Colin Powell's Career-Ruining UN Testimony
10:00 GMT 05.02.2023 (Updated: 17:41 GMT 06.03.2023)
© AP Photo / Elise Amendola / The image seen round the world of Secretary of State Colin Powell and his mock vial of anthrax,which he held up during a presentation before the UN on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction program, February 5, 2003.
© AP Photo / Elise Amendola /
Once upon a time, Colin Powell was positioned to be the first African American President of the United States.
The journey of a man once considered to be the most respected person in America from a position where the Presidency of America was his for the taking, to being discredited as a liar and fabricator responsible for leading America to a failed war in Iraq, goes through the United Nations Security Council where, on February 5, 2003, Powell delivered an address that was intended to make the case for an American invasion of Iraq.
As junior officer in the Marine Corps in the 1980s, I only knew Colin Powell by reputation. When I joined the On-Site Inspection Agency in 1988, I was part of a team of inspectors implementing a landmark arms control agreement, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which Powell, as the National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan, shepherded through the negotiations leading up to the treaty being signed, in December 1987, and through eventual ratification by the US Senate, in May 1988. I was part of a team of OSIA officers who were tasked with providing briefings to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the spring of 1988, and I recall passing Colin Powell as we made our way to the Senate secure conference room.
Generals who worked directly for the President of the United States tend to impress young Lieutenants that way.
My next interaction with Colin Powell was during Operation Desert Storm, in January 1991. I was a junior intelligence officer of the staff of General Norman Schwarzkopf, the Commander of US Central Command. We were two weeks into the war, and the coalition assembled by President George H. W. Bush to evict Iraq from Kuwait was being threatened by the possibility of Israel entering the war. Iraq was firing indigenously modified SCUD missiles into Israel, and the inability of the coalition to prevent these attacks was causing Israel to threaten to intervene and get the job done itself.
There was tremendous pressure on General Schwarzkopf to kill SCUDs, and the US Air Force had diverted thousands of sorties to western Iraq to accomplish that task. In late January, one of these sorties, flown by F-15 Strike Eagles, attacked a convoy of vehicles it claimed were SCUD missiles. The video tape of that strike was forwarded to Central Command Headquarters, in Riyadh, where US Air Force officers excitedly briefed General Schwarzkopf on the results — seven confirmed SCUD kills.
Eager to assuage Israeli concerns, Schwarzkopf held a press conference where he and the US Air Force component commander, Brigadier General “Buster” Glosson, played the tape while proudly proclaiming the US success in targeting and destroying Iraqi SCUDs.
There was just one problem — me. I was the battle damage analyst responsible for making the call on intelligence-based claims of SCUD kills, and my review of the Air Force tapes showed that what were being claimed as SCUDs were actually oil tankers, most probably sanction busters coming out of Jordan. The morning after General Schwarzkopf’s briefing, I prepared the official report on SCUD kills, and where it said “confirmed kills,” I put down “0.”
Soon after I submitted the report, I was confronted by a Colonel on Schwarzkopf’s staff, who asked me to “correct” the report. I told him the number was correct.
“When the Commanding General goes on record saying that seven Iraqi SCUDs were killed,” the Colonel said, “the report produced by his staff had better reflect those numbers.”
© AP Photo / Greg GibsonChairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell points to Iraqi airbases that have shown some activity in the last few day at a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 1991 in Washington.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell points to Iraqi airbases that have shown some activity in the last few day at a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 1991 in Washington.
© AP Photo / Greg Gibson
I refused to change the report, noting that in my capacity as the officer responsible for ascertaining the accuracy of the numbers contained in the report, I could not claim seven kills when I knew that the number was zero.
I was fired on the spot.
Before I was escorted out of the bunker, I passed a copy of my report, together with a written analysis of why I believed the number to be zero, to the senior Defense Intelligence Agency representative in Central Command. He forwarded the report to Washington, DC, where it ended up on the desk of Colin Powell, who at that time was serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The long and short of it was that Colin Powell backed me up. He had my report assessed by DIA analysts, who backed up my analysis. While General Schwarzkopf refused to change the numbers, I did get my job back.
Colin Powell also had my back while serving as a weapons inspector with the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), overseeing the elimination of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In the fall of 1991, the CIA made a concerted effort to remove from the ranks of UNSCOM three Americans who were “tainted” with the INF inspection experience. According to the CIA, the three persons, including myself, were “too soft” on Iraq because we insisted in following the letter of the law when it came to our mandate to inspect (similar to complying with the letter of the law while implementing the INF treaty.)
The matter reached the desk of Colin Powell, who immediately quashed the effort.
In September 1998, I finally had a chance to meet Colin Powell in person, during a conference in Aspen, Colorado organized by Teddy Forstmann, the CEO of Forstmann & Little, a major investment management company. Both Colin Powell and I were featured speakers at this event. We had a long conversation over breakfast, and then at lunch, where I was interviewed by Charlie Rose, Powell joined Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger in rising to his feet to openly praise me as “a great American.”
20 March 2022, 21:42 GMT
It remains one of the highlights of my life.
Later, when we found ourselves on opposing sides in the leadup to the US invasion of Iraq, Colin Powell remained a class act, refusing to engage in the tactics of character assassination used by other Bush administration officials when trying to refute my claims that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction worthy of a US-led war.
No amount of good feeling and positive past history, however, could repair the damage Colin Powell did to his reputation in my eyes when he presented himself before the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003, and made a case for war that was composed entirely of lies, distortions, and fabrications.
© AP Photo / Elise Amendola / U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council. (File)
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council. (File)
© AP Photo / Elise Amendola /
In my experience, Colin Powell had always represented the personification of a man of character who would always do the right thing.
But as I watched him spout lie after lie, I immediately saw him for what he truly was—an inadequate man who proved unworthy of the responsibilities given him.
Colin Powell had once said that his experience in Vietnam taught him that those in positions of power and authority could never again allow lies to shape policy when the lives of American servicemembers was on the line.
On that day, February 5, 2003, Colin Powell put the lie to that statement.
He failed the American people.
He failed the world.
He failed himself.
The man who could have been the first African American President had instead transformed into just another person of weak character, unable to put it all on the line when it mattered most to protect the lives of those whom he was sworn to serve.