Behind Colin Powell's Legend
by Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
On a sunny autumn afternoon, Sept. 25,
1995, hundreds lined up on a sidewalk in San Francisco to grab
a glimpse of a national icon.
Indoors, dozens of reporters and photographers
packed into a room baking under the hot lights of television cameras.
An electricity filled the air, as if the
crowd were waiting for a TV actor or a rock star, some super-hot
celebrity. In a sense, they were. That day, on a mega-successful
book tour, retired General Colin L. Powell was scheduled to answer
a few questions and sign a few hundred books.
Preparations for the news conference were
going smoothly, too, until two minutes before Powell was to appear.
Then, the bookstore managers fell into
in a small panic over an intruder who was holding forth at the
back of the room.
"How did he get here?" one manager
asked the other.
"I don't know," the other answered.
"I don't know how he got in here."
"He slipped in," said the first.
Their fretting focused on a middle-aged
man in a wheelchair who was speaking to a cluster of reporters.
He was hunched inside his silvery metal contraption. His jeans-clad
legs dangled as if inert. His clothes were tidy but informal.
His thinning hair was slightly unkempt.
The man spoke quietly, at a deliberate
pace. He paused occasionally to search for and capture an elusive
word. The reporters, most younger than he was, leaned over him
with microphones and note pads. They seemed intrigued, but uncertain
of his news value.
The bookstore managers did not have a
quick solution to the intrusion, so they drifted back to their
anticipation of Powell's arrival. "I have so much respect
for this man," bubbled the store's director of sales.
The Hero Arrives
Moments later, San Francisco's mayor swept
into the room. A wave of excitement followed as Colin Powell arrived
and strode to the rostrum. He was the picture of confident authority,
in his wire-rim executive-style glasses, a well-tailored pinstripe
black business suit, a crisp pastel-blue shirt, a tasteful burgundy
The mayor pumped Powell's hand and proclaimed
a formal welcome for the first African-American to serve as chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Reporters competed to toss some
softball questions that the general smoothly swatted over the
fence. Powell offered only a well-rehearsed glimpse into his private
"Writing the book," the retired
general explained about My American Journey, "you learn a
lot about yourself, you learn a lot about your family, you learn
a lot about people who helped you along the way that you have
forgotten about. So, it was very introspective for me, and I came
away with a deeper appreciation of my own family roots, but an
even greater appreciation of the nation we live in, the society
we are a part of, and a faith in this society that I hope, as
a result of this book and whatever I might do in the future, faith
that I hope we can continue to pass on to new generations."
The second query was a self-help question
about race: "What do you say to all the kids from all the
Bronxes around this country who say, 'race is a stumbling block,
poverty is a stumbling block?'"
"Race is a problem," Powell
responded firmly. "Let it be someone else's problem. What
you have to do is do your very best, study, work hard, believe
in yourself, believe in your country."
As the news conference rolled on, Powell
showed off the qualities that had set so many political hearts
aflutter in fall 1995. But Powell encountered some friction when
he started explaining why Americans were dazzled by the military
again, a quarter century after the disastrous Vietnam War.
"Why that comes about," Powell
said, "because of the superb performance of the armed forces
of the United States in recent conflicts, beginning with the,
I think, Panama invasion, and then through Desert Shield and Storm.
And Americans saw that these young men and women were competent,
proud, clean, patriotic, and they kind of fell in love with them
again. And so it's not so much I think what--"
The voice from the back of the room suddenly
broke in, an accusatory voice belonging to the man in the wheelchair.
"You didn't tell the truth about the war in the Gulf, general,"
the man shouted.
Powell first tried to ignore the interruption,
but the man persisted, hectoring Powell about the tens of thousands
of civilian dead in the wars in Panama and Iraq, conflicts that
brought Powell his national fame. Finally, Powell responded with
a patronizing tone, but he called the dissenter by name.
"Hi, Ron, how are you? Excuse me,
let me answer one question if I may."
"But why don't you tell them, why
don't you tell them why--"
"The fact of the matter is--"
"I think the American people are
reflecting on me the glory that really belongs to those troops,"
Powell continued, brushing aside the interruption.
Then, Ron Kovic's voice could be heard
only in snippets beneath Powell's amplified voice. "General,
let me speak--"
"I think what you're seeing is a
reflection on me of what those young men and women have done in
Panama, in Desert Storm, in a number of other places--"
"A hundred-and-fifty-thousand people,
"So it's very, it's very rewarding
to see this change in attitude toward the military. It's not just
Colin Powell, rock star. It's all of those wonderful men and women
who do such a great job."
Born on the Fourth
Ron Kovic, a veteran of the Vietnam War,
a soldier paralyzed in combat, was one of the few dissident voices
at the bookstore that day. Kovic, author of the autobiography,
Born on the Fourth of July, which was later made into a movie,
tried to warn reporters not to swallow Powell-mania.
As Powell moved off to sign copies of
his own book and the reporters began to depart, too, Kovic pleaded,
"Colin Powell is not the answer. He sets a very dangerous
precedent for this country."
From his wheelchair, Kovic had struggled
to make that case. "I want the American people to know what
the general hid from the American public during the Gulf War,"
Kovic said. "They hid the casualties. They hid the horror.
They hid the violence. We don't need any more violence in our
country. We need leaders who represent cooperation. We need leadership
that represents peace. We need leaders that understand the tragedy
of using violence in solving our problems. We have enough violence
in this country."
To Kovic, Powell lacked a truly critical
eye toward war.
"Did Colin Powell really learn the
lessons of the Vietnam War? Did he learn that the war was immoral?
I think that he learned another lesson. He learned to be more
violent, to be more ruthless. And I've come as a counterbalance
to that today. I've come as an alternative voice. And I think
I speak for many, many people in this country when I say that
General Colin Powell is a detriment to democracy; he's a danger
to our Constitution; he's a danger to our democracy."
Kovic tried to persuade the journalists
that the United States should confront its Cold War past, the
way other nations, both right-wing and left-wing, have begun to
"America has got to go through its
own perestroika, its own glasnost," Kovic continued. "I
came down today because I just can't allow this to continue --
this honeymoon, this love affair with someone who was part of
a policy which hurt so many human beings."
But few Americans listened to the advice
of Ron Kovic that day or since. Hundreds of thousands bought Powell's
1995 memoirs, My American Journey, and the national press corps
accorded the retired general near-unanimous acclaim. Besides being
a hero for his accomplishments as the first black American to
lead the nation into war, Powell became the most celebrated U.S.
military officer since Dwight Eisenhower.
In the early days of the 1996 presidential
campaign, journalists pined openly for Powell's candidacy. Liberals
and centrists saw Powell as a role model for young blacks. Many
conservatives admired Powell's success despite his humble origins.
What slight criticism there was came mostly from the far right
because of Powell's avowal that he was a "Rockefeller Republican"
who supported abortion rights and affirmative action.
Still, what about Kovic's questions? What
is Colin Powell's unvarnished record?
What did Powell do in Vietnam? What was
his role in the Iran-contra scandal? How did he rise so smoothly
as a black man in a white-dominated Republican national security
establishment? Were Powell's victories in Panama and Iraq excessively
violent and insufficiently concerned with civilian dead?
These are questions perhaps even more
relevant today as Colin Powell stands as President-elect George
W. Bush's first Cabinet choice, the man who would be the nation's
first African-American secretary of state. Given Bush's inexperience
in foreign affairs, the former general likely will wield broad
power over U.S. foreign policy.
Many Americans see Colin Powell as a reassuring
figure on the national stage. Yet, the accolades have prevented
any balanced analysis of his positives and his negatives. Indeed,
Powell's legend has created its own mystery.
Drawing from the available public record,
including Powell's own memoirs, this series will address that
mystery. Who is Colin Powell?
On Jan. 17, 1963, in South Vietnam's monsoon
season, U.S. Army Capt. Colin Powell jumped from a military helicopter
into a densely forested combat zone of the A Shau Valley, not
far from the Laotian border.
Carrying an M-2 carbine, Capt. Powell
was starting his first -- and only -- combat assignment. He was
the new adviser to a 400-man unit of the Army of the Republic
of Vietnam (ARVN). Across jungle terrain, these South Vietnamese
government troops were arrayed against a combined force of North
Vietnamese regulars and local anti-government guerrillas known
as the Viet Cong.
The 25-year-old Powell was arriving at
a pivotal moment in the Vietnam War. To forestall a communist
victory, President John F. Kennedy had dispatched teams of Green
Beret advisers to assist the ARVN, a force suffering from poor
discipline, ineffective tactics and bad morale.
Already, many U.S. advisers, most notably
the legendary Col. John Paul Vann, were voicing concerns about
the ARVN's brutality toward civilians. Vann feared that the dominant
counterinsurgency strategy of destroying rural villages and forcibly
relocating inhabitants while hunting down enemy forces was driving
the people into the arms of the Viet Cong.
But as Colin Powell arrived, he was untainted
by these worries. He was a gung-ho young Army officer with visions
of glory. He brimmed with trust in the wisdom of his superiors.
Capt. Powell also felt the deepest sympathy for the ARVN troops
under his command, but only a cold contempt for the enemy.
Soon after his arrival, Powell and his
ARVN unit left for a protracted patrol that fought leeches as
well as Viet Cong ambushes. From the soggy jungle brush, the Viet
Cong would strike suddenly against the advancing government soldiers.
Often invisible to Powell and his men, the VC would inflict a
few casualties and slip back into the jungles.
In My American Journey, Powell recounted
his reaction when he spotted his first dead Viet Cong. "He
lay on his back, gazing up at us with sightless eyes," Powell
wrote. "I felt nothing, certainly not sympathy. I had seen
too much death and suffering on our side to care anything about
what happened on theirs."
While success against the armed enemy
was rare, Powell's ARVN unit punished the civilian population
systematically. As the soldiers marched through mountainous jungle,
they destroyed the food and the homes of the region's Montagnards,
who were suspected of sympathizing with the Viet Cong. Old women
would cry hysterically as their ancestral homes and worldly possessions
were consumed by fire.
"We burned down the thatched huts,
starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters," Powell
recalled. "Why were we torching houses and destroying crops?
Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his
guerrillas swam. ... We tried to solve the problem by making the
whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference
did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?"
For nearly six months, Powell and his
ARVN unit slogged through the jungles, searching for Viet Cong
and destroying villages.
Then while on one patrol, Powell fell
victim to a Viet Cong booby trap. He stepped on a punji stake,
a dung-poisoned bamboo spear that had been buried in the ground.
The stake pierced Powell's boot and quickly infected the young
soldier's right foot. The foot swelled, turned purple and forced
his evacuation by helicopter to Hue for treatment.
Although Powell's recovery from the foot
infection was swift, his combat days were over. He stayed in Hue,
reassigned to the operations staff of ARVN division headquarters.
As part of his work, he handled intelligence data and oversaw
a local airfield. By late autumn 1963, Powell's first Vietnam
On his return to the United States, Powell
did not join Vann and other early American advisers in warning
the nation about the self-defeating counterinsurgency strategies.
In 1963, Vann carried his prescient concerns back to a Pentagon
that was not ready to listen to doubters. Then, when his objections
fell on deaf ears, Vann resigned his commission and sacrificed
a promising military career.
In contrast, Powell recognized that his
early service in Vietnam put him on a fast track for military
success. He signed up for a nine-month Infantry Officer Advanced
Course that trained company commanders. In May 1965, Powell finished
third in a class of 200 and was the top-ranked infantryman. A
year later, he became an instructor.
In 1966, as the numbers of U.S. servicemen
in Vietnam swelled, Powell received a promotion to major, making
him a field-grade officer before his 30th birthday. In 1968, Powell
continued to impress his superiors by graduating second in his
class at Fort Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College,
a prestigious school regarded as an essential way station for
future Army generals.
Recognizing Powell as an emerging "water-walker"
who needed more seasoning in the field, the Army dispatched Powell
to a command position back in Vietnam. But on his second tour,
Powell would not be slogging through remote jungles. On July 27,
1968, he arrived at an outpost at Duc Pho to serve as an executive
Then, to the north, at the Americal headquarters
in Chu Lai, division commander Maj. Gen. Charles Gettys saw a
favorable mention of Powell in the Army Times. Gettys plucked
Powell from Duc Pho and installed him on the general's own staff
at Chu Lai.
Gettys jumped the young major ahead of
more senior officers and made him the G-3 officer in charge of
operations and planning. The appointment made "me the only
major filling that role in Vietnam," Powell wrote in his
But history again was awaiting Colin Powell.
The Americal Division was already deep into some of the cruelest
fighting of the Vietnam War. The "drain-the-sea" strategy
that Powell had witnessed near the Laotian border continued to
lead American forces into harsh treatment of Vietnamese civilians.
Though it was still a secret when Powell
arrived at Chu Lai, Americal troops had committed an act that
would stain forever the reputation of the U.S. Army. As Major
Powell settled into his new assignment, a scandal was waiting
On March 16, 1968, a bloodied unit of
the Americal division stormed into a hamlet known as My Lai 4.
With military helicopters circling overhead, revenge-seeking American
soldiers rousted Vietnamese civilians -- mostly old men, women
and children -- from their thatched huts and herded them into
the village's irrigation ditches.
As the round-up continued, some Americans
raped the girls. Then, under orders from junior officers on the
ground, soldiers began emptying their M-16s into the terrified
peasants. Some parents used their bodies futilely to shield their
children from the bullets. Soldiers stepped among the corpses
to finish off the wounded.
The slaughter raged for four hours. A
total of 347 Vietnamese, including babies, died in the carnage.
But there also were American heroes that day in My Lai. Some soldiers
refused to obey the direct orders to kill and some risked their
lives to save civilians from the murderous fire.
A pilot named Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr.
from Stone Mountain, Ga., was furious at the killings he saw happening
on the ground. He landed his helicopter between one group of fleeing
civilians and American soldiers in pursuit.
Thompson ordered his helicopter door gunner
to shoot the Americans if they tried to harm the Vietnamese. After
a tense confrontation, the soldiers backed off. Later, two of
Thompson's men climbed into one ditch filled with corpses and
pulled out a three-year-old boy whom they flew to safety.
Several months later, the Americal's brutality
would become a moral test for Major Powell, too.
A letter had been written by a young specialist
fourth class named Tom Glen, who had served in an Americal mortar
platoon and was nearing the end of his Army tour. In the letter
to Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander of all U.S. forces in
Vietnam, Glen accused the Americal division of routine brutality
Glen's letter was forwarded to the Americal
headquarters at Chu Lai where it landed on Major Powell's desk.
"The average GI's attitude toward
and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete
denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm
of human relations," Glen wrote.
"Far beyond merely dismissing the
Vietnamese as 'slopes' or 'gooks,' in both deed and thought, too
many American soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and
with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations,
both psychological and physical, that can have only a debilitating
effect upon efforts to unify the people in loyalty to the Saigon
government, particularly when such acts are carried out at unit
levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy."
Glen's letter contended that many Vietnamese
were fleeing from Americans who "for mere pleasure, fire
indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation
or justification shoot at the people themselves." Gratuitous
cruelty was also being inflicted on Viet Cong suspects, Glen reported.
"Fired with an emotionalism that
belies unconscionable hatred, and armed with a vocabulary consisting
of 'You VC,' soldiers commonly 'interrogate' by means of torture
that has been presented as the particular habit of the enemy.
Severe beatings and torture at knife point are usual means of
questioning captives or of convincing a suspect that he is, indeed,
a Viet Cong. ...
"It would indeed be terrible to find
it necessary to believe that an American soldier that harbors
such racial intolerance and disregard for justice and human feeling
is a prototype of all American national character; yet the frequency
of such soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs. ...
"What has been outlined here I have
seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have worked
with, and I fear it is universal. If this is indeed the case,
it is a problem which cannot be overlooked, but can through a
more firm implementation of the codes of MACV (Military Assistance
Command Vietnam) and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated."
In 1995, when we questioned Glen about
his letter, he said he had heard second-hand about the My Lai
massacre, though he did not mention it specifically. The massacre
was just one part of the abusive pattern that had become routine
in the division, he said.
The letter's troubling allegations were
not well received at Americal headquarters.
Major Powell undertook the assignment
to review Glen's letter, but did so without questioning Glen or
assigning anyone else to talk with him. Powell simply accepted
a claim from Glen's superior officer that Glen was not close enough
to the front lines to know what he was writing about, an assertion
After that cursory investigation, Powell
drafted a response on Dec. 13, 1968. He admitted to no pattern
of wrongdoing. Powell claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were
taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully. The Americal
troops also had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat
prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Powell noted.
"There may be isolated cases of mistreatment
of civilians and POWs," Powell wrote in 1968. But "this
by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division."
Indeed, Powell's memo faulted Glen for not complaining earlier
and for failing to be more specific in his letter.
"In direct refutation of this [Glen's]
portrayal," Powell concluded, "is the fact that relations
between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
Powell's findings, of course, were false,
though they were exactly what his superiors wanted to hear.
It would take another Americal hero, an
infantryman named Ron Ridenhour, to piece together the truth about
the atrocity at My Lai. After returning to the United States,
Ridenhour interviewed Americal comrades who had participated in
On his own, Ridenhour compiled this shocking
information into a report and forwarded it to the Army inspector
general. The IG's office conducted an aggressive official investigation,
in marked contrast to Powell's review.
Confirming Ridenhour's report, the Army
finally faced the horrible truth. Courts martial were held against
officers and enlisted men who were implicated in the murder of
the My Lai civilians.
But Powell's peripheral role in the My
Lai cover-up did not slow his climb up the Army's ladder. After
the scandal broke, Powell pleaded ignorance about the actual My
Luckily for Powell, Glen's letter also
disappeared into the National Archives -- to be unearthed only
years later by British journalists Michael Bilton and Kevin Sims
for their book, Four Hours in My Lai.
In his best-selling memoirs, Powell did
not mention his brush-off of Tom Glen's complaint.
Powell did include, however, another troubling
recollection that belied his 1968 official denial of Glen's allegation
that American soldiers "without provocation or justification
shoot at the people themselves."
After a brief mention of the My Lai massacre
in My American Journey, Powell penned a partial justification
of the Americal's brutality. In a chilling passage, Powell explained
the routine practice of murdering unarmed male Vietnamese.
"I recall a phrase we used in the
field, MAM, for military-age male," Powell wrote. "If
a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely
suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in
front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of
hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him.
"Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion
commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany],
Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while
observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of
many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine
perceptions of right and wrong."
While it's certainly true that combat
is brutal and judgments can be clouded by fear, the mowing down
of unarmed civilians in cold blood does not constitute combat.
It is murder and, indeed, a war crime.
Neither can the combat death of a fellow
soldier be cited as an excuse to murder civilians. Disturbingly,
that was precisely the rationalization that the My Lai killers
cited in their own defense.
But returning home from Vietnam a second
time in 1969, Powell already had begun to prove himself the consummate
team player. Those skills were tested again when Powell was drawn
into another Vietnam controversy involving the killing of civilians.
In a court martial proceeding, Powell
sided with an Americal Division general who was accused by the
Army of murdering unarmed civilians while flying over Quang Ngai
province. Helicopter pilots who flew Brig. Gen. John W. Donaldson
had alleged that the general gunned down civilian Vietnamese almost
In an interview, a senior investigator
from the Donaldson case told us that two of the Vietnamese victims
were an old man and an old woman who were shot to death while
bathing. Though long retired -- and quite elderly himself -- the
Army investigator still spoke with a raw disgust about the events
of a quarter century earlier. He requested anonymity before talking
about the behavior of senior Americal officers.
"They used to bet in the morning
how many people they could kill -- old people, civilians, it didn't
matter," the investigator said. "Some of the stuff would
curl your hair."
For eight months in Chu Lai during 1968-69,
Powell had worked with Donaldson and apparently developed a great
respect for this superior officer.
When the Army charged Donaldson with murder
on June 2, 1971, Powell rose in the general's defense. Powell
submitted an affidavit dated Aug. 10, 1971, which lauded Donaldson
as "an aggressive and courageous brigade commander."
Powell did not specifically refer to the
murder allegations, but added that helicopter forays in Vietnam
had been an "effective means of separating hostiles from
the general population."
Powell apparently was questioned by Army
authorities about his knowledge of Donaldson's alleged atrocities.
But his answers may be lost to history. In his memoirs, Powell
provides a brief -- and incorrect -- description of the 1971 interview
in the context of the My Lai massacre.
"I was serving in the Washington
area, and was called to appear before a board of inquiry conducted
by Lt. Gen. William Ray Peers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia,"
Powell wrote. "The board wanted me to give a picture of fighting
conditions in the Batangan Peninsula in 1968 [where the My Lai
massacre had occurred]. I knew it had been a hellhole, a rough
piece of territory inhabited by VC sympathizers."
Powell's account of the interview is itself
a bit of a mystery. While it's true that in 1971, a commission
headed by Gen. Peers was investigating the My Lai cover-up, all
the Peers interviews were conducted at the Pentagon, not at Fort
Also, by 1971, the Army knew a great deal
about the "fighting conditions in the Batangan Peninsula"
and would not need the opinion of an officer who arrived months
after the My Lai massacre. Further, when we examined the Peers
Commission records at the National Archives branch at Suitland,
Md., we found no indication that Colin Powell ever had been interviewed
by the board.
There was, however, an investigation at
Fort Belvoir conducted in the same time frame by the Army's criminal
investigation unit. It was examining the murder allegations against
Powell's friend, Gen. Donaldson.
The retired Army investigator told us
that Powell was questioned in that case. But the investigator
said Powell volunteered little knowledge about the atrocities.
The investigator doubted that any record was made of the interview.
Nevertheless, the investigator claimed
that "we had him [Donaldson] dead to rights," with the
testimony of two helicopter pilots who had flown Donaldson on
his shooting expeditions. Still, the investigation collapsed after
the two pilot-witnesses were transferred to another Army base
and apparently came under pressure from military superiors.
The two pilots withdrew their testimony,
and the Army dropped all charges against Donaldson. "John
Donaldson was a cover-up specialist," the old investigator
While thousands of other Vietnam veterans
joined the anti-war movement and denounced the brutality of the
war, Powell held his tongue. To this day, Powell has avoided criticizing
the Vietnam War other than to complain that the politicians should
not have restrained the military high command.
With the My Lai cloud dissipated, Major
Powell's career advanced smartly. Powell often says he learned
many lessons from Vietnam. One lesson he doesn't mention is that
a military bureaucrat succeeds best by sidestepping controversy
and keeping quiet when superiors screw up.
As the years unfolded, that proved to
be a very valuable lesson indeed.
Powell's Second Scandal
The middle years of Colin Powell's military
career - bordered roughly by the twin debacles of My Lai and Iran-contra
- were a time for networking and advancement.
The Army footed the bill for Powell's
masters degree in business at George Washington University. He
won a promotion to lieutenant colonel and a prized White House
fellowship that put him inside Richard Nixon's White House.
Powell's work with Nixon's Office of Management
and Budget brought Powell to the attention of senior Nixon aides,
Frank Carlucci and Caspar Weinberger, who soon became Powell's
mentors. The high-powered contacts would prove invaluable to Powell
through the 1970s and 1980s as the personable young officer rose
swiftly through the ranks.
When Ronald Reagan swept to victory in
1980, Powell's allies -- Weinberger and Carlucci -- took over
the Defense Department as secretary of defense and deputy secretary
of defense, respectively. When they arrived at the Pentagon, Powell,
then a full colonel, was there to greet them.
But before Powell could move to the top
echelons of the U.S. military, he needed to earn his first general's
star. That required a few command assignments in the field. So,
under Carlucci's sponsorship, Powell received brief assignments
at Army bases in Kansas and Colorado.
By the time Powell returned to the Pentagon
in 1983, at the age of 46, he had a general's star on his shoulder.
In the parlance of the Pentagon, he was a water-walker.
On June 29, 1983, Colin Powell's spit-polished
shoes clicked through the Outer Ring power corridors of the Pentagon.
Powell was again in the terrain he knew best, his professional
home: official Washington, what he often called "Ground Zero."
He also was back to his future, once more
on the fast track to success.
But Powell had returned to an administration
courting danger. Caught up in an anti-communist crusade around
the world, President Reagan's men were engaged in brush-fire wars
against what they considered the Soviet Union's surrogates. Reagan's
operatives also were battling Democrats in Congress whom the White
House sometimes viewed as little more than Moscow's fellow-travelers.
At the Central Intelligence Agency, the
aging director William J. Casey was pressuring the Soviet Union
on all fronts, through wars that often pitted desperately poor
peasants and rival tribes against one another. Whether in Angola
or Mozambique, in Nicaragua or Guatemala, in Lebanon or Afghanistan,
Casey was spoiling for fights: to finish off the Cold War in his
While Casey plotted at CIA, the often
inattentive Ronald Reagan snapped to when battlefield maps were
put before him, with pins representing Nicaraguan contras outmaneuvering
other pins for forces loyal to Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista
government. Reagan, the onetime war-movie actor, and Casey, the
onetime World War II spymaster, loved the game of international
conflict and intrigue.
But many of their fiercest battles were
fought in Washington. Liberal Democrats, led by old political
war-horse, House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, thought
that Reagan and Casey were overly zealous, maybe even a bit crazy.
Democrats, as well as some Republicans, suspected, too, that Casey,
the mumbling dissembler, was treating Congress like a fifth column,
like agents of influence slipped behind his lines to disrupt his
Still, the hub of any American military
activity -- whether overt or covert -- remained the Pentagon.
It was from the Defense Department that the special operations
units were dispatched, that the military supplies were apportioned,
that the most sensitive electronic intelligence was collected.
All these military responsibilities were vital to Casey and Reagan,
but came under the jurisdiction of Defense Secretary Weinberger.
To Casey's and Reagan's dismay, the Pentagon
brass favored greater caution when it came to offending Congress.
After all, Congress held the strings to the Pentagon's bulging
purse. Maybe Casey could blow off a senator or offend a congressman,
but the Pentagon could not detonate too many bridges to its rear.
Onto that political battlefield stepped
newly minted Brig. Gen. Colin Powell, who had been named military
assistant to Secretary Weinberger. It was a position that made
Powell the gatekeeper for the defense secretary, one of Reagan's
Top Pentagon players quickly learned that
Powell was more than Weinberger's coat holder or calendar keeper.
Powell was the "filter," the guy who saw everything
when it passed into the Secretary for action and who oversaw everything
that needed follow-up when it came out.
Powell's access to Weinberger's most sensitive
information would be a mixed blessing, however. Some of the aggressive
covert operations ordered by Reagan and managed by Casey were
spinning out of control. Like a mysterious gravitational force,
the operations were pulling in the Pentagon, whatever the reservations
of the senior generals.
Already, the Democrats were up in arms
over military construction in Honduras, which Reagan insisted
was "temporary," but which looked rather permanent.
In El Salvador, U.S. military advisers were training a brutal
army which was slaughtering political opponents and unarmed villagers
in a bloody counterinsurgency war. In Costa Rica, the U.S. embassy's
"mil-group" was a bustle of activity as Washington tried
to push neutralist Costa Rica into the Nicaraguan conflict.
Around all these initiatives were U.S.
military officers and non-commissioned trainers who were responsible
to Pentagon authority. The officers reported to the Southern
Command in Panama and "Southcom" reported to the Pentagon,
where at the end of the information flow chart sat the Secretary
of Defense and his "filter," Colin Powell.
This expanding super nova of covert operations
began to swallow the Pentagon a few months after Powell's return.
On Sept. 1, 1983, an Army civilian, William T. Golden, stumbled
onto billing irregularities at a U.S. intelligence front company
in suburban Annandale, Va., which was handling secret supplies
for Central America.
The supply operation fell under the code
name "Yellow Fruit," an ironic reference to the region's
banana republics. The billing irregularities seemed modest at
first, the doctoring of records to conceal vacation flights to
Europe. But Golden began to suspect that the corruption went deeper.
By October 1983, Yellow Fruit had turned
thoroughly rotten, and the Army began a criminal inquiry. "The
more we dig into that," Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, vice chief
of the U.S. Army, later told congressional Iran-contra investigators,
"the more we find out that it goes into agencies using money,
procuring all sorts of materiel."
Reacting to the scandal, Thurman implemented
new secret accounting procedures for supporting CIA activities.
"We have tried to do our best to tighten up our procedures,"
But the muck of the Central American operations
was oozing out elsewhere, too, as Casey recruited unsavory characters
from the region to carry out his bidding. One of the worst of
these allies was Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega, whom Casey found
useful funneling money and supplies to the Nicaraguan contras
fighting to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.
In September 1983, Powell traveled with
Weinberger on an inspection tour of Central America. On that trip,
they were accompanied by an eager Marine major from the National
Security Council staff. His name was Oliver North. "From
the moment we were airborne, he started worming his way into Weinberger's
presence," Powell wrote in My American Journey.
Powell was even more contemptuous of Noriega,
"an unappealing man, with his pockmarked face, beady, darting
eyes, and arrogant swagger," according to Powell. Meeting
Noriega, Powell claimed to have "the crawling sense that
I was in the presence of evil."
There was also intelligence that Noriega
was working with Colombian drug traffickers. Still, Powell has
made no claim that he sought Noriega's ouster from the U.S. payroll.
"Cold War politics sometimes made for creepy bedfellows,"
Powell's retrospective disdain for Noriega
also does not square with the enthusiasm some of Powell's Pentagon
friends expressed for the Panamanian at the time. Powell's pal,
Richard Armitage, the assistant defense secretary for inter-American
affairs, hosted a Washington lunch in November 1983, honoring
Noriega. "Pentagon officials greeted Noriega's rise to power
with great satisfaction," noted author John Dinges.
Noriega's visit coincided with another
growing political problem for the Reagan administration, the refusal
of an angry Congress to continue funding the contra war in Nicaragua.
The rebel force was gaining a reputation for brutality, as stories
of rapes, summary executions and massacres flowed back to Washington.
Led by Speaker O'Neill, the Democratic-controlled House capped
the CIA's contra funding at $24 million in 1983 and then moved
to ban contra aid altogether.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Reagan's
policies were encountering more trouble. Reagan had deployed Marines
as peacekeepers in Beirut, but he also authorized the USS New
Jersey to shell Islamic villages in the Bekaa Valley, an action
that killed civilians and angered the Shiite Moslems.
On Oct. 23, 1983, Islamic militants struck
back, sending a suicide truck bomber through U.S. security positions
and demolishing a high-rise Marine barracks. A total of 241 Marines
died. "When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they
assumed the American 'referee' had taken sides," Powell wrote
later, though it was not clear that he ever actively opposed the
ill-fated intervention in Lebanon.
After the bombing, U.S. Marines were withdrawn
to the USS Guam off Lebanon's coast. But Casey ordered secret
counter-terrorism operations against Islamic radicals. As retaliation,
the Shiites targeted more Americans. Another bomb destroyed the
U.S. Embassy and killed most of the CIA station.
Casey dispatched veteran CIA officer William
Buckley to fill the void. But on March 14, 1984, Buckley was spirited
off the streets of Beirut to face torture and eventually death.
The grisly scenes -- in the Middle East and in Central America
-- were set for the Iran-contra scandal.
Powell's Iran-Contra Role
Back at the Pentagon, Colin Powell might
have felt at ease in the familiar environs. But Washington was
indeed about to become "Ground Zero."
In 1984-85, as the Iran-contra storm clouds
built, one-star Gen. Colin Powell was the "filter" for
information flowing to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
After the scandal broke in 1986, Powell
managed to escape its consequences, in part, by claiming that
much of what Weinberger knew about the secret deals had not gone
through that "filter."
Powell said he knew next to nothing about
unlawful 1985 shipments of U.S. weapons from Israel to Iran --
or about illegal third-country financing of the Nicaraguan contra
But was the general lying?
The documentary record makes clear that
his boss, Weinberger, knew a great deal -- and the evidence suggests
that so did Powell.
Weinberger was one of the first officials
outside the White House to learn that Reagan had put the arm on
Saudi Arabia to give the contras $1 million a month in 1984, as
Congress was cutting off the CIA's covert assistance through what
was known as the Boland Amendment.
Handling the contra-funding arrangements
was Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar, a close friend of both Weinberger
and Powell. Bandar and Powell had met in the 1970s and were frequent
tennis partners in the 1980s.
So it was plausible -- perhaps even likely
-- that Bandar would have discussed the contra funding with Powell,
Weinberger or both. But exactly when Weinberger learned of the
Saudi contributions and what Powell knew remain unclear to this
The Iran-contra trial of Weinberger for
alleged obstruction of justice -- which was set for early 1993
and was expected to include testimony by Powell -- was derailed
by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992 when he pardoned
Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants.
What is known from the public record,
however, is that on June 20, 1984, Weinberger attended a State
Department meeting about the contra operation. His scribbled notes
cited the need to "plan for other sources for $." But
secrecy would be vital, the defense secretary understood. "Keep
US fingerprints off," he wrote.
In summer 1984, Gen. John Vessey, chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, learned from a foreign visitor about
the Saudi money for the contras. Vessey told Weinberger, who gave
Vessey the impression of surprise. "I reported it to Secretary
Weinberger," Vessey said in a deposition. "His reaction
was about the same as mine, sort of surprise first that [Saudi
Arabia] would do it."
In 1985, when the Saudis doubled their
annual contra gift from $12 million to $25 million, Vessey quickly
passed on word to Weinberger again. This time, the record is clear
that the Defense Secretary understood that the contribution to
buy weapons was part of the larger contra-aid strategy.
"Jack Vessey in office alone,"
Weinberger wrote on March 13, 1985. "Bandar is giving $25
million to Contras -- so all we need is non-lethal aid."
The Iran Initiative
Meanwhile, the White House was maneuvering
into dangerous geopolitical territory, too, in its policy toward
Iran. The Israelis were interested in trading U.S. weapons to
Iran's radical Islamic government to expand Israel's influence
in that important Middle Eastern country. It was also believed
that Iran might help free American hostages held by Islamic extremists
Carrying the water for this strategy within
the Reagan administration was national security adviser Robert
McFarlane. He circulated a draft presidential order in June 1985,
proposing an overture to supposed Iranian moderates.
The paper passed through Weinberger's
"filter," Colin Powell. In his memoirs, Powell called
the proposal "a stunner" and a grab by McFarlane for
"Kissingerian immortality." After reading the draft,
Weinberger scribbled in the margins, "this is almost too
absurd to comment on."
On June 30, 1985, as the paper was circulating
inside the administration, Reagan declared that the United States
would give no quarter to terrorism. "Let me further make
it plain to the assassins in Beirut and their accomplices, wherever
they may be, that America will never make concessions to terrorists,"
the president said.
But in July 1985, Weinberger, Powell and
McFarlane met to discuss details for doing just that. Iran wanted
100 anti-tank TOW missiles that would be delivered through Israel,
according to Weinberger's notes. Reagan gave his approval, but
the White House wanted to keep the operation a closely held secret.
The shipments were to be handled with "maximum compartmentalization,"
the notes said.
On Aug. 20, 1985, the Israelis delivered
the first 96 missiles to Iran. It was a pivotal moment for the
Reagan administration. With that missile shipment, the Reagan
administration stepped over an important legal line. The transfer
violated laws requiring congressional notification for trans-shipment
of U.S. weapons and prohibiting arms to Iran or any other nation
designated a terrorist state. Violation of either statute could
be a felony.
A Mysterious Meeting
The available evidence from that period
suggests that Weinberger and Powell were very much in the loop,
even though they may have opposed the arms-to-Iran policy. On
Aug. 22, two days after the first delivery, Israel notified McFarlane
of the completed shipment. From aboard Air Force One, McFarlane
When Air Force One landed at Andrews Air
Force Base outside Washington, McFarlane rushed to the Pentagon
to meet Weinberger and Powell. The 40-minute meeting started at
That much is known from the Iran-contra
public record. But the substance of the conversation remains in
dispute. McFarlane said that at the meeting with Weinberger and
Powell, he discussed Reagan's approval of the missile transfer
and the need to replenish Israeli stockpiles.
If that is true, Weinberger and Powell
were in the middle of a criminal conspiracy. But Weinberger denied
McFarlane's account, and Powell insisted that he had only a fuzzy
memory of the meeting without a clear recollection of any completed
"My recollection is that Mr. McFarlane
described to the Secretary the so-called Iran Initiative and he
gave to the Secretary a sort of a history of how we got where
we were that particular day and some of the thinking that gave
rise to the possibility of going forward ... and what the purposes
of such an initiative would be," Powell said in an Iran-contra
deposition two years later.
Congressional attorney Joseph Saba asked
Powell if McFarlane had mentioned that Israel already had supplied
weapons to Iran. "I don't recall specifically," Powell
answered. "I just don't recall." When Saba asked about
any notes, Powell responded, "there were none on our side."
In a later interview with the FBI, Powell
said he learned at that meeting that there "was to be a transfer
of some limited amount of materiel" to Iran. But he did not
budge on his claim of ignorance about the crucial fact that the
first shipment had already gone and that the Reagan administration
had promised the Israelis replenishment for the shipped missiles.
To have admitted that would have been to admit being part of a
This claim of only prospective knowledge
would be key to Powell's Iran-contra defense. But it made little
sense for McFarlane to learn of the missile delivery and the need
for replenishment, then hurry to the Pentagon, only to debate
a future policy that, in reality, was already being implemented.
The behavior of Powell and Weinberger
in the following days also suggested that they knew an arms-for-hostage
swap was under way.
According to Weinberger's diary, he and
Powell eagerly awaited a release of an American hostage in Lebanon,
the payoff for the clandestine weapons shipment to Iran. In early
September 1985, Weinberger dispatched a Pentagon emissary to meet
with Iranians in Europe, another step that would seem to make
little sense if Weinberger and Powell were indeed in the dark
about the details of the arms-for-hostage operation.
At the same time, McFarlane told Israel
that the United States was prepared to replace 500 Israeli missiles,
an assurance that would have required Weinberger's clearance since
the missiles would be coming from Defense Department stockpiles.
On Sept. 14, 1985, Israel delivered the
second shipment, 408 more missiles to Iran. The next day, one
hostage, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, was released in Beirut. Back
at the Pentagon, Weinberger penned in his diary a cryptic reference
to "a delivery I have for our prisoners."
But when the Iran-contra scandal broke
more than a year later, Weinberger and Powell would plead faulty
memories about the Weir case, too. Saba asked Powell if he knew
of a linkage between an arms delivery and Weir's release. "No,
I have no recollection of that," Powell answered.
After Weir's freedom, the job of replenishing
the Israel missiles fell to White House aide Oliver North who
turned to Powell for logistical assistance.
"My original point of contact was
General Colin Powell, who was going directly to his immediate
superior, Secretary Weinberger," North testified in 1987.
But in their later sworn testimony, Powell and Weinberger continued
to insist that they had no idea that 508 missiles had already
been shipped via Israel to Iran and that Israel was expecting
replenishment of its stockpiles.
Powell stuck to that story even as evidence
emerged that he and Weinberger read top-secret intelligence intercepts
in September and October 1985 in which Iranians described the
U.S. arms delivery.
One of those reports, dated Oct. 2, 1985,
and marked with the high-level classification, "SECRET SPOKE
ORCON," was signed by Lt. Gen. William Odom, the director
of the National Security Agency.
According to Odom's report, a sensitive
electronic intercept had picked up a phone conversation a day
earlier between two Iranian officials, identified as "Mr.
Asghari" who was in Europe and "Mohsen Kangarlu"
who was in Teheran.
"A large part of the conversation
had to do with details on the delivery of several more shipments
of weapons into Iran," wrote Odom. "Asghari then pressed
Kangarlu to provide a list of what he wanted the 'other four planes'
to bring. ... Kangarlu said that he already had provided a list.
Asghari said that those items were for the first two planes.
Asghari reminded Kangarlu that there were Phoenix missiles on
the second plane which were not on the first. ... [Asghari] said
that a flight would be made this week."
In 1987, when congressional Iran-contra
investigators asked about the intercepts and other evidence of
Pentagon knowledge, Powell again pleaded a weak memory. He repeatedly
used phrases such as "I cannot specifically recall."
At one point, Powell said, "To my recollection, I don't have
When asked if Weinberger kept a diary
that might shed more light on the issue, Powell responded, "The
Secretary, to my knowledge, did not keep a diary. Whatever notes
he kept, I don't know how he uses them or what he does with them.
He does not have a diary of this ilk, no." As for his own
notebooks, Powell announced that he had destroyed them.
Greasing the Skids
In the next phase of the evolving Iran
operation -- the direct delivery of U.S. missiles -- Powell would
play an even bigger role.
Indeed, the disastrous policy might never
have happened, or might have stopped much sooner, except for the
work of Colin Powell.
In early 1986, Powell short-circuited
the Pentagon covert procurement system that was put in place after
the Yellow Fruit scandal. Defense procurement officials said that
without Powell's interference, the system would have alerted the
military brass that thousands of TOW anti-tank missiles and other
sophisticated weaponry were headed to Iran, a terrorist state.
But Powell used his bureaucratic skills
to slip the missiles and the other hardware out of U.S. Army inventories.
The story of Powell's maneuvers can be
found in a close reading of thousands of pages from depositions
of Pentagon officials, who pointed to Weinberger's assistant as
the key Iran-contra action officer within the Defense Department.
Powell insisted that he and Weinberger
minimized the Pentagon's role. Powell said they delivered the
missiles to the CIA under the Economy Act, which regulates transfers
between government agencies. "We treated the TOW transfer
like garbage to be gotten out of the house quickly," Powell
wrote in My American Journey.
But the Economy Act argument was disingenuous,
because the Pentagon always uses the Economy Act when it moves
weapons to the CIA. Powell's account also obscured his unusual
actions in arranging the shipments without giving senior officers
the information that Pentagon procedures required, even on sensitive
Weinberger officially handed Powell the
job of shipping the missiles to Iran on Jan. 17, 1986. That was
the day Reagan signed an intelligence "finding," a formal
authorization to pull arms from U.S. stockpiles and ship them
In testimony, Powell dated his first knowledge
of the missile transfers to this moment, an important distinction
because if he had been aware of the earlier shipments - as much
evidence suggests - he potentially would have been implicated
in a felony.
A day after Reagan's "finding,"
Jan. 18, 1986, Powell instructed Gen. Max Thurman, then acting
Army chief of staff, to prepare for a transfer of 4,000 TOW anti-tank
missiles but Powell made no mention of Iran. "I gave him
absolutely no indication of the destination of the missiles,"
Though kept in the dark, Thurman began
the process of transferring the TOWs to the CIA, the first step
of the journey. Powell's orders "bypassed the formal [covert
procedures] on the ingress line," Thurman acknowledged in
later Iran-contra testimony. "The first shipment is made
without a complete wring-out through all of the procedural steps."
As Powell's strange orders rippled through
the top echelon of the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Vincent M. Russo, the
assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, called Powell to
ask about the operation. Powell immediately circumvented Russo's
inquiry. In effect, Powell pulled rank by arranging for "executive
instructions" commanding Russo to deliver the first 1,000
TOWs, no questions asked.
"It was a little unusual," commented
then Army chief of staff, Gen. John A. Wickham Jr. "All personal
visit or secure phone call, nothing in writing -- because normally
through the [covert logistics office] a procedure is established
so that records are kept in a much more formal process. ... I
felt very uneasy about this process. And I also felt uneasy about
the notification dimension to the Congress."
On Jan. 29, 1986, thanks to Powell's orders,
1,000 U.S. TOWs were loaded onto pallets at Redstone Arsenal and
transferred to the airfield at Anniston, Ala. As the shipment
progressed, senior Pentagon officers grew edgier about Powell
withholding the destination and other details. The logistics personnel
also wanted proof that somebody was paying for the missiles.
Major Christopher Simpson, who was making
the flight arrangements, later told Iran-contra investigators
that Gen. Russo "was very uncomfortable with no paperwork
to support the mission request. He wasn't going to 'do nothin',
as he said, without seeing some money. ...'no tickey, no laundry.'"
The money for the first shipment was finally
deposited into a CIA account in Geneva on Feb. 11, 1986. Three
days later, Russo released the 1,000 TOWs to the CIA. The first
direct U.S. arms shipment to Iran was under way, although the
Israelis were still acting as middlemen.
Inside the Pentagon, concerns grew about
Powell's unorthodox arrangements and the identity of the missile
recipients. Major Simpson told congressional investigators that
he would have rung alarm bells if he had known the TOWs were headed
"In the three years that I had worked
there, I had been instructed ... by the leadership ... never to
do anything illegal, and I would have felt that we were doing
something illegal," Simpson said.
Even without knowing that the missiles
were going to Iran, Simpson expressed concern about whether the
requirement to notify Congress had been met. He got advice from
a Pentagon lawyer that the 1986 intelligence authorization act,
which mandated a "timely" notice to Congress on foreign
arms transfers, had an "impact on this particular mission."
Major Simpson asked Gen. Russo, who got
another legal opinion from the Army general counsel who concurred
that Congress must be notified. The issue was bumped up to Secretary
of the Army John Marsh. Though still blind about the shipment's
destination, the Army high command was inclined to stop the peculiar
operation in its tracks.
At this key moment, Colin Powell intervened
again. Simpson said, "General Powell was asking General Russo
to reassure the secretary of the Army that notification was being
handled, ... that it had been addressed and it was taken care
of." Despite Powell's assurance, however, Congress had not
Army Secretary Marsh shared the skepticism
about Powell's operation. On Feb. 25, Marsh called a meeting of
senior Army officers and ordered Russo to "tell General Powell
of my concern with regard to adequate notification being given
to Congress," Russo later testified. Marsh also instructed
Russo to keep a careful chronology of events.
Army chief of staff Wickham went further.
He demanded that a memo on congressional notification be sent
to Powell. "The chief wanted it in writing," stated
Army Lt. Gen. Arthur E. Brown, who delivered the memo to Powell
on March 7, 1986.
Five days later, Powell handed the memo
to President Reagan's national security adviser John Poindexter
with the advice: "Handle it ... however you plan to do it,"
Powell later testified.
Poindexter's plan for "timely notification"
was to tell Congress on the last day of the Reagan presidency,
Jan. 20, 1989. Poindexter stuck the Pentagon memo into a White
House safe, along with the secret "finding" on the Iran
While debate over notification bubbled,
others in the Pentagon fretted over the possibly illegal destination
of the missiles. Col. John William McDonald, who oversaw covert
supply, objected when he learned that key Army officials had no
idea where the weapons were headed.
"One [concern] was inadvertent provision
of supplies to the [Nicaraguan] contras in violation of the Boland
Amendment," which prohibited military shipments to the contras,
McDonald testified. "The second issue was inadvertent supply
to countries that were on the terrorist list. ... There is a responsibility
to judge the legality of the request."
When McDonald was asked by congressional
investigators how he would have reacted if told the weapons were
going to Iran, he responded, "I would have told General Thurman
... that I would believe that the action was illegal and that
Iran was clearly identified as one of the nations on the terrorist
list for whom we could not transfer weapons."
But when McDonald joined other Pentagon
officers in appealing to Powell about the missile shipment's destination,
they again were told not to worry. Powell "reiterated [that
it was] the responsibility of the recipient" agency, the
CIA, to notify Congress, "and that the Army did not have
the responsibility to do that."
Then, in March 1986, Powell conveyed a
second order, this time for 284 HAWK antiaircraft missile parts
and 500 HAWK missiles. This time, Powell's order set off alarms
not only over legal questions, but whether the safety of U.S forces
might be jeopardized.
The HAWK order would force a drawdown
of U.S. supplies to a dangerous level. Henry Gaffney, a senior
supply official, warned Powell that "you're going to have
to start tearing it out of the Army's hide."
But the Pentagon again followed Powell's
orders. It stripped its shelves of 15 spare parts for HAWK missiles
that were protecting U.S. forces in Europe and elsewhere in the
"I can only trust that somebody who
is a patriot ... and interested in the survival of this nation
... made the decision that the national policy objectives were
worth the risk of a temporary drawdown of readiness," said
Lt. Gen. Peter G. Barbules.
If there had been an air attack on U.S.
forces in Europe during the drawdown, the HAWK missile defense
batteries might not have had the necessary spare parts to counter
an enemy attack.
Implemented by Colin Powell, the Iran
initiative had taken priority over both legal safeguards inside
the Pentagon and over the safety of U.S. soldiers around the world.
Saving Ronald Reagan
"We need you, Colin," pleaded
the familiar voice over the phone.
"This is serious," said Colin
Powell's old mentor, Frank Carlucci, who in in December 1986 was
President Reagan's new national security adviser. "Believe
me, the presidency is at stake."
With those words, Colin Powell re-entered
the Iran-contra affair, a set of events he had dangerously advanced
almost a year earlier by secretly arranging missile shipments
But just as Powell played an important
behind-the-scenes role in those early missile shipments, he would
be equally instrumental in the next phase, the scandal's containment.
His skillful handling of the media and
Congress would earn him the gratitude of Reagan-Bush insiders
and lift Powell into the top levels of the Republican Party.
In late 1986, Carlucci called Powell in
West Germany, where he had gone to serve as commander of the V
Corps. Powell thus had missed the November exposure of the secret
shipments of U.S. military hardware to the radical Islamic government
in Iran. Though Powell had helped arrange those shipments, he
had not yet been tainted by the spreading scandal.
President Reagan, however, was reeling
from disclosures about the reckless arms-for-hostage scheme with
Iran and diversion of money to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. As
the scandal deepened into a potential threat to the Reagan presidency,
the White House searched for some cool heads and some steady hands.
Carlucci reached out to Powell.
Powell was reluctant to heed Carlucci's
request. "You know I had a role in this business," Powell
told the national security adviser.
But Carlucci soon was moving adroitly
to wall Powell off from the expanding scandal. On Dec. 9, 1986,
the White House obtained from the FBI a statement that Powell
was not a criminal suspect in the secret arms deals.
Carlucci also sought assurances from key
players that Powell would stay outside the scope of the investigation.
The next day, Carlucci asked Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger,
Powell's old boss, "to call Peter Wallison, WH Counsel --
to tell them Colin had no connection with Iran arms sales -- except
to carry out President's order."
Weinberger wrote down Carlucci's message.
According to Weinberger's notes, he then "called Peter Wallison
-- Told him Colin Powell had only minimum involvement on Iran."
The statement wasn't exactly true. Powell
had played a crucial role in skirting the Pentagon's stringent
internal controls over missile shipments to get the weapons out
of Defense warehouses and into the CIA pipeline. But with the
endorsement of Weinberger, Carlucci was satisfied that his old
friend, Powell, could sidestep the oozing Iran-contra contamination.
On Dec. 12, 1986, Reagan formally asked
Powell to quit his post as commander of V Corps in West Germany
and to become deputy national security adviser. Powell described
Reagan as sounding as jovial and folksy as ever.
"Yes, sir," Powell answered.
"I'll do it." But Powell was not enthusiastic. According
to his memoirs, My American Journey, Powell felt he "had
Powell flew back to Washington and assumed
his new duties on Jan. 2, 1987. As usual, Powell took to his task
with skill and energy. His personal credibility would be instrumental
in convincing official Washington that matters were now back under
By that time, too, the White House already
was pressing ahead with a plan for containing the Iran-contra
scandal. The strategy evolved from a "plan of action"
cobbled together by chief of staff Don Regan immediately before
the Iran-contra diversion was announced on Nov. 25, 1986. Oliver
North and his colleagues at the National Security Council were
to bear the brunt of the scandal.
"Tough as it seems, blame must be
put at NSC's door -- rogue operation, going on without President's
knowledge or sanction" Regan had written. "When suspicions
arose he [Reagan] took charge, ordered investigation, had meeting
with top advisers to get at facts, and find out who knew what.
Anticipate charges of 'out of control,' 'President doesn't know
what's going on,' 'Who's in charge?'"
Suggesting that President Reagan was deficient
as a leader was not a pretty option, but it was the best the White
House could do. The other option was to admit that Reagan had
authorized much of the illegal operation, including the 1985 arms
shipments to Iran through Israel, transfers that Weinberger had
warned Reagan were illegal and could be an impeachable offense.
By February 1987, however, the containment
strategy was making progress. A presidential commission headed
by former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, was finishing a report that
found no serious wrongdoing but criticized Reagan's management
In its Feb. 26 report, the Tower Board
said the scandal had been a "failure of responsibility"
and chastised Reagan for putting "the principal responsibility
for policy review and implementation on the shoulders of his advisers."
On matters of fact, however, the board
accepted Reagan's assurances that he knew nothing about Oliver
North's secret efforts to funnel military supplies to the Nicaraguan
contras and that the president had no hand in the White House
cover-up of the Iran-contra secrets.
"The Board found evidence that immediately
following the public disclosure, the President wanted to avoid
providing too much specificity or detail out of concern for the
hostages still held in Lebanon and those Iranians who had supported
the initiative," the Tower report stated. "In doing
so, he did not, we believe, intend to mislead the American people
or cover-up unlawful conduct."
To dampen the scandal further, Powell
helped draft a limited mea culpa speech for Reagan to give on
March 4, 1987. Powell felt that the Tower Board had been too tough
on Secretary of State George Shultz and Powell's old boss, Caspar
Weinberger. So Powell tried to insert some exculpatory language.
"I tried to get the President to
say something exonerating these two reluctant players," Powell
wrote in his memoirs. Powell's suggested language noted that Shultz
and Weinberger had "vigorously opposed" the Iranian
arms sales and that they were excluded from some key meetings
"by the same people and process used to deny me [Reagan]
vital information about this whole matter."
In the speech, Reagan finally acknowledged
that the operation had involved "trading arms for hostages"
and "was a mistake." But the president did not read
the phrasing meant to exonerate Shultz, Weinberger and, by inference,
Weinberger's assistant in 1985-86, Colin Powell.
After Reagan's limited admission, the
White House resumed its strategy of shifting the bulk of the blame
onto Oliver North and other "cowboy" NSC staffers.
Reagan, however, was not always cooperative
with the plan. In one press exchange about North's secret contra-supply
operation, Reagan blurted out that it was "my idea to begin
North, too, would tell the congressional
investigation that the official version was a "fall-guy plan"
with him as the fall guy. Logic about what a junior officer could
accomplish without higher authority weighed in favor of North's
truthfulness, at least on that point.
Clearly, a large number of people, including
senior officers in the CIA and elsewhere the White House, knew
a great deal about the contra operations and had sanctioned them.
Nevertheless, Powell's personal credibility
helped persuade key journalists to accept the White House explanations.
Soon, Washington's conventional wisdom had bought into the notion
of Reagan's inattention to detail and North's rogue operation.
As the Iran-contra scandal faded in the
summer and fall 1987, Powell turned his attention to another touchy
assignment: winning renewed CIA aid for the Nicaraguan contras,
a difficult task in the wake of the Iran-contra debacle.
According to Powell's NSC calendars, which
we obtained from the National Archives, the politically astute
general devoted large amounts of time to this assignment.
In My American Journey, Powell recounted
a meeting with contra leaders in Miami. While admitting they were
"a mixed bag," Powell wrote that the contra military
commander, Col. Enrique Bermudez "impressed me as a true
fighter ready to die for his cause. Others were just unregenerate
veterans of the corrupt regime of Anastasio Somoza. ... But in
the old days of East-West polarization, we worked with what we
Powell's records at the Pentagon and at
the NSC revealed no information about -- or apparent interest
in -- long-standing allegations that the contras engaged in cocaine
trafficking and committed atrocities against Nicaraguan civilians.
[Recent CIA and Justice Department reports
have linked Bermudez to Nicaraguan drug traffickers who smuggled
cocaine into the United States during the contra war, although
Bermudez's precise role remained unclear. See Robert Parry's Lost
Despite his belief in a Cold War rationale,
Powell confronted a Congress that favored pressing for a regional
peace settlement, rather than continuing contra military aid.
Powell was determined to reverse that judgment.
Although still an active-duty military
officer, Powell twisted the arms of leading congressmen. On Nov.
16, 1987, in the Oval Office, Powell joined in dressing down House
Speaker Jim Wright, who was pushing for peace negotiations with
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
In his book Worth It All, Wright said
Reagan, Carlucci and Powell portrayed Wright essentially as gullible
for giving Ortega any credit. Wright paraphrased Powell and Carlucci
as saying "you couldn't count on anything [Ortega] said or
did unless you had him at the end of a bayonet."
Powell replaced Carlucci as national security
adviser in November 1987 and assumed an even more prominent role
in the contra battle. In January 1988, Powell carried that fight
to the reluctant countries of Central America.
There, Powell joined assistant secretary
of state Elliott Abrams in threatening leaders of four Central
American nations who questioned Reagan's pro-contra policies.
Powell and Abrams warned the leaders that their countries could
face a cut-off of U.S. economic aid if they did not back the contras.
"These people [Powell and Abrams]
are trying every weapon in their arsenal to break up the peace
process," complained Rep. Bill Alexander, D-Ark.
But the Central American leaders and the
Democratic-controlled Congress resisted the pressure. The contras
received no more CIA military funding and negotiations did achieve
a peace settlement in Nicaragua, as well as in nearby El Salvador
and eventually in Guatemala.
But Powell had proved himself a good soldier
War & Politics
From Vietnam and Iran-contra, Colin Powell
came to understand that combat was only a part of the mix in modern
warfare. Large doses of politics and P.R. were equally important,
if not more so.
"Once you've got all the forces moving
and everything's being taken care of by the commanders,"
Powell advised other senior officers at the National Defense University
in 1989, "turn your attention to television because you can
win the battle [and] lose the war if you don't handle the story
Powell explained that the fickle political
mood of Washington could alter the outcome of conflicts and damage
careers. So he saw it as a military imperative to cultivate the
opinions of the media elite.
"A great deal of my time is spent
sensing that political environment," Powell said.
In the last years of Ronald Reagan's presidency,
Powell earned his spurs as an expert spinner. He could wow reporters
in White House background briefings or schmoose their bureau chiefs
over an elegant lunch at the nearby Maison Blanche restaurant.
Yet, at the start of George Bush's presidency
in 1989, Powell wanted a respite from Washington and got it by
assuming command of Forces Command at Fort McPherson in Georgia.
That posting also earned the general his fourth star.
But his sojourn into the regular Army
would be brief, again. Behind the scenes, the Bush presidency
was hurtling toward another confrontation with a Third World country,
this time Panama.
On June 21, 1989, in secret, the Justice
Department promulgated an extraordinary legal opinion, asserting
the president's right to order the capture of fugitives from U.S.
laws even if they were living in foreign countries, even if the
arrest meant ignoring extradition treaties and international law.
The opinion had specific relevance to
U.S.-Panamanian relations because a federal grand jury in Florida
had indicted Panama's military leader, Gen. Manuel Noriega, on
The legal opinion also would influence
the course of Colin Powell's career. The four-star general had
left Washington at the start of Bush's presidency in 1989. He
had taken charge of Forces Command at Fort McPherson in Georgia.
By August 1989, however, President George
H.W. Bush and his defense secretary, Richard Cheney, were urging
Powell to return to Washington where he would become the first
black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell accepted the
His first day on the new job was Oct.
2, 1989 -- and Powell immediately joined debates about whether
to intervene in support of a home-grown Panamanian coup attempt
led by Maj. Moises Giroldi against Noriega.
"The whole affair sounded like amateur
night," Powell wrote in My American Journey. "Cheney,
[Gen. Max] Thurman and I ... agreed that the United States should
not get involved."
Bush accepted the advice of his military
advisers. With only minimal U.S. help, the coup failed. Noriega
promptly executed Giroldi.
In the wake of the coup attempt, Bush
came under fierce criticism in the news media and in Congress.
TV's armchair-warrior pundits had a field day mocking Bush's supposed
On The McLaughlin Group, conservative
Ben Wattenberg charged that Bush's only policy was "prudence,
prudence, prudence. Prudence is not a policy."
The New Republic's Fred Barnes chimed
in that Bush's policy "is 'when in doubt, do nothing.' It
was a massive failure of nerve. And then they come up with these
whiny excuses. ... If this were a baseball game, the fans would
be going -- the choke sign."
Another pundit, Morton Kondracke, offered
a joke line about the president. "Most of what comes from
George Bush's bully pulpit is bull."
In Congress, Bush did not fare much better.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., taunted him as the "Revlon
president" for offering only cosmetic solutions. Rep. David
McCurdy, D-Okla, declared: "There's a resurgence of the wimp
According to Bob Woodward's book, The
Commanders, Powell was stunned. He had never seen "piling
on of this intensity, and across the whole political spectrum.
It was as if there was a lynch mob out there."
Even more unsettling, Powell saw his own
leadership at the JCS jeopardized by Washington's super-macho
political environment of the late 1980s.
Neither Bush nor Powell would make the
same mistake again. They quickly built up U.S. forces in Panama,
and the administration began spoiling for a fight. "We have
to put a shingle outside our door saying, 'Superpower Lives Here',"
In mid-December, the tensions between
the United States and Panama exploded when four American officers
in a car ran a roadblock near the headquarters of the Panamanian
Defense Forces. PDF troops opened fire, killing one American.
Another American officer and his wife
were held for questioning. After their release, the officer alleged
that he had been kicked in the groin and that his wife had been
threatened with rape.
When word of this humiliation reached
Washington, Bush saw American honor and his own manhood challenged.
He certainly could imagine, too, the pundits hooting about his
cowardice if he didn't act.
Powell also saw the need for decisive
action. On Dec. 17, he recommended to Bush that a large-scale
U.S. military operation capture Noriega and destroy the PDF, even
though the assault might result in many civilian casualties and
violate international law. The authorization for the attack was
found in the Justice Department legal opinion from almost six
On Bush's orders, the invasion began on
Dec. 20, with Powell and Cheney monitoring developments at the
Pentagon. The high-tech American assault force, using the F-117
Stealth aircraft for the first time, incinerated the PDF headquarters
and the surrounding civilian neighborhoods.
Hundreds of civilians -- possibly thousands,
according to some human rights observers -- perished in the first
few hours of the attack. An estimated 315 Panamanian soldiers
also died, as did 23 Americans. But Noriega eluded capture.
Despite the temporary setback, Powell
followed his dictum of putting the best spin on a story. Stepping
before cameras at the Pentagon, Powell declared victory and played
down the disappointment over Noriega's disappearance. "This
reign of terror is over," Powell declared. "We have
now decapitated [Noriega] from the dictatorship of his country."
In the following days, as U.S. forces
hunted for the little dictator, an edgy Powell demonized Noriega
over the supposed discovery of drugs and voodoo artifacts in his
safehouse. Powell started calling Noriega "a dope-sniffing,
voodoo-loving thug." [The white powder would turn out to
be tamale flour, however.]
When asked once too often about the failure
to capture Noriega, Powell told a reporter to "stick it."
The tragedies on the ground in Panama
could sometimes be worse. On Dec. 24, shortly after midnight,
a nine-months-pregnant Panamanian woman, Ortila Lopez de Perea,
went into labor.
She was helped into the family Volkswagen
which was marked by a white flag. With her husband, her mother-in-law
and a neighbor, she headed to the hospital.
At a U.S. military roadblock on the Transisthmian
Highway, the car stopped. The four Panamanians requested an escort,
but were told that wasn't necessary. After being waved through,
they drove another 500 yards to a second checkpoint.
But at this spot, young American troops
mistook the speeding Volkswagen for a hostile vehicle. The soldiers
opened up with a 10-second barrage of automatic rifle fire.
When the shooting ended, Lopez de Perea
and her 25-year-old husband Ismael were dead. The neighbor was
wounded in the stomach. The mother-in-law, though unhurt, was
hysterical. The unborn baby was dead, too.
The U.S. government would acknowledge
the facts, but refuse any compensation to the family. The Southern
Command concluded that its investigation had found that the incident
"although tragic in nature, indicate[s] that the U.S. personnel
acted within the parameters of the rules of engagement in effect
at that time."
On the same day as the tragic shooting,
Manuel Noriega finally re-emerged. He entered the papal nuncio's
residence and sought asylum.
The United States demanded his surrender
and bombarded the house with loud rock music. On Jan. 3, 1990,
in full military uniform, Noriega surrendered to U.S. Delta Forces
and was flown in shackles to Miami for prosecution on the drug
With Noriega's surrender, the Panamanian
carnage was over. Two days later, the victorious Powell flew to
Panama to announce that "we gave the country back to its
In his memoirs, Powell noted as downsides
to the invasion the fact that the United Nations and Organization
of American States both censured the United States. There were
also the hundreds of civilian dead. They had been, in effect,
innocent bystanders in the arrest of Manuel Noriega.
"The loss of innocent lives was tragic,"
Powell wrote, "but we had made every effort to hold down
casualties on all sides." Some human rights organizations
would disagree, however, condemning the application of indiscriminate
force in civilian areas.
"Under the Geneva Accords, the attacking
party has the obligation to minimize harm to civilians,"
one official at Americas Watch told us. Instead, the Pentagon
had shown "a great preoccupation with minimizing American
casualties because it would not go over politically here to have
a large number of U.S. military deaths."
But for Inside-the-Beltway "players,"
there was no political price to pay for excessive violence against
Panamanians. The pundits had nothing but praise for the effective
use of military force. Powell's star was rising, again.
Persian Gulf War
An enduring image from the Persian Gulf
War is the picture of the two generals -- Colin Powell and Norman
Schwarzkopf -- celebrating the 1991 military victory in ticker-tape
They seemed the perfect teammates, a politically
smooth chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Powell) and the
gruff field commander (Schwarzkopf).
But the behind-the-scenes reality often
was different. Time and again in the march toward a ground war
in Kuwait and Iraq, Powell wavered between siding with Schwarzkopf,
who was willing to accept a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal, and lining
up with President Bush, who hungered for a clear military victory.
The tension peaked in the days before
the ground war was scheduled to begin. Iraqi forces already had
been pummeled by weeks of devastating allied air attacks both
against targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
As the clocked toward a decision on launching
a ground offensive, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to hammer
out a cease-fire and a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
President Bush and his political leadership desperately wanted
a ground war to crown the American victory.
Schwarzkopf and some of his generals in
the field felt U.S. goals could be achieved through a negotiated
Iraqi withdrawal that would end the slaughter and spare the lives
of U.S. troops. With a deadline for a decision looming, Powell
briefly joined the Schwarzkopf camp.
On Feb. 21, 1991, the two generals hammered
out a cease-fire proposal for presentation to the National Security
Council. That last-minute peace deal would have given Iraqi forces
one week to march out of Kuwait while leaving their armor and
heavy equipment behind. Schwarzkopf thought he had Powell's commitment
to pitch the plan at the White House.
But Bush was fixated on a ground war.
According to insiders, he saw the war as advancing two goals:
to inflict severe damage on Saddam Hussein's army and to erase
the painful memories of America's defeat in Vietnam.
At the NSC meeting, Powell reportedly
did reiterate his and Schwarzkopf's support for a peaceful settlement,
if possible. But sensing Bush's mood, Powell substituted a different
plan, shortening the one-week timetable to an unrealistic two
days and, thus, making the ground war inevitable.
Set on a Ground War
Though secret from the American people
at that time, Bush had long determined that a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal
from Kuwait would not be tolerated. Indeed, U.S. peace initiatives
in early 1991 had amounted to window-dressing, with Bush privately
fearful that the Iraqis might capitulate before the United States
To Bush, exorcising the "Vietnam
Syndrome" demons had become an important priority of the
Persian Gulf War, almost as central to his thinking as ousting
Saddam's army from Kuwait.
Conservative columnists Rowland Evans
and Robert Novak were among the few who described Bush's obsession
publicly at the time. On Feb. 25, 1991, they wrote that the Gorbachev
initiative brokering Iraq's surrender of Kuwait "stirred
fears" among Bush's advisers that the Vietnam Syndrome might
survive the Gulf War.
"There was considerable relief, therefore,
when the President ... made clear he was having nothing to do
with the deal that would enable Saddam Hussein to bring his troops
out of Kuwait with flags flying," Evans and Novak wrote.
"Fear of a peace deal at the Bush
White House had less to do with oil, Israel or Iraqi expansionism
than with the bitter legacy of a lost war. 'This is the chance
to get rid of the Vietnam Syndrome,' one senior aide told us."
In the book, Shadow, author Bob Woodward
confirmed that Bush was adamant about fighting a war, even as
the White House pretended that it would be satisfied with an unconditional
"We have to have a war," Bush
told his inner circle of Secretary of State James Baker, national
security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Powell, according to Woodward.
"Scowcroft was aware that this understanding
could never be stated publicly or be permitted to leak out. An
American president who declared the necessity of war would probably
be thrown out of office. Americans were peacemakers, not warmongers,"
On Jan. 9, 1991, when Iraqi foreign minister
Tariq Aziz rebuffed an ultimatum from Baker in Geneva, "Bush
was jubilant because it was the best news possible, although he
would have to conceal it publicly," Woodward wrote.
The Air War
On Jan. 15, U.S. and allied forces launched
a punishing air war, hitting targets in Baghdad and other Iraqi
cities as well as Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Weeks of devastating
bombing left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, according to estimates.
The Iraqi forces soon seemed ready to
crack. Soviet diplomats were meeting with Iraqi leaders who let
it be known that they were prepared to withdraw their troops from
Still, Bush recognized the military and
psychological value of a smashing ground offensive. A ground war
could annihilate the Iraqi forces as they retreated while proving
America's war-fighting mettle once again.
But Schwarzkopf saw little reason for
U.S. soldiers to die if the Iraqis were prepared to withdraw and
leave their heavy weapons behind. There was also the prospect
of chemical warfare that might be used by the Iraqis against advancing
American troops. Schwarzkopf saw the possibility of heavy U.S.
Powell found himself in the middle. He
wanted to please Bush while still representing the concerns of
the field commanders. Stationed at the front in Saudi Arabia,
Schwarzkopf thought Powell was an ally.
"Neither Powell nor I wanted a ground
war," Schwarzkopf wrote in his memoirs, It Doesn't Take a
At key moments in White House meetings,
however, Powell sided with Bush and his hunger for outright victory.
"I cannot believe the lift that this crisis and our response
to it have given to our country," Powell told Schwarzkopf
as American air sorties pummeled Iraq.
In mid-February 1991, Powell also bristled
when Schwarzkopf acceded to a Marine commander's request for a
three-day delay to reposition his troops.
"I hate to wait that long,"
Powell fumed. "The President wants to get on with this."
Powell explained that Bush was worried about the pending Soviet
peace plan which sought to engineer an Iraqi withdrawal with no
"President Bush was in a bind,"
Powell wrote in My American Journey. "After the expenditure
of $60 billion and transporting half a million troops 8,000 miles,
Bush wanted to deliver a knock-out punch to the Iraqi invaders
in Kuwait. He did not want to win by a TKO that would allow Saddam
to withdraw with his army unpunished and intact."
On Feb. 18, Powell relayed a demand to
Schwarzkopf from Bush's NSC for an immediate attack date. Powell
"spoke in the terse tone that signaled he was under pressure
from the hawks," Schwarzkopf wrote. But one field commanders
still protested that a rushed attack could mean "a whole
lot more casualties," a risk that Schwarzkopf considered
"The increasing pressure to launch
the ground war early was making me crazy," Schwarzkopf wrote.
"I could guess what was going on. ... There had to be a contingent
of hawks in Washington who did not want to stop until we'd punished
"We'd been bombing Iraq for more
than a month, but that wasn't good enough. There were guys who
had seen John Wayne in 'The Green Berets,' they'd seen 'Rambo,'
they'd seen 'Patton,' and it was very easy for them to pound their
desks and say, 'By God, we've got to go in there and kick ass!
Got to punish that son of a bitch!'
"Of course, none of them was going
to get shot at. None of them would have to answer to the mothers
and fathers of dead soldiers and Marines."
On Feb. 20, Schwarzkopf sought a two-day
delay because of bad weather. Powell exploded. "I've got
a President and a Secretary of Defense on my back," Powell
shouted. "They've got a bad Russian peace proposal they're
trying to dodge. ... I don't think you understand the pressure
Schwarzkopf yelled back that Powell appeared
to have "political reasons" for favoring a timetable
that was "militarily unsound." Powell snapped back,
"Don't patronize me with talk about human lives."
By the evening of Feb. 21, however, Schwarzkopf
thought he and Powell were again reading from the same page, looking
for ways to avert the ground war. Powell had faxed Schwarzkopf
a copy of the Russian cease-fire plan in which Gorbachev had proposed
a six-week period for Iraqi withdrawal.
Recognizing that six weeks would give
Saddam time to salvage his military hardware, Schwarzkopf and
Powell devised a counter-proposal. It would give Iraq only a one-week
cease-fire, time to flee from Kuwait but without any heavy weapons.
"The National Security Council was
about to meet," Schwarzkopf wrote, "and Powell and I
hammered out a recommendation. We suggested the United States
offer a cease-fire of one week: enough time for Saddam to withdraw
his soldiers but not his supplies or the bulk of his equipment.
"As the Iraqis withdrew, we proposed,
our forces would pull right into Kuwait behind them. ... At bottom,
neither Powell nor I wanted a ground war. We agreed that if the
United States could get a rapid withdrawal we would urge our leaders
to take it."
An Angry President
But when Powell arrived at the White House
late that evening, he found Bush angry about the Soviet peace
initiative. Still, according to Woodward's Shadow, Powell reiterated
that he and Schwarzkopf "would rather see the Iraqis walk
out than be driven out."
Powell said the ground war carried serious
risks of significant U.S. casualties and "a high probability
of a chemical attack." But Bush was set: "If they crack
under force, it is better than withdrawal," the president
In My American Journey, Powell expressed
sympathy for Bush's predicament. "The President's problem
was how to say no to Gorbachev without appearing to throw away
a chance for peace," Powell wrote.
"I could hear the President's growing
distress in his voice. 'I don't want to take this deal,' he said.
'But I don't want to stiff Gorbachev, not after he's come this
far with us. We've got to find a way out'."
Powell sought Bush's attention. "I
raised a finger," Powell wrote. "The President turned
to me. 'Got something, Colin?'," Bush asked. But Powell did
not outline Schwarzkopf's one-week cease-fire plan. Instead, Powell
offered a different idea intended to make the ground offensive
"We don't stiff Gorbachev,"
Powell explained. "Let's put a deadline on Gorby's proposal.
We say, great idea, as long as they're completely on their way
out by, say, noon Saturday," Feb. 23, less than two days
Powell understood that the two-day deadline
would not give the Iraqis enough time to act, especially with
their command-and-control systems severely damaged by the air
war. The plan was a public-relations strategy to guarantee that
the White House got its ground war.
"If, as I suspect, they don't move,
then the flogging begins," Powell told a gratified president.
The next day, at 10:30 a.m., a Friday,
Bush announced his ultimatum. There would be a Saturday noon deadline
for the Iraqi withdrawal, as Powell had recommended.
Schwarzkopf and his field commanders in
Saudi Arabia watched Bush on television and immediately grasped
its meaning. "We all knew by then which it would be,"
Schwarzkopf wrote. "We were marching toward a Sunday morning
When the Iraqis predictably missed the
deadline, American and allied forces launched the ground offensive
at 0400 on Feb. 24, Persian Gulf time.
Though Iraqi forces were soon in full
retreat, the allies pursued and slaughtered tens of thousands
of Iraqi soldiers in the 100-hour war. U.S. casualties were light,
147 killed in combat and another 236 killed in accidents or from
"Small losses as military statistics
go," wrote Powell, "but a tragedy for each family."
On Feb. 28, the day the war ended, Bush
celebrated the victory. "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam
Syndrome once and for all," the president exulted.
The Persian Gulf victory capped Powell's
rise to full-scale national hero. But, in the year that followed,
some of his political compromises from the Reagan years returned
to tarnish, at least slightly, the shining image.
To his dismay, Powell was not quite through
with the Iran-contra affair. In testimony to Iran-contra independent
prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, Powell had denied knowing about illegal
missile shipments to Iran through Israel in 1985, though acknowledging
arranging legal shipments from Defense stockpiles in 1986.
Then, in 1991, Iran-contra investigators
stumbled upon Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's long-lost
notes filed away in a corner of the Library of Congress. Among
those papers was a note dated Oct. 3, 1985, indicating that Weinberger
had received information from a National Security Agency intercept
that Iran was receiving "arms transfers," a notice that
would have gone through Powell, Weinberger's military assistant.
[For details, see Part Two of this series.]
The belated discovery of Weinberger's
diaries led to the former defense secretary's indictment for obstruction
of justice. The notes also prompted Powell to submit a pro-Weinberger
affidavit that contradicted Powell's own earlier sworn testimony
in which he had insisted that Weinberger maintained no "diaries."
In the new version, dated April 21, 1992,
Powell argued that he regarded Weinberger's daily notes as a "personal
diary" and that it was "entirely possible" that
Weinberger would not have understood these personal papers to
be within the scope of the Iran-contra document requests.
Beyond this apparent contradiction on
the question of whether a "diary" existed or not, the
greater threat to Powell's reputation was the pending Weinberger
trial which was scheduled to start in January 1993. Powell was
listed as a prospective witness.
At trial, the general might have to maneuver
through a legal mine field created by his unlikely claims of ignorance
about the illegal Iran weapons in 1985. If evidence emerged demonstrating
what seemed most likely -- that Powell and Weinberger both knew
about the 1985 shipments -- Powell could face questions about
his own credibility and possibly charges of false testimony.
So, in late 1992, Powell joined an intense
lobbying campaign to convince President George H.W. Bush to pardon
Weinberger. The president had his own reasons to go along. Bush's
participation in the scandal also might have been exposed to the
public if the trial went forward. Bush's insistence that he was
"not in the loop" on Iran-contra had been undermined
by the Weinberger documents, too, damaging Bush's reelection hopes
in the final weekend of the campaign.
On Christmas Eve 1992, Bush dealt a retaliatory
blow to the Iran-contra investigation, granting pardons to Weinberger
and five other Iran-contra defendants. The pardons effectively
killed the Iran-contra probe.
Weinberger was spared a trial -- and Powell
was saved from embarrassing attention over his dubious role in
the whole affair.
A Press Favorite
In 1995, back in private life, Colin Powell
was still remembered as the confetti-covered hero of Desert Storm.
A star-struck national press corps seemed eager to hoist the four-star
general onto its shoulders and into the Oval Office.
Any hint of a Powell interest in the White
House made headlines. Without doubt, Powell was a good story,
potentially the first black American president. But some journalists
seemed to embrace Powell because they disdained his rivals, from
Newt Gingrich to Bill Clinton.
Newsweek was one of the first publications
to catch the Powell presidential wave. In its Oct. 10, 1994, issue,
the magazine posed the hyperbolic query: "Can Colin Powell
Save America?" Powell was portrayed as a man of consummate
judgment, intelligence and grace.
Not to be outdone, Time endorsed Powell
as the "ideal candidate" for president. In Time's view,
Powell was "the perfect anti-victim, validating America's
fondest Horacio Alger myth that a black man with few advantages
can rise to the top without bitterness and without forgetting
who he is." [Time, March 13, 1995]
Soon, Time was detecting near-super-human
powers: Powell could defy aging and even the middle-age paunch.
While Jesse Jackson had grown "older, paunchier and less
energetic," Powell was "the Persian Gulf War hero who
exudes strength, common sense and human values like no one else
on the scene." [Time, Aug. 28, 1995]
But the newsmagazines were not alone in
the accolades. Surveying the media scene, press critic Howard
Kurtz marveled at how many supposedly hard-edged journalists were
swooning at Powell's feet.
"Even by the standards of modern
media excess, there has never been anything quite like the way
the press is embracing, extolling and flat-out promoting this
retired general who has never sought public office," Kurtz
wrote. [Washington Post, Sept. 13, 1995]
In fall 1995, as the Republican presidential
field took shape, Newsweek jumped back into the Powell love-fest.
Columnist Joe Klein offered the insight that "the key to
the race" was the recognition that "ideas are not important."
Instead of ideas, "stature is everything."
Klein declared. "But if ideas don't matter, what does? Civility
does." [Newsweek, Nov. 13, 1995]
It seemed Powell had cornered the market
on stature and civility.
Even normally clear-eyed journalists had
their vision clouded by Powell fever. Rolling Stone's cogent analyst
William Greider reprised the theme of Powell as the nation's savior.
"Luck walks in the door, and its
name is Colin Powell," Greider proclaimed. He lauded the
general with descriptions such as "confident," "candid,"
"a tonic for the public spirit." [Rolling Stone, Nov.
In one rare dissent, The New Republic's
Charles Lane reviewed Powell's second year-long stint in Vietnam
in 1968-69. The article focused on the letter from Americal soldier
Tom Glen who complained to the U.S. high command about a pattern
of atrocities against civilians, encompassing the My Lai massacre.
When Glen's letter reached Powell, the
fast-rising Army major at Americal headquarters conducted a cursory
investigation and dismissed the young soldier's concerns.
"In direct refutation of this portrayal,"
Powell told the Americal's adjutant general, "is the fact
that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people
are excellent." [For details, see Part One of this series.]
Only later did other Americal veterans,
most notably Ron Ridenhour, expose the truth about My Lai and
the abuse of Vietnamese civilians. "There is something missing,"
Lane observed, "from the legend of Colin Powell, something
epitomized, perhaps, by that long-ago brush-off of Tom Glen."
[The New Republic, April 17, 1995]
After Lane's article, a prominent Washington
Post columnist rallied to Powell's defense. Richard Harwood, a
former Post ombudsman, scolded Lane for his heresy, for trying
"to deconstruct the image of Colin Powell." Harwood
attacked this "revisionist view" which faulted Powell
for "what he didn't do" and for reducing Powell's "life
to expedient bureaucratic striving."
Harwood fretted that other reporters might
join the criticism. "What will other media do with this tale?"
Harwood worried. "Does it become part of a new media technique
by which indictments are made on the basis of might-have-beens
and should-have-dones?" [Washington Post, April 10, 1995]
But Harwood's fears were unfounded. The
national media closed ranks behind Powell. Not only did the media
ignore Powell's troubling actions in Vietnam, but the press turned
a blind eye to Powell's dubious roles in the Iran-contra scandal
and other national security foul-ups of the Reagan-Bush era.
The Book Tour
For the media, it was time for Powell-mania,
a phenomenon that reached a frenzied climax in fall 1995 with
the general's book tour and the will-he-or-won't-he drama about
Powell running for president.
Then, in early November 1995, Powell said
no to entering the presidential race and the media's balloon deflated
with an almost audible whoosh. The disappointment was palpable
as journalists filled a Northern Virginia banquet hall to hear
Powell make the announcement.
The rest of that week, The New York Times
op-ed page could have been draped in black crepe. Columnist Maureen
Dowd compared her disappointment to Francesca's pining over her
abortive love affair with Robert Kincaid in The Bridges of Madison
"The graceful, hard male animal who
did nothing overtly to dominate us yet dominated us completely,
in the exact way we wanted that to happen at this moment, like
a fine leopard on the veld, was gone," Dowd wrote, mimicking
the novel's overwrought style. "'Don't leave, Colin Powell,'
I could hear myself crying from somewhere inside." [NYT,
Nov. 9, 1995]
Liberal and middle-of-the-road commentators
were especially crushed. Columnists Anthony Lewis, A.M. Rosenthal
and Bob Herbert proved that Dowd's column was not just satire.
Lewis informed readers that Americans
"across the political spectrum ... had just seen the dignity,
the presence, the directness they long for in a president."
Rosenthal proclaimed Powell to be "graceful, decisive, courteous,
warm, also candid." Herbert hailed Powell as "honest,
graceful, strong, intelligent, modest and resolute." [NYT,
Nov. 10, 1995]
Though also smitten by the Powell charisma,
Frank Rich recognized that political reporters were acting a lot
like love-sick adolescents. "The press coverage will surely,
with hindsight, make for hilarious reading," Rich observed.
[NYT, Nov. 11, 1995]
In the years that followed -- as Powell
remained a figure of great national respect, earning millions
of dollars on the lecture circuit -- there has been little of
that critical hindsight.
Thousands of words have been devoted to
commenting about Colin Powell's political future, virtually all
of them positive. His selection as secretary of state by President-elect
George W. Bush -- as Bush's first appointment following his tainted
victory -- was hailed by the news media with near universal praise.
Throughout the many years of Powell's
presence on the national stage, there has been precious little
interest in searching for the truth behind Colin Powell's legend.