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11/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Powell's Tortured Endorsement

On Sunday, Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for President. I was moved by his statement, particularly his challenge to Republicans about their demonization of Islam.

Despite this, I do not welcome his endorsement.

Like many others, I had a great deal of respect for Powell before he joined the Bush Administration. His story was a compelling one and his service was largely distinguished. In 1996, Powell chose, for a variety of reasons, not to run for President. Had he done so, he very well might have defeated Clinton. Instead, he remained on the sidelines until Dubya asked him to serve as Secretary of State.

These days, Powell is often viewed as a tragic figure, largely because of his 2003 presentation at the UN Security Council during the Administration's push for war with Iraq. Later, Powell told Tim Russert that the CIA had convinced him that the intelligence behind his presentation was unimpeachable. Since then, conventional wisdom has given Powell the benefit of the doubt. Many commentators regard his statement that he had been misled as the same thing as an apology:

"Private warnings cannot cancel out Powell's hawkish presentation to the U.N., but unlike so many war cheerleaders in politics and the media, he owned up to his mistakes. On national television, Powell called the U.N. address a 'blot' on his record."

Fair enough -- everyone makes mistakes, and to his credit, Powell has acknowledged (or at least gave the appearance of acknowledging) that he was wrong. Second chances are the American way, and certainly Powell's endorsement of Obama was an important step towards the rehabilitation of his image and his reputation.

There's just one small problem. Powell's testimony before the UNSC is only the second biggest "blot" on his record.

The biggest was, and is, his inability or unwillingness to oppose the Bush Administration's torture policies during his time as Secretary State. If, as the Nuremberg tribunals established, knowledge is complicity, then Colin Powell may be guilty of war crimes. And unlike Iraq, he's never apologized for his role in helping to shred the Constitution, ignore the Convention against Torture, and trash the Geneva Conventions.

Think I'm exaggerating? Here's what Jane Mayer has to say in The Dark Side:

"Bush also knew about, and approved of, White House meetings in which his top cabinet members were briefed by the CIA on its plan to use specific 'enhanced' interrogation techniques on various high-value detainees. The meetings were chaired by Rice... The participants were members of the Principals Committee, the five Bush cabinet members who handled national security matters: Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, CIA Director Tenet, and Attorney General Ashcroft.

Knowing how the Agency had been blamed for ostensible 'rogue' actions in the past, Tenet was eager to spread the political risk of undertaking 'enhanced interrogations.' However, some members of the group became irritated with Tenet's insistence upon airing the grim details. 'The CIA already had legal clearance to do these things,' a knowledgeable source said, 'and so it was pointless for them to keep sharing the details. No one was going to question their decisions... It's not as if any of the principals were debating the policy -- that was already set. They wanted to go to the limit that the law required. . . .'

There is no indication... that any Bush cabinet members objected to the policy."

As Mayer acknowledges, Powell did object quite strongly to Bush's decision to suspend the Geneva Conventions. But he did not quit in protest. He merely accepted the outcome and soldiered on. It is only at the time of Abu Ghraib (and the first media reports of John Yoo's infamous August 2002 "torture memo"), Mayer notes, that Powell (along with Rice) began to express qualms:

"After reading the torture memo itself for the first time in the newspapers, Rice and Powell confronted Gonzales together and furiously insisted that there be 'no more secret opinions on international and national security law.' Their righteous anger seemed somewhat undercut by reports that Tenet had provided graphic details of specific coercive interrogations during the Principals Committee meetings while both were present. And while they directed their frustration at Gonzales, neither had the temerity to confront Cheney, who clearly was the true source of these policies."

Colin Powell passively assented to torture. Although he occasionally raised concerns, there is no evidence that he threatened to resign -- as Ashcroft and others did over the issue of domestic wiretapping. He sat in meetings and listened as George Tenet offered graphic descriptions of torture committed by U.S. government officials -- and never once objected.

As was the case with his presentation at the United Nations, he accepted what he heard and did as he was told. Only later, after the Yoo memo and the Abu Ghraib scandal became public, did he begin to object -- and then only to ask if there were any other memos he should know about. At no time did he confront Cheney or Bush, threaten to go public, or quit in protest.

Later on, when he once again was a private citizen, Powell did raise concerns about the Administration's policies, writing in 2006 to John McCain to express his opposition to proposed rules on Military Commissions:

"In his letter to McCain, Powell said the effort to 'redefine' the article was 'inconsistent' with his previous opposition to the use of torture. 'The world,' he wrote, 'is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism... To say that we want to modify, clarify or redefine Common Article 3 [of the Geneva Conventions], which has not been modified for the 57 years of its history, I think adds to the doubt' about U.S. morality, he said. 'Plus I believe that the legitimate concerns that the administration has can be dealt with in other ways.'"

The problem, of course, is that there is no public record during Powell's tenure as Secretary of State of his "previous opposition to the use of torture." In his letter to McCain, Powell makes it clear that his objection is not with the underlying policy, but rather the Administration's proposal -- in fact, he says the Administration's concerns are "legitimate." That is not exactly speaking truth to power.

Silence in the face of evil is assent. In the eyes of the law, it's called conspiracy. At best, Powell's actions -- both in regard to Iraq and to torture -- show a lack of critical thinking. At worst, they demonstrate profound moral cowardice.

So pardon me if I'm not that thrilled about Powell endorsing Barack Obama.

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