By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell's Legend -- Back to the Future
On June 29, 1983, Colin Powell's spit-polished shoes clicked
through the Outer Ring power corridors of the Pentagon. Powell
had returned from a two-year sojourn through austere Army bases
in Colorado and Kansas, where he had earned the general's star
that his mentor, deputy defense secretary Frank Carlucci, had
Powell was again in the terrain he knew best, his professional
home: Washington, D.C., what he often called "Ground Zero." He
also was back to his future, once more on the fast track to
But Powell had returned to an administration courting danger,
caught up in its anti-communist passions. President Reagan's
men were at war around the world against what they considered
Moscow's surrogates, as well as battling those in Congress whom
the White House viewed as communism's fellow-travelers.
At the Central Intelligence Agency, the aging director William
J. Casey was pressuring the Soviet Union on all fronts, even
through wars that 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, a disengaged Ronald Reagan snapped
to attention when battlefield maps were put before him, with
pins representing Nicaraguan contras outmaneuvering other pins
for the Sandinistas. 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 warhorse, House Speaker
Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, thought that Reagan and Casey were
excessively zealous, maybe even a bit crazy. Democrats, as well
as some Republicans, suspected, too, that Casey, the mumbling
dissembler, was treating Congress like Fifth-Column
agents-of-influence slipped behind his lines to disrupt his
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 Caspar
The Defense brass favored greater caution because 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.
Into that political war stepped Brig. Gen. Powell, whose new job
was military assistant to Secretary Weinberger. It was a
position that made Powell the gatekeeper for Weinberger. Top
Pentagon players quickly learned that Powell was more than
Weinberger's coat holder or calendar keeper. Powell was the
"filter," the guy who saw everything when it passed into the
Secretary for action and who oversaw everything that needed
follow-up when it 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 some mysterious gravitational force, the
operations were pulling in the Pentagon.
Already, the Democrats were up in arms over military
construction in Honduras, which Reagan insisted was temporary,
but which looked awfully permanent. U.S. military advisers in El
Salvador were training a brutal army which slaughtered political
opponents and unarmed villagers. 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.
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
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,"
said Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, then vice chief of the U.S. Army,
"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
funnelling money and supplies to the Nicaraguan contras.
In September 1983, Powell traveled with Weinberger on an
inspection of Central America. They were accompanied by an
eager Marine Major from the National Security Council staff,
named Oliver North. "From the moment we were airborne, he
started worming his way into Weinberger's presence," Powell
wrote in his memoirs, My American Journey.
Powell was even more contemptuous of Noriega, "an unappealing
man, with his pockmarked face, beady, darting eyes, and arrogant
swagger." 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, but 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. 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 and threatened to ban contra
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Reagan's policies were
encountering more trouble. Reagan had deployed Marines as
peacekeepers in Beirut, but 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
U.S. Marines were withdrawn to the USS Guam off Lebanon's coast.
But Casey ordered secret counter-terrorism operations and 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 scene was set
for the Iran-contra scandal.
Back at the Pentagon, Colin Powell might have felt at ease in
the familiar environs of Washington. But the cautious
bureaucrat was working in what might look, from a high-altitude
bomber, like a giant five-sided bulls-eye. Washington was
indeed about to become "Ground Zero."
(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post
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