Lacking the backbone to stand up to Dick Cheney when it counted, Powell betrayed the world and participated in the deaths of hundreds of thousands
Colin Powell is dead. The 84-year-old former Secretary of State, former National Security Advisor, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff succumbed to Covid-19 while battling multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow.
Predictably, the mainstream media self-flagellated over the loss of this “hero-statesman.”
The Washington Post published an editorial about how the current Republican party is no longer the party of Colin Powell. (It never was.) Another Post op-ed said that Americans just don’t trust anybody today the way they trusted Powell. Yet another lamented the fact that he had not run for President against Bill Clinton in 1996.
Just imagine it, the Washington swells said: Powell in 1996 would have meant no impeachment, which would have neutered Newt Gingrich. It would have meant no 2000 Florida recount, no Cheney as Vice President, and no Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.
Powell was a “supernova” in the 1990s, the Post said, closely resembling Dwight Eisenhower as the one military man who could unite the country.
But all of that is nonsense, isn’t it?
Like most Americans, I personally liked Colin Powell in the 1990s. As a CIA officer, I had occasion to deal with him a number of times. He was unfailingly polite, intellectual, and highly respected by those around him. But let’s be honest. He was a pretty typical neocon Republican.
In 2014, the Clinton Presidential Library released 10,000 pages of documents, including 34 pages of handwritten notes, detailing the internal debate in 1993 over whether to allow openly gay people in the military. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” debate was highly newsworthy at the time, and it pitted the new president against his military advisors.
Powell, who was a four-star general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, said, “Homo(sexuality) is a problem for us.” “Sodomy,” he said, was “banned by the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” and that “an absolute right to privacy for soldiers in such close quarters simply does not exist.” Thus, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was born. A decade later, Powell said that his position had been a mistake.
Powell over the years has said that his greatest regret was advocating at the United Nations for military action against Iraq when he knew full well that that country did not possess weapons of mass destruction.
I was serving at the time as Executive Assistant to the CIA’s Deputy Director for Operations. My job was to coordinate the CIA’s response to the White House’s demands for support in the upcoming war against Iraq.
I can tell you that Powell was personally opposed to the war, as many of us were. But he did not have the backbone to stand up to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and say, “This is wrong. It will cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. I won’t be a part of it. I resign.”
Instead, when told that it would be he who would go to the UN to make the case for war, Powell saluted and said, “Yes, sir.” That’s not leadership.
I had a personal experience with Powell that has bothered me for many years. In 2003, while working in that Executive Assistant position, I had occasion to go CIA Headquarters one Sunday evening around 10:00. I did this every Sunday because I had to go through so much cable traffic—as many as 10,000 cables a day—that I didn’t have time to do it on Monday mornings.
I had to be at my desk every morning at 3:45 to prepare to brief the CIA Director at 7:00, so I had a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat. On this particular Sunday night in January 2003, I went to the CIA’s Operations Center to pick up my hard-copy cables. When I walked in, I saw Powell sitting at a small conference room table.
“What’s Powell doing here?” I asked the duty officer. “He’s going through our changes to the State of the Union address,” was the response. (CIA analysts always get a few days to comment on the upcoming State of the Union address. They make their suggestions and then send the draft back to the White House.)
In this case, the “suggestion” was to remove any reference to the Iraqis allegedly trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger in furtherance of a nuclear weapons program. It simply had never happened. CIA analysts knew it was a lie. The language was in the original State of the Union draft, CIA analysts had taken it out, and Powell was putting it back in.
A few nights later, when George W. Bush gave his State of the Union address, he said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” That was simply untrue, and Powell knew it. We can’t blame everything on Dick Cheney.
On a human level, I’m sorry that Colin Powell is dead. I hope that his death from Covid, after being vaccinated, doesn’t cause vaccine doubters to skip the shots. I understand how popular he was, especially when Bush-era nostalgia began to set in during the Trump Administration.
But let’s not deify this flawed leader. The mistakes he made cost thousands of people their lives. It’s only when we understand this that we can learn from his mistakes.
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About the Author
John Kiriakou was a CIA analyst and case officer from 1990 to 2004.
In December 2007, John was the first U.S. government official to confirm that waterboarding was used to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners, a practice he described as torture.
Kiriakou was a former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former counter-terrorism consultant. While employed with the CIA, he was involved in critical counter-terrorism missions following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but refused to be trained in so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” nor did he ever authorize or engage in such crimes.
After leaving the CIA, Kiriakou appeared on ABC News in an interview with Brian Ross, during which he became the first former CIA officer to confirm the existence of the CIA’s torture program. Kiriakou’s interview revealed that this practice was not just the result of a few rogue agents, but was official U.S. policy approved at the highest levels of the government.
Kiriakou is the sole CIA agent to go to jail in connection with the U.S. torture program, despite the fact that he never tortured anyone. Rather, he blew the whistle on this horrific wrongdoing.