The Truth about Colin Powell
Editor’s Note: As we’ve noted before, false narratives about historical events can steer the American people in directions that are harmful to their interests.
But false narratives about individuals can do the same, often getting the public to trust someone who doesn’t deserve it.
There has rarely been a better example of that than the case of retired Gen. Colin Powell. Across the political spectrum, pundits encouraged the American people to trust Colin Powell.
So, no one looked very closely at the troubling reality behind his pleasant façade. Which made him the perfect choice to sell the Iraq War.
This excerpt from the new book, Neck Deep, describes the real Colin Powell, the ambitious military bureaucrat who followed orders and put his career interests first:
On January 17, 1963, in South Vietnam’s monsoon season, U.S. Army Capt. Colin Powell jumped from a military helicopter into a densely forested combat zone of the A Shau Valley, not far from the Laotian border.
Carrying an M-2 carbine, Capt. Powell was starting his first – and only – combat assignment. He was the new adviser to a 400-man unit of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
Across jungle terrain, these South Vietnamese government troops were arrayed against a combined force of North Vietnamese regulars and local anti-government guerrillas known as the Viet Cong.
The 25-year-old Powell was arriving at a pivotal moment in the Vietnam War. To forestall a communist victory, President John F. Kennedy had dispatched teams of Green Beret advisers to assist the ARVN, a force 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. Vann feared that the dominant counterinsurgency strategy of destroying rural villages and forcibly relocating inhabitants while hunting down enemy forces was driving the people into the arms of the Viet Cong.
But as Colin Powell arrived, he was untainted by these worries. He was a gung-ho young Army officer with visions of glory. He brimmed with trust in the wisdom of his superiors.
Soon after his arrival, Powell and his ARVN 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.
In My American Journey, Powell recounted his reaction when he spotted his first dead Viet Cong.
“He lay on his back, gazing up at us with sightless eyes,” Powell wrote. “I felt nothing, certainly not sympathy. I had seen too much death and suffering on our side to care anything about what happened on theirs.”
While success against the armed enemy was rare, 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 would cry 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. “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?”
For nearly six months, Powell and his ARVN unit slogged through the jungles, searching for Viet Cong and destroying villages.
Then, while on one patrol, Powell fell victim to a Viet Cong booby trap. He stepped on a punji stake, a dung-poisoned bamboo spear that had been buried in the ground.
The stake pierced Powell’s boot and quickly infected the young officer’s 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. By late autumn 1963, Powell’s first Vietnam tour had ended.
On his return to the United States, Powell did not join Vann and other early American advisers in warning the nation about the self-defeating counterinsurgency strategies.
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.
In contrast, Powell recognized that his early service in Vietnam put him on a fast track for military success.
In 1966, as the numbers of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam swelled, Powell received a promotion to major, making him a field-grade officer before his 30th birthday.
Recognizing Powell as an emerging “water-walker” who needed more seasoning in the field, the Army dispatched Powell to a command position back in Vietnam.
But on his second tour, Powell would not be slogging through remote jungles. On July 27, 1968, he arrived at an outpost at Duc Pho to serve as an executive officer.
Then, to the north, at the Americal Division headquarters in Chu Lai, the commander, Maj. Gen. 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. Gettys jumped the young major ahead of more senior officers and made him the G-3 officer in charge of operations and planning.
The appointment made “me the only major filling that role in Vietnam,” Powell wrote in his memoirs.
But history was awaiting Colin Powell.
The Americal Division was already deep into some of the cruelest fighting of the Vietnam War. The “drain-the-sea” strategy that Powell had witnessed near the Laotian border continued to lead American forces into harsh treatment of Vietnamese civilians.
Though it was still a secret when Powell arrived at Chu Lai, Americal troops had committed an act that would stain forever the reputation of the U.S. Army. As Major Powell settled into his new assignment, a scandal was waiting to unfold.
On March 16, 1968, a bloodied unit of the Americal Division 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, Georgia, 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 Americal’s brutality would become a moral test for Major Powell, too. A letter had been written by a young specialist fourth class named Tom Glen, who had served in an Americal mortar platoon and was nearing the end of his Army tour.
In the letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, Glen accused the Americal Division of routine brutality against civilians. Glen’s letter was forwarded to the Americal headquarters at Chu Lai where it landed on Major Powell’s desk.
“The average GI’s attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm of human relations,” Glen wrote.
He added 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. …
“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. If this is indeed the case, it is a problem which cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated.”
When interviewed in 1995, Glen said he had heard second-hand about the My Lai massacre, though he did not mention it specifically. The massacre was just one part of the abusive pattern that had become routine in the division, he said.
The letter’s troubling allegations were not well received at Americal headquarters. Major Powell undertook the assignment to review 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.
After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on December 13, 1968. He admitted to no pattern of wrongdoing. Powell claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully.
“There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs,” Powell wrote. But “this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division. … In direct refutation of this [Glen’s] portrayal … is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
It would take another Americal veteran, an infantryman named Ron Ridenhour, to piece together the truth about the atrocity at My Lai. After returning to the United States, Ridenhour interviewed Americal comrades who had participated in 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 contrast to Powell’s review.
Courts martial were held against officers and enlisted men who were implicated in the murder of the My Lai civilians. But Powell’s peripheral role in the My Lai cover-up did not slow his climb up the Army’s ladder.
Luckily for Powell, Glen’s letter also disappeared into the National Archives – to be unearthed only years later by British journalists Michael Bilton and Kevin Sims for their book, Four Hours in My Lai.
In his memoirs, Powell did not mention his brush-off of Tom Glen’s complaint. Powell did include, however, 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, Powell penned a partial justification of the Americal’s brutality. 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 and judgments can be clouded by fear, 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. That was precisely the rationalization that the My Lai killers cited in their own defense.
After returning home from Vietnam in 1969, Powell was drawn into another Vietnam controversy involving the killing of civilians. In a court martial proceeding, Powell sided with an Americal Division general who was accused by the Army of murdering unarmed civilians while flying over Quang Ngai province.
Helicopter pilots who flew Brig. Gen. John W. Donaldson had alleged that the general gunned down civilian Vietnamese almost for sport.
In an interview in 1995, a senior investigator from the Donaldson case told Robert Parry 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 Army investigator still spoke with a raw disgust about the events of a quarter century earlier. He requested anonymity before talking about the behavior of senior Americal officers.
“They used to bet in the morning how many people they could kill – old people, civilians, it didn’t matter,” the investigator said. “Some of the stuff would curl 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. When the Army charged Donaldson with murder on June 2, 1971, Powell rose in the general’s defense.
Powell submitted an affidavit dated August 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.”
The old Army investigator claimed that “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.
While thousands of other Vietnam veterans joined the anti-war movement upon returning home and denounced the brutality of the war, Powell held his tongue.
To this day, Powell has avoided criticizing the Vietnam War other than to complain that the politicians should not have restrained the military high command.
The middle years of Colin Powell’s military career – bordered roughly by the twin scandals of My Lai and Iran-Contra – were a time for networking and advancement.
Powell won 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, 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. Powell was named military assistant to Weinberger. It was a position that made Powell the gatekeeper for the Defense Secretary.
Top Pentagon players quickly learned that Powell was more than Weinberger’s coat holder or calendar handler. 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.
Powell’s access to Weinberger’s most sensitive information would be a mixed blessing, however. Some of the aggressive covert operations ordered by President Reagan and managed by CIA Director William Casey were spinning out of control.
Like a mysterious gravitational force, the operations were pulling in the Pentagon. This expanding super nova of covert operations began to swallow the Pentagon a few months after Powell’s return.
On September 1, 1983, an Army civilian, William T. Golden, stumbled onto billing irregularities at a U.S. intelligence front company in suburban Annandale, Virginia, which was handling secret supplies for Central America.
The supply operation fell under the code name “Yellow Fruit,” an ironic reference to the region’s banana republics. The billing irregularities seemed modest at first, the doctoring of records to conceal vacation flights to Europe.
But Golden began to suspect that the corruption went deeper. By October 1983, Yellow Fruit had turned thoroughly rotten, and the Army began a criminal inquiry.
“The more we dig into that,” Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, vice chief of the U.S. Army, later told congressional Iran-Contra investigators, “the more we find out that it goes into agencies using money, procuring all sorts of materiel.”
Reacting to the scandal, Thurman implemented new secret accounting procedures for supporting CIA activities. “We have tried to do our best to tighten up our procedures,” Thurman said.
But the muck of the Central American operations was oozing out elsewhere, too. Reagan’s favorite rebels, the Nicaraguan contras, were gaining a reputation for brutality, as stories of rapes, summary executions and massacres flowed back to Washington.
Led by House Speaker Thomas O’Neill, the Democratic-controlled House capped the CIA’s contra funding at $24 million in 1983 and then moved to ban contra aid altogether.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Reagan’s policies were encountering more trouble. Reagan had deployed Marines as peacekeepers in Beirut, but he also authorized the USS New Jersey to shell Shiite Muslim villages.
On October 23, 1983, Islamic militants struck back, sending a suicide truck bomber through U.S. security positions and demolishing a high-rise Marine barracks. A total of 241 U.S. servicemen died.
“When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides,” Powell wrote in his memoir.
After the bombing, U.S. Marines were withdrawn to the USS Guam off Lebanon’s coast. But Casey ordered secret counterterrorism operations against Islamic radicals.
As retaliation, the Shiites targeted more Americans. Another bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy and killed most of the CIA station.
Casey dispatched veteran CIA officer William Buckley to fill the void. But on March 14, 1984, Buckley was spirited off the streets of Beirut to face torture and eventually death.
The grisly scenes – in the Middle East and in Central America – had set the stage for the Iran-Contra scandal.
In 1985, the White House maneuvered into dangerous geopolitical straits 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 in that important Middle Eastern country.
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 August 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 an important legal line.
The transfer violated laws requiring congressional notification for shipment of U.S. weapons and prohibiting arms to Iran or any other nation designated a terrorist state. Violation of either statute could be a felony.
The available evidence from that period suggested that Weinberger and Powell were very much in the loop, even though they may have opposed the arms-to-Iran policy.
On August 22, 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 he discussed Reagan’s approval of the missile transfer with Weinberger and Powell, and the need to replenish Israeli stockpiles. That would have put Weinberger and Powell 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.”
In a later interview with the FBI, Powell said he learned at that meeting with McFarlane 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.
Not Making Sense
This claim of only prospective knowledge of future arms shipments, not past knowledge of completed transfers, would be key to Powell’s Iran-Contra defense.
But it made little sense for McFarlane to learn of Israel’s August 1985 missile delivery to Iran and the need for replenishment of the Israeli stockpiles, 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 September 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.
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 October 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. “Asghari then pressed Kangarlu to provide a list of what he wanted the ‘other four planes’ to bring. ...
“Kangarlu said that he already had provided a list. Asghari said that those items were for the first two planes. Asghari reminded Kangarlu that there were Phoenix missiles on the second plane which were not on the first. ... [Asghari] said that a flight would be made this week.”
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.”
Making It Happen
In the next phase of the evolving Iran operation – the direct delivery of U.S. missiles to the Islamic fundamentalist government – Powell would play an even bigger role.
Indeed, without the prodigious work of Colin Powell, the unfolding disaster might never have happened, or might have stopped much sooner.
In early 1986, Powell exploited his bureaucratic skills to begin short-circuiting the Pentagon’s covert procurement system that had been put in place after the Yellow Fruit scandal.
Defense procurement officials said that without Powell’s manipulation of the process, the Pentagon’s internal auditing systems 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 managed to slip the missiles and the other hardware out of U.S. Army inventories without key Pentagon officials knowing where the equipment was going.
The story of Powell’s maneuvers can be found in a close reading of thousands of pages from Iran-Contra depositions of Pentagon officials, who pointed to Weinberger’s assistant as the key Iran-Contra action officer within the Defense Department.
For his part, 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.
Powell’s account also obscured his unusual actions in arranging the shipments without giving senior officers the information that Pentagon procedures required, even for sensitive covert activities.
Weinberger officially handed Powell the job of shipping the missiles to Iran on January 17, 1986. That was the day Reagan signed an intelligence finding, a formal authorization that is required by law for the conduct of covert operations, in this case, the transfer of arms from U.S. stockpiles and their shipment to Iran.
In testimony, Powell dated his first knowledge of the missile transfers to this moment.
A day after Reagan’s finding, 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 that they were headed to 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. “The first shipment is made without a complete wring-out through all of the procedural steps.”
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 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. ...
“I felt very uneasy about this process. And I also felt uneasy about the notification dimension to the Congress.” Under federal law, the Executive was required to notify Congress both of covert action “findings” and the transfer of military equipment to third countries.
However, on January 29, 1986, thanks to Powell’s intervention, 1,000 U.S. TOWs were loaded onto pallets at Redstone Arsenal and transferred to the airfield at Anniston, Alabama.
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, Switzerland, on February 11, 1986. Three days later, Russo released the 1,000 TOWs.
Inside the Pentagon, however, concern 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.”
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, Congress had not been notified.
Army Secretary Marsh shared the skepticism about Powell’s operation. On February 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 testified.
Army chief of staff Wickham 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, January 20, 1989. Poindexter stuck the Pentagon memo into a White House safe, along with the secret “finding” on the Iran missile shipments.
Col. John William McDonald, who oversaw covert supply, added his voice to the Pentagon objections 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. ... There is a responsibility to judge the legality of the request.”
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.”
Then, 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.
As implemented by Powell, the Iran initiative had taken priority over both legal safeguards and the safety of U.S. soldiers around the world.
Ironically, after helping set in motion the Iranian arms shipments that left U.S. forces in Europe potentially vulnerable, Powell was dispatched to West Germany, where he was made commander of the V Corps in pursuit of another general’s star.
For more on Colin Powell’s real history, see Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, available directly from the publisher at http://www.neckdeepbook.com or from Amazon.com.
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