Colin Powell: Failed Oppportunist
by Robert Parry
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
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 Consortiumnews.com
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.
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
"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
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, Americal troops had committed an act
that would stain forever the reputation of the U.S. Army.
On March 16, 1968, a bloodied Americal
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
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 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 Americal
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 Americal 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
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 Americal 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 Americal 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 Americal comrades who had participated in
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 Americal'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 Americal 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.
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 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. After the Army charged Donaldson
with murder, Powell submitted an affidavit dated Aug. 10, 1971,
which lauded Donaldson as "an aggressive and courageous brigade
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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,"
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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,
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 Americal 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 Americal headquarters conducted a cursory investigation and
dismissed the young soldier's concerns.
Only later did other Americal 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,
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
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
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.
Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, has
written a new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush
Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. It can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com.
It's also available at Amazon.com.