December 19, 2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend: Part Two
By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.