, “Sean Penn is fired from an acting job and finds out that actions bring about consequences. Whoa, dude!”
As justification for depriving Penn of work, Scarborough cited a comment that Penn made while on a pre-war trip to Iraq. Penn said, “I cannot conceive of any reason why the American people and the world would not have shared with them the evidence that they [Bush administration officials] claim to have of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” [MSNBC transcript, May 18, 2003]
In other words, no matter how reasonable or accurate the concerns expressed by Bush’s Iraq War critics, they could expect retaliation.
Bush backers flew into an especially ugly rage against the Dixie Chicks, a three-woman country-western band, after lead singer, Natalie Maines, criticized Bush. During a March 10, 2003, concert in London, Maines, a Texan, remarked, “we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Two days later – just a week before Bush launched the Iraq invasion – she added, “I feel the President is ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world.”
The right-wing attack machine switched into high gear, organizing rallies to drive trucks over Dixie Chicks CDs and threatening country-western stations that played Dixie Chicks music. For his part, Bush seemed to relish the punishment inflicted on those who dared criticize him.
On April 24, 2003, barely a month after the Iraq invasion, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw asked Bush about the boycott of the Dixie Chicks. The President responded that the singers “can say what they want to say,” but he added that his supporters then had an equal right to punish the singers for their comments.
“They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out,” Bush said. “Freedom is a two-way street.”
So, instead of encouraging a full-and-fair debate, Bush made clear that he saw nothing wrong with his followers intimidating Americans who disagreed with him. Over the next three years, the Dixie Chicks continued to be hounded by the boycott. Bush supporters even turned to threats of violence.
For his part, Colin Powell remained the good soldier to Bush through Election 2004. After Bush had secured a second term -- and no longer had a particular need for Powell with his private doubts -- Bush arranged to have Powell resign as Secretary of State. Powell left office and mostly remained silent for the next eight months.
When Powell finally gave a lengthy interview to ABC News in September 2005, he bemoaned how the U.N. testimony had become “a blot” on his record. Powell also pinned much of the blame for his false testimony “on some people in the intelligence community” at relatively low levels.
But Powell recognized that the deceptions would always haunt him. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record,” Powell said. “It was painful. It’s painful now.”
As Powell stressed his pain, the interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters took on the feel of a celebrity trying to refurbish a tarnished image by blaming subordinates, rather than a leader stepping forward to take responsibility for personal actions that had led to a disastrous war.
That war is now almost four years old, thanks in part to Colin Powell's bogus U.N. testimony. And the war shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
[For more on the truth about Colin Powell, see Consortiumnews.com’s series “Behind Colin Powell’s Legend.”]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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