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Powell's Widening Credibility Gap

By Robert Parry
September 17, 2005

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell appears to have widened his credibility gap with his latest attempt to shift the blame for bogus evidence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction onto mid-level intelligence analysts – and away from himself and other senior officials.

In an interview with ABC News, Powell fingered “some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and they didn’t speak up. That devastated me.”

But he spared from criticism high-ranking Bush administration colleagues as well as then-CIA director George Tenet. As for his personal feelings about his false WMD testimony before the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, Powell told ABC’s Barbara Walters that he saw the incident as a “blot” on his reputation.

“It was painful,” Powell said. “It’s painful now.”

However, in shifting the blame down the line of command, Powell also seems to have touched a raw nerve with a number of CIA veterans and everyday Americans, who e-mailed us over our story about Powell’s interview, “Colin Powell Being Colin Powell

Our article put Powell’s blame-shifting in the context of his lifelong record of protecting his superiors and his own image. But one reader, Ava, took us to task for relying on ABC’s cleaned-up transcript of Powell’s words.

In the actual broadcast, Ava noted, Powell was less articulate, interspersing his comments with phrasing errors and the utterance, “uh,” that ABC deleted from the quotes used in its Web article about the interview.

“Powell is obviously fumbling on the broadcast interview. The impression the smooth alteration gives doesn’t imply that to the reader of ABC’s Web story,” Ava wrote. [For details on her objections, see The Common Ills blog.]

Disingenuous Defense

Other readers, including former CIA analysts, challenged Powell’s comments as disingenuous because they are certain the former secretary of state knew how thin the WMD evidence was at the time and how aggressively the administration was stretching it.

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 cited the effectiveness of the UN 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.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, however, the Bush administration began zeroing in on oil-rich Iraq as a target of opportunity. Whereas before, Powell and other officials downplayed the Iraqi threat; now they were playing it for all it was worth.

By summer 2002, this pattern of exaggeration was evident to virtually anyone involved in the process. On July 23, 2002, in the so-called Downing Street Memo, the chief of British intelligence reported back to Prime Minister Tony Blair about a recent trip to Washington and said bluntly that the facts were being “fixed around the policy.”

 “This is not the way intelligence is done,” former CIA analyst Ray McGovern told me. “You don’t just decide to have a war and then arrange the intelligence.”

As the recent CNN documentary, “Dead Wrong,” also made clear, many senior intelligence officials, especially inside Powell’s State Department, were aware of the shoddy intelligence behind the Iraqi WMD claims.

Greg Thielmann, who monitored WMD issues for the State Department’s bureau of intelligence, said his unease dated back to August 2002, when Vice President Dick Cheney declared that “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction” and that “we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Cheney was drawing from alarmist intelligence being collected by a special Pentagon office established by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and staffed by neoconservative policymakers set on war with Iraq.

 “That speech it seemed to me was basically a declaration of war speech,” Thielmann said. “That’s when I, for the first time, became really alarmed about where we were going on this.”

As recently as this summer, Bush has continued to deny that in that time period, “we had made up our mind to go – to use military force to deal with Saddam,” adding “there is nothing farther from the truth.”

Resigned to War

But the evidence is clear that the die was cast for war by summer 2002. As the Downing Street Memo shows, all that was left was lining up public support.

The CNN documentary, which aired on Aug. 21, 2005, reported that by September 2002, “the Pentagon has quietly positioned forces in countries around the Persian Gulf. The United States will be ready to move against Saddam in as little as 60 days.”

According to former CIA counterterrorism expert Michael Scheuer, “There was just a resignation within the agency that we were going to war against Iraq and it didn’t make any difference what the analysis was or what kind of objections or countervailing forces there were to an invasion. We were going to war.”

In that climate, any scrap of information about Iraq’s WMD was scooped up by the administration and often passed on to the news media. For instance, when aluminum tubes were discovered heading to Iraq, one inexperienced CIA analyst came up with the dubious conclusion they must be for enriching uranium.

Nuclear experts, including those at Powell’s State Department and inside the Energy Department, concluded otherwise, that the tubes matched the requirements for conventional Iraqi rockets and weren’t suitable for nuclear enrichment. But the administration embraced the nuclear-tube argument.

“Why would you immediately jump to the conclusion that these were for their nuclear program?” asked Carl Ford, former assistant secretary of state running the State Department’s bureau of intelligence. “Once an analyst starts believing their own work and quits doubting themselves and starts saying, ‘I'm going to prove to you that they've got nuclear weapons,’ watch out.”

Next, the nuclear-tube story was leaked to a credulous New York Times, which put the article – coauthored by Judith Miller – on the front page of the Sept. 8, 2002, editions. The story contained what would become an administration refrain: “The first sign of a smoking gun may be a mushroom cloud.”

Terror Ties

Having succeeded in planting this one bogus claim, the Bush administration went to work on another, that Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship was somehow in league with al-Qaeda, a group of Islamic fundamentalists who publicly had condemned Hussein.

Again, the Bush administration brushed aside evidence that contradicted the desired rationale. Former CIA analyst Scheuer told CNN that a careful review of intelligence information over nearly a decade “could find no connection in the terms of a state sponsored relationship with Iraq … but it apparently didn’t have any impact.”

Instead, Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice stripped the claim of any uncertainty. “Clearly, there are contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraq that can be documented. There clearly is testimony that some of these contacts have been important contacts and there’s a relationship there,” she said.

By fall 2002, Bush had requested authority from Congress to launch a preemptive war against Iraq, but still had not ordered up a formal National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD. So, Congress took the extraordinary step of requesting one directly from the CIA.

“Totally unusual,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., told CNN. “The agencies understand that if we're about to take a major military action or even consider one, you bring all your intelligence agencies together and say, ‘what do you know, and what do you know for sure before we put our troops in harm’s way, before we risk the reputation and treasure and bodies of our servicemen? What do we know?’”

During the NIE process – despite the objections from the experts at State and Energy – Tenet defended the opinion of the inexperienced CIA analyst who had come up with the nuclear-tube theory.

In perhaps the most remarkable disclosure in the CNN documentary, the CIA may have prevailed in this key debate because the Energy Department had sent over the wrong analyst.

“The Department of Energy was present but did not have the right individual there to argue the case,” said then-CIA deputy director John McLaughlin. “So when confronted with the data, this individual was not quite prepared to say, ‘well, let me lay out all of the technical reasons why we would have a different view.’ It's one of those elements of life and bureaucracy that intervened at a critical moment to make a difference in what the final product said.”

In other words, the U.S. government lurched down a course toward war rather than have someone stop the meeting and insist that the Energy Department send over the right briefer. An open-minded intelligence debate on war and peace would not have allowed such a bureaucratic snafu to play a decisive role.

State’s Skepticism

Powell’s own intelligence agency remained skeptical of the case being constructed about Iraq’s supposed nuclear program. “We couldn't really buy on to any of the things being said so the State Department's intelligence bureau put in a very deliberate and strong and lengthy dissent,” said intelligence chief Ford.

Still, with the dissenting views largely buried, the NIE helped secure congressional approval for Bush’s war plans.

Soon, however, the fragile case on Iraq’s WMD began to crack. At the CIA, doubts grew about WMD claims from Iraqi defectors, including one codenamed “Curveball” who had asserted that Iraq had mobile WMD labs, but who was suspected of fabrication.

Tyler Drumheller, former chief of the CIA’s European Division, said his office had issued repeated warnings about Curveball’s accounts. “Everyone in the chain of command knew exactly what was happening,” said Drumheller, who scoffed at claims by Tenet and McLaughlin that they didn’t know about Curveball’s credibility problems. [Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2005]

UN inspectors also had returned to Iraq and were not finding evidence of WMD at sites that had been considered the most likely locations of weapons caches.

The crumbling evidence prompted the White House to dig up another questionable charge for Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2003, that Iraq had sought enriched uranium in Africa. The claim raised more eyebrows among intelligence professionals.

By the time Powell was assigned to make the case for war before the UN Security Council in February 2003, the secretary of state was among the growing list of officials nervous about the quality of the WMD intelligence.

Col. Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s longtime friend and chief of staff, told CNN that 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 said. “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.”

The Speech

Powell’s skepticism led to his legendary “four day and four night” encampment at the CIA reviewing the intelligence. Despite assurances from CIA Director 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 tomorrow. Right behind me. In camera.”

But Powell didn’t give any indication of his internal doubts when he performed confidently in his hour-long UN speech. “What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,” Powell said.

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. “That’s enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets.”

Powell also asserted that some of the WMD was in four bunkers observed by U.S. spy satellites. The proof that these were WMD bunkers was the presence of decontamination vehicles, Powell said.

But State Department WMD expert Thielmann later told CBS News that “these particular vehicles were simply fire trucks.” UN inspector Steve Allinson also said some trucks spotted by U.S. satellites were fire trucks and other vehicles were so unused that they had cobwebs inside.

At another point in his UN speech, Powell embellished on quotes pulled from intercepts of Iraqi conversations to make the words seem more incriminating.

Trying to prove that Iraqis were removing illegal weapons before a UN 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 full 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’s apparent fabrication of the intercept was first reported by Gilbert Cranberg, a former editor of the Des Moines Register’s editorial pages.]

Tubes, Redux

Powell also trotted out the CIA’s disputed claims about the aluminum tubes, noting that while “there is controversy about what these tubes are for, most U.S. experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium.”

But Houston Wood, a consultant who worked on the Oak Ridge analysis of the 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 added. “I was just flabbergasted that people were still pushing that those might be centrifuges.” [CBS News, Feb. 4, 2004]

UN inspector Allinson described the reaction of the UN 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.”

Though many WMD experts didn’t buy the Bush administration’s case, Powell’s speech worked wonders with the U.S. news media. Almost across the board, American commentators and pundits – long enamored of Powell’s glittering reputation – hailed Powell’s evidence as overwhelming and unassailable.

After the speech, however, Colin Powell was one person who knew how shaky the evidence really was. The savvy insider 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 told CNN.

For his part, Wilkerson now says, “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.”

When CBS News asked former State Department WMD analyst Thielmann why Powell would distort the findings of his own intelligence agency, Thielmann responded that “I can only assume that he was doing it to loyally support the President of the United States and build the strongest possible case for arguing that there was no alternative to the use of military force.” [CBS News, Feb. 4, 2004]

Blindsided

To this day, Powell is still trying to make the case that he was blindsided by bad intelligence, the fault of some lower-level bureaucrats who kept the reality from Tenet, Bush and Powell himself.

Yet this case for Powell’s innocence is undercut further by the fact that some journalists and independent experts were challenging the WMD evidence months before Powell’s UN address – and were disclosing the pressure being brought on U.S. intelligence officials to toe the White House line on Iraq’s supposed WMD.

For instance, Knight Ridder’s Warren Strobel and Jonathan Linday reported in October 2002 that “intelligence professionals and diplomats … privately have deep misgivings about the administration’s double-time march toward war. These officials charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses.”

These contemporaneous articles also reported complaints from U.S. officials about administration efforts to squelch dissent and pressure analysts to produce intelligence reports that would support Bush’s case for preemptive war.

One anonymous official told the reporters that “analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books.”

To believe Powell now – that he was oblivious to the doubts within the U.S. intelligence community – would require accepting that this knowledgeable secretary of state was unaware of disclosures in the news media as well as the internal dissension within the intelligence bureau of his own State Department.

It’s much more logical to conclude that Powell did what he had done many times before – that he chose to do the bidding of his superiors and protect his status within the Washington power structure.

[For more on Powell’s biography, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Colin Powell Being Colin Powell."]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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