Colin Powell delivered his presentation making the case for war with Iraq at the United Nations 15 years ago, on February 5, 2003.
As much criticism as Powell received for this — he’s called it “painful” and something that will “always be a part of my record” — it hasn’t been close to what’s justified. Powell, who was secretary of state under President George W. Bush, was much more than just horribly mistaken: He fabricated “evidence” and ignored repeated warnings that what he was saying was false.
Unfortunately, Congress never investigated Powell’s use of the intelligence he was given, so we don’t know many of the specifics. Even so, what did reach the public record in other ways is extremely damning. While the corporate media has never taken a close look at this record, we can go through Powell’s presentation line by line to demonstrate the chasm between what he knew and what he told the world. As you’ll see, there’s quite a lot to say about it.
Powell’s speech can be found on the State Department website here. All other sources are linked below.
Public Certainty, Private Doubt
On that February 5 in front of the U.N. Security Council, was Colin Powell certain what he was saying was accurate? He certainly was:
POWELL: My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.
Later, regarding whether Iraq had reconstituted a nuclear weapons program, he said:
POWELL: There is no doubt in my mind …
That’s in public. What about in private? According to Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, here’s what Powell was thinking at the time:
WILKERSON: [Powell] had walked into my office musing and he 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.’
This is some of what Powell said about the infamous aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq, supposedly meant for their covert nuclear weapons program:
POWELL: It strikes me as quite odd that these [aluminum] tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets. Maybe Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don’t think so.
Powell’s own intelligence staff, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, prepared two memos commenting on drafts of the presentation. They were later quietly released as appendices to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on WMD intelligence.
The second INR memo, written on February 3, 2003, told Powell this:
Our key remaining concern is the claim that the tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that “far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets.” In fact, the most comparable U.S. system is a tactical rocket — the U.S. Mark 66 air-launched 70mm rocket — that uses the same, high-grade (7075-T6) aluminum, and that has specifications with similar tolerances. Note that the Mk 66 specifications are unclassified, and the Department is planning to share them with the [International Atomic Energy Agency].
Powell played an intercept of a conversation between Iraqi army officers about the U.N. inspections. However, when he translated what they were saying, he knowingly embellished it, turning it from evidence Iraq was complying with U.N. resolutions to evidence Iraq was violating them. This appears in Bob Woodward’s book “Plan of Attack”:
Powell had decided to add his personal interpretation of the intercepts to the rehearsed script, taking them substantially further and casting them in the most negative light. … Concerning the intercept about inspecting for the possibility of “forbidden ammo,” Powell took the interpretation further: “Clean out all of the areas. … Make sure there is nothing there.” None of this was in the intercept.
Here’s the conversation as Powell presented it at the U.N. The bold sections were modified by Powell:
POWELL: “They’re inspecting the ammunition you have, yes.”
“For the possibility there are forbidden ammo.”
“For the possibility there is by chance forbidden ammo?”
“And 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.”
Powell then explained:
This is all part of a system of hiding things and moving things out of the way and making sure they have left nothing behind.
According to the official State Department translation (and confirmed for me by Imad Khadduri), the Iraqi soldier merely said:
“And we sent you a message to inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas.”
And it’s no surprise the Iraqi said this. Here’s what the CIA’s report on Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction found out about what was going on within the Iraqi government just before the January 30 intercepted conversation:
The NMD director met with Republican Guard military leaders on 25 January 2003 and advised them they were to sign documents saying that there was no WMD in their units, according to a former Iraqi senior officer. Husam Amin told them that the government would hold them responsible if UNMOVIC found any WMD in their units or areas, or if there was anything that cast doubt on Iraq’s cooperation with UNMOVIC. Commanders established committees to ensure their units retained no evidence of old WMD.
Again: Powell took evidence of the Iraqis doing what they were supposed to do — i.e., searching their gigantic ammunition dumps to make sure they weren’t accidentally holding onto banned chemical weapons — and doctored it to make it look as if Iraq were hiding banned weapons.
Since the State Department was questioned about this by journalist Gilbert Cranberg, the translation at variance with Powell’s version has disappeared from its site. It’s now available only via archive.org.
Deception by Omission
Powell’s presentation left out extremely important information, as here:
POWELL: Iraq’s record on chemical weapons is replete with lies. It took years for Iraq to finally admit that it had produced 4 tons of the deadly nerve agent, VX. A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons. The admission only came out after inspectors collected documentation as a result of the defection of Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s late son-in-law.
As far as this went, this was accurate. However, Kamal, the head of Iraq’s WMD programs, defected in 1995. Iraq had produced this VX before the Gulf War, in 1991 — and according to Kamel, Iraq had secretly destroyed it soon after the war. Then they lied about ever producing it (until his defection). But according to Kamel, they weren’t lying when they said they no longer had it.
Indeed, in the U.N.’s notes from Kamel’s debriefing, he says Iraq had no remaining WMD of any kind:
KAMEL: All chemical weapons were destroyed. I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons — biological, chemical, missiles, nuclear — were destroyed.
And if that weren’t enough, Kamel also said this in an interview on CNN with correspondent Brent Sadler:
SADLER: Can you state here and now — does Iraq still to this day hold weapons of mass destruction?
KAMEL: No. Iraq does not possess any weapons of mass destruction. I am being completely honest about this.
But in 1996, Kamel returned to Iraq, where he was killed by Saddam’s regime. Thus the U.S. could safely take a witness who truthfully had said Iraq had no remaining banned weapons and pretend his testimony indicated the exact opposite.
Did Powell know what he was doing at the time? It’s unclear. Here’s a transcript of an exchange between Powell and Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy in Washington in December 2006, with video below:
HUSSEINI: You cited Hussein Kamel in your U.N. testimony. Did you know he said there were no WMDs?
POWELL: I only knew what the intelligence community told me.
HUSSEINI: But did you know that fact?
POWELL: Of course not!
HUSSEINI: You didn’t know that, even though it was reported?
POWELL: I’ve answered your question!
As you can see in the video, Powell was not happy to explore this line of questioning. (He’s also never shown any inclination to find out who purportedly steered him wrong; when asked by Barbara Walters who was responsible for the mistakes in the overall presentation, Powell stated, “I don’t have the names.”)
As mentioned above, the State Department’s intelligence staff, called the INR, prepared two memos on the presentation. They directly contradicted Powell on the aluminum tubes issue, but also warned him many of his claims were “weak,” “not credible,” or “highly questionable.” Here are some of the examples the memos give.
Powell at the U.N.:
POWELL: We know that Saddam’s son, Qusay, ordered the removal of all prohibited weapons from Saddam’s numerous palace complexes.
The first INR memo, from January 29, 2003, flagged this claim as “WEAK”:
second bullet. WEAK. Qusay order to remove prohibited items from palaces.
Powell at the U.N.:
POWELL: [K]ey files from military and scientific establishments have been placed in cars that are being driven around the countryside by Iraqi intelligence agents to avoid detection.
last bullet. WEAK. Sensitive files being driven around in cars, in apparent shell game. Plausibility open to question.
This claim was again flagged in the second INR memo, from February 3, 2003:
Page 4, last bullet, re key files being driven around in cars to avoid inspectors. This claim is highly questionable and promises to be targeted by critics and possibly UN inspection officials as well.
Powell at the U.N:
POWELL: [W]e know from sources that a missile brigade outside Baghdad was disbursing [sic] rocket launchers and warheads containing biological warfare agents to various locations, distributing them to various locations in western Iraq.
last bullet. WEAK. Missiles with biological warheads reportedly dispersed. This would be somewhat true in terms of short-range missiles with conventional warheads, but is questionable in terms of longer-range missiles or biological warheads.
Page 5. first para, claim re missile brigade dispersing rocket launchers and BW warheads. This claim too is highly questionable and might be subjected to criticism by UN inspection officials.
At the U.N., Powell described a satellite picture this way:
The two arrows indicate the presence of sure signs that the bunkers are storing chemical munitions…The truck you […] see is a signature item. It’s a decontamination vehicle in case something goes wrong.
***/WEAK. We support much of this discussion, but we note that decontamination vehicles–cited several times in the text–are water trucks that can have legitimate uses……Iraq has given UNMOVIC what may be a plausible account for this activity–that this was an exercise involving the movement of conventional explosives; presence of a fire safety truck (water truck, which could also be used as a decontamination vehicle) is common in such an event.
Powell at the U.N.:
POWELL: These are facts, corroborated by many sources, some of them sources of the intelligence services of other countries.
Numerous references to humint as fact. (E.g., “We know that…) We have been told that some are being adjusted, but we gather some others — such as information involving multiple-corroboration – will stay…In the Iraq context, “multiple corroboration” hardly guarantees authenticity of information.
Powell at the U.N.:
POWELL: [I]n mid-December weapons experts at one facility were replaced by Iraqi intelligence agents who were to deceive inspectors about the work that was being done there.
last bullet. **/WEAK. Iraqi intelligence officials posing as WMD scientists. Such claims are not credible and are open to criticism, particularly by the UN inspectorates.
Powell at the U.N.:
POWELL: A dozen [WMD] experts have been placed under house arrest, not in their own houses, but as a group at one of Saddam Hussein’s guest houses.
second bullet. WEAK. 12 experts reportedly under house arrest… Highly questionable.
Powell at the U.N.:
POWELL: UAVs outfitted with spray tanks constitute an ideal method for launching a terrorist attack using biological weapons.
… the claim that experts agree UAVs fitted with spray tanks are “an ideal method for launching a terrorist attack using biological weapons” is WEAK.
Now, with that for context, it’s useful to look back at what Powell said in a November, 2005 interview with Barbara Walters:
There was 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.
That can be contrasted with this October 2003 exchange from 60 Minutes II with Greg Thielmann, who headed the Office of Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Issues in the INR until September 2002:
PELLEY: If the secretary took the information that his own intelligence bureau had developed and turned it on its head, which is what you’re saying, to what end?
THIELMANN: 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.
Clearly, Powell’s loyalty to Bush extended to being willing to deceive the world: the United Nations, Americans, and the coalition troops about to be sent to kill and die in Iraq. He’s never been held accountable for his actions, and it’s extremely unlikely he ever will be.