Bush’s "Teflon" secretary has built his career on playing it safe
In the controversy over the half truths and outright lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, one top US official has remained above the fray. Yet, it was Secretary of State Colin Powell, darling of the US media, who made the key February 5 presentation to the United Nations that most persuasively outlined the US argument for war.
Then came the revelation: the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the State Department’s Intelligence Analysis Unit, along with experts from the Department of Energy, had advised Powell that the evidence he planned to use, supposedly proving that Saddam Hussein intended to re-start a nuclear weapons program, was "questionable." The ever dutiful servant of power proceeded away, making the dubious case for invasion.
As usual, much of the US media gave Powell the benefit of the doubt. After all, he’s a dove, right? A voice of moderation, struggling to survive among the hawks in the Bush administration? A headline published by USA Today the day after Powell’s UN speech graphically illustrated the media’s crush: "Case is stronger when biggest dove makes it."
Given all this, can we really expect the mainstream media to take the gloves off and do some hard investigative reporting on the Powell-intelligence connection? It’s a big story, but don’t hold your breath.
If Powell had used his authority and stature to treat the "intelligence" information as he reportedly described it in private ("bullshit" was the precise phrase), the relentless push to war might have sputtered, or at least slowed down long enough for some rationality to re-emerge in the formation of US foreign policy. Imagine the impact if the Secretary of State, the official with more credibility than any other Bush official, had said: "I can’t present this garbage to the world. Take it out or I’ll resign."
But he didn’t. Instead, he presented blurry photographs to make the administration’s case. Powell’s message to a skeptical world audience: Trust me when I say Saddam is trying to re-start his nuclear weapons program.
Six months later, he admitted what many have been saying for more than a year: that he won’t remain at the State Department even if President Bush is re-elected, According to the Washington Post on August 4, however, his official reasons for leaving are personal, not any differences over foreign policy.
Not since Ronald Reagan more than 15 years ago has the US seen someone like Powell – a "Teflon" statesman. The day after his UN speech, journalist Norman Solomon wrote on the website of Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR), a US-based media watch dog group, that "there is no doubt about it. Colin Powell is a great performer, as he showed yet again at the UN Security Council. On television, he exudes confidence and authoritative judgment. But Powell owes much of his touted credibility to the fact that he is functioning inside a media bubble that protects him from direct challenge."
Facilitating Cover Ups
For Solomon and other journalists who manage to shield themselves from the strong glare of the Powell charisma, the Secretary of State’s performance at the UN was a déj-vu experience. He may look like a dove, talk like dove and walk like a dove, but a review of his career reveals that he’s as hawkish as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, or other leading figures in the Bush league.
Consider his combat record. Clearly a war hero in Vietnam, he received two Purple Hearts, including one for saving comrades from a burning helicopter. But the image of the reluctant warrior who believes in using force only as a last option is shattered by Powell’s own words. In his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell reveals that he saw nothing wrong with the common Vietnam War practice of firing a machine gun burst from a helicopter in front of any Vietnamese peasant who looked "really suspicious." Defending his view, Powell wrote, "If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front of him. Brutal? Maybe so. The killed-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong."
Writing about his first tour in Vietnam, Powell also defended the US military practice of applying Zippo lighters to the britches of Vietnamese civilians. As FAIR points out, "When journalists who yearned for Colin Powell read his memoirs, they took almost no note of Powell’s strong lack of compassion when civilians were dying."
This is not the philosophy of a dove. As for "perceptions of right and wrong," there’s his connection to one of Vietnam’s most infamous incidents – the My Lai Massacre. Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Christopher Hitchens charged that "as a staff major in Vietnam, Colin Powell played a direct role in suppressing the inquiry into the My Lai massacre and related atrocities against civilians."
The accusation that he played a "direct role" remains debatable, yet there is solid evidence he did nothing to help expose some of the abuses that led to the killing of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. In researching their book, Four Hours in My Lai, British journalists Michel Bolton and Kevin Sim discovered a letter in the National Archives in Washington, DC from Tom Glen, a young US soldier who had served in Vietnam. Written in November 1968, it was addressed to General Creighton Abrams and described how some US soldiers were abusing Vietnamese civilians and captured Viet Cong suspects.
In 1996, Robert Perry and Norman Solomon described the letter in FAIR’s publication EXTRA. "Glen’s overall complaints encompassed some of the atrocities later dubbed ÔThe My Lai Massacre’ (which had occurred on March 16, 1968)," they wrote. "Though Glen made no specific reference to My Lai, he expressed deep concern about American troops who Ôwithout provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves’."
When Glen’s letter landed on Powell’s desk, he did a quick investigation, but didn’t interview the soldier and dismissed his charge as unfounded. In a memo dated December 13, 1968, Powell wrote: "In the direct refutation of the portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." Case closed.
This wasn’t the only time Powell’s image could have been challenged by the mainstream media – if only it was willing. In 1995, for instance, when Powell was being discussed as a potential candidate for President, embarrassing allegations leaked out about his role in the Iran-Contra affair. Oliver North apparently kept Powell fully informed about the arms for hostages negotiations. When Congress asked about the affair, Powell claimed he couldn’t remember. Another case closed.
The Company He Keeps
Questions have also been raised about Powell’s military leadership and competence, especially in waging the first Gulf War and handling the 1993 military disaster in Somalia. But professional competence doesn’t really matter, if you’re adept at networking and willing to adjust your views to support the current position of your sponsors.
A number of influential Republicans, including George Bush, Sr., Dick Cheney, Richard Armitage, Casper Weinberger and Frank C. Carlucci, have helped Powell move up the career ladder. Based on his status a protégé of Bush Sr., Powell’s detractors have labeled him an "SOB" (Son of a Bush).
Let’s look at some of the movers and shakers who have taught Powell the political ropes. Casper Weinberger, under whom Powell served in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), was pardoned by Bush, Sr. for his role in the illegal Iran-Contra affair. Carlucci, Weinberger’s assistant in the OMB, was accused of supervising the CIA plot that led to the assassination of the Congolese president Patrice Lumumba.
Five months after Lumumba’s death, Carlucci was expelled from the Congo. Four years later, he was expelled again, this time from his CIA post in Tanzania. In that case, he was accused of trying to assassinate the Burundi Prime Minister Rene Ngendandumwe.
Richard Armitage, whom Powell called "my brother and my bodyguard" in his autobiography, was accused of moving heroin from the Golden Triangle to the Golden Crescent so it could be used against Russian troops in Afghanistan. In his book Called to Serve, Colonel James "Bo" Gritz, a former Green Beret, alleged that Armitage was a close confidant of Khu Sa, the legendary Golden Triangle heroin trafficker. Today, Armitage is Powell’s top aide in the State Department.
As for Dick Cheney, whose cozy connection to Big Business is well known, a Federal court is currently considering a lawsuit that charges he misled investors while an executive at Haliburton Company, a multi-billion dollar oil-service company. Haliburton, of course, is now profiting from Iraq’s post-war reconstruction.
Powell’s detractors also charge he has been given an easy ride throughout his career due to his skin color. This is controversial talk in "politically correct" times; you can’t be too critical of a media darling who happens to be black without risking accusations of racism. Yet some black leaders aren’t impressed with the man many call a perfect role model for young African Americans.
During a November 2002 radio interview in San Diego, for example, Harry Belafonte slammed Powell as a sell out to the black race. Belafonte pointedly compared Powell to a plantation slave, adding that "when Colin Powell dares to suggest other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back to pasture."
But don’t bet on that happening soon. A careful but ambitious man, Powell has been compared to the popular general and president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. If the Bush administration needs some extra cover during what may yet become an Iraq War scandal before the next election, it will no doubt call again on their faithful servant to make the case.