DeYoung is the senior diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and the author of Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Dec. 17, 2007.
- Some Highlights From This Interview
- Why 9/11 was a personal "renaissance" for Powell
- Blindsided by decisions about military tribunals and the Geneva Conventions
- A key dinner: pushing for a U.N. resolution and repairing his relationship with the president
- Powell's view of the two warring sides of the president
- His criticisms of Condoleezza Rice
- "The president's decided to make a change and you're it"
Give me an understanding from your conversations with [then-Secretary of State Colin] Powell, when he came into the administration, what was he expecting his role to be?
I think Powell expected to run foreign policy. That was his goal. That was what he had been led to believe, although he'd had very few conversations with Bush by that point. They'd hardly talked at all. He had no sense of what Bush's vision was for foreign policy, if he even had a vision for foreign policy.
But he had his own ideas about what he wanted to do. If you go back to his confirmation testimony, he speaks in a very global sense, very sort of sweeping vision of the world, alliances that we're going to have, where we're going to concentrate our efforts, more attention paid to the Middle East -- a real tour de force of the globe, saying what he was going to do far more than Bush had said during the campaign or since the campaign. ...
Did this set up any tremors within the powers that be around the president?
I think the conservatives were very nervous about this. They didn't like Powell in the first place. They thought that Powell represented this kind of wishy-washy, moderate Republican center. They had big plans for remaking foreign policy. And if you look again at the conservative press commentary the next day, there were a lot of red flags raised about how it was a good thing that [Vice President Dick] Cheney was there, because he would keep a lid on Powell.
And of course when Don Rumsfeld was selected as defense secretary not very long after, it was clear that one of the reasons why he was so attractive to Cheney was because he was viewed as somebody who could stand up to Powell. ...
They were also worried that he would have an undue influence in the Defense Department because his background was with the military. He'd been chairman of the Joint Chiefs, still had a lot of contacts in the military, and that was kind of where his head was at. So Rumsfeld was viewed as somebody who could be of equal stature and kind of stare down Powell.
On 9/11, Powell rushes off to the White House. When does he get there? What does he know? ...
On the plane coming back [from Peru], Powell had very little information. Most of their communications on the plane was through conventional satellites, public satellites, and they just couldn't get through. Everything was jammed. He spoke a couple of times to [then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage. I think he spoke once to [National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice, but he basically had no information. In fact, he told people on the plane that there were reports that the State Department had been bombed, which was kind of a rumor that had gone through Washington earlier that day, but had long since been proven not true.
As they flew into Washington, they circled around to land at Andrews Air Force Base, flew over, could see all the smoke coming from the Pentagon. The streets by that point were empty in Washington. ... Bush had landed slightly before Powell had. There was no plane, no helicopter to take him into town.
They drove in, stopped briefly by the State Department, and then went directly to the White House and got there at I think about 8:30 in the evening, when Bush was preparing to give his address to the nation. Speechwriters were kind of madly trying to come up with a script because Bush had not done that well during the day, and they wanted him really to look presidential. Powell went in, waited around. And after Bush had given the speech, they met in the situation room to talk about what they were going to do.
Does Powell have any input into the speech?
No, he didn't. The speech was pretty much written by [the] time he got there. Bush's speechwriters had done it. Of course Cheney had been there all day. And Powell really, as he said, had no instructions. While he was on the plane, he had written up a list of things that he thought he had to do. He really looked at it like a military commander. ...
Although the government had not said so yet, it was pretty much clear in everybody's mind that this was Al Qaeda. In order to strike back at [Osama] bin Laden in Afghanistan, we would need basing rights; we would need cooperation from Pakistan. We would need to start building, in his view, the kind of alliance that had been put together by him and by [Secretary of State] James Baker for the 1991 Gulf War. He saw it as a multinational enterprise, and that was going to be his job, to put that together.
How did Powell view the statement, "We will also go after nations that harbor terrorists"?
I don't think at the time there was a lot of thought given to what that actually meant. Certainly there were some people in the administration who immediately thought that Iraq had something to do with this. That did not include Powell. As far as Powell was concerned, the enemy was Al Qaeda. And, as he said at the time, we know where they live; we know where Osama bin Laden lives. That was the attack that had to be organized. I don't think he was thinking beyond that. ...
So at that point, Powell is not paranoid that maybe this thing is going off in the wrong direction?
No, I don't think so. Remember that Powell is a tactician, not a strategist. He looks at what the problem is, what has to be done to solve it. The problem at that point was Al Qaeda had attacked the United States. How do you remedy that? What do the American people expect? They expect you to go after the guilty party.
What is decided at the meeting on the evening of 9/11?
I don't think very much was decided that night. I think that they agreed that they would meet in the morning. Different people were given different preliminary assignments. Powell was to go back and start thinking about what kinds of calls needed to be made to get together various allies. But they basically said: "Look, we're all tired. We've been through a terrible day. We've given our speech. Get your information together, and we will all sit down tomorrow."
Does Powell have any expectations that Iraq will be an issue that will be dealt with up until that point?
I think that when this was brought up at the [Sept. 15 Camp David] meeting -- [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz brought it up. Rumsfeld, as he usually did, said nothing and waited to see which way the wind was blowing. Powell spoke up and said: "No. What do the American people expect of us? They expect us to find out who did this and to strike back and to make sure it doesn't happen again. The answer is not in Iraq; the answer is in Afghanistan."
So at that point, the meeting broke, and they went to lunch. And when they came back, Bush said: "Well, I've decided. We are going to go after Afghanistan. This is our plan. Everything else is getting shoved back. This is our immediate objective here."
You wrote that the certain members of the administration [were] interested in using 9/11 to have a reason to go after one of their major goals, to take down Saddam Hussein. Do we know how Powell is viewing that moment?
I think there was a feeling of relief that Bush, in Powell's view, made the right decision. You remember, there had been a whole debate going on about Iraq during the first nine months of the administration: Are we going to continue with sanctions? Are we going to adopt a more aggressive posture toward Iraq? That was all kind of in the air, and sides had already been taken. It was clear that Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney really thought that one of the administration's goals was to go after Iraq.
9/11 happens, and immediately red lights go off: "It must be them." ... Powell didn't believe that. Powell, again, the tactical goal at the moment was to get the people who had done this, and they were not in Iraq. ...
Tell us how Powell sees his role having changed after 9/11.
You have to go back to the first eight months, I guess, of the Bush administration. They weren't doing well in foreign policy. They were seen as not having a plan, not having a strategy. Powell had been slapped down a couple of times on North Korea, on the Middle East, on the Kyoto accords, so that there was a lot of feeling at the time that Powell had not lived up to his promise. He wasn't running foreign policy, but really nobody was.
So all of a sudden, 9/11 happens, and Powell sees his role. He sees what it is he can do to reassert himself as the kind of leader, the director of the administration's foreign policy. He immediately moves to get a deal with [Gen. Pervez] Musharraf in Pakistan. Very tough on that. Gets Musharraf, who had been supporting the Taliban, to say, "That's it; you're with us, or there's going to be big trouble for you." Musharraf agrees with it.
He starts out trying to make these arrangements with Central Asian countries that can help with basing rights, that can help with logistics in order to move into Afghanistan. He really sees this as kind of a renaissance for him, despite all the sort of badness of 9/11. You know, a terrible thing has happened, but still, it kind of rejuvenated Powell and showed him the way to assert himself.
How does he see people in DoD playing in his turf? How does he see some of the things that Wolfowitz is saying?
Powell was very dismissive of Wolfowitz. Remember, all these people have been together for a long, long time. Wolfowitz worked for Cheney when Cheney was defense secretary and Powell was chairman. At that time, he saw Wolfowitz as kind of an annoyance, somebody who had been tasked by Cheney to kind of watch him, make sure Powell didn't get out of line.
Powell sees he's a Cabinet secretary. He is the senior Cabinet secretary, at least by statute. He sees that certainly Rumsfeld is a force to be reckoned with, but Wolfowitz, again, at this point, he sees kind of dismissively. He's so clever when he speaks in public and very good at these kinds of dismissive comments. He basically just kind of brushed Wolfowitz away.
When does Powell start understanding that Iraq is really on the radar screen?
I think Powell is a little bit later than some people to come to this realization. There were people in the State Department, people who worked for him who came to him and said, in the summer of 2002, and said: "Look, they're thinking really of doing this. They are starting to make plans. There is tasking going on." Powell certainly had his grapevine working in the Pentagon, but I think he really didn't believe it until perhaps the middle of the summer '02.
He had made all the requisite statements about Saddam Hussein: He was bad; he had biological and chemical weapons. He had followed the script that the administration had laid out, this kind of escalating charges against Saddam Hussein, but I don't think he really believed it. And he also believed that he would have a big role in controlling it, in making sure it didn't happen.
He was really riding pretty high in the summer of 2002. He'd made some progress, he thought, on the peace process in getting the president to move out forward a bit more, to become more involved. So it really wasn't until Cheney in August 2002 made a couple of speeches and really slammed Saddam Hussein and said, "This is the major threat against our country," that Powell I think kind of woke up.
What was the debate over how to handle Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners captured in Afghanistan, and where did Powell come down on that?
... There was an interagency group that was looking at the legalities of the thing. Will[iam Howard] Taft [IV], who was Powell's State Department legal counsel, was working with the Justice Department, with the White House Counsel's Office. And a lot of drafts had gone around, all stamped drafts. All, at least from the Justice Department, said we don't have to respect the Geneva Conventions with these people; they are not prisoners of war. They came up with the idea of putting them in Guantanamo. So all of this was happening in December, at the end of 2001, so far only drafts among lawyers, working for all these other places.
Powell goes off on a trip to Pakistan and India. While he's gone, Will Taft calls him up and says, "You won't believe what's happened." The president has signed off on what Taft considers the worst of the drafts, which he has sent a whole long legal objection to, again, just among lawyers. And all of a sudden, he finds out that the president has agreed to it.
Powell gets on the phone, calls Condi Rice, says: "You can't do this. You cannot just write off the Geneva Conventions. Don't you understand? We have allies. Don't you understand? We have obligations under international treaties. I want to see the president when I come back."
He comes back from his trip. He goes into the president and says: "What is this? We have not had a principals' meeting on this. We have not sat around and discussed this. You've signed off on something. We, the State Department, we're in charge of international treaties; we're responsible for making sure that this government respects international law. And additionally, I will tell you as a senior military officer, retired, you can't put our troops in this danger. You cannot act in such a way that will give other people the right to act that way toward us. There's just a lot of things that need to be considered here." Bush said, "OK, OK, we'll have a principals' meeting; we'll have it next week."
That weekend, Powell wakes up to see on the front page of The Washington Times a memo from [then-White House Counsel Alberto] Gonzales that actually had been written by David Addington, Cheney's counsel, dismissing all of his arguments, saying that the Geneva Conventions are "quaint"; that this legal reasoning is correct.
Powell was furious, felt like this had been done just to undercut him before there was a meeting where these issues could be aired. They go into the meeting; he makes his argument. Bush says he'll think about it, and then, of course, not very long afterward, Bush makes a public decision saying that well, we'll sort of halfway respect the Geneva Conventions. This was written about at the time as a victory, at least a half victory for Powell, but he knew very well it wasn't a victory at all.
Who did he see as undercutting him?
Cheney's office. I think he felt like Gonzales was not a very strong person; that Gonzales was sort of a puppet, basically, for Addington, who, again, was one of these people who he had known for many, many years, had worked for Cheney when they were all in the Defense Department together. And he felt that Addington was the one, on behalf of Cheney, pulling the strings there.
Rice had also been cut out.
Yes, Rice had been cut out, although it's not clear really whether Rice had strong feelings about it. What Powell objected to, as he always did with Rice, was that she'd failed to control the process. ...
What is Powell's interest in the postwar plan for Iraq? What is Powell's understanding about who was responsible, State Department versus DoD?
During the summer of '02, when the State Department was drawing up the Future of Iraq Project, was bringing in Iraqis and trying to develop some programs to make sure that humanitarian needs were met, to make sure that there was a political plan, Powell was pretty much disengaged with that. He was very much fighting with Rumsfeld, fighting with Cheney. I think he thought at the time that he could put off the invasion, and also that if he played his cards right, he could get a lot of other countries to participate so this would not be completely an American plan. He thought that the U.N. would go in and take care of all this in the way they had in Afghanistan, for example. …
When it was proposed by Rumsfeld in January '03 that Bush sign an executive order putting the Pentagon in charge of that postwar period, Powell did not object. It raised flags for a lot of people in the State Department, but Powell thought that was fine. In his view, that's what the military was supposed to do. They were supposed to sit there during this Phase IV and make sure that the place really was secure. And then international organizations -- the State Department, the U.N. -- would come in and take care of Iraqis and help them put together a civil society, and help them put together a government.
Where did that change? What was Powell's impression as events developed differently on the ground? ...
In the time leading up to the invasion, certainly from January to mid-March, when the invasion happened, Powell, in his mind, had repeatedly raised questions about the size of the force. It wasn't enough. It wasn't enough for the invasion part, and it certainly wasn't enough for Phase IV. ... As they swept through villages, who was going to stay there and make sure that those gains were consolidated? ...
On the political front, Powell, again, thought that the United Nations was a good idea, that the United Nations would go in and take over. When the invasion happened, when they got to Baghdad in early April and the looting started, there was a sort of pause where the Pentagon didn't know what to do -- basically a lot of confusion where you saw Rumsfeld and everybody stand up and say, "Oh, this is just normal exuberance." You saw Condi Rice saying: "Oh, I've seen this happen other places. We have to let the Iraqis vent. They're so happy to be without Saddam Hussein."
Powell thought, as he looked at this situation, that he could go into this kind of gap where there really wasn't a plan and basically just start moving. He sent Ryan Crocker, who was a senior official in the State Department. He asked to have Zalmay Khalilzad, who was then in the White House, the person in charge of these matters. Sent the two of them and had them start in early April, through the month of April, go around to various towns in Iraq and try to find who the local leaders were, trying to organize this process that they had undergone in Afghanistan where you would get the tribal leaders, where you would get village leaders all to get together, hold regional meetings, and then hold a big meeting that was representative of all of them and figure out what kind of government they were going to have. …
This was right at the time that the military then tried to circumvent this process by moving in Ahmad Chalabi, [founder of the Iraqi National Congress], who had gone into northern Iraq, where it was safe in Kurdistan. The military organized flying him down to the southern part of Iraq to kind of set up an alternative government, because Wolfowitz's idea had always been that Chalabi and the other exiles would form the postwar government. The Arabists in the State Department, Crocker and many others, thought this was craziness, that these people did not represent anybody inside Iraq. They didn't trust them; they hadn't trusted him for a long time. So you had these kind of two processes going on.
What was Powell's point of view on Chalabi?
Powell didn't trust Chalabi at all, although Armitage was the one who was pretty much in charge of that account. There had been a lot of clashes over the past year or two between the State Department and Chalabi, because technically, the State Department was in charge of doling out money to Chalabi and to other exile groups. State Department auditors couldn't account for a lot of the money, and had called the INC, Chalabi's organization, to task.
There had been a big fight. The secretary of defense's office felt like the State Department was against Chalabi. They had been funneling money to him secretly. And eventually during that period, the State Department just threw up their hands and said, "If you want this guy, you take him; you give him money." So he had become a client of the Defense Department and really had nothing to do with the State Department anymore.
What were the different points of view at the time between Rumsfeld and Powell?
It was primarily Wolfowitz who was in charge of the INC and Chalabi. Their idea was that Chalabi would go in and set up an interim government for Iraq. In fact, Wolfowitz had gone over to Crystal City, which is a suburb on the other side of the river from Washington, and set up an alternative Iraqi government, with people in offices, ministers appointed, doing work, planning for the new Iraq.
Powell thought this was craziness. Number one, he thought any idea of imposing an exile government would not last in Iraq; that you had to go to the Iraqis themselves. You had to have a government that came up from the bottom. You had to have something that was representative of all these people who had been in Iraq all this time; that we needed to go, again, like we did in Afghanistan, get all the local leaders together and have them decide who their leader was going to be -- not something imposed from the United States, which he felt would never work, but particularly not imposed with these people who ... his own sources had told him were either not well known or not trusted in Iraq. ...
Powell decides he needs to talk to the president. What happens?
Powell had never had a close relationship with Bush, and as the administration went on, it got worse. By the summer of 2002, Armitage had said to Powell: "Look, you need to improve your one-on-one relationship with Bush. You're getting beaten over the head here. Rumsfeld is going in and talking to him. He's sending him these pithy little messages all the time. Cheney's working behind our back. He's with the president every day. ... You need to have some face time with the president."
So during this period, as it became increasingly clear that they were moving toward an invasion of Iraq -- which Powell thought was unwise, certainly the way they were going to do it -- he decided he had to go talk to Bush. He went to Rice and said he wanted to set up a meeting with the president. Rice said OK. Powell went off on a long trip, around-the-world trip, where he made a lot of stops. He was scheduled to go see Bush the afternoon of his return, which was Aug. 5, 2002.
That day, they had yet another meeting in the White House with [Gen.] Tommy Franks looking at the newest iteration of the invasion plan. Powell stuck around after the meeting for his one-on-one session with Bush. He'd taken a lot of notes. He'd sat on the plane on his way back making sure that he'd written down everything he wanted to say. They started talking. They continued over dinner. It ended up being the longest session that Powell had ever had alone with Bush, although he wasn't completely alone, because Rice was there.
He told Bush that he felt that it was unwise to go to war without international support; that they could not avoid going to the United Nations; that they needed to ask the United Nations. They needed to do essentially what they had done in 1991. They needed to put together a real coalition. They needed to make their case to the United Nations.
Of course Powell had also been talking to the British about this behind the scenes. This was very much the British position, and they were kind of working hand in hand. Tony Blair was giving the same message to Bush. Powell said: "You have to have others participate. You have to have a plan. You have to think of what you're going to do after you remove Saddam Hussein from power.
"What you're going to have," he said, "are 25 million Iraqis standing around looking at each other and saying, 'Who's in charge?' And we're going to be in charge, so we'd better be ready for that."
What does Powell lay out? What is the president's reaction?
He didn't go in to tell the president it was a bad idea to invade Iraq. He went in to tell the president that there were a few things he needed to think about before he did that, that he would need allies. He needed allies for troops; he needed allies for money; he needed allies to help him put Iraq back together again.
He said: "Iraq is like a piece of crystal. You're going to shatter it. It's going to be in pieces all over the place, and you're going to have to put it back together, and you're going to need help to do that." Bush said: "Well, what do you recommend? What do you think I should do?" And Powell said: "Take it to the United Nations. You've got to go to the United Nations."
What were the end results of the Aug. 5 meeting?
Powell left the meeting feeling quite pleased with himself, feeling like he'd made points, that Bush had listened and that he'd gained some headway. Condi Rice called him the next morning and said: "Really good. You made your points. I think you really made an impression on the president."
Bush left that day, went off to Crawford for his summer vacation. And a series of discussions ensued. Cheney started out very much against the U.N. There were video conferences. Everybody was off on vacation, and they all videoed together to discuss this, and it was finally agreed that they would go to the United Nations.
All of a sudden, the end of August, Cheney gets up and makes a speech in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, where he says: "Saddam Hussein, we know he has chemical and biological weapons. We know he has a nuclear program. We believe that he wants to use these weapons against us." He says that there's no point in having weapons inspectors go back to Iraq, because they're not going to find anything; Saddam Hussein has lied before, and he will lie again. ...
Bush comes back Sept. 1. On Sept. 6, they go in to have a principals' meeting at Camp David, and they have a huge argument where Cheney says: "OK, we're going to go to the United Nations, but we're going to tell them what we're going to do. We're going to say: 'You people are useless. Saddam Hussein has broken all of the resolutions that you've passed against him. It is now time for him to pay the price.'"
Powell said: "No, you can't do that. You need to go in and ask them. You need to negotiate. You need to ask them to come along with us. You don't go in and lay down dicta for the United Nations, because you won't get anywhere with them."
That happened to be the same weekend that Tony Blair was coming in to make his big case at Camp David for going to the United Nations. ...
The debate between Powell and Cheney, who wins? What is Powell's attitude about this?
It's agreed that Bush is going to give his speech on Iraq at the United Nations. Normally this is something that would be written by the White House with input largely from the State Department. But, in fact, two teams set up. … At the Defense Department, under Wolfowitz, they come up with their own version of the speech, which is very hard-line: "U.N., you're irrelevant. You don't get it. This is what has to happen with Iraq, because it's the only thing that Saddam Hussein understands."
State Department is writing its version of a speech that Bush should give which says: "We need to have a multinational coalition. We all need to work together on this. Let's try and come up with a resolution that will bring us all together in a world combined against Saddam Hussein."
What is Powell thinking?
Powell didn't like that kind of confrontation. Despite the urging from a lot of people in his office that he needed to be tougher, that he needed to be more confrontational, Powell's view was that reason will win out; that if he could make a good enough case, that that case would prevail. And he had allies, he thought. He had the British, who were on his side, who were making the same case. He felt that Rice sometimes was on his side. ... The important thing is that he felt like he won in terms of the U.N. ...
At [this] point in time, does Powell consider quitting?
Never. Never considered quitting, I don't think.
The one thing you have to understand about Colin Powell is that he is supremely self-confident. He believes that at the end of the day, he will prevail; that he's smarter, that he's cleverer, that he's more diplomatic. He's never lost before. This is an entirely new thing to him. And he feels like if he just keeps pushing, he will prevail.
Another part of him said, "Well, if I leave, what do I leave here? I leave the field to them. I leave the field to Cheney and Rumsfeld," who he felt did not have, in his view, the best interests of the president or the country.
And also, I think that he's very proud. It would have been an admission of defeat. It would have said, "OK, I give up; I'm out of here." And he just couldn't bring himself to do that.
What do you mean when you say Cheney and Rumsfeld didn't have the best interest of the president?
They weren't advising the president in a way that Powell thought he should be advised. And, again, [Powell] blames a lot of this on Rice; that Rice was not doing what a national security adviser should do, was not presenting all the options to the president.
Powell sort of felt that Bush had these two warring parts of him inside of him. On one side was the cowboy, the arrogant, the "put up your dukes," the "I'm tougher than you are." On the other side was actually somebody who wanted to understand the intricacies of foreign policy, who could be reasoned with. And Powell felt that he was the only person really who was appealing to that side, and that he needed to be there in order to balance out those warring, dueling sides of the president.
Define the relationship that develops between Tony Blair and Bush. What did each of them need from each other?
I think that the White House always thought it was important to get Blair on their side. They could talk all they wanted about a coalition of the willing and a multinational force, but the fact was, they had the Brits, and that was the most important thing to them, not only in terms of numbers -- because Blair ultimately was willing to send about 40,000 troops, which was far more than anyone else -- but also that it was something that Americans could understand; that if the Brits were with us, that it must be the right thing to do. ...
I think Blair genuinely believed that -- he said this many times -- Saddam Hussein was bad; he needed to go. He believed in what he called humanitarian intervention and had believed it long before Bush came on the scene, but felt like he needed to temper the administration's kind of cowboy impulses; that it needed to be done right; that it needed to go through the United Nations, or Blair would not have the support of his own people.
He believed it himself. He believed very deeply in the United Nations and in a kind of international effort against the bad guy. But he also knew that this was something that was not going to be popular with the Labor Party, an invasion, and that the only way he was going to get his own people behind it was for it to be a United Nations-approved operation, and not just Tony Blair following along after George Bush. ...
In the [September 2002 Camp David] meeting, what did the British expect? What did they find? What were their goals?
I think the British didn't know what to expect. They didn't know if they were going to go into a room with Bush, and Bush was going to say, "That's it; I've decided; I'm going to war; I'm invading; I don't need the United Nations," or if they could, in fact, talk him into going to the United Nations and asking for another resolution.
When Blair went in to meet with Bush alone, Cheney was there, which sort of surprised him. They were kind of flummoxed by the role of the vice president. They knew that Cheney was very powerful; they knew that he was very conservative. They didn't really have a relationship with him. So Cheney sat there, as he usually does in those kinds of meetings, and said nothing, and they just weren't sure how it was going to come out. ...
Blair's message was, again: "You have to go to the U.N. You have to do this. I want an agreement on the Palestinian issue, I want an agreement on the United Nations, and then we're with you." But I think they weren't quite sure how it was going to come out.
What was interesting after that meeting, listening to the two sides in the weeks that followed, they both took very different messages out of it. Bush described that as the "cojones meeting," the meeting where the British showed that they really had steel in their spines and elsewhere to really stand by the United States against Saddam Hussein.
If you talk to the British about that meeting, they felt that that was the meeting where Bush agreed that he would make some progress on the Palestinian issue and that he would go to the United Nations and try to negotiate a resolution that would get international support.
Define the battle toward finally accomplishing [U.N. Resolution] 1441. How did Powell view it?
Powell completely threw himself into the negotiations at the Security Council. Again, the Pentagon had gone in with their own version of what a resolution should say, which just incensed the State Department. What were they doing, writing resolutions to put before the Security Council? This was the State Department's job. And eventually, they actually had to go to Bush to get him to agree what the red lines were, what the resolution [was], what was the minimum that they could get?
They had a Security Council where the French were very powerful, where the Russians and the Chinese were against them. Really the only allies they had were the British on the Security Council; the Bulgarians, who happened to be on the Security Council at the time; and Spain, which had a conservative government. So they had had four votes. They need to get all five permanent members and at least nine altogether members of the 15 members of the Security Council to get something to pass.
This went on for I think it was seven weeks. Powell was tireless. He worked every day, long into the night, on the phone with the French, at the same time fighting a sort of rearguard battle against the Pentagon, which at every step Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were saying, "No, can't do it; can't settle on it."
They got down to actual words. It was sort of like the Vietnam peace negotiations where, does a word mean the same in this language as in that language? Finally came up with wording that avoided what the French said was completely unacceptable, which was an automatic trigger; wording that said if Saddam Hussein does not comply, then "all necessary means" can be used by the United Nations. That's code in U.N. speak for saying, "Well, if we decide that he has not complied with these demands to cough up all his weapons of mass destruction, then without coming back and asking the Security Council again, we can go to war."
They negotiated and negotiated and negotiated, finally came up with some wording that really was vague enough so that both sides could say they got what they wanted. Of course this caused trouble later on, but it managed to solve the problem at the time. Bush agreed to it. It was an enormous victory for Powell.
The morning of the vote, they weren't quite sure what was going to happen. Syria was also on the Security Council. That was kind of the one thing that was going to screw up their plans to get a unanimous vote. John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., was walking across the street into the Security Council that morning, gets a call on his cell phone that says, "The Syrians are with us." Walks in. They call the vote, and 15 hands go up around the table, an enormous victory for Powell.
Bush has him to the White House. They go out in the Rose Garden. He's standing by Bush's side. Bush hails him. It was a very big moment for Powell. And he felt a victory against the Pentagon and against Cheney. …
[Why did Powell give the U.N. speech?]
One of the things the British had been pressing for through November, December, was what they kept calling "the case": We need to make the case. We need to be more public about what we know about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's possession. We need to be more public about what we know about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.
I remember during that period talking to British officials, talking to American officials about the case. … The case was being put together at that point by the CIA. They were supposed to, on orders from the White House, put all of their information together, come up with a coherent, logical argument that would use all of their information to say, "Yes, we know for sure what Saddam Hussein is doing."
In December they had a presentation where [CIA Director] George Tenet and John McLaughlin, his deputy, came in to present their case, what they'd spent months putting together. The White House wasn't pleased. Bush said, "Is that all you've got?" Felt like it was not dramatic enough, felt like it didn't use some of the good stuff that they thought the intelligence community had. Sent them back to redo it.
They came back a second time with the information -- still wasn't good enough. It was given to Cheney's office, to [Cheney's then-Chief of Staff] Scooter Libby, to put together another version of the speech, and they worked and worked on it.
By late January, Scooter Libby and others in Cheney's office had finished their version of the case, and there was a meeting held. It was on a Saturday in the White House, and Powell was out of the country. Armitage was there in his place, and they presented their document, their version of the case. Armitage left that meeting, as he said, with neon lights going off, hyperbole, overdramatized. He calls Powell up and says: "You won't believe this. You won't believe what they've done. They've thrown everything but the kitchen sink in this speech, and I think they want you to give it."
Powell comes back into town, goes to the White House. Bush takes him aside and says, "You know, we're ready to present this case, and I want you to do it; you're the person to do it." It was logical that Powell would do it anyway, because it was going to be a speech to the Security Council. Foreign ministers go to the Security Council. It's not a forum for presidents or defense secretaries. And so Powell felt, yeah, this is what I should do.
Bush said, "We're going to send over the document to you; Scooter has put it together." So a couple days later, it lands on Powell's desk, 40 single-spaced pages talking about weapons of mass destruction. Powell looks at it and says, "Oh, God, this is not a Colin Powell speech." Powell is very proud of his speechmaking abilities. Takes it into Larry Wilkerson, his chief of staff, and shows it to him and says, "I think this needs some work."
Wilkerson looks at it even more carefully and says: "Look, we've got to check every fact in this. I think some people are playing fast and loose with the facts."
"We're going to have to go over to the CIA," he and Powell decide. They put together a team. Wilkerson puts together a team of four or five top people in the State Department, some of them former intelligence officers now working at the State Department. And they go over to the CIA. ... They start going through, paragraph by paragraph.
Cheney's office has sent over his own people, John Hannah, who was his special Middle East adviser, who also had participated in the writing. Every paragraph they say: "Where did you get this fact? Where did this come from?" Hannah goes through his clipboard and says, "Oh, that's from here; that's from there." Some of it just came from newspaper articles; some of it came from intelligence reports. And they would send a minion out to get the original intelligence report, start to go through it.
After the first day, Tenet and Wilkerson look at each other and say: "This is going to take forever. We are never going to get this finished." Meanwhile, Bush had already announced, the White House had already announced when the speech was going to be, that it was going to be on Feb. 5, which was less than a week away at that point. Powell had called up Rice and said, initially: "This is going to take longer than that. We can't do it." Rice said: "No dice. We've already said when you're going to give the speech, so you've got to give it on that day."
Powell himself goes out to the CIA. They throw out the version that's been prepared by the vice president's office after they realize they're never going to be able to get it finished. They go back to the National Intelligence Estimate that the CIA had come up with several months earlier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction; they use that for their template.
Of course we now know that there were many errors in that report and a lot of caveats that weren't reflected in the main judgments. Nevertheless, that becomes the basis for Powell's speech.
Powell asked Tenet over and over, "Do you trust this stuff?" Powell was still wanting to make sure.
It was not that Powell disbelieved that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He believed it; he'd never seen information that would disprove it. The question was whether this speech, whether the specifics in this speech could be backed up. He was very suspicious of the hyperbole that had come out of the vice president's office, and he wanted to pare it down to the essentials: What did we actually know?
So on things like aluminum tubes to make centrifuges for uranium, did we really know that that's what those were for? Absolutely, he was told, although he included a little caveat in the speech, because the Energy Department and others had said, "No, we don't think so."
The CIA trotted out intercepts that some people on Powell's staff said: "Well, wait a minute. The Iraqis appear to be talking in a kind of code." CIA said: "Well, we've analyzed it. We know how these people talk. This is what it said." They brought out photographs, satellite photographs, of places that appeared to be buildings with vehicles around them. Richard Boucher, who was Powell's public affairs guy, who was sitting in the room said: "Well, this looks like a truck sitting next to a building. How do we know?" CIA said: "Well, you have to understand, we understand these signatures. This truck wasn't here on this day. It's this type of truck. We know that this truck carries these sort of things." They went into long, elaborate explanations.
On the question of Saddam Hussein's ties with Al Qaeda, Tenet took Powell into his office and showed him a transcript of an interview, an interrogation that had been done with a senior Al Qaeda officer where he talked in great detail about training that had been done in biological and chemical weapons for Al Qaeda people by Saddam Hussein. Of course not too long afterward, we learned that that whole interrogation had been recanted and that the intelligence community itself had said that it was not factually correct, that it was a fabrication.
But at the time, Tenet personally assured Powell that this was all true. But again, it's important to say that Powell did not start out as an unbeliever. Powell thought by taking this large document that had come over from the vice president's office, paring it down, taking out what he referred to as the garbage and making it into what he thought was a solid, provable document -- of course we know now that the basic facts of it were not provable. But he thought at the end of the day that he'd done pretty good work.
How did Powell view the role, his performance?
... I think he was very nervous. Powell doesn't like to read speeches. He likes to have a few note cards and then do his Powell thing. But this one he read from the text, every word, coordinated with the audiovisuals -- went on for 75 minutes. And then the proof of it was the next day where you saw public opinion polls which had been slightly against an invasion completely turned over, where you had 60, 70, 80 percent. You had editorials across the country saying: "Proved it to me. This really is a slam dunk case. If Colin Powell says it -- and he said it with evidence," as one very liberal columnist in The Washington Post said, "it's irrefutable."
Powell was happy with the results.
He was very happy. He felt like he'd done a good job. Now, some of the people around him were not so happy. Larry Wilkerson said later that he felt like it was one of the worst things he'd ever done. A lot of that is probably hindsight.
What was Powell's take on Condoleezza Rice? ...
Remember that Powell had been national security adviser to President Reagan. He was Reagan's last national security adviser; went in at a time when really the entire national security apparatus of the Reagan White House was completely falling apart. He had gone in and run it like a military operation: meetings on schedule, everybody got to say their peace, summary memos of the meetings, and handed out decisions memos given to the president.
Nothing worked that way in the Bush administration. Things seemed to come out of the ether. There were meetings; they were rambling. There were no summary memos that came out afterward. No one knew when the president was going to decide something; no one knew that he had decided.
Powell felt, as Armitage kept telling him, that Rumsfeld had access to the president that he didn't have. Again, Powell really blamed Rice for this; that she did not do what the first duty he felt of a national security adviser would be, which is to make sure that the president gets a wide range of views from his Cabinet; ... that she was intimidated and didn't impose discipline against Rumsfeld; obviously that Cheney, over whom Rice did not have control, was spending a good bit of every day with Bush. ...
Armitage felt like they went into meetings, tasks were handed out. Nobody ever checked up on if you had ever completed those tasks. Throughout the planning for the war, when they thought that the deputies were supposed to be putting together at an interagency level all the work that had been done for various agencies, Armitage said, "We felt like we were gerbils in a wheel. The real work was being done somewhere else, and we were not being told," so that the whole process had just kind of fallen apart. ...
What is Powell thinking as his case is falling apart?
As the summer went on in '03, bricks started to fall out of this great wall of WMD, where Armitage would get a call, and it would say: "Oh, yeah, you know that one defector that we quoted? Forget him. That didn't turn out to be right." Couple weeks later, it would be another one.
They were very happy when they found the supposed mobile weapons laboratories. They found a couple of trailers. Powell called over to Tenet and said, "Are these the real thing?," and the CIA wrote a report, swore up and down, "Yup, we think that's what they are," even though ... others in the intelligence community [were] saying, "Well, we're not so sure; we think that these mobile labs were to do something else." Powell came out publicly and said: "Oh, you know, the CIA has now said yes, these are the real trailers. So you see? We were right about that."
But as the summer went on, it started to get more and more and more doubtful, and Powell kind of started to change his tune a bit. He started to rationalize in his own head. I don't know whether you could say he did it consciously or not, but he went back to a formulation of capability and intent. ... It was enough to say that [Saddam] had the capability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, because we know he'd done it before, and that he had the intent to do it, because he'd said he'd had it. That was enough of a threat. Therefore, the invasion was the right thing.
I think that Powell believed this himself. It did not occur to him that the information was fake. We didn't know that much at the time about really the sort of unraveling of the various sources and the chicanery that went on with these sources, and the missed signals and the kind of shadowy nature of a lot of the sources.
So I think Powell, his formulation was, it was what we believed at the time. ... And it wasn't only we that believed it. The French believed it; the British believed it. ... Everybody thought they were there. It was that this is not the way to deal with it; this is not the right time to deal with it, and that that's what the argument was.
But I don't think Powell felt like he had been lied to, or that he had lied. ...
Does this unfortunate situation make Powell question the role that he has played in this administration?
Again, you know, he's a tactician; he's not a strategist. It's a battle lost. There are lots of battles lost, but he still thinks he's going to win the war.
For a time, he was very angry at George Tenet, because he thought Tenet had lied to him; Tenet had misled him. Gradually, I think that anger transferred to the president, obviously to the vice president who he felt was kind of the underlying ... ideology of all this in pressing the president.
But Powell believes very strongly that at the end of the day, it's the president that makes the decisions and that he had done his duty. He had warned. He had said, "This is not the right time to go to war; this is not the right way to go to war." He never said war is wrong, "This is the wrong thing to do." He'd said: "Here's my advice as a former military commander and as your secretary of state. Here's what you need to consider." He felt like he'd done his duty and that he had nothing to apologize for.
I think Powell was tired. He'd thought all through '04, and he and Armitage had talked about it a lot, [that] they were not going to stay beyond a first term. But as the end of '04 approached, as the elections approached, things actually started to turn up a little bit for diplomacy. Yasser Arafat was about to leave the scene; the elections were coming up in Iraq. There were things that were happening that made it look like there was going to be more room for diplomacy. I think he started to have second thoughts that maybe he would stay.
The election happened. Bush won. They went off to Camp David, Bush, Rice, Andy Card, to talk about new Cabinet appointments. When they got back, Powell got a call from Andy Card saying, "Well, Colin, the president's decided to make a change, and you're it."
I think he was very surprised. I think, again, that he was not reluctant to leave. He really had had it in many ways, was very tired. But I think that this was not the way that he wanted to go out. He asked to be able to orchestrate his departure, which he did. This was on a Wednesday he got this call. [Card] said, "We want your resignation letter by Friday." Powell didn't tell anybody. He went home. He typed it himself, a resignation letter, which he couched in sort of, "Mr. President, you and I together have had many achievements." He didn't do the angry resignation letter that others had already done, Paul O'Neill, [treasury secretary, 2001-2002], who wrote one paragraph saying, "I'm out of here." But Powell did a very Powell-like "Now I've achieved what I wanted to achieve. And Mr. President, you have many more things to do. Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure and an honor." Took it to the White House. Of course they sent it back and said there was a typo in it and asked him to redo it, which he did.
That night, that Friday night, he informed his closest aides. Didn't tell anybody about Card's call. Didn't say that he'd essentially been fired, just said he was leaving; the president was going to make a change. And the agreement was that on Monday it would be announced.
The White House announced at the morning briefing that he was leaving. He went down and had a press conference himself, again, very gracious, very "my decision," so much so that at the White House briefing that day, people were asked whether Powell had refused a request from Bush to stay. That seemed to be the sort of operative narrative at the time.
But of course the next day, it was announced that Condi Rice was going to take his place, which had already been decided a week previously. ...
How did Powell view the avalanche that began slowly and grew, the insurgency?
It's indicative of how bad relations had become between the Pentagon and the State Department that as things seemed to unravel in Iraq under Pentagon control, that there was a little sort of subtle glee at the State Department -- you know, "OK, you guys wanted this? You wanted to be in charge of this? Good. You've done it. Be my guest."
And of course at the beginning of 2004, it was decided that they would open an embassy, and there was a fight over that because it would require a new executive order from the one that Bush had originally signed prior to the war putting the Pentagon in charge of everything. It would require an executive order saying: "OK, we're taking this away from the military now. We are going to return sovereignty to the Iraqis. We are going to set up an embassy and treat this like a normal country." Rumsfeld went in and said: "No, I want an executive order that basically says we're still in charge of all the reconstruction money. People answer to us. We run everything outside of Baghdad."
And Powell put his foot down and went into Bush and said: "No, there's going to be an embassy, and it's going to be like every other embassy. And that means that we are going to be in charge of everything except for military operations." ... He won that battle, and they got an executive order. It's very specific, if you look at it. It says that through the military chain of command, Rumsfeld is in charge of military operations, the secretary of defense. But everything else -- reconstruction money, political negotiations, everything else -- was under the control of the State Department. …
Once those initial negotiations were settled and the executive order was issued in January '04 … lower levels at both departments started to negotiate an actual memorandum of understanding about how they would relate to each other on the ground.
And this was, in talking to people who were involved in these negotiations, some of the most bitter talks between the Pentagon and the State Department that they'd had after many years of quite bitter negotiations, where the Pentagon was saying, "We are not going to provide transportation; we are not going to provide security." There was even an argument over mortuary services, that if somebody employed by the State Department was killed, that the Defense Department, which obviously had a huge mortuary operation in Iraq, was not responsible for taking care of the body and shipping it back to the United States.
Eventually they finished this 40-page, single-spaced document which was signed by Wolfowitz and Armitage, that became the sort of template for how they would relate to each other on the ground.
In your epilogue, you state Powell was bitter about the mess made by disregarding the Geneva abuse of detainees. Explain.
I think Powell felt sort of vindicated by his views about the detainees, about the need to really respect the Geneva Conventions, and felt like ... what he would see as a mess that has now resulted from all of that was foreseen and could have been avoided. ...
You said Powell said, "The surge was a heavier lid on a pot of boiling sectarian stew." Explain what Powell meant.
He feels that there's really nothing that the Americans can do now; that they've unleashed so many bad genies in Iraq that the Iraqis are just going to have to fight it out themselves; that the Americans cannot resolve a sectarian war; that they can put a lid on it, that they can put more troops in and tamp it down for a while, but they really can't stop it, and that it's something that the Iraqis are going to have to fight out among themselves, and when they finally get tired of it, they will stop. ...
[What was the story behind the French "ambush" of Powell at the U.N.?]
The French had the presidency of the Security Council at the time, and every government, when they take over the presidency, tries to have some kind of big meeting to showcase themselves. This was during a period when the inspectors, the Iraq weapons inspectors, were coming every couple of weeks to the Security Council.
The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, called up Powell and said: "I want to have a session where we can just talk about terrorism. And this will be our, the French, session." Powell said: "Mmm, no. I don't think I want to do that, because it's really not going to be about terrorism; it's going to be about Iraq, and it's going to be another occasion to beat on us. So I don't think I want to do it."
De Villepin said: "No, no, no. That's not what we're going to do. And besides, [Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw of the British is coming. The Germans are coming. Everybody's coming. So it would make a statement perhaps you don't want to make if you didn't come." So Powell said, "OK, I'll come." He didn't want to come. It was on Martin Luther King's birthday holiday, and he was scheduled to give some speeches. Nonetheless, he went with the assurance that this would not be about Iraq.
The speeches started. Everyone started talking about global terrorism and what a scourge it was. They got to the German foreign minister, who all of a sudden started talking about Iraq, started talking about what a bad idea an invasion was, how they would never support it. Powell perked up and thought, well, I can't let this go by; I have to talk about it.
So he then revised his own remarks as he was sitting there. So it became a session about Iraq, which it had not been intended to be.
They all went off to lunch. The French were going to have a lunch for all the ministers. De Villepin, the French foreign minister, didn't show up for about 45 minutes at his own lunch. Nobody knew quite where he was. He finally arrived. They go into lunch.
As he's leaving the lunch, his cell phone rings, and it's Condoleezza Rice on the phone, and she says, "What are you going to do about what he said?" He said, "What do you mean, what he said?" Apparently de Villepin, the reason why he was late is because he'd had a press conference in which he said what the French had pretty much already said, which is we will never accept a resolution that allows an automatic trigger, an automatic invasion, to happen.
The administration said: "You've been skunked by them. You've had the wool pulled over your eyes. They've made you look foolish." Powell felt in retrospect, as that in fact was the reaction in a lot of the media the next day, that the White House had actually promoted that line, because there were those in the White House that wanted to make him look bad, wanted to make it look like diplomacy was not an answer; that, in fact, the French had betrayed him.
And having the U.N. avenue implode basically.
Well, it did. But then [then-Prime Minister Jacques] Chirac came out and said a bunch of stuff, and the fact was, as Powell eventually came to realize, that they knew when the invasion was going to be that it really didn't matter at that point what happened in the United Nations, although Tony Blair very much wanted a second resolution. And Powell felt like it was possible to get it, but it just was not going to happen, and the administration had already made its plans and in fact had already set an invasion date at that point, in any case. ...