*WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE -- OCTOBER 1, 2006*
*Falling on His Sword*
Colin Powell's most significant moment turned out to be his lowest
*BY KAREN DEYOUNG -* /This article is excerpted from Soldier: The Life
of Colin Powell/
ON WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2004, eight days after the president he
served was elected to a second term, Secretary of State Colin Powell
received a telephone call from the White House at his State Department
office. The caller was not President Bush but Chief of Staff Andrew
Card, and he got right to the point.
time-honored formulation that avoided the words "resign" or "fire." He
noted briskly that there had been some discussion of having Powell
remain until after Iraqi elections scheduled for the end of January, but
that the president had decided to take care of all Cabinet changes
sooner rather than later. Bush wanted Powell's resignation letter dated
two days hence, on Friday, November 12, Card said, although the White
House expected him to stay at the State Department until his successor
was confirmed by the Senate.
After four long years, Powell had anticipated the end of his service and
sometimes even longed for it. He had never directly told the president
but thought he had made clear to him during the summer of 2004 that he
did not intend to stay into a second term.
There had been public speculation as the election drew near that the
president might ask the secretary of state to reenlist, at least
temporarily. Powell was still the most popular member of Bush's team,
far more popular with the public than the president himself. Senior
Powell aides were convinced that the secretary anticipated an invitation
to stay, and they were equally certain that he intended to accept. The
approaching elections in Iraq, hints of progress in the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the rumored departure of Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a principal Powell nemesis, made the next six
months look like a rare period of promise for diplomacy.
The president himself made no contact with Powell after Card's call. For
two days, the only person at the State Department Powell told about it
was his deputy and friend of decades, Richard Armitage. Powell dropped
off his resignation letter, as instructed, after typing it himself on
his home computer. (The White House later pointed out a typo and sent it
back to be redone.) Loath to reveal either surprise or insult, he used
the letter to claim the decision to leave as his own.
"Dear Mr. President:" he wrote. "As we have discussed in recent months,
I believe that now that the election is over the time has come for me to
step down as Secretary of State . . . effective at your pleasure."
He was pleased, Powell said, to "have been part of a team that launched
the Global War Against Terror, liberated the Afghan and Iraqi people,
brought the attention of the world to the problem of proliferation,
reaffirmed our alliances, adjusted to the Post-Cold War World and
undertook major initiatives to deal with the problem of poverty and
disease in the developing world. In these and in so many other areas,
your leadership was the driving force of our success."
AFTER HIS DEPARTURE FROM THE STATE DEPARTMENT IN JANUARY 2005, Powell
traveled the lecture circuit, making paid speeches on leadership and
U.S. foreign policy to corporate boards and industry conventions. He
never spoke publicly about the specific circumstances of his resignation
as secretary of state except to say, when asked, that Cabinet reshuffles
were normal at the end of a four-year mandate, and that his departure
had been a "mutual decision" between him and the president.
He artfully brushed aside inquiries about the many published accounts of
deep ideological schisms that had rent Bush's national security team
throughout the first term and the private humiliations he reportedly had
endured at the hands of powerful colleagues.
Audiences often asked about his public role in promoting and defending
what many now consider to be the most ill-advised act of Bush's
presidency: the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Powell usually offered a
tepid defense, allowing only that he wished there had been more troops
committed to the war and its aftermath, and a better plan to rebuild the
Powell had thrown his considerable personal and professional reputation
behind the administration's charges that Iraq possessed chemical,
biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons, and posed an imminent
threat to the United States. In a crucial speech to the United Nations
Security Council six weeks before the invasion was launched, he had
single-handedly convinced many skeptical Americans that the threat posed
by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was real.
But the war had gone sour almost from the moment U.S. troops rolled
triumphantly into Baghdad two months later. Powell's credibility had
been seriously undermined when the weapons he cited as the main
justification for invasion turned out not to exist.
No one in his legions of admirers wanted to believe that Powell had been
duped by the White House -- or, worse yet, that he had knowingly
betrayed the nation's trust. Many assumed that he had privately argued
against such a clearly misguided adventure and been overruled.
In fact, Powell had never advised against the Iraq invasion, although he
had warned Bush of the difficulties and counseled patience. He had no
reason to resign over Iraq, he told questioners. But the larger mystery
of his tenure as the nation's chief diplomat, fourth in line for
succession to the presidency, remained.
When Bush selected Powell as his secretary of state in December 2000, it
was seen as a stroke of political genius that instantly assuaged
concerns at home and abroad about the president-elect's conspicuous lack
of foreign policy experience. As national security adviser to one
president and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under two more,
Powell had helped guide the nation through the end of the Cold War and
had brought the military to victory in the Persian Gulf War. By the time
he retired from the Army as a four-star general in 1993, he was a
national icon of wise leadership -- the "most trusted man in America,"
according to polls.
Yet Powell had constantly found himself on the losing side of regular
ideological combat inside the Bush administration, particularly against
Rumsfeld and the powerful vice president, Dick Cheney, over Iraq and a
host of other foreign policy issues. Though Powell had scored some
victories, the rumored humiliations had been real. He had been purposely
cut out of major foreign policy decisions more than once, and his advice
often had gone unheeded or been only grudgingly accepted by the
president. Why hadn't he resigned?
The easy answer had the virtue of truth: Soldiers didn't quit when they
disagreed with the decisions of their commanders. The fact that he had
been out of uniform for nearly a decade was irrelevant to Powell; he
would be a soldier until he drew his last breath.
AS TEXAS GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH BEGAN HIS CAMPAIGN FOR THE PRESIDENCY IN
1999, Powell's initial impression was that Bush was "still getting his
sea legs" on foreign policy and national security issues. Powell knew
"Sonny," as he referred to him, only in passing, and his private
preference was for another Republican candidate: Arizona Sen. John
McCain, a fellow military officer and Vietnam veteran.
But Powell had served in the administration of Bush's father and
considered himself part of the extended Bush family, with the personal
loyalty that kinship entailed. "It wasn't as if I was a stranger, or
that anybody had to worry or could imagine that I would not be for Sonny
when the time came," he later reflected. He wrote a $1,000 check to
McCain and contributed an equal amount to Bush.
Worried that Powell would outshine their candidate and suspicious of his
Republican credentials, Bush's handlers ignored him for most of the
campaign -- even as they regularly implied to the media that the
respected general was a behind-the-scenes member of the governor's brain
trust. Once McCain was vanquished in the Republican primaries and Bush
began a head-to-head battle against Democrat Al Gore, the campaign
hinted that Powell would accompany Bush on fact-finding trips overseas
and would become his secretary of state. But no one on the Bush team
ever approached Powell about such a trip, and there was no substantive
discussion of a Cabinet position.
Powell later recalled that the only conversations he and Bush had had
about foreign affairs came just weeks before the election, in the back
seats of cars between events on the four days they had campaigned
together that fall. He had no memory of an explicit invitation from Bush
to serve in his Cabinet. Once the U.S. Supreme Court declared the
Florida recount officially over in early December, Powell later said,
"It just sort of happened as it was assumed to happen."
On December 16, three days after Gore conceded defeat, Powell flew to
Bush's ranch in Texas to be unveiled as his first Cabinet nominee.
Powell and Cheney stood on either side of the president-elect as he read
from prepared remarks to reporters gathered in a Crawford school
auditorium. Turning to Powell, Bush invoked Harry Truman's tribute to
his own iconic secretary of state, retired Army general George Marshall:
" ' He is a tower of strength and common sense. When you find somebody
like that, you have to hang on to them.' I have found such a man." When
reporters later asked Bush about tears they had seen in his eyes, he
replied that it was an emotional moment because "I so admire Colin
Powell -- I love his story."
THE SECRETARY OF STATE SAW THE PRESIDENT FREQUENTLY, THOUGH RARELY
ALONE. Powell found Bush better-spoken and more thoughtful in private
than his public posturing as a rough-hewn, plain-spoken Texan would
indicate, although he found Bush's fidgety impatience irritating, along
with his tendency to interrupt everyone, from his Cabinet officers to
visiting heads of state. While the president publicly praised the
secretary's abilities and stature, their relationship remained stiff and
Powell insisted to disbelieving aides that Bush listened to, and even
acted on, his advice. "The president has good instincts . . . an
instinctual grasp" of issues, he often told them. But he usually
followed with an acknowledgment that Bush "has got these rough edges --
his cowboy, Texan rough edges -- and when he gets them exposed, there
are other people who know how to use them" to their advantage.
Time and time again during the administration's bumpy first year, Powell
had seen Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney intervene to nudge a willing
Bush away from moderation and diplomacy, and toward a hard line on
foreign policy issues from North Korea to the Middle East. After the
September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda on New York and
Washington, their attention turned sharply toward Iraq, and by the
following summer it was clear that the administration was headed toward
war with Saddam Hussein.
Powell found little evidence to support thinly veiled White House
suggestions that Hussein had had a hand in the September 11 attacks. But
he saw no reason to doubt the CIA's assessment, fervidly promoted and
expanded upon by Cheney and the Defense Department, that the Iraqi
leader had stockpiles of chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear
weapons, which he was ready to hand over to terrorists bent on
destruction of the United States.
Powell's own war to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 had been fought
with half a million U.S. troops, broad foreign support and a U.N.
mandate. He believed the decision to invade was Bush's to make, but that
international backing was essential for both political and military
success. In August 2002, he succeeded in convincing Bush -- for once,
over Cheney's objections -- that there would be no multinational support
unless the administration first visibly tried to tame Hussein without war.
It took five months for Powell's efforts at the U.N. Security Council to
craft a solution short of war to reach the point of collapse, caught in
the crossfire of administration intransigence, international mistrust of
Bush's justification and motives, and Hussein's perfidy. As the
Pentagon's war plans were completed and March 2003 was secretly set as
the internal deadline for invasion, Bush still found himself with little
foreign support and an uncertain American public.
"We've really got to make the case" against Hussein, Bush told Powell in
an Oval Office meeting in late January, "and I want you to make it."
Only Powell had the "credibility to do this," Bush said. "Maybe they'll
believe you." It was a direct order from his commander in chief, and it
never occurred to Powell to question it.
He was told that the case had already been put together by the White
House, and he assumed that with a little tweaking he could turn it into
a speech that would fit his voice and style. He was taken aback on
Tuesday, January 28, when he received the bulk of the document, a
48-page, single-spaced compilation of Hussein's alleged weapons of mass
destruction program, replete with drama, rhetorical devices and a
kitchen sink full of allegations. The most extreme version of every
charge the administration had made about Hussein, the document had been
written, Powell concluded, under the tutelage of Cheney's chief of
staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who shared all of his boss's hard-line
views and then some.
Delivery of the speech had been set for the following Wednesday,
February 5. Bush planned to announce the date that very night in his
State of the Union address to Congress. Acutely aware that he would be
selling his own reputation as much as the specific facts, Powell picked
up the telephone to tell Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security
adviser, that he needed more time to get the speech into shape.
"Condi, please," Powell implored, "let's just tell the president that
we're going to put in the State of the Union that Secretary Powell will
be going to the U.N. next week. Don't put a date."
"She said, 'Right, right, of course,' " Powell recalled, "and she runs
away to change the speech. Then runs back about five minutes later" to
call him and say, " ' There's good news and bad news. The good news is
we can change the speech.' " The bad news, she said, was that the White
House had already told the media, in a preview of the State of the Union
address, that Powell's presentation would be made on February 5.
"I could have gotten two more days," Powell later said wistfully.
"Whether it would have made any difference or not, I don't know."
"HERE YOU GO," POWELL SAID, as he dropped the White House document on
the desk of his chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson. Wilkerson quickly
agreed it read more like a badly written novel than something designed
to persuade the world. That afternoon, he assembled a State Department
team-- including speechwriter Lynne Davidson and Barry Lowenkron, a
senior CIA officer before he joined Powell's policy planning staff -- to
set up shop at CIA headquarters, across the Potomac River in Virginia.
They would examine the evidence themselves and turn the document into
what Wilkerson called "a Colin Powell speech." Cheney aide John Hannah
and William Tobey, the counterproliferation director at the White House
National Security Council, would meet them there to answer any questions.
"We were going out to the agency and live there until we got the
presentation ready," Wilkerson later said.
Their job was to make the most convincing, evidence-backed case
possible. Powell had little more than a cursory knowledge of the
intelligence underlying some of the most damning charges, but in recent
months, as pressure built inside the administration and his frustration
with the United Nations grew, Powell's language on Iraq had become
almost as loose as Cheney's. In a speech to an international economic
conference just the week before, he had made charges that his own State
Department analysts questioned, mentioning allegations that Iraq had
attempted to import uranium and nuclear-related equipment, as well as
the presumed ties between Hussein and al-Qaeda.
But that had been only an indictment; this would have to be a complete,
trial-worthy prosecution, designed to convince a skeptical jury that
capital punishment, in the form of decapitating the Iraqi regime, was
In addition to proving the charges against Iraq, Wilkerson believed,
they had to protect Powell's integrity against those within the
administration who had long been out to tarnish it. There was a
widespread belief among the secretary's loyal aides -- privately shared
by Powell himself, although he brushed it off as meaningless political
gamesmanship in conversations with them -- that both White House
political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney had actively plotted to undermine
him for the past three years. Powell had laughed when he described to
his aides how the vice president, after a discussion of the upcoming
U.N. speech, had poked him jocularly in the chest and said, "You've got
high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points." Cheney's idea
of Powell's U.N. mission, Wilkerson thought, was to "go up there and
sell it, and we'll have moved forward a peg or two. Fall on your damn
sword and kill yourself, and I'll be happy, too."
BY THE NEXT DAY, Wilkerson and his team were huddled in the CIA
director's conference room, taking the document apart sentence by
sentence. Things were not going well. Hannah had brought a clipboard
with a three-inch stack of paper that he thumbed through to cite the
origin of each allegation -- reports from the CIA, the Defense
Intelligence Agency, foreign intelligence, the Iraqi National Congress
and even newspaper articles.
CIA Director George Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin -- backed up
by Robert Walpole, the chief CIA officer for nuclear programs; Lawrence
Gershwin, the agency's top adviser on "technical" intelligence; and
several other specialists -- were constantly dispatching aides to find
the original source material.
In some instances, the "evidence" was, in fact, found in an official
intelligence report, but only as unconfirmed information that did not
appear in the report's conclusions. "They had left out all the caveats,
all the qualifiers," Wilkerson recalled. In a few instances, he thought,
they had even changed the meaning of the intelligence. A Senate
investigation of the speechwriting process conducted after the invasion
would later conclude that the Powell team had had to eliminate
"information that the White House had added . . . gathered from finished
and raw intelligence," some of which had come from only a single source
with no corroboration at all.
By late afternoon, Tenet and Wilkerson agreed to put the White House
draft aside and start over, basing the speech on a National Intelligence
Estimate on Iraq that had been compiled by the CIA the previous fall.
That night, after the senior CIA and White House officials had left for
the day, Wilkerson and his colleagues watched a film he had borrowed
from the State Department archives of Adlai Stevenson's historic
presentation to the Security Council at the height of the Cuban missile
crisis in 1962.
The Soviet Union had angrily denied charges that it had deployed
nuclear-armed missiles on the island 90 miles off the Florida coast.
Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, had
responded with irrefutable proof in the form of 26 grainy, poster-size
black-and-white photographs of missile sites shot from a U-2
reconnaissance plane, displayed on easels at the front of the council
chamber for all the world to see. That "Stevenson moment," Wilkerson
told them, was the effect they were after.
Powell, Libby and Stephen Hadley, Rice's deputy, joined the process the
Cheney had called Powell to say he hoped the secretary would "take a
good look at Scooter's stuff." State Department spokesman Richard
Boucher, who accompanied Powell to the CIA sessions, later recalled
Libby himself appealing to Powell to look more carefully at the
now-discarded White House material. "Powell said: 'I don't want to. I
want to use what Larry's been working on.' "
They settled into a routine over the next few days. The CIA turned over
the office suite of the National Intelligence Council -- the internal
organization that coordinated with other members of the intelligence
community to write National Intelligence Estimates -- to Wilkerson and
the others engaged in the nitty-gritty of composing the speech and
providing material to the graphic designers lodged in the agency's
basement. At around 5 p.m., the writing and research team would move to
Tenet's conference room with senior officials, eventually including Rice
and Armitage, to spend hours going over the new text and verifying the
sourcing for Powell.
Powell insisted that they eliminate any intelligence that had come from
Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile favored by the Pentagon and the vice
president's office, but widely mistrusted as a charlatan within the
State Department. Powell was told by the CIA that evidence that Hussein
had built mobile laboratories to conceal his biological weapons programs
-- one of the most damning charges -- had been corroborated by four
separate sources, including an Iraqi chemical engineer, a civil engineer
and an Iraqi military defector. It was, Tenet said, "totally reliable
They argued over how to interpret intercepted communications about
Iraq's weapons between Iraqi military officers. None seemed definitive,
and Wilkerson was worried that they might not mean what the analysts
said they meant. But amid the scant information the CIA officials were
willing to declassify for public consumption, they said this was the
best they had.
The team examined satellite imagery said to reveal prohibited items.
Powell was shown, and rejected, a grainy picture of what analysts said
was an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) site near Basra. It was impossible
to tell where it was or even what it was, he argued. Instead, he
approved a U.N. photograph of a generic Iraqi UAV, taken years earlier,
to illustrate charges that Hussein was developing drones that could
spray deadly weapons of mass destruction on population centers.