Behind Colin Powell's Legend

by Robert Parry & Norman Solomon

The Consortium online

December 17, 2000


Behind Colin Powell's Legend ­ Part One

On a sunny autumn afternoon, Sept. 25, 1995, hundreds lined up on a sidewalk in San Francisco to grab a glimpse of a national icon.

Indoors, dozens of reporters and photographers packed into a room baking under the hot lights of television cameras.

An electricity filled the air, as if the crowd were waiting for a TV actor or a rock star, some super-hot celebrity. In a sense, they were. That day, on a mega-successful book tour, retired General Colin L. Powell was scheduled to answer a few questions and sign a few hundred books.

Preparations for the news conference were going smoothly, too, until two minutes before Powell was to appear.

Then, the bookstore managers fell into in a small panic over an intruder who was holding forth at the back of the room.

"How did he get here?" one manager asked the other.

"I don't know," the other answered. "I don't know how he got in here."

"He slipped in," said the first.

Their fretting focused on a middle-aged man in a wheelchair who was speaking to a cluster of reporters. He was hunched inside his silvery metal contraption. His jeans-clad legs dangled as if inert. His clothes were tidy but informal. His thinning hair was slightly unkempt.

The man spoke quietly, at a deliberate pace. He paused occasionally to search for and capture an elusive word. The reporters, most younger than he was, leaned over him with microphones and note pads. They seemed intrigued, but uncertain of his news value.

The bookstore managers did not have a quick solution to the intrusion, so they drifted back to their anticipation of Powell's arrival. "I have so much respect for this man," bubbled the store's director of sales.

The Hero Arrives

Moments later, San Francisco's mayor swept into the room. A wave of excitement followed as Colin Powell arrived and strode to the rostrum. He was the picture of confident authority, in his wire-rim executive-style glasses, a well-tailored pinstripe black business suit, a crisp pastel-blue shirt, a tasteful burgundy tie.

The mayor pumped Powell's hand and proclaimed a formal welcome for the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Reporters competed to toss some softball questions that the general smoothly swatted over the fence. Powell offered only a well-rehearsed glimpse into his private side.

"Writing the book," the retired general explained about My American Journey, "you learn a lot about yourself, you learn a lot about your family, you learn a lot about people who helped you along the way that you have forgotten about. So, it was very introspective for me, and I came away with a deeper appreciation of my own family roots, but an even greater appreciation of the nation we live in, the society we are a part of, and a faith in this society that I hope, as a result of this book and whatever I might do in the future, faith that I hope we can continue to pass on to new generations."

The second query was a self-help question about race: "What do you say to all the kids from all the Bronxes around this country who say, 'race is a stumbling block, poverty is a stumbling block?'"

"Race is a problem," Powell responded firmly. "Let it be someone else's problem. What you have to do is do your very best, study, work hard, believe in yourself, believe in your country."

As the news conference rolled on, Powell showed off the qualities that had set so many political hearts aflutter in fall 1995. But Powell encountered some friction when he started explaining why Americans were dazzled by the military again, a quarter century after the disastrous Vietnam War.

"Why that comes about," Powell said, "because of the superb performance of the armed forces of the United States in recent conflicts, beginning with the, I think, Panama invasion, and then through Desert Shield and Storm. And Americans saw that these young men and women were competent, proud, clean, patriotic, and they kind of fell in love with them again. And so it's not so much I think what--"

The voice from the back of the room suddenly broke in, an accusatory voice belonging to the man in the wheelchair. "You didn't tell the truth about the war in the Gulf, general," the man shouted.

Powell first tried to ignore the interruption, but the man persisted, hectoring Powell about the tens of thousands of civilian dead in the wars in Panama and Iraq, conflicts that brought Powell his national fame. Finally, Powell responded with a patronizing tone, but he called the dissenter by name.

"Hi, Ron, how are you? Excuse me, let me answer one question if I may."

"But why don't you tell them, why don't you tell them why--"

"The fact of the matter is--"

"My Lai--"

"I think the American people are reflecting on me the glory that really belongs to those troops," Powell continued, brushing aside the interruption.

Then, Ron Kovic's voice could be heard only in snippets beneath Powell's amplified voice. "General, let me speak--"

"I think what you're seeing is a reflection on me of what those young men and women have done in Panama, in Desert Storm, in a number of other places--"

"A hundred-and-fifty-thousand people, the bombing--"

"So it's very, it's very rewarding to see this change in attitude toward the military. It's not just Colin Powell, rock star. It's all of those wonderful men and women who do such a great job."

Born on the Fourth

Ron Kovic, a veteran of the Vietnam War, a soldier paralyzed in combat, was one of the few dissident voices at the bookstore that day. Kovic, author of the autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July, which was later made into a movie, tried to warn reporters not to swallow Powell-mania.

As Powell moved off to sign copies of his own book and the reporters began to depart, too, Kovic pleaded, "Colin Powell is not the answer. He sets a very dangerous precedent for this country."

From his wheelchair, Kovic had struggled to make that case. "I want the American people to know what the general hid from the American public during the Gulf War," Kovic said. "They hid the casualties. They hid the horror. They hid the violence. We don't need any more violence in our country. We need leaders who represent cooperation. We need leadership that represents peace. We need leaders that understand the tragedy of using violence in solving our problems. We have enough violence in this country."

To Kovic, Powell lacked a truly critical eye toward war.

"Did Colin Powell really learn the lessons of the Vietnam War? Did he learn that the war was immoral? I think that he learned another lesson. He learned to be more violent, to be more ruthless. And I've come as a counterbalance to that today. I've come as an alternative voice. And I think I speak for many, many people in this country when I say that General Colin Powell is a detriment to democracy; he's a danger to our Constitution; he's a danger to our democracy."

Kovic tried to persuade the journalists that the United States should confront its Cold War past, the way other nations, both right-wing and left-wing, have begun to do.

"America has got to go through its own perestroika, its own glasnost," Kovic continued. "I came down today because I just can't allow this to continue -- this honeymoon, this love affair with someone who was part of a policy which hurt so many human beings."

But few Americans listened to the advice of Ron Kovic that day or since. Hundreds of thousands bought Powell's 1995 memoirs, My American Journey, and the national press corps accorded the retired general near-unanimous acclaim. Besides being a hero for his accomplishments as the first black American to lead the nation into war, Powell became the most celebrated U.S. military officer since Dwight Eisenhower.

In the early days of the 1996 presidential campaign, journalists pined openly for Powell's candidacy. Liberals and centrists saw Powell as a role model for young blacks. Many conservatives admired Powell's success despite his humble origins. What slight criticism there was came mostly from the far right because of Powell's avowal that he was a "Rockefeller Republican" who supported abortion rights and affirmative action.


Still, what about Kovic's questions? What is Colin Powell's unvarnished record?

What did Powell do in Vietnam? What was his role in the Iran-contra scandal? How did he rise so smoothly as a black man in a white-dominated Republican national security establishment? Were Powell's victories in Panama and Iraq excessively violent and insufficiently concerned with civilian dead?

These are questions perhaps even more relevant today as Colin Powell stands as President-elect George W. Bush's first Cabinet choice, the man who would be the nation's first African-American secretary of state. Given Bush's inexperience in foreign affairs, the former general likely will wield broad power over U.S. foreign policy.

Many Americans see Colin Powell as a reassuring figure on the national stage. Yet, the accolades have prevented any balanced analysis of his positives and his negatives. Indeed, Powell's legend has created its own mystery.

Drawing from the available public record, including Powell's own memoirs, this series will address that mystery. Who is Colin Powell?

Vietnam Lessons

On Jan. 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. Capt. Powell also felt the deepest sympathy for the ARVN troops under his command, but only a cold contempt for the enemy.

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 soldier'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. He stayed in Hue, reassigned to the operations staff of ARVN division headquarters. As part of his work, he handled intelligence data and oversaw a local airfield. By late autumn 1963, Powell's first Vietnam tour 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. Then, 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. He signed up for a nine-month Infantry Officer Advanced Course that trained company commanders. In May 1965, Powell finished third in a class of 200 and was the top-ranked infantryman. A year later, he became an instructor.

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. In 1968, Powell continued to impress his superiors by graduating second in his class at Fort Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College, a prestigious school regarded as an essential way station for future Army generals.

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 headquarters in Chu Lai, division 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 again 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.

My Lai

On May 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, 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 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.

"Far beyond merely dismissing the Vietnamese as 'slopes' or 'gooks,' in both deed and thought, too many American soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations, both psychological and physical, that can have only a debilitating effect upon efforts to unify the people in loyalty to the Saigon government, particularly when such acts are carried out at unit levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy."

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.

"Fired with an emotionalism that belies unconscionable hatred, and armed with a vocabulary consisting of 'You VC,' soldiers commonly 'interrogate' by means of torture that has been presented as the particular habit of the enemy. Severe beatings and torture at knife point are usual means of questioning captives or of convincing a suspect that he is, indeed, a Viet Cong. ...

"It would indeed be terrible to find it necessary to believe that an American soldier that harbors such racial intolerance and disregard for justice and human feeling is a prototype of all American national character; yet the frequency of such soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs. ...

"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."

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.

Powell's Response

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 denies.

After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on Dec. 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. The Americal troops also had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Powell noted.

"There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs," Powell wrote in 1968. But "this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division." Indeed, Powell's memo faulted Glen for not complaining earlier and for failing to be more specific in his letter.

"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 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 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.

But Powell's peripheral role in the My Lai cover-up did not slow his climb up the Army's ladder. After the scandal broke, Powell pleaded ignorance about the actual My Lai massacre.

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.

Powell's Admissions

In his best-selling 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 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 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. Disturbingly, that was precisely the rationalization that the My Lai killers cited in their own defense.

But returning home from Vietnam a second time in 1969, Powell already had begun to prove himself the consummate team player. Those skills were tested again when 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, a senior investigator from the Donaldson case told us 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 Aug. 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."

Mysterious Interview

Powell apparently was questioned by Army authorities about his knowledge of Donaldson's alleged atrocities. But his answers may be lost to history. In his memoirs, Powell provides a brief -- and incorrect -- description of the 1971 interview in the context of the My Lai massacre.

"I was serving in the Washington area, and was called to appear before a board of inquiry conducted by Lt. Gen. William Ray Peers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia," Powell wrote. "The board wanted me to give a picture of fighting conditions in the Batangan Peninsula in 1968 [where the My Lai massacre had occurred]. I knew it had been a hellhole, a rough piece of territory inhabited by VC sympathizers."

Powell's account of the interview is itself a bit of a mystery. While it's true that in 1971, a commission headed by Gen. Peers was investigating the My Lai cover-up, all the Peers interviews were conducted at the Pentagon, not at Fort Belvoir.

Also, by 1971, the Army knew a great deal about the "fighting conditions in the Batangan Peninsula" and would not need the opinion of an officer who arrived months after the My Lai massacre. Further, when we examined the Peers Commission records at the National Archives branch at Suitland, Md., we found no indication that Colin Powell ever had been interviewed by the board.

There was, however, an investigation at Fort Belvoir conducted in the same time frame by the Army's criminal investigation unit. It was examining the murder allegations against Powell's friend, Gen. Donaldson.

The retired Army investigator told us that Powell was questioned in that case. But the investigator said Powell volunteered little knowledge about the atrocities. The investigator doubted that any record was made of the interview.

Nevertheless, the 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. "John Donaldson was a cover-up specialist," the old investigator growled.

While thousands of other Vietnam veterans joined the anti-war movement 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.

With the My Lai cloud dissipated, Major Powell's career advanced smartly. Powell often says he learned many lessons from Vietnam. One lesson he doesn't mention is that a military bureaucrat succeeds best by sidestepping controversy and keeping quiet when superiors screw up.

As the years unfolded, that proved to be a very valuable lesson indeed.




Behind Colin Powell's Legend: Part Two by Robert Parry & Norman Solomon The Consortium online December 19, 2000

Powell's Second Scandal

The middle years of Colin Powell's military career ­ bordered roughly by the twin debacles of My Lai and Iran-contra ­ were a time for networking and advancement.

The Army footed the bill for Powell's masters degree in business at George Washington University. He won a promotion to lieutenant colonel and 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. The high-powered contacts would prove invaluable to Powell through the 1970s and 1980s as the personable young officer rose swiftly through the ranks.

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. In the parlance of the Pentagon, he was a water-walker.

Ground Zero

On June 29, 1983, Colin Powell's spit-polished shoes clicked through the Outer Ring power corridors of the Pentagon. Powell was again in the terrain he knew best, his professional home: official Washington, what he often called "Ground Zero."

He also was back to his future, once more on the fast track to success.

But Powell had returned to an administration courting danger. Caught up in an anti-communist crusade around the world, President Reagan's men were engaged in brush-fire wars against what they considered the Soviet Union's surrogates. Reagan's operatives also were battling Democrats in Congress whom the White House sometimes viewed as little more than Moscow's fellow-travelers.

At the Central Intelligence Agency, the aging director William J. Casey was pressuring the Soviet Union on all fronts, through wars that often pitted desperately poor peasants and rival tribes against one another. Whether in Angola or Mozambique, in Nicaragua or Guatemala, in Lebanon or Afghanistan, Casey was spoiling for fights: to finish off the Cold War in his lifetime.

While Casey plotted at CIA, the often inattentive Ronald Reagan snapped to when battlefield maps were put before him, with pins representing Nicaraguan contras outmaneuvering other pins for forces loyal to Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. Reagan, the onetime war-movie actor, and Casey, the onetime World War II spymaster, loved the game of international conflict and intrigue.

But many of their fiercest battles were fought in Washington. Liberal Democrats, led by old political war-horse, House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, thought that Reagan and Casey were overly zealous, maybe even a bit crazy. Democrats, as well as some Republicans, suspected, too, that Casey, the mumbling dissembler, was treating Congress like a fifth column, like agents of influence slipped behind his lines to disrupt his operations.

Still, the hub of any American military activity -- whether overt or covert -- remained the Pentagon. It was from the Defense Department that the special operations units were dispatched, that the military supplies were apportioned, that the most sensitive electronic intelligence was collected. All these military responsibilities were vital to Casey and Reagan, but came under the jurisdiction of Defense Secretary Weinberger.

To Casey's and Reagan's dismay, the Pentagon brass favored greater caution when it came to offending Congress. After all, Congress held the strings to the Pentagon's bulging purse. Maybe Casey could blow off a senator or offend a congressman, but the Pentagon could not detonate too many bridges to its rear.

The 'Filter'

Onto that political battlefield stepped newly minted Brig. Gen. Colin Powell, who had been named military assistant to Secretary Weinberger. It was a position that made Powell the gatekeeper for the defense secretary, one of Reagan's closest advisers.

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 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 Reagan and managed by Casey were spinning out of control. Like a mysterious gravitational force, the operations were pulling in the Pentagon, whatever the reservations of the senior generals.

Already, the Democrats were up in arms over military construction in Honduras, which Reagan insisted was "temporary," but which looked rather permanent. In El Salvador, U.S. military advisers were training a brutal army which was slaughtering political opponents and unarmed villagers in a bloody counterinsurgency war. In Costa Rica, the U.S. embassy's "mil-group" was a bustle of activity as Washington tried to push neutralist Costa Rica into the Nicaraguan conflict.

Around all these initiatives were U.S. military officers and non-commissioned trainers who were responsible to Pentagon authority. The officers reported to the Southern Command in Panama and "Southcom" reported to the Pentagon, where at the end of the information flow chart sat the Secretary of Defense and his "filter," Colin Powell.

Yellow Fruit

This expanding super nova of covert operations began to swallow the Pentagon a few months after Powell's return. On Sept. 1, 1983, an Army civilian, William T. Golden, stumbled onto billing irregularities at a U.S. intelligence front company in suburban Annandale, Va., 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, as Casey recruited unsavory characters from the region to carry out his bidding. One of the worst of these allies was Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega, whom Casey found useful funneling money and supplies to the Nicaraguan contras fighting to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.

In September 1983, Powell traveled with Weinberger on an inspection tour of Central America. On that trip, they were accompanied by an eager Marine major from the National Security Council staff. His name was Oliver North. "From the moment we were airborne, he started worming his way into Weinberger's presence," Powell wrote in My American Journey.

Powell was even more contemptuous of Noriega, "an unappealing man, with his pockmarked face, beady, darting eyes, and arrogant swagger," according to Powell. Meeting Noriega, Powell claimed to have "the crawling sense that I was in the presence of evil."

There was also intelligence that Noriega was working with Colombian drug traffickers. Still, Powell has made no claim that he sought Noriega's ouster from the U.S. payroll. "Cold War politics sometimes made for creepy bedfellows," Powell rationalized.

Powell's retrospective disdain for Noriega also does not square with the enthusiasm some of Powell's Pentagon friends expressed for the Panamanian at the time. Powell's pal, Richard Armitage, the assistant defense secretary for inter-American affairs, hosted a Washington lunch in November 1983, honoring Noriega. "Pentagon officials greeted Noriega's rise to power with great satisfaction," noted author John Dinges.

Noriega's visit coincided with another growing political problem for the Reagan administration, the refusal of an angry Congress to continue funding the contra war in Nicaragua. The rebel force was gaining a reputation for brutality, as stories of rapes, summary executions and massacres flowed back to Washington. Led by Speaker 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.

Lebanon Strife

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 Islamic villages in the Bekaa Valley, an action that killed civilians and angered the Shiite Moslems.

On Oct. 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 Marines died. "When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American 'referee' had taken sides," Powell wrote later, though it was not clear that he ever actively opposed the ill-fated intervention in Lebanon.

After the bombing, U.S. Marines were withdrawn to the USS Guam off Lebanon's coast. But Casey ordered secret counter-terrorism 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 -- were set for the Iran-contra scandal.

Powell's Iran-Contra Role

Back at the Pentagon, Colin Powell might have felt at ease in the familiar environs. But Washington was indeed about to become "Ground Zero."

In 1984-85, as the Iran-contra storm clouds built, one-star Gen. Colin Powell was the "filter" for information flowing to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

After the scandal broke in 1986, Powell managed to escape its consequences, in part, by claiming that much of what Weinberger knew about the secret deals had not gone through that "filter."

Powell said he knew next to nothing about unlawful 1985 shipments of U.S. weapons from Israel to Iran -- or about illegal third-country financing of the Nicaraguan contra rebels.

But was the general lying?

The documentary record makes clear that his boss, Weinberger, knew a great deal -- and the evidence suggests that so did Powell.

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 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.

The Iran-contra trial of Weinberger for alleged obstruction of justice -- which was set for early 1993 and was expected to include testimony by Powell -- was derailed by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992 when he pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants.

What is known from the public record, however, is that on June 20, 1984, Weinberger attended a State Department meeting about the contra operation. His scribbled notes cited the need to "plan for other sources for $." But secrecy would be vital, the defense secretary understood. "Keep US fingerprints off," he wrote.

In summer 1984, Gen. John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, learned from a foreign visitor about the Saudi money for the contras. Vessey told Weinberger, who gave Vessey the impression of surprise. "I reported it to Secretary Weinberger," Vessey said in a deposition. "His reaction was about the same as mine, sort of surprise first that [Saudi Arabia] would do it."

In 1985, when the Saudis doubled their annual contra gift from $12 million to $25 million, Vessey quickly passed on word to Weinberger again. This time, the record is clear that the Defense Secretary understood that the contribution to buy weapons was part of the larger contra-aid strategy.

"Jack Vessey in office alone," Weinberger wrote on March 13, 1985. "Bandar is giving $25 million to Contras -- so all we need is non-lethal aid."

The Iran Initiative

Meanwhile, the White House was maneuvering into dangerous geopolitical territory, too, 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 memoirs, 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 an important 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 could be a felony.

A Mysterious Meeting

The available evidence from that period suggests that Weinberger and Powell were very much in the loop, even though they may have opposed the arms-to-Iran policy. On Aug. 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 that at the meeting with Weinberger and Powell, he discussed Reagan's approval of the missile transfer and the need to replenish Israeli stockpiles.

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 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." 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. To have admitted that would have been to admit being part of a criminal conspiracy.

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.

Guilty Knowledge

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. 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.

Secret Intercept

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. "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."

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 announced that he had destroyed them.

Greasing the Skids

In the next phase of the evolving Iran operation -- the direct delivery of U.S. missiles -- Powell would play an even bigger role.

Indeed, the disastrous policy might never have happened, or might have stopped much sooner, except for the work of Colin Powell.

In early 1986, Powell short-circuited the Pentagon covert procurement system that was put in place after the Yellow Fruit scandal. Defense procurement officials said that without Powell's interference, the system would have alerted the military brass that thousands of TOW anti-tank missiles and other sophisticated weaponry were headed to Iran, 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. Powell's account also obscured his unusual actions in arranging the shipments without giving senior officers the information that Pentagon procedures required, even on sensitive covert activities.

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 to Iran.

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.

'Executive' Orders

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," 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."

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.

Legal Worries

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 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."

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 been notified.

Army Secretary Marsh shared the skepticism about Powell's operation. On Feb. 25, 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. Marsh also instructed Russo to keep a careful chronology of events.

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.

'Handle It'

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 missile shipments.

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. ... 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."

HAWK Shipment

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.

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.


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