Questions for Powell

Questions for Powell

Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell needs to explain his participation in several sordid episodes of the United States’ past.


Colin Powell, George W. Bush’s designated Secretary of State, is a national icon, with a personal story celebrated by millions. When he hits Capitol Hill for his confirmation, he can expect to receive a fair dose of senatorial genuflection. But the retired general does not deserve hands-off hearings. On policy matters, he may be asked to explain the so-called Powell Doctrine (which calls for an overwhelming use of force when the military is unleashed), his initial skepticism toward US involvement in the Gulf War and his advocacy of a Pentagon budget that would permit the United States to fight two regional conflicts simultaneously. Such matters could be respectfully broached by senators. But there are also some indelicate questions about Powell’s past deeds–queries that challenge the image of Powell the Hero–that ought to be posed.

§ My Lai. In July 1968, Powell was sent to Vietnam and assigned to the Americal Division as an executive officer. On March 16, 1968, troops from this division had slaughtered more than 300 civilians in the hamlet of My Lai, and the massacre went unreported. In December 1968, after Powell had been promoted to operations officer at division headquarters, he was forwarded a letter written by Tom Glen, a former GI, who criticized the American military for brutalizing civilians, torturing prisoners and for, “without provocation or justification,” shooting at “the people themselves.” As The New Republic reported in 1995, Powell was told to check out the allegations, which did not mention My Lai. Powell interviewed a few officers and reported that there was nothing to Glen’s assertions. He didn’t bother to ask Glen for more specific information. Powell did not mention this inquiry in his 1995 memoir, An American Journey. He did, however, recall the occasion in March 1969, when an Army investigator visited his office and asked to see the enemy-kill records of March 1968. Powell found a high number–128–for March 16 and read the number into the investigator’s tape recorder. (That investigator, who was probing specific allegations about My Lai, subsequently reported that there had been no massacre.) In his autobiography, Powell noted that his “curiosity” was aroused by the investigator. But he did not pursue the matter. Why not? And why had he taken a less-than-vigorous approach when conducting the earlier investigation? Why didn’t he seek more information from Glen? Once the My Lai story broke in November 1969, why didn’t Powell look into whether he had been lied to by his fellow officers? Moreover, what did he learn from this experience about conducting internal investigations within a bureaucracy?

§ Human rights abuses. In the 1980s Powell served on Ronald Reagan’s national security team. He was the special military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger from 1983 to 1986, then deputy national security adviser from late 1986 to 1987 and, after that, National Security Adviser. Throughout the Reagan years, the Administration supported militaries in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras–and the contras in Nicaragua–which engaged in blatant human rights abuses, misdeeds that frequently were publicized by human rights advocates and dismissed by the Reagan Administration. In his book Powell noted that during his stint with Weinberger, he became “the chief administration advocate” for the contras. Referring to the corruption of several contra leaders, Powell wrote, “In the old days of East-West polarization, we worked with what we had.” What today might justify Washington’s support for corrupt or abusive forces abroad? Did Powell ever take an interest in the human-rights violations committed by the contras and the US-backed armies in Central America?

§ Iran/contra. In 1987 independent counsel Lawrence Walsh asked Weinberger to hand over records regarding the Iran/contra scandal. Weinberger produced a modest amount of nonincriminating material. That same year, Congressional investigators questioned Powell about the scandal and asked whether Weinberger maintained a diary. In sworn testimony, Powell replied, “The secretary, to my knowledge, did not keep a diary.” In 1991 Walsh discovered that Weinberger had written thousands of pages of diary notes–which included material contradicting his Iran/contra testimony. A grand jury indicted Weinberger for concealing these records. Weinberger’s lawyers asked Powell for a sworn statement in which he would confirm that Weinberger had not treated these diaries as secret material that could be hidden from Walsh. Powell obliged and declared, “I observed on his desk a small pad of white paper, approximately 5” X 7”. He would jot down on this pad in abbreviated form various calls and events during the day. I viewed it as his personal diary.” This sworn affidavit contradicted Powell’s 1987 sworn statement. In his final report, Walsh concluded that Powell’s 1987 testimony was “at least misleading” and “designed to protect Weinberger.” But Walsh opted not to prosecute Powell. In his memoirs Powell claimed that he told the investigators in 1987 that Weinberger kept notes but that he (Powell) had not considered these papers to be a diary until they were shown to him in 1991. But in 1987 Powell had not stated that Weinberger kept specific notes. And Walsh produced evidence indicating that Powell had actually helped create Weinberger’s daily diary entries. So why didn’t Powell in 1987 describe the diaries to the investigators in the detailed terms he used in 1991? According to his book, Powell waited for the investigators to “press” him with “follow-up questions” and said nothing more because they didn’t ask. Is this his view of cooperation with Congress–never volunteer?

§ Operation Just Cause. In December 1989 Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oversaw the US invasion of Panama. As American troops pursued narco-dictator and onetime US asset Manuel Noriega, they swept through El Chorrillo, a poor neighborhood in Panama City, and many civilians were caught in the combat. At first, the Pentagon referred to civilian casualties vaguely as “collateral damage.” Two weeks later–after Noriega was nabbed–the Pentagon announced that 201 Panamanian civilians had been killed (and twenty-three American troops). Several months later, Americas Watch, a human rights organization, released a report finding that US forces had violated the Geneva Conventions by failing to minimize harm to the civilian population. The report noted that the “command of the American forces also failed to live up to its duties as to the collection of and accounting for the wounded and the dead among civilians.” And a Physicians for Human Rights inquiry found that at least 300 civilians had died in the invasion, that 3,000 Panamanians received serious injuries during the operation and that 15,000 Panamanians were displaced (of which only 3,000 received US assistance). In his book, Powell concluded that Just Cause confirmed the Powell Doctrine: “Use all the force necessary and do not apologize for going in big if that’s what it takes.” Why did his military not conduct a thorough evaluation of civilian casualties and better tend to the displaced and injured? How does he reconcile the Powell Doctrine with the Geneva Conventions?

§ Gulf War Syndrome. The Persian Gulf War turned Powell into a star. But in the years following Desert Storm, thousands of vets developed a variety of illnesses. As of the end of 1999, 184,000 of the 697,000 Gulf War troops had filed disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs, of which 136,000 were approved. The VA has acknowledged that Gulf War veterans suffer from chronic and ill-defined symptoms, including fatigue and neurocognitive and musculoskeletal problems. The Pentagon concedes that 100,000 US troops were exposed to low levels of nerve gas. Veterans advocates have accused Powell of being MIA on Gulf War Syndrome. “Four to five years ago, Gulf War vets were being turned away from the VA,” says Charles Sheehan-Miles, a director of the National Gulf War Resource Center and a healthy Gulf War tank crewman. “You’d expect the military leaders would have something to say about that. We got silence from Powell, Schwarzkopf and Cheney. We wrote a couple of letters to Powell asking for help and never got a response. This was a severe disappointment.” In 1998, when studies showed that Gulf War vets were sick possibly due to nerve gas exposure, Powell, in an interview, downplayed the link between Gulf War service and illness. Why was Powell reluctant to recognize Gulf War syndrome? Why has he not been a vocal supporter of the troops who fought for him?

Not standing with sick veterans, misleading Congressional investigators, leaving the counting of civilian dead to others, participating in a foreign policy apparatus that ignored and discounted human rights violations, mounting a less-than-vigorous inquiry into charges of military atrocities–all is not glory with Colin Powell. It is unlikely senators will wade too far into the muck of Powell’s none-too-heroic past. Powell’s rise–often hailed as proof that the American Dream is real–demonstrates a potent political reality: Star-power shine can be a most effective camouflage.

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