February 5, 2008—It is a difficult anniversary to “celebrate” – Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity’s first publication, a same-day critique of Colin Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003, UN address – since what he said helped grease the skids for incalculable death and destruction in Iraq and brought shame on our country.
Little did we know at the time that a month later Colin Powell, with then-CIA Director George Tenet sitting conspicuously behind him, would provide the world a textbook example of careerism and cowardice in cooking intelligence to the recipe of his master.
It was hardly Powell’s first display of abject obedience.
Some biographers have traced the pattern back to his early days as an Army officer in Vietnam and later as an Iran-Contra accomplice while serving as military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the 1980s. [See Chapter 8 of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.]
A year before his UN speech, rather than confront President George W. Bush personally on White House pressure for legal wiggle-room for torture, Powell asked State Department lawyers to engage White House lawyers Alberto Gonzales and Cheney favorite David Addington, in what Powell knew would be a quixotic effort, absent his personal involvement.
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.”
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 (Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) of that story.
Powell was right, but lacked the strength of his convictions. Turns out that key instance of obeisance – important as it was in its own right – was just practice for Powell.
When our fledgling VIPS learned that Powell would address the UN, 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, or Castro gave a major address.
We were only too well accustomed to the imperative to beat the media with our commentary. Coordinating our Powell effort via e-mail, we issued VIPS’ first Memorandum for the President at 5:15 p.m. – “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.”
And we warned the president:
“Intelligence community analysts are finding it hard to make themselves heard above the drumbeat for war.”
And we voiced our distress at “the politicization of intelligence,” as well as the deep flaws:
“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 rhetoric claiming that the evidence he presented was “irrefutable,” we noted, “No one has a corner on the truth,” and warned the president:
“But 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.”
Five years later, we take no pleasure at having been right; we take considerable pain at having been ignored.
It was a no-brainer, and serious specialists like former UN inspector Scott Ritter, to his credit, were shouting it from the rooftops.
And here is more than a mere footnote. Folks should know 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.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. A veteran of 27 years in the analytic ranks of CIA, he is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. VIPS’ issuances are listed below; complete texts can be found at afterdowningstreet.org/vips.
Below is the full text of the VIPS’ first issuance, a Memorandum for the President, Feb. 5, 2003:
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.
This story was published on February 6, 2008.