Above the Fold: Colin Powell, American Coward

The general continues to debunk the myth of his own greatness

At just about every crucial juncture in his career, Colin Powell has failed his country, and himself.

This sorry record goes all the way back to his time as a young U.S. Army Major posted in Saigon, when, after the My Lai Massacre, he was asked to investigate a soldier’s letter describing atrocities against the Vietnamese people. Powell rejected the charges and famously wrote, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

On May 4, 2004, when Powell was Secretary of State, he told Larry King, “I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”

It was also when he was Secretary of State that Powell should have resigned from the government to protest George Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Instead, he became the president’s point man at the United Nations, where he delivered a speech riddled with falsehoods about the threats supposedly posed by Saddam Hussein. Craig Unger wrote in The Fall of the House of Bush that Powell must have been aware that the intelligence books had been cooked to distort the case for going to war at the time that he made that speech.

One year ago, Jan Crawford Greenburg reported on ABC News that in the second year of the Bush administration, then-Secretary of State Powell attended meetings chaired by then–National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in which they discussed specific torture techniques with Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet. Two days later, President Bush confirmed that those meetings had, indeed, taken place in an interview with ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz.

“Ashcroft was troubled by the discussions,” Greenburg reported. “He argued that, while the tactics were legal, senior advisers should not be involved in the grim details. One top official said Ashcroft asked out loud after one meeting, ‘Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.’” 

Powell, for his part, began making his non-denial denials—countering accusations that he had personally approved torture—by telling Greenburg through a spokesman that there had been “hundreds of Principal Committee meetings…and that he could not recall specifics. And even if he could, he was not at liberty to discuss those meetings anyway.” Then Powell told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he did not have “sufficient memory recall” about the meetings, adding, “I’m not aware of anything that we discussed in any of those meetings that was not considered legal.”

This week Powell continued the same pattern when Rachel Maddow interrogated him on the same subject:

MADDOW: I guess I have to ask [you about]…the decisions that you participated in [as Secretary of State ]about interrogation, about torture, about the other things.

POWELL: We had no meetings on torture. It’s constantly said that the meetings­ I had an issue with this—we had meetings on what torture to administer. What I recall, the meetings I was in—­I was not in all of the meetings and I was not an author of many of the memos that have been written (and some have come out, some have not come out).  The only meetings I recall were where we talked about what is it we can do with respect to trying to get information from individuals who were in our custody. And I will just have to wait until the full written record is available and has been examined.

MADDOW: I don’t mean to press you on this to the point of discomfort but there is an extent to which there is a legal discussion around this where everybody feels a little constrained by the legal terms and whether or not they are a legal professional. There is also the policy implications that you’ve been so eloquent about, in terms of what the implications are of these policies for the U.S. abroad in a continuing way… If specific interrogation techniques were being approved by people at the political level in the Cabinet, it doesn’t­the legal niceties of it almost become less important.

POWELL: I don’t know where these things were being approved at a political level.

MADDOW: If there was a Principals Meeting at the White House to discuss interrogation techniques?

POWELL: It does not mean it was approved, anything was approved, at a meeting…. It depends on did the meeting end up in a conclusion or was it just a briefing that then went to others to make a final decision on and to document. And so it is a legal issue and I think we have to be very careful and I have to be very careful because I don’t want to be seen as implicating anybody or accusing anybody because I don’t have the complete record on this. And that complete record I think in due course will come out.

In fact, Bush administration critics have argued that the whole point of these meetings was to find a way to violate the Geneva Conventions’ ban on torture in such a way that American torturers would not become vulnerable to future prosecution for violating international law.

Almost as bad as Powell’s apparent acquiescence to the torture administered by the Bush administration was his role in the creation of the disastrous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1993, which prevented gay people from serving openly in the military. As Nathaniel Frank has proven in his brilliant new book, Unfriendly Fire, that policy was based entirely on prejudice instead of actual data, and it has sharply damaged the security of the United States by expelling thousands of highly competent men and women from the American military.

But when Powell was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under Bill Clinton, he did not emulate Harry Truman, who a generation earlier had made Powell’s career possible by ignoring Southern bigotry and ordering the integration of black and white soldiers throughout the armed forces.  Instead, Powell teamed up with former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn to implement a policy that enshrined anti-gay prejudice in the military for (at least) another sixteen years.

Since then, everyone from retired general John M. Shalikashvili, who succeeded Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to former Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander have courageously called for a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But not General Powell. In that same interview with Rachel Maddow, Powell said that the policy should be reconsidered—and that he would back President Obama were Obama to decide to end it—but in the meantime, he would not commit himself to a position on the policy until he heard the views of current military leaders. He then repeated some of the idiotic arguments that were made in favor of the current policy sixteen years ago:

“The armed force of the United States is not the same as the armed force of one of our European friends or Canadian friends”—where gays have been completely integrated into the armed forces without any of the predicted catastrophes coming to pass. 

And then there was this traditional gobbledy gook:

As the courts have held traditionally over the years, and the Congress has as well, the military is a unique institution with rules and regulations and a way of living in close proximity with other soldiers ­and you’re told whom you’re going to live with ­that the military can have a set of regulations and rules that would not pass any kind of legal or constitutional muster if it was in civilian society. And so I think because it is the quality of the force and the ability of the force to apply the nation’s power wherever it’s called upon to do so, we have to be careful when we change this policy.

All of which proves once again the enduring truth of Congressman Barney Frank’s assessment: “Colin Powell appears to be a man of enormous physical courage, and no moral courage whatsoever.”

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.