Issue 1: January/February

Colin Powell and Me

Tracking the Secretary’s Crucial UN Speech

It was almost a year ago that Secretary of State Colin Powell stood before the world to plead the case for war. So compelling was the presentation that most Americans, reluctantly or eagerly, rallied to the cause. Powell’s speech also won the minds of the editorial boards of the nation’s mainstream press on the urgent question of whether Iraq indeed possessed weapons of mass destruction. Next-day editorials typically judged the evidence to be “powerful” . . . “massive” . . . “overwhelming” . . . and “unassailable.” Six months later, in a piece picked up by scores of newspapers all around the country, Charles J. Hanley, a special correspondent for The Associated Press, examined retrospectively, and point by point, Powell’s specific assertions about chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in Iraq, measuring each assertion against the counterposing facts that had since emerged. Under Hanley’s lens, Powell’s big speech looked far less impressive. Hanley’s critique also noted that in translating a videotaped conversation between Iraqi officials, Powell had made it more incriminating than it actually was, as had been reported originally by Gilbert Cranberg a few days after the speech. Cranberg, formerly of The Des Moines Register, has continued to pursue the subject.

Colin Powell denies that he misled anyone in his February 5 Saddam-is-a-liar-and-menace-let’s-go-to-war speech to the United Nations. That’s odd, because there’s compelling evidence that, at the very least, he fabricated quotes in the speech. Fabricate: to concoct, to invent falsely, to make up with intent to deceive. If Powell did not fabricate, why does the State Department give such a convincing impersonation of a cover-up?

Powell illustrated his remarks with audio and visual aids. At one point, he presented a tape recording of an intercepted conversation between two Iraqi military officers, along with a slide that carried the English translation of their Arabic words. According to the translation, an officer at Iraqi Republican Guard Headquarters instructed a field officer to “inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas” for forbidden ammunition; in Powell’s hyped version, that became an order to “clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas.” And to that, Powell added, “Make sure there is nothing there,” an incriminating but invented quote missing from the official State Department translation.

Within days of the speech, I asked the State Department’s press and public affairs offices to explain the discrepancy. Their nonanswer: visit the department’s Web site. But instead of shedding light on the discrepancy, the site confirmed that Powell had indeed twisted the facts. In an op-ed piece written later that February, I charged that Powell had “embellished” the quote, and accused him of “deception.” The piece drew no State Department rebuttal when it ran in The Des Moines Register and in a couple of Florida papers. Well, it was the hinterlands.

Four months later, on June 29, a modified version of my article was published in the Outlook section of The Washington Post, smack in the State Department’s own backyard. In that piece I wrote that Powell had “embroidered,” “misrepresented,” and “embellished” the intercept. Again, no reaction; nor did the State Department react when an Associated Press reference to the bogus quote was widely published in August. So in September I revisited the State Department’s press office for another stab at learning why Powell had put words in the mouths of the Iraqi military.

A press officer, Melinda Sofen, said that Powell “is firm that what he put forward to the UN was solid,” and she referred me to his appearance on George Stephanopoulos’s September 28 This Week show. That’s unresponsive, I said, since, in that interview, as in others, Powell had generally upheld what he said about weapons of mass destruction, while I was asking about a specific misrepresentation. Sofen said the issue would have to be addressed at a “higher level.”

Meanwhile, scrolling through the “What the Secretary Has Been Saying” section of the department’s Web site, I found a September 22 Powell interview with Charlie Rose in which Powell declared, “Everything I said that day [at the UN], with the director of Central Intelligence sitting behind me, was supported by the intelligence community.” So, next stop, CIA public affairs. Had the CIA signed off on the intercept portion of Powell’s speech? “Go back to the State Department; they speak for Powell.” When I said that wasn’t helpful, public affairs explained, “Being helpful is not part of my job.”

Back at the State Department, the “higher level” was Price B. Floyd of media outreach. Floyd disputed that I was a journalist. He dismissed my Washington Post article as “not an article, but opinion.” As for my question, Floyd said that Powell had been asked innumerable times about the February 5 speech and had said each time that “he stands by every word in the talk.” When I reminded him that I was not interested in what Powell has said about weapons of mass destruction but rather in the question of whether he misrepresented the intercept, Floyd said that Powell had been asked and responded to that many times. Prodded to cite an instance where such a question had been asked and answered, Floyd said he was not going to do my research for me. Floyd, responding to my reaction: “You don’t have to yell.”

In a subsequent exchange of e-mails, Floyd recalled that he’d told me numerous times how Powell defended the veracity of his UN speech. “As to your specific question about intercepts, maybe you should direct these questions to the Public Affairs Office of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

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