The Latin dictum about not speaking ill of the dead has its place, of course, but maybe we should draw the line at falsifying or distorting history.
Specifically, I am referring to his February 2003 presentation before the United Nations in which he asserted that “Saddam Hussein has biological weapons” and was working to produce nuclear bombs. All of which proved to be false – but, nonetheless, helped start a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and destabilised the Middle East for years to come.
In the wake of his death, Powell’s presentation is now seen as having tainted his legacy because, as The New York Times put it, “The intelligence had been wrong.”
It’s more serious than that.
To be clear: Yes, the intelligence was wrong. But the larger question is why Powell, who for years had argued strenuously against invading Iraq, allowed himself to be duped by saber-rattling neoconservative policymakers and acolytes of Vice-President Dick Cheney into becoming chief salesman for the disinformation they manufactured.
After all, disinformation operations to start the war began being orchestrated well before the UN presentation – and Powell knew it. Most notably, there were the forged and fabricated “Niger documents” purporting to show that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was buying yellowcake uranium from the impoverished African Republic of Niger. In reporting for my 2007 book The Fall of the House of Bush, I found no fewer than nine former intelligence and military analysts who assessed the Niger documents as part of a covert operation to deliberately mislead the American public and start the war with Iraq.
The protests of such officials notwithstanding, that bit of disinformation was used by George W Bush in his State of the Union address as part of a 16-word sentence that was a prelude to war.
It’s hard to believe that Powell was unaware of such machinations. After all, the State Department’s INR (Bureau of Intelligence and Research) was key component of the intelligence community, and its officials were among those who exposed the disinformation.
According to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff and the man who helped Powell prepare for the UN presentation, Cheney and his followers repeatedly sent key bits of disinformation to State to gin up a feverish lust for war.
Each time Wilkerson’s team vetted it and took it out, they’d find that Cheney’s followers had put it back in. “Stick that baby in there forty-seven times and on the forty-seventh time it will stay,” Wilkerson told me. “… At every level of the decision-making process you had to have your axe out, ready to chop their fingers off. Sooner or later, you would miss one and it would get in there.”
They were relentless.
To help his cause, Dick Cheney made sure that the ultra-hawkish John Bolton got a key position under Powell as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Powell had the power to push back, but didn’t. Similarly, key INR officials who were not Cheney lapdogs were kept out of important meetings. Their absence was a striking indication that Powell had capitulated.
Why? “Presumably he was trying to make peace with Cheney,” one State Department official told me. “If you were the boss and had John Bolton, who was off the reservation, why would you keep him there? Getting rid of the guy would make headlines and raise all manner of questions.”
Always the good soldier, the man who always follows the chain of command, Powell found that his code of conduct had come into conflict with a higher loyalty – truth. “I can only assume that he was under the gun to do this for the president, and he had to find a way to do this and live with it,” said another State Department colleague.
As Wilkerson and his staff vetted the incoming material from Cheney, more often than not, they would find that the meaning of the item in question had been completely distorted. Out went a 48-page WMD dossier given them by Cheney’s office. Three-quarters of their file on Saddam’s ties to terrorists was in the trash as well.
In the end, Wilkerson felt they had “thrown out so much crap … and rightfully so” that he was concerned that the presentation would not be effective.
But Dick Cheney’s greatest triumph was his insistence that the presentation was being made by a man who had risen from the South Bronx to become the most admired and respected person in America. He had served as national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before being appointed secretary of state and becoming the highest-ranking African-American government official in the history of the United States.
At the time, no less than 86 per cent of the American people approved of the way Colin Powell was doing his job. He came now before the UN as a voice of reason, as a man who appeared to have unassailable moral authority, and who had reluctantly concluded that the United States must take up arms against a brutal dictator. All of which made him the most effective salesman on the planet.
But his most important decisions of all involved the Iraq War. On that score, he had succeeded in keeping peace within the administration. But the price was a devastating and unnecessary war based entirely on false premises.
Craig Unger is the author of three international bestsellers on Republican Party’s attacks on democracy including, most recently, American Kompromat, How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery.
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