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Former Secretary of State Colin Powell. (Photo credit: Charles Haynes)
Ten years ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations in a speech which routed what was left of American resistance to the Bush/Cheney push for invading Iraq. The next day, the Washington Post's editorial pages spoke for the conventional wisdom, filled with glowing reviews of Powell's convincing arguments.
Today, of course, we know that much of what Powell said on Feb. 5, 2003, was wrong. He himself has acknowledged that the speech was a "blot" on his record.
There is also circumstantial evidence that Powell was a willing co-conspirator, despite his repeated insistence that he didn't know he was spreading falsehoods to justify an aggressive (and thus illegal) war. It's clear that he was eager to please his bosses and thus was predisposed to do whatever he was told.
But the question remains: Was Powell a full-fledged participant in the fraud or was he duped by CIA officials who were taking direction from Vice President Dick Cheney and other war hawks? It seems to me likely that Tenet and McLaughlin (and in a larger sense Bush and Cheney) exploited Powell's long-held tendency toward careerism (or as his acolytes put it, "being a good soldier") to easily overcome Powell's misgivings.
From his days as a young officer in Vietnam through his long climb up the ladder of the U.S. national security bureaucracy, Powell never bucked the system. Indeed, that's the secret to understanding how Powell ascended to become a four-star general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of State.
Whether the question was joining other early Vietnam military advisers in warning President Lyndon Johnson about the hopelessness of that conflict, or participating in President Ronald Reagan's illegal Iran-Contra operation, or finding less violent ways to deal with international disputes under President George H.W. Bush, Powell consistently chose to be a yes man and do what his bosses wanted. [For details on Powell's past, see the book, Neck Deep.]
Jury Still Out
Still, in my view, the jury is still out on whether Powell was more conned regarding the Iraq War than con-man. Like anyone else, he is entitled to some benefit of the doubt, though to this day he has resisted providing any comprehensive explanation of his deceptive speech or admitting that the invasion of Iraq was wrong.
Powell has limited himself to some hand-wringing about how the speech was a "blot" on his record, not that it contributed to the unnecessary deaths of nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. He still insists that the war was justified.
It's also true that Powell remains one of the important links in the chain of excuses used to fend off allegations of war crimes against the architects of the invasion. As long as each link in that chain doesn't admit wrongdoing and points to the link in the chain next to him or her as providing justification for whatever was done, no single link can be found guilty and surely not the entire chain.
The Bush-Cheney team used a similar chain of reinforcing justification to evade responsibility for illegal torture. The CIA's torturers point to authorization from the CIA brass, which points to approval from Bush and other senior White House officials, who point to the Justice Department lawyers who created legal excuses and other evasions, some of which were suggested by the CIA torturers, the CIA brass and the White House officials.
Thus, regarding the false testimony on the Iraq War, Powell resists stating clearly that Tenet and McLaughlin lied to his face or admitting that he agreed to deliver the deceptions with his trademark gravitas and sincerity because he wanted to stay in President Bush's good graces.
Slam or Sham Dunk?
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff at the time, has described his boss as dubious about elements of the intelligence that he was getting from not only Vice President Cheney's office but from the CIA.
Surely, Powell understood that the intelligence on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's links to Islamist terrorism was weak and that evidence of his "weapons of mass destruction" was far from a "slam dunk," as Tenet famously assured President Bush on Dec. 21, 2002. The appropriate adjective would have been sham, not slam.
Even Bush has said he was underwhelmed at McLaughlin's presentation of the evidence that day and put a must-do-better on the CIA's report card. So, with their wrists slapped at the White House, Tenet and McLaughlin returned to the CIA and redoubled their efforts to fulfill their role in this chain of self-reinforcing arguments for giving Bush and his neocon advisers their war of choice in Iraq.