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Colin Powell Gets Mad at Me

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In his new book, It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership, Colin Powell writes this about his 2003 presentation at the United Nations about Iraq's supposed WMD: "I get mad when bloggers accuse me of lying -- of knowing the information was false. I didn't."

Well, I'm a blogger, and I accuse Colin Powell of lying. The evidence is overwhelming that he knew much of what he said in front of the Security Council was false.

This may not seem plausible to people who know Powell only via the media image he's carefully constructed over decades -- that of being Washington's last honorable man. As journalist Margaret Carlson said in 2003, "Whatever Colin does, I'll go with."

But in fact Powell's image has about as much to do with reality as what he told the UN. Though his entire career Powell has eagerly bent the truth to please his superiors. He started his climb up the Army ladder by reportedly covering up the massacre of civilians by U.S. troops in Vietnam, even serving as a character witness for a general who was accused of shooting down Vietnamese from helicopters for fun. During the 1980s, when Powell was assistant to then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, he also allegedly helped cover up the Iran-contra scandal, and almost certainly deceived congressional investigators. (If there were a Museum of Washington's Funniest Lies, it would have its own wing for Powell's statement that, "To my recollection, I don't have a recollection.")

So everyone's default assumption should have been that Powell would lie to Americans and the world at the UN. And -- as anyone can see just by looking at what's in the public record -- he did. Below is a look line by line through Powell's presentation to demonstrate the chasm between what he knew and what he said.

• • • • •

Powell's speech can be found via the archived State Department website. All other sources are linked below.

*****

On that February 5 in front of the UN Security Council, was Colin Powell certain what he was saying was accurate? He certainly was:

POWELL: My colleagues, 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.

Later, regarding whether Iraq had reconstituted a nuclear weapons program, he said:

POWELL: [T]here is no doubt in my mind...

That's in public. What about in private? According to Larry Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff, here's what Powell was thinking at the time:

WILKERSON: [Powell] had walked into my office musing and he 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.

*****

This is some of what Powell said about the infamous aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq, supposedly meant for their covert nuclear weapons program:

POWELL: [I]t strikes me as quite odd that these [aluminum] 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.

Powell's own intelligence staff, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), prepared two memos commenting on drafts of the presentation. They were later quietly released as appendices to the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on WMD intelligence.

The second INR memo, written on February 3, 2003, told Powell this:

Our key remaining concern is the claim that the tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that "far exceeds US requirements for comparable rockets." In fact, the most comparable US system is a tactical rocket--the US Mark 66 air-launched 70mm rocket--that uses the same, high-grade (7075-T6) aluminum, and that has specifications with similar tolerances. Note that the Mk 66 specifications are unclassified, and the Department is planning to share them with the IAEA.

*****

Powell played an intercept of a conversation between Iraqi army officers about the UN inspections. However, when he translated what they were saying, he appears to have knowingly embellished it, turning it from evidence Iraq was complying with U.N. resolutions to evidence Iraq was violating them. This appears in Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack:

[Powell] had decided to add his personal interpretation of the intercepts to the rehearsed script, taking them substantially further and casting them in the most negative light...Concerning the intercept about inspecting for the possibility of "forbidden ammo," Powell took the interpretation further: "Clean out all of the areas... Make sure there is nothing there." None of this was in the intercept.

Here's the conversation as Powell presented it at the UN. As Woodward reported, the underlined sentences were simply added by Powell:

POWELL: "They're inspecting the ammunition you have, yes.''

"Yes."

"For the possibility there are forbidden ammo."

"For the possibility there is by chance forbidden ammo?''

"Yes."

"And 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.''

Powell then explained:

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.

According to the official State Department translation (and confirmed for me by Iraqi Imad Khadduri), the Iraqi soldier merely said:

"And we sent you a message to inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas."

And it's no surprise the Iraqi said this. Here's what the Duelfer report found about what was going on within the Iraqi government just before the January 30th intercepted conversation:

The NMD director met with Republican Guard military leaders on 25 January 2003 and advised them they were to sign documents saying that there was no WMD in their units, according to a former Iraqi senior officer. Husam Amin told them that the government would hold them responsible if UNMOVIC found any WMD in their units or areas, or if there was anything that cast doubt on Iraq's cooperation with UNMOVIC. Commanders established committees to ensure their units retained no evidence of old WMD.

Again: According to reports, Powell took evidence of the Iraqis doing what they were supposed to do -- i.e., searching their gigantic ammunition dumps to make sure they weren't accidentally holding onto banned chemical weapons -- and doctored it to make it look as if Iraq were hiding banned weapons.

Since the State Department was questioned about this by journalist Gilbert Cranberg, the translation at variance with Powell's version has disappeared from its site. It's now available only via archive.org.

*****

Powell's presentation left out extremely important information, as here:

POWELL: Iraq's record on chemical weapons is replete with lies. It took years for Iraq to finally admit that it had produced four tons of the deadly nerve agent, VX. A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons.

The admission only came out after inspectors collected documentation as a result of the defection of Hussein Kamal, Saddam Hussein's late son-in-law.

As far as this went, this was accurate. However, Kamel, the head of Iraq's WMD programs, defected in 1995. Iraq had produced this VX before the Gulf War, in 1991 -- and according to Kamel, Iraq had secretly destroyed it soon after the war. Then they lied about ever producing it (until his defection). But according to Kamel, they weren't lying when they said they no longer had it.

Indeed, in the UN's notes from Kamel's debriefing, he says Iraq had no remaining WMD of any kind:

KAMEL: All chemical weapons were destroyed. I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons -- biological, chemical, missiles, nuclear were destroyed.

And if that weren't enough, Kamel also said this in an interview on CNN:

SADLER: Can you state here and now -- does Iraq still to this day hold weapons of mass destruction?

KAMEL: No. Iraq does not possess any weapons of mass destruction. I am being completely honest about this.

But in 1996 Kamel returned to Iraq, where he was killed by Saddam's regime. Thus the U.S. could safely take a witness who truthfully had said Iraq had no remaining banned weapons, and pretend his testimony indicated the exact opposite.

Did Powell know what he was doing at the time? It's unclear. Here's a transcript of an exchange between Powell and Sam Husseini in Washington in December, 2006, with video below:

HUSSEINI: You cited Hussein Kamel in your U.N. testimony. Did you know he said there were no WMDs?

POWELL: I only knew what the intelligence community told me.

HUSSEINI: But did you know that fact?

POWELL: Of course not!

HUSSEINI: You didn't know that, even though it was reported?

POWELL: I've answered your question!

As you can see in the video, Powell was not happy to explore this line of questioning. (He's also never shown any inclination to find out who purportedly steered him wrong; when asked by Barbara Walters asked who was responsible for the mistakes in the overall presentation, Powell stated "I don't have the names.")

*****

As mentioned above, the State Department's intelligence staff, called the INR, prepared two memos on the presentation. They directly contradicted Powell on the aluminum tubes issue, but also warned him many of his claims were "weak," "not credible" or "highly questionable." Here are some (amazingly enough, not all) of the examples the memos give.

Powell at the UN:

POWELL: We know that Saddam's son, Qusay, ordered the removal of all prohibited weapons from Saddam's numerous palace complexes.

The first INR memo, from January 29, 2003, flagged this claim as "WEAK":

second bullet. WEAK. Qusay order to remove prohibited items from palaces.

Powell at the UN:

POWELL: [K]ey files from military and scientific establishments have been placed in cars that are being driven around the countryside by Iraqi intelligence agents to avoid detection.

The first INR memo:

last bullet. WEAK. Sensitive files being driven around in cars, in apparent shell game. Plausibility open to question.

This claim was again flagged in the second INR memo, from February 3, 2003:

Page 4, last bullet, re key files being driven around in cars to avoid inspectors. This claim is highly questionable and promises to be targeted by critics and possibly UN inspection officials as well.

Powell at the UN:

POWELL: [W]e know from sources that a missile brigade outside Baghdad was disbursing [sic] rocket launchers and warheads containing biological warfare agents to various locations, distributing them to various locations in western Iraq.

January 29, 2003 INR memo:

last bullet. WEAK. Missiles with biological warheads reportedly dispersed. This would be somewhat true in terms of short-range missiles with conventional warheads, but is questionable in terms of longer-range missiles or biological warheads.

February 3, 2003 INR memo:

Page 5. first para, claim re missile brigade dispersing rocket launchers and BW warheads. This claim too is highly questionable and might be subjected to criticism by UN inspection officials.

At the UN, Powell described a satellite picture this way:

The two arrows indicate the presence of sure signs that the bunkers are storing chemical munitions...

The truck you [...] see is a signature item. It's a decontamination vehicle in case something goes wrong.

January 29, 2003 INR memo:

***/WEAK. We support much of this discussion, but we note that decontamination vehicles--cited several times in the text--are water trucks that can have legitimate uses...

...Iraq has given UNMOVIC what may be a plausible account for this activity--that this was an exercise involving the movement of conventional explosives; presence of a fire safety truck (water truck, which could also be used as a decontamination vehicle) is common in such an event.

Powell at the UN:

POWELL: These are facts, corroborated by many sources, some of them sources of the intelligence services of other countries.

February 3, 2003 INR memo:

Numerous references to humint as fact. (E.g., "We know that...) We have been told that some are being adjusted, but we gather some others--such as information involving multiple-corroboration--will stay...In the Iraq context, "multiple corroboration" hardly guarantees authenticity of information.

Powell at the UN:

POWELL: [I]n mid-December weapons experts at one facility were replaced by Iraqi intelligence agents who were to deceive inspectors about the work that was being done there.

January 29, 2003 INR memo:

last bullet. **/WEAK. Iraqi intelligence officials posing as WMD scientists. Such claims are not credible and are open to criticism, particularly by the UN inspectorates.

Powell at the UN:

POWELL: A dozen [WMD] experts have been placed under house arrest, not in their own houses, but as a group at one of Saddam Hussein's guest houses.

January 29, 2003 INR memo:

second bullet. WEAK. 12 experts reportedly under house arrest... Highly questionable.

Powell at the UN:

POWELL: UAVs outfitted with spray tanks constitute an ideal method for launching a terrorist attack using biological weapons.

January 29, 2003 INR memo:

...the claim that experts agree UAVs fitted with spray tanks are "an ideal method for launching a terrorist attack using biological weapons" is WEAK.

• • •

Now, with that for context, it's useful to look back at what Powell said in a November, 2005 interview with Barbara Walters:

There was some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good and shouldn't be relied upon, and they didn't speak up. That devastated me.

That can be contrasted with this October, 2003 exchange from 60 Minutes II with Greg Thielmann, who headed the office of Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs in the INR until September 2002:

PELLEY: If the secretary took the information that his own intelligence bureau had developed and turned it on its head, which is what you're saying, to what end?

Mr. THIELMANN: I can only assume that he was doing it to loyally support the president of the United States and build the strongest possible case for arguing that there was no alternative to the use of military force.

So yes, I believe that Colin Powell lied. If any journalists interviewing him about his new book want to ask him about this, but don't want to seem like you're accusing him directly, feel free to blame it on "bloggers." We're used to him being mad at us.