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?