There is no one, it seems, that the U.S. mainstream news media loves more than Colin Powell, a “moderate” Republican who gives a careerist journalist the chance to do some smart positioning in the “center.” But the truth about this retired four-star general is that he is the ultimate careerist.
That was apparent again during Powell’s May 24 interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” as Powell juxtaposed himself as the reasonable Republican in contrast to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who vowed last week that there was “no middle ground” in the “war on terror.”
The press coverage of Powell’s CBS appearance focused on his reaffirmation of his membership in the Republican Party – after Cheney and talk show host Rush Limbaugh suggested that he should or had already left the party – and on Powell’s reasonable talk about the GOP’s need to be “more inclusive.”
Given far less attention was Powell’s disingenuous response to Bob Schieffer’s question about the ex-Secretary of State’s knowledge regarding “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which the International Committee of the Red Cross and virtually all other objective observers say constituted torture.
Powell, who was a member of President George W. Bush’s Principals Committee which oversaw the interrogation policies, claimed to have been kept mostly out of the loop. He asserted that he was “not privy” to the legal memos authorizing the abusive treatment.
"I think it was unfortunate but we had a system that kept that in a very compartmented manner,” Powell said. “And so I was apart that these enhanced interrogation techniques were being considered. And they were judged not to be torture at the time."
Powell also repeated the all-purpose Cheney-Bush excuse for all manner of sins: “9/11.”
"Facing the possibility of a 9/11, you had to give some -- some flexibility to the CIA," Powell said. "It's easy now in the cold light of day to look back and say, you shouldn't have done any of that."
So what was it? Did Powell participate in the Principals Committee as it – according to some reports – “choreographed” the torture sessions or didn’t he? Did he favor giving the CIA “some flexibility” or was he “apart” from the abusive techniques, including the near-drowning of waterboarding, that he says “were judged not to be torture”?
For a Washington press corps that has been up in arms challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claim that the CIA obscured key details of the harsh interrogations from congressional leaders, it was impressive to see how little skepticism was evinced by Powell’s claim of ignorance from his seat on Bush’s Principals Committee.
Powell deflected attention from his dubious torture explanation by boldly rejecting one of the new absurd “wedge” issues developed by the Republican Right, that it would be dangerous to bring accused terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay prison to the United States for trial or incarceration. But Powell then maneuvered himself back to the “center” by also criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of the Guantanamo issue.
While saying that the Guantanamo prisoners could safely come to the United States, Powell faulted Obama for not moving faster on the prison closing and “frankly giving enough time to opponents of it to marshal their forces as to why we shouldn't do this."
But second-guessing by Colin Powell represents the classic case of a glass-house resident throwing stones. Throughout his career – dating back more than four decades – Powell has almost always taken the route of least resistance that pointed toward the top, but his actions have, in hindsight, failed the test of history.
From his whitewash investigation of My Lai-related complaints as a young Army officer to his key role giving legitimacy to George W. Bush’s presidency and the Iraq War, Powell almost always did what was best for his career, not for his country.
In the 1960s, during Powell’s two tours in Vietnam, he never joined with other U.S. military officers who risked their careers to warn their superiors about the brutal and self-defeating strategies that, eventually, ended up costing the lives of 58,000 Americans and millions of Indochinese.
Indeed, in his memoir, My American Journey, Powell justifies many of the worst tactics, such as burning down Vietnamese villages and shooting unarmed peasants from helicopters, acts that objectively would constitute war crimes.
During his first tour in 1963, Powell describes his work as an adviser to a South Vietnamese army unit that systematically destroyed the homes and food stocks of villagers who were believed sympathetic to the Viet Cong.
“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?”
On his second tour in 1968, as an executive officer for the Americal Division, Powell was asked to investigate allegations from a distraught U.S. soldier who was aware of brutality committed by other Americal Division soldiers against Vietnamese civilians and captives. This complaint was an early official warning about the My Lai massacre, which an Americal unit had committed several months earlier.
However, for Colin Powell, it was another chance to impress the brass. Without interviewing the soldier, Cpl. Tom Glen, 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.
After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on Dec. 13, 1968, admitting no pattern of wrongdoing. “In direct refutation of this [Glen’s] portrayal,” Powell wrote, “is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
It would take another Americal Division veteran, 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 the massacre.
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 contrast to Powell’s review. Courts martial were held against officers and enlisted men who were implicated in the murder of the My Lai civilians.
In his memoir, Powell did not mention his brush-off of Tom Glen’s complaint, but did include another troubling recollection that belied a statement in his 1968 report, in which he had denied that U.S. soldiers “without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves.”
“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 a war crime.
Neither can the combat death of a fellow soldier be cited as an excuse to murder civilians. That was precisely the rationalization that the My Lai killers cited in their own defense.
After returning home from Vietnam in 1969, Powell was drawn into another Vietnam controversy involving the killing of civilians. In a court martial, 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 for sport.
In an interview in 1995, a senior Army investigator from the Donaldson case told me 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 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 at Americal headquarters 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 added that helicopter forays in Vietnam had been an “effective means of separating hostiles from the general population.”
In the 1995 interview, the old Army investigator told me 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.
But this complex and troubling history of Powell's time in Vietnam is routinely white-washed by Washington journalists who uniformly treat Powell with the respect owed a genuine war hero. The U.S. news media’s fawning over Colin Powell also has not been a victimless exercise.
By holding Powell up as a near-perfect hero, journalists have allowed Powell to steer public opinion at key moments – from his work containing the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s, to his political embrace of George W. Bush during the Florida recount battle in 2000, to his selling of the Iraq War in 2003, to his support for Bush’s second term in 2004. [For more details on Powell’s record, see our book Neck Deep.]
Now, at this late date, the Washington press corps doesn’t want to spoil its splendid narrative of Colin Powell's heroic career by concentrating too much on his role on Bush’s Principals Committee as it oversaw torture.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on May 25, 2009.