Challenged by veteran CIA analyst Ray McGovern to explain why he had claimed to "know" before the invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction when that suggestion had been repeatedly called into question, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tried to use former Secretary of State Colin Powell as a human shield.
From the crowd at an Atlanta gathering of the Southern Center for International Studies, McGovern asked: "Why did you lie to get us into a war that caused these kind of casualties and was not necessary?"
Rumsfeld replied, "Well, first of all, I haven't lied. I did not lie then. Colin Powell didn't lie. He spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence Agency people and prepared a presentation that I know he believed was accurate, and he presented that to the United Nations. The president spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence people and he went to the American people and made a presentation. I'm not in the intelligence business. They gave the world their honest opinion. It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there."
What Rumsfeld failed to mention is the hard evidence that Powell was pressured by Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and others to make far more aggressive statements regarding WMDs than the Secretary of State thought to be appropriate.
British scholar Philippe Sands, the author of the very fine book Lawless World and perhaps the most dogged investigator of the internal discussions involving the cabinets of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair prior to the war, has revealed that Powell shared his doubts with his British counterpart before speaking to the United Nations in February, 2003.
Referring to a memorandum containing details of a meeting between Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Sands pointed out during a March, 2006, interview on MSNBC that, "[There's] now no shred of doubt and there's been no denial, you will have noticed, as to the contents of the memorandum that the decision was indeed taken in January before Colin Powell went [to the UN]. In fact, one other aspect that I've described in my book, Lawless World, that hasn't emerged so much in the New York Times memo is another memo which records a conversation between Colin Powell and his counterpart in the United Kingdom, Jack Straw, which makes it clear that in Colin Powell's eyes if there wasn't enough evidence for a second Security Council resolution, then there wasn't enough evidence to justify the U.S. going it alone."
"So," Sands explained, "Colin Powell was spot on, but it seems he was overridden by a president and others in the administration who were absolutely committed to taking the United States to war, tragically in erroneous circumstances, irrespective of what the inspectors found."
The fact that Powell had been presented with information that cast into doubt the claims he would make to the UN was confirmed by his former chief of staff at the State Department, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who said in a February, 2006, interview on the PBS program NOW: "[The] Intelligence Bureau and the State Department at this time we were preparing Secretary Powell dissented on one key issue. And they essentially said there was no active nuclear program in Iraq."
Wilkerson has detailed the work of Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of what refers to as their "cabal" to hijack what should have been a serious examination of the intelligence regarding Iraq. He has also revealed that Powell was troubled by the over-the-top claims contained in the "script" the White House initially asked him to read from at the UN. Ultimately, Powell was pressured by Cheney and others to deliver a version of the speech that, while toned down in some areas, still contained claims based on statements by sources that had been discredited within the intelligence community.
The point here is not to make a hero of Powell. There is every reason to continue the debate about whether Powell was duped or whether he gave in to the intense pressure from Cheney, Rumsfeld and their aides in order to maintain his political viability. There is no question, however, that the former Secretary of State and those around him quickly came to be embarrassed by the roles they were forced to play. Indeed, for most of the last year in which they worked together in the White House, the split between the Cheney and Rumsfeld camp and the Powell camp was so severe that the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense rarely spoke with the Secretary of State.
Of his own participation in the preparations for the UN speech, Wilkerson says, "It makes me feel terrible. I've said in other places that it... constitutes the lowest point in my professional life. My participation in that presentation at the UN constitutes the lowest point in my professional life. I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations Security Council. How do you think that makes me feel? Thirty-one years in the United States Army and I more or less end my career with that kind of a blot on my record? That's not a very comforting thing."
Powell, it should be noted, has not distanced himself from Wilkerson's remarks.
As for Rumsfeld, he can say that he "did not lie." But he cannot claim that his statement in Atlanta was an honest one. He knows that his reference to Powell was an attempt to deflect blame from himself. He also knows the real story of how he and Cheney pressured Powell to make the "case" for war using dubious and discredited intelligence. And, above all, he knows that any attempt to link his own statements and actions with those of Powell is spin rather than an honest response to the most fundamental of all questions regarding this administration's high crimes and misdemeanors.