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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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Colin Powell's Fateful Lies

By Robert, Sam and Nat Parry
February 5, 2008

Editor’s Note: Five years ago, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations Security Council – and the world – to make a case for war that wasn’t true. He falsely claimed that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.


The importance of Powell’s speech cannot be overstated. It effectively sealed the deal for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, at least as far as the American news media and opinion leaders were concerned.


After Powell’s speech, was one of the few news outlets that wasn’t onboard. We reprised an earlier series about Powell’s real history as a rank opportunist, under the title “Trust Colin Powell?” However, many people did trust Colin Powell and the results have been catastrophic.


On this fifth anniversary of Powell’s speech, we are publishing an excerpt about his testimony from the book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. The book also contains a chapter on the real history of Colin Powell, but this excerpt concentrates on his fateful speech:

To make his case before the U.N., Bush dispatched the most credible official in his administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell.

By the time Powell was assigned to make the case for war, he counted himself among the growing list of officials nervous about the quality of the WMD intelligence. Indeed, Powell may have been one of the best positioned officials to know that the threat from Iraq was being exaggerated.

In February 2001, Powell personally had cited the effectiveness of the U.N. sanctions in crippling Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities.

“Frankly, they have worked,” Powell said of the sanctions. “He [Hussein] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.”

But Bush called on Powell to put his loyalty to the President first, over his own personal doubts. Col. Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s longtime friend and chief of staff, said Powell was upset with the White House instructions about what to highlight in his speech.
“He came through the door that morning and he had in his hand a sheaf of papers and he said this is what I’ve got to present at the United Nations according to the White House and you need to look at it,” Wilkerson later told CNN.

“It was anything but an intelligence document. It was as some people characterized it later, some kind of Chinese menu from which you could pick and choose. … There was no way the Secretary of State was going to read off a script about serious matters of intelligence that could lead to war when the script was basically unsourced.”

Powell’s skepticism led to his “four day and four night” encampment at the CIA reviewing the intelligence. Despite assurances from CIA Director George Tenet, Powell recognized the shakiness of the case.

Wilkerson said Powell “turned to the DCI, Mr. Tenet, and he [Powell] said, ‘everything here, everything here, you stand behind?’And Mr. Tenet said, ‘absolutely, Mr. Secretary.’ And he [Powell] said, ‘well, you know you’re going to be sitting behind me. … Right behind me. In camera.”

At the U.N.

So, on Feb. 5, 2003, Powell sat at the curved table of the U.N. Security Council – with CIA Director Tenet and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte behind him.

Revealing none of his internal doubts, Powell calmly presented what he claimed was a convincing factual case that “Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort – no effort – to disarm as required by the international community. Indeed, the facts and Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.”

Powell’s speech was a classic case of persuading an audience of someone’s guilt by piling on one suspicious incident after another. Even if no single example proved the point, the mind numbed to the volume of accusations and surrendered to the accumulation of pseudo-evidence.

That’s especially true if the target of the allegations is a figure of disdain and the person making the charges is respected. Rarely could that imbalance have been greater than Saddam Hussein versus Colin Powell.

Even a determined skeptic, punching holes in one of Powell’s dubious accusations after another, would grow weary offering innocent explanations of Hussein’s suspicious behavior.

Powell’s case to the U.N. was a collection of Bush’s favorite accusations, albeit with some additions and omissions. For instance, Powell left out the uranium-from-Africa claim that Bush had cited in his State of the Union Address.

But the strength of Powell’s testimony came from his personal reputation and his presumption of credibility, much of it based on Powell’s legend.

Though conveying an image of integrity, Powell actually had compiled a long record of opportunism and obedience, not courage and principle. [See Neck Deep for details.] But as he made his presentation to the U.N., Powell’s legend was near its zenith.

Powell argued that Iraq’s insistence that it didn’t have WMD was itself proof of its defiance, even though the U.N. inspectors had failed to find anything.

“This council placed the burden on Iraq to comply and disarm and not on the inspectors to find that which Iraq has gone out of its way to conceal for so long,” Powell said. “Inspectors are inspectors; they are not detectives.”

A Lot to Hide

The Secretary of State then laid out the case that Iraq had a lot to hide.

“The material I will present to you comes from a variety of sources,” Powell said. “Some are U.S. sources. And some are those of other countries. Some of the sources are technical, such as intercepted telephone conversations and photos taken by satellites.

“Other sources are people who have risked their lives to let the world know what Saddam Hussein is really up to. I cannot tell you everything that we know. But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling. What you will see is an accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behavior.”

One of Powell’s techniques was to play intercepted Iraqi telephone conversations in which the precise topic was unclear, but Powell assumed the worst.

In one such conversation, an Iraqi official said, “we evacuated everything. We don’t have anything left.” So Powell added, “Note what he says: ‘We evacuated everything.’ We didn’t destroy it. We didn’t line it up for inspection. We didn’t turn it into the inspectors. We evacuated it to make sure it was not around when the inspectors showed up.”

But Powell was speculating that the “everything” referred to WMD.

In another excerpt, Powell embellished an original State Department translation to cast more suspicion on the Iraqis.

To prove that Iraqis were removing illegal weapons before a U.N. inspection team arrived, Powell read from one supposed transcript of an Iraqi official giving orders: “We sent you a message yesterday to clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there.”

What the original State Department transcript said, however, was: “We sent you a message to inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas.” There was no order to “clean out all of the areas” and there was no instruction to “make sure there is nothing there.”

Powell used the doctored transcript to draw a powerful conclusion.

“This is all part of a system of hiding things and moving things out of the way and making sure they have left nothing behind,” he said. “They were trying to clean up the area to leave no evidence behind of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. And they can claim that nothing was there. And the inspectors can look all they want, and they will find nothing.”

Bald-Faced Lies

Powell dismissed Iraq’s U.N. submissions about its compliance with U.N. resolutions as bald-faced lies.

“Everything we have seen and heard indicates that, instead of cooperating actively with the inspectors to ensure the success of their mission, Saddam Hussein and his regime are busy doing all they possibly can to ensure that inspectors succeed in finding absolutely nothing,” Powell said.

Trying to remind the public of Adlai Stevenson’s dramatic presentation of aerial reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Powell displayed photos of trucks and other items whose presence was given a sinister cast. Powell seemed to sense the weakness of this photographic evidence, so he prefaced the display by stressing the sophistication of U.S. photo analysts.

“The photos that I am about to show you are sometimes hard for the average person to interpret, hard for me,” he said. “The painstaking work of photo analysis takes experts with years and years of experience, poring for hours and hours over light tables. But as I show you these images, I will try to capture and explain what they mean, what they indicate to our imagery specialists.”

But what the photos often showed were simply bunkers that could be used for a variety of purposes and trucks that – while Powell insisted they were chemical contamination vehicles – were water trucks that could have multiple purposes.

U.N. inspector Steve Allinson said some trucks spotted by U.S. satellites were fire trucks, while other vehicles were so neglected that they had cobwebs inside.

Powell then launched into a litany of claims made by various Iraqi “defectors,” many of whom were fed to U.S. intelligence by the Iraqi National Congress.

“One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq’s biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents,” Powell said. “Let me take you inside that intelligence file and share with you what we know from eyewitness accounts. We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. …

“In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War.

Curve Ball’s Evidence

Although Iraq’s mobile production program began in the mid-1990s, U.N. inspectors at the time only had vague hints of such programs.

“Confirmation came later, in the year 2000. The source was an eyewitness, an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities. He actually was present during biological agent production runs. He was also at the site when an accident occurred in 1998. Twelve technicians died from exposure to biological agents. …

“This defector [the highly unreliable Curve Ball] is currently hiding in another country with the certain knowledge that Saddam Hussein will kill him if he finds him. His eyewitness account of these mobile production facilities has been corroborated by other sources.”

Powell provided a detailed account of how these mobile weapon labs supposedly worked, how many there were (18), and what dangerous toxins they could produce.

“In fact, they can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people,” Powell intoned.

As for chemical weapons, Powell used another rhetorical technique, estimating a range for Iraq’s alleged stockpiles and then taking the low end of the range to emphasize the careful reliability of his presentation. At one point, for dramatic effect, he held up a small vial to demonstrate how lethal some of Iraq’s alleged poisons were.

“Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent,” Powell said. “Even the low end of 100 tons of agent would enable Saddam Hussein to cause mass casualties across more than 100 square miles of territory, an area nearly five times the size of Manhattan. …

“We have sources who tell us that he recently has authorized his field commanders to use [chemical weapons]. He wouldn’t be passing out the orders if he didn’t have the weapons or the intent to use them.”

Again, the alternative explanation that the sources were lying was not taken into account.

Nuclear Weapons

Then, Powell turned to the issue of nuclear weapons.

Though Powell didn’t reiterate Bush’s claim about the uranium from Africa, he did play up the aluminum tubes that were supposedly for centrifuges although U.S. government experts in the Energy and State departments thought the tubes were more suitable for rocket launchers as the Iraqis said.

“There is controversy about what these tubes are for,” Powell acknowledged before adding: “Most U.S. experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium. …

“I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but just as an old Army trooper, I can tell you a couple of things: First, it strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets. Maybe Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don’t think so.”

But Houston Wood, a consultant who worked on the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge analysis of the aluminum tubes, later told CBS News that Powell’s presentation was misleading, since the nuclear experts, who were concentrated in the Energy Department, knew the tubes were unsuited for uranium enrichment.

“I thought when I read that there must be some other tubes that people were talking about,” Wood said. “I was just flabbergasted that people were still pushing that those might be centrifuges.”

U.N. inspector Allinson described the reaction of the U.N. team as it watched Powell’s much ballyhooed address.

“Various people would laugh at various times because the information he was presenting was just, you know, didn’t mean anything, had no meaning,” Allinson said, adding that the conclusion of the inspectors after Powell’s speech was that “they have nothing.”

After the speech, Colin Powell revealed his own doubts. He turned to his friend Wilkerson and “said words to the effect of, I wonder how we’ll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing,” Wilkerson said.

For his part, Wilkerson added, “I look back on it and I still say it’s the lowest point in my life. I wish I had not been involved in it.”

A Wowed Press

Though many WMD experts didn’t buy the Bush administration’s case, Powell’s speech worked wonders with the U.S. news media.

American commentators and pundits – long enamored of Powell’s glittering reputation – hailed Powell’s evidence as overwhelming and unassailable.
The next day – Feb. 6, 2003 – The Washington Post’s editorial pages stood as a solid phalanx behind Powell’s presentation. The newspaper’s editorial board judged Powell’s WMD case “irrefutable” and added: “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”

That opinion was echoed across the Post’s op-ed page.

“The evidence he [Powell] presented to the United Nations – some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail – had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them,” wrote Post columnist Richard Cohen. “Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.”

Post columnist Jim Hoagland demanded the surrender of any Bush-doubting holdouts: “To continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence. I don’t believe that. Today, neither should you.”

In the days leading up to war, Bush and his aides continued salting their speeches with bogus allegations, some of which had been disproved by the U.N. and even U.S. intelligence agencies.

The International Atomic Energy Agency debunked a key element of the U.S. case, that the famous aluminum tubes were meant for centrifuges to produce enriched uranium. The IAEA reported that the tubes would not serve that function.

The IAEA also reported that a document about Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium in Niger was a forgery. It later turned out that CIA analysts also had doubted the authenticity of the Niger document, but it was still included in Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003.
IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei said inspections of Iraq had found “no indication of resumed nuclear activity.”

Yet Iraq’s alleged nuclear program remained a scary part of the case for war. On March 16, undeterred by the scientific and intelligence findings, Vice President Dick Cheney again trotted out the canard that Iraq had “reconstituted nuclear weapons.”

With the invaluable assistance of Colin Powell, the path to war had been paved with false evidence.

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