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February 7, 2008

Powell's UN Fiasco: Fresh and Festering

by Ray McGovern

Yesterday was a difficult day for Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. It was hard to celebrate the fifth anniversary of our first corporate memorandum, a same-day critique of Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2002 UN address, when we could not escape the reality that this speech greased the skids for death and destruction in Iraq and brought unprecedented shame on our country. We found no solace in the realization that those who saw our analysis should have seen disaster coming.

A handful of former CIA intelligence officers joined me in forming the VIPS movement in Jan. 2002, after we concluded that our profession had been corrupted to "justify" what was, pure and simple, a war of aggression. Little did we know at the time that a month later Colin Powell, with then-CIA Director George Tenet plumped down conspicuously behind him, would provide the world with a textbook example of careerism and cowardice in cooking intelligence to the recipe of his master.

Powell's Prior Practice

It was hardly Powell's first display of such behavior.

Those able to look past the medals and ribbons have been able to trace a pattern of malleability back to Powell's early days as a young Army officer in Vietnam, and then in the 1980s as an Iran-Contra accomplice together with his boss Casper Weinberger, then secretary of defense. Weinberger was indicted for perjury but escaped trial when pardoned by George H. W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992. [See Chapter 8 of Robert Parry's new book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, for more on Powell's proclivity to pander.]

A year before his UN speech Powell winked at the introduction of torture into the Army's repertoire, rather than confront President George W. Bush personally on the pressure that Vice President Dick Cheney was exerting to conjure up legal wiggle-room for torture. Instead, Powell merely asked State Department lawyers to engage White House lawyers Alberto Gonzales and Cheney-favorite David Addington, in what Powell knew would be – absent his personal involvement – a quixotic effort.

Powell's lawyers put in writing his concern that making an end-run around the Geneva protections for prisoners of war "could undermine U.S. military culture which emphasizes maintaining the highest standards of conduct in combat, and could introduce an element of uncertainty in the status of adversaries." Well, he got that right.

But when Gonzales and Addington simply declared parts of Geneva "quaint" and "obsolete," Powell caved, acquiescing in the corruption of the Army to which he owed so much. We know the next chapters of that story – Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Powell's instincts were right, but he lacked the strength of his convictions. It turns out that this key instance of abject obeisance – important as it was in its own right – was just practice for the super bowl at the UN.

VIPS' Maiden Effort

When those of us in our fledgling VIPS movement learned that Powell would address the UN on Feb. 5, 2003, we decided to do a same-day analytic assessment – the kind we used to do when someone like Khrushchev, or Gorbachev, or Gromyko, or Mao Tse-dung, or Castro gave a major address. We were well accustomed to the imperative to beat the media with our commentary. Coordinating our Powell draft via email, at 5:15 p.m. we issued VIPS' first Memorandum for the President: "Subject: Today's Speech by Secretary Powell at the UN."

Our understanding at that time was far from perfect. It was not yet completely clear to us, for example, that Saddam Hussein had for the most part been abiding by, rather than flouting, UN resolutions. We stressed, though, that the key question was whether any of this justified war:

"This is the question the world is asking. Secretary Powell's presentation does not come close to answering it."

We warned the president of the "politicization of intelligence" and the deep analytical flaws that inevitably follow, for example:

"Intelligence community analysts are finding it hard to make themselves heard above the drumbeat for war..."

"Your Pentagon advisers draw a connection between war with Iraq and terrorism, but for the wrong reasons. The connection takes on much more reality in a post-US invasion scenario (bold in original). Indeed, it is our view that an invasion of Iraq would ensure overflowing recruitment centers for terrorists into the indefinite future. Far from eliminating the threat it would enhance it exponentially."

Dissociating VIPS from Powell's bravado claim that the evidence he presented was "irrefutable," we noted that no one has a corner on the truth and ended our memo for President Bush with this observation:

"...after watching Secretary Powell today, we are convinced you would be well served if you widened the discussion beyond violations of Resolution 1441, and beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic."

Senator Clinton Knew

Five years later, we take no pleasure at having been right; we take considerable pain at having been ignored. The impending debacle was a no-brainer, and serious specialists like former UN inspector Scott Ritter, to his credit, were shouting it from the rooftops.

What follows is more than a mere footnote. It is not widely known that our Feb. 5, 2003 memorandum analyzing Powell's speech was shared with the junior senator from New York. Thus, she still had plenty of time to raise her voice before the Bush administration launched the fateful attack on Iraq on March 19.

An earlier version of this article appeared yesterday at Consortiumnews.com.


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Ray McGovern's Bio

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.

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