conclusively revealed chemical weapons production and storage
facilities, but then insisted that the pictures were too sensitive to be
used in a public presentation. Those they were willing to release often
appeared -- at least to the uninitiated in the room -- to illustrate
nothing more than trucks parked beside buildings. "Don't you have a
picture of chemical weapons canisters being moved around?" Boucher later
recalled asking Tenet. "Something we can point to and say: 'That's a
chemical weapon.' " Tenet replied that no country had left prohibited
weapons "out on the lawn" since the Cuban missile crisis. "They know
we're looking at them. So we have to go with other things that tell us
what they're doing."
They spent hours discussing the aluminum tubes Hussein had tried to
import. The Energy and State departments continued to disagree with the
CIA's assessment that the tubes were designed for nuclear enrichment.
McLaughlin, who had brought one of the intercepted tubes to the table
and rolled it back and forth as they argued, insisted that the CIA
analysis was correct. The agency, Powell later recalled, "pulled in
their experts and swore on a stack of Bibles that they'd done every
analysis imaginable, and [the tubes] simply were not for rockets, but
for [uranium] centrifuges." The tubes stayed in the speech, although
with a brief mention of the disagreement among U.S. government agencies
as to their purpose. (U.S. investigators in Iraq after the war later
concluded they were meant for rockets.)
Bush had referred in his State of the Union address to Iraqi efforts to
obtain uranium from Africa -- the same information the CIA had
successfully argued should be excised from a speech he gave the previous
October because of questionable sources. No one suggested that it be
included in Powell's presentation.
The White House document detailing Hussein's ties to terrorism was, if
anything, even more problematic than the portion on weapons of mass
Powell retreated with Tenet to the director's private office to talk
through "what we really know" about the relationship between Iraq and
al-Qaeda. Powell was shown the transcript of an interrogation of a
captured Osama bin Laden aide who swore that al-Qaeda operatives had
received biological and chemical weapons training from Iraq, and the
charge became a lengthy portion of the speech. (A year after the
invasion, the agency acknowledged that the information had come from a
single source who had been branded a liar by U.S. intelligence officials
long before Powell's presentation.)
Tempers began to fray as the sessions continued into the weekend. Tenet
and McLaughlin became irritated with Hadley, who kept pressing to
reinsert jettisoned White House language and information. Powell
exploded at McLaughlin, who supplied tortured, five-minute answers to
seemingly simple questions. Increasingly, the secretary looked to Tenet
for reassurance. "George would give the kind of answers the secretary
liked," Wilkerson recalled. "Whether you liked that 'slam-dunk' language
or not, George, to his credit, would say, 'Absolutely, Mr. Secretary, I
stand by that.' "
Powell later recalled that most of their time was spent "trimming the
garbage" of the White House's overwrought verbiage and uncorroborated
specifics from the speech. Once that was done, Wilkerson concluded long
afterward, "what we were all involved in -- groupthink isn't the right
word -- it was a process of putting the data to points in the speech
rather than challenging the data itself." As they probed for proof of
Hussein's lies, no one thought of looking for evidence that might have
raised questions about their assumptions that the weapons existed.
WHEN HE ARRIVED IN NEW YORK ON MONDAY AFTERNOON, Powell was as nervous
as Wilkerson had ever seen him. He was worried that the language in the
speech was still too methodical and technical to win over an audience.
Powell's best performances were modeled on what he had learned as a
young instructor at Fort Benning and later at the Pentagon: Use a map or
some slides, a rough outline or a few key phrases, and then speak
naturally. He always knew his material cold, but it was technique that
clinched a sale. This time, however, each sentence had been carefully
crafted and debated ad nauseam, and he was going to have to read
directly from the text.
On Tuesday night, the team had a final, full-dress rehearsal. The
cafeteria on the top floor of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations had
been reconfigured into a mock-up of the Security Council chamber. Powell
used a stopwatch to check his timing, clicking it off every time someone
interrupted with a question or comment. The speech was 75 minutes long.
When he finished, the tension of the last several days seemed to
dissipate like the air escaping a balloon, leaving him calm and tired.
He believed he had done everything he could do. Departing for his room
at the Waldorf, where he hoped to get a good night's sleep, he reminded
Tenet that "you're going to be there with me tomorrow." He expected the
CIA director to sit in full view of the television cameras, just behind
him at the Security Council table. Tenet replied, only half-jokingly,
that he was the one who would have to face the intelligence committees
in Congress if there were any mistakes. Powell told his executive
assistant, Craig Kelly, and Boucher to make sure that Tenet was waiting
in the side room they would pass through on their way into the Security
Council chamber the next morning. Later, he changed his mind and called
Tenet to tell him he would swing by the CIA director's hotel and pick
him up on the way to the United Nations, just to make sure there were no
On Wednesday, February 5, Powell entered the chamber just before 10:30
a.m., smiling and stopping to shake hands as he made his way across the
floor. With war hanging in the balance, and the power and prestige of
the United States on full display, it was a moment of high drama that
owed as much to the player as to the play. A nationwide poll released
just that morning had found that "when it comes to U.S. policy toward
Iraq," Americans trusted Powell more than Bush by 63 to 24 percent.
"I cannot tell you everything that we know," he began after a brief
introduction. "But what I can share with you, when combined with what
all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling." The facts
and Iraq's behavior "demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have
made no effort -- no effort -- to disarm as required by the
"My colleagues," Powell said, "every statement I make today is backed up
by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving
you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."
The next day, opinion polls indicated that national opinion had shifted
literally overnight; most Americans surveyed said they believed an
invasion was justified to protect the nation. Those closest to Powell
were relieved, but worried about both him and the nation. His wife,
Alma, had a sense of foreboding; her husband, she thought, was being
used by the White House. Powell's daughter Linda, who had listened to
the speech on the radio, had found his performance unsettling. His voice
was strained, she thought, as if he were trying to inject passion into
the dry words through the sheer force of his will.
Wilkerson, who had left the United Nations immediately after the speech
and returned to his hotel room to fall into a deep sleep, awoke
depressed. Later, when it became clear that much of the speech on which
he had worked so hard was based on lies, he would come to think of that
week as "the lowest moment of my life." Back in Washington, he ordered
special plaques with Powell's signature made up for the State Department
aides who had worked so hard to make the presentation happen.
When they were handed out, Powell asked Wilkerson why he hadn't ordered
one for himself. Wilkerson replied that he didn't want one.
AS 2004 BEGAN, U.S. TROOPS WERE HEADED TOWARD A SECOND YEAR IN THE IRAQI
QUAGMIRE. No weapons of mass destruction had yet been found, and each
day's news brought fresh indications that the administration had
exaggerated its case against Hussein. Powell's own prominent role came
under increasing question. It was now clear that "a lot of probables, a
lot of maybes" had been left out of the assessment of Iraq's
capabilities, a reporter confronted him. Given a second chance, would he
have "rephrased" his U.N. speech?
"No," Powell replied firmly. "I knew exactly the circumstances under
which I was presenting that speech . . . The whole world would be
watching, and there would be those who would applaud every word, and
there would be those who were going to be skeptical of every word."
Whatever doubts were now being raised, he said, the basic conclusions
had been solid. "I am confident of what I presented last year. The
intelligence community is confident of the material they gave me; I was
representing them . . . they stand behind it."
But on Friday, January 23, the CIA announced without explanation that
David Kay, the head of its Iraq Survey Group hunting for weapons of mass
destruction, was being replaced. Later that day, Kay told reporters he
doubted the weapons existed. When Congress demanded answers, Kay said
the same thing.
As Powell flew the next day to attend a presidential inauguration in the
Republic of Georgia, journalists aboard his plane asked him to reconcile
his U.N. speech with Kay's conclusions. "You said a year ago that you
thought there was between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons [in
Iraq]," one reporter said. "Who's right?"
"I think the answer to the question is I don't know yet," Powell replied.
"What is the open question is: how many stocks they had, if any? And if
they had any, where did they go? And if they didn't have any, then why
wasn't that known beforehand?"
Powell thought there was no sense denying the obvious questions Kay had
raised. But it was the first doubt that any senior administration
official had publicly expressed about the central justification for the
war. The story made headlines around the world, and an agitated
Condoleezza Rice called him the next morning in Georgia. Powell was not
surprised; it was not the first time that the White House had blown up
at him over what he considered honest comment. Rice, he later recalled,
was usually the one to make the call. "She'd say, 'Oh, we've got a
problem, what are we going to do about this? How are we going to fix
On this issue, he thought, there was little to be done. "The fact of the
matter is, you can't ignore the possibility, since the guy we sent there
for eight months as our guy says there's nothing there," he later
recalled telling Rice with exasperation. "So, to say there's got to be
something there when he, who has been there for eight months, says
there's nothing there . . . You can't do that. You've got to at least
accept the possibility."
The White House, he advised, should "just be quiet" for now.
ON HIS RETURN, POWELL SPENT THE WEEKEND carefully reading Kay's
congressional testimony, highlighting portions with a yellow marker and
scribbling notes in the margins. With the first anniversary of his U.N.
speech just days away, the Sunday newspapers and television talk shows
were filled with comparisons between the charges he had made and Kay's
On Monday, February 2, he arrived for an interview at The Washington
Post carrying a blue folder with the marked-up testimony inside. He was
"absolutely convinced" that the invasion had been the right thing to do,
Powell emphatically told the two dozen reporters and editors crowded
around a conference table in the newspaper's eighth-floor boardroom.
Would he still have "recommended the invasion" if Tenet had told him a
year before "that there are no stockpiles?" one reporter asked.
"I don't know, because it was the stockpiles that presented the final
little piece that made it more of a real and present danger and threat
to the region and to the world," Powell replied. But there was no point
discussing hypotheticals, he said, because "the fact of the matter" was
that the CIA, as well as intelligence agencies in Britain and elsewhere,
had "suggested the stockpiles were there."
But what if he had known they weren't there? the reporter pressed.
"The absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus," Powell
acknowledged. "It changes the answer you get with the little formula I
To a White House already reeling from the one-two punch of Kay's
conclusions and Powell's comments en route to Georgia, it was another
worrisome example of the secretary of state's unwillingness to stay "on
message." When his remarks appeared in The Post the next morning, "I
think the whole White House operation was mad . . . the NSC, the
president -- everybody was annoyed," Powell recalled. "White Houses do
not respond well to immediate problems in the morning . . . all the
white corpuscles race to the source of the infection, so all the white
corpuscles raced to me."
After Rice's inevitable irate telephone call, presidential aides quickly
began contacting the media to counteract the secretary's remarks.
Annoyed but not surprised, Powell issued a White House-requested
"clarification" insisting that Hussein had had the "capability and
intent" to produce the weapons even if none had yet been found. Bush, he
repeated, had been right to invade.
Still mulling over the situation a week later with a visitor in his
dimly lit office, he criticized a persistent White House machismo that
took aim at "anything . . . that suggests any weakness in the
[administration's] position," regardless of common sense. That, and what
he saw as a never-ending effort to humble him personally.
"There are people who would like to take me down," he said, jerking his
thumb in the direction of the White House. "It's been the case since I
was appointed. By take down, I mean 'keep him in his place'. . . And
there are those who, whether it was me or anyone else, just love
somebody getting in trouble, because it's usually to the detriment of
the person getting in trouble and to the advantage of someone else."
The episode reinforced his already deep-seated disdain for politics and
its practitioners. Political thought and decision-making were often
polluted by ideology and the exigencies of the election cycle; soldiers
breathed a purer, more rational air. "I was not trained as a politician
or a think tank guy or anything else," Powell insisted. "I was trained
to consider all possibilities."
"I mean, if you're attacking and suddenly you get attacked from the
flank," he continued, using his hands to illustrate a military maneuver,
"you don't say, 'I'm going to keep attacking straight ahead [and] ignore
this new threat coming at my flank.' " He had been asked whether
different information would have changed his assessment of the Iraq
situation, and "all of my instincts and all of my background and
training at that point said the answer to the question is, 'I'd have to
He shrugged and brought his hands to rest. "But that's the way it goes."
Powell's irritation at the White House was coupled with a growing anger
at the CIA. Right or wrong, at least Bush had willingly shouldered the
ultimate responsibility for the decision to go to war. Powell felt he
had done his own duty by privately voicing caution even as he gave the
president his full support. But it was increasingly apparent that the
intelligence community had been careless with the truth and hence with
Powell's most precious commodity -- his credibility with the American
For a week after Kay's report, the CIA had continued publicly to stand
by its prewar weapons assessment. But in a hastily arranged speech at
Georgetown University on February 5, Tenet finally admitted the
possibility of error. His "provisional bottom line," he said, was that
the intelligence community had been "generally on target" in its
warnings that Hussein was developing long-range missiles. But the CIA
"may have overestimated the progress Hussein was making" on nuclear weapons.
As for biological weapons stockpiles and mobile laboratories, he said,
"we are finding discrepancies in some claims made by human sources" to
whom the agency "lacked direct access." The CIA, Tenet said, "did not
ourselves penetrate the inner sanctum" of Hussein's programs but had
"access to emigres and defectors" along with high-level information from
"a trusted foreign partner." They were now in the process of
"evaluating" questions such as, "Did we clearly tell policymakers what
we knew, what we didn't know, what was not clear, and identify the gaps
in our knowledge?"
Although Powell had been advised in recent months of problems with some
of the intelligence sourcing, Tenet's speech was "the first time I heard
that the CIA was no longer sticking behind its story" in public, he
later recalled. He had been given no advance copy of the CIA director's
remarks and listened in his office to a broadcast of Tenet's
acknowledgment of "discrepancies" and uncertainties.
Powell stared silently at Wilkerson after Tenet finished speaking. "But
the question is," Wilkerson said, reaching for a joke, "are you still
"I don't think so," Powell replied.
As the evidence continued to unravel, some in the media suggested that
Powell should apologize publicly for peddling false information that had
pushed the nation toward war. "Is everyone else going to apologize?" he
railed within the four walls of his office. "It's not [just] me getting
had. I'm not the only one who was using that intelligence . . . they all
stood up in the Senate. The president stood up on this material.
[British Prime Minister] Tony Blair stood up on this material . . . The
whole global intelligence community bears responsibility."
But there was no denying that he had been the most visible and effective
salesman. He already knew that the label would follow him around
forever. "I'm the guy who will always be known as the 'Powell Briefing'
. . . I'm not being defensive, because I did it. But Powell wasn't the
PRESENTATION WAS NEARLY AS IMPORTANT TO POWELL AS SUBSTANCE, and after
his inelegant dismissal as secretary of state, he wanted at least to
control the way his departure was announced. After submitting his letter
on Friday, he spent the weekend putting together a plan: He would inform
his inner-office staff at exactly 8:20 a.m. the following Monday,
November 15. He would tell his senior aides at their regular 8:30 staff
meeting. At 10:15, he would send an e-mail to his friends and extended
family. He called Card and told him he expected the White House would
then publicly announce his resignation.
At midmorning Monday, the White House released five separate statements
under Bush's name, reporting the resignations of the secretaries of
agriculture, energy, education and state, and the head of the Republican
National Committee. Each statement was three paragraphs long and titled
"President Thanks [official's name]." When White House spokesman Scott
McClellan briefed the media shortly after noon, all but one of the
resignation questions were about Powell. Had Bush tried to persuade him
to stay? Had Powell offered? If so, had the president turned him down?
McClellan avoided a direct answer. "I think you saw from Secretary
Powell's letter that this is a discussion that they've had for some
months now, or over recent months at least . . . And Secretary Powell
made a decision for his own reasons that this was now the time to leave."
The next morning, Bush nominated Rice as his new secretary of state.
Powell saw Bush regularly over the next two months, passing through the
Oval Office for routine meetings that took place as if nothing had
transpired. Eventually, the White House contacted his office to schedule
what it described as a "farewell call" with the president. Such calls
were being arranged for each departing Cabinet secretary.
When Powell saw the January 13 appointment on his calendar, his staff
told him they assumed it was a goodbye photo opportunity with Bush. They
suggested that perhaps he should bring his family.
"We've got a houseful of pictures," Powell replied dryly. Was he
supposed to talk to the president? Or was the president supposed to talk
"Am I supposed to say: 'This is what I think?' Or what?"
He didn't have to say anything, he was told. It was just a "farewell call."
As the meeting approached, the White House -- which had scheduled it in
the first place -- inexplicably called the State Department to ask for
"talking points" that aides could use to brief the president.
The appointed time found Powell already in the Oval Office for a routine
meeting; when it concluded, he lingered as the others left. As Powell
later remembered it, Bush seemed puzzled and called after his departing
chief of staff, "Where you going, Andy?"
"Mr. President, I think this is supposed to be our farewell call,"
"Is that why Condi ain't here?" he recalled the president asking.
That was probably the reason, Powell replied.
Card walked back inside, and the three men sat down. Powell had already
decided to use the opportunity -- likely his last as secretary of state
-- to unload.
The war in Iraq was going south, he said after a few moments of small
talk, and the president had little time left to turn it around. The
administration's hope was that the upcoming election there would change
the dynamics on the ground, and the Iraqi people would finally be ready
and able to begin standing up to the insurgents on their own.
But the administration, he pointed out, had entertained such hopes
before over the past two years -- when it had set up a new legal
framework for Iraq, when it had first turned a modicum of government
power over to handpicked Iraqis and when ousted dictator Saddam Hussein
had been captured -- and those hopes had been dashed every time. There
would be a window of about two months after the election "to start to
see progress," he told Bush. "If by the first of April this insurgency
is not starting to ameliorate in some way, then I think you really have
Elections, and talking about democracy, were unlikely to stop the
insurgency, he said. Only the fledgling Iraqi army could do that, and it
was unclear whether it would ever succeed. Its competence was not just a
matter of training, Powell said; it was a question of whether the troops
believed in what they were fighting for.
Powell warned about serious internal problems in Bush's own
administration, saying that the power he had given the Pentagon to
meddle in diplomacy on issues as widespread as North Korea, Iraq and the
Arab-Israeli conflict, along with poisoned personal relations between
his State and Defense departments, were seriously undermining the
president's diplomacy. Bush dismissed his concern. It wasn't any worse,
he said, than the legendary battles between State and Defense during the
The session ended with a cordial handshake, and the secretary returned
to the State Department. "That was really strange," he reported to
Wilkerson. "The president didn't know why I was there."
/Karen DeYoung is an associate editor of The Post. This article is
excerpted from Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell, being published
October 10 by Knopf. She will be fielding questions and comments about
this article Monday at noon