Making the Case for War: 20 Years Ago, Colin Powell Lied to the UN
05:00 GMT 05.02.2023 (Updated: 17:40 GMT 06.03.2023)
© AP Photo / Elise Amendola / U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council. (File)
© AP Photo / Elise Amendola /
On February 5, 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council that would go down in infamy. Over the course of a 76-minute briefing that was broadcast to millions across the world, Powell asserted that the US had ironclad evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was covertly developing weapons of mass destruction.
“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by solid sources,” he confidently declared. “These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
To bolster his case, Powell presented satellite photos, audio recordings of intercepted conversations between Iraqi soldiers, testimonies from high-level defectors, and even a tiny vial of white powder that was meant to serve as a symbol for Baghdad’s supposed anthrax program. At first glance, the evidence seemed both robust and dramatic.
There was only one glaring problem: None of it was true. The satellite images did not show what Powell claimed they did, while the audio recordings and testimonies were deliberately manipulated. More than 70 UN site inspections in Iraq over the preceding years had found absolutely no evidence that the country was developing chemical, nuclear, or biological weapons. Following the US invasion in March 2003, even the Bush administration was forced to admit that Iraq did not possess WMDs.
Although the truth eventually prevailed, it came at an extraordinarily high price. The Iraq War resulted in hundreds of thousands Iraqis dead and more than 9 million displaced, according to data from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Nearly twenty years after the US invasion, Iraq is still grappling with the sectarian and political violence unleashed by Washington’s military debacle.
How was the Bush administration able to sell a war based on dubious intelligence not only to the American people, but also to much of the international community? Perhaps even more importantly, did the US political and military leadership learn any lessons from its disastrous invasion?
To answer these questions, Sputnik spoke to former Pentagon and State Department officials who witnessed firsthand the Bush administration’s drift to war and spoke out against it.
Anatomy of a Lie
The push for the US to invade Iraq began not long after President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, according to retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who served as a senior Middle East analyst for the Pentagon in the months leading up to the war.
She explained that shortly after Bush's inauguration, Vice President Dick Cheney began to staff the Pentagon, National Security Council, and the key US intelligence agencies with a large number of political appointees, most of whom came from neoconservative think tanks. These hawkish officials were longtime advocates of regime change in Iraq, arguing that such a move would allow the US to strengthen its control over the Middle East and “militarily” encircle neighboring Iran.
“The US also did not want to see any oil country go off the petrodollar, as Saddam had announced he was doing in late 2000,” she said. “When you are looking for any justification, truth and accurate intelligence really becomes a barrier, instead of an asset to the politicians.”
5 February, 10:00 GMT
It was not long before the neoconservatives in the Bush administration launched a concerted campaign to lay the informational foundation for an invasion of Iraq. Kwiatkowski told Sputnik that beginning in August 2002, Middle East analysts such as herself were instructed not to contradict intelligence notices and briefings which suggested that Iraq was developing WMDs. Dissenters who expressed concerns about the veracity of these claims were fired.
These dubious reports ended up not only on Bush's desk, but also on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
“Classified bits and pieces -- cherry picked, unreliable, and often outrageously false -- were given to the contacts at these newspapers, and to the President's speechwriters, and incorporated into their domestic and global propaganda,” Kwiatkowski said. “This made it all seem believable to the 95% of the US population who in the early 2000's still trusted the US government.”
Even amid this formidable propaganda push, there were many in the highest echelons of Washington who had information contradicting the official narrative on Iraq. One of them was none other than Colin Powell.
5 November 2017, 10:47 GMT
In the months leading up to the invasion, Powell privately expressed his doubts about the Bush administration’s drift towards war to British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and his own chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson. Just days before Powell’s infamous UN speech, the US Secretary of State received two memos from his intelligence staff that directly refuted many of the claims made in the presentation.
“I think Powell, as the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had reason to know the intelligence was fabricated at the time he gave the speech and I think he actually suspected that it was manufactured at the time he gave it but decided to give the speech anyway out of mostly political considerations,” said David T. Pyne, who served as the Middle East desk officer at the US Army headquarters staff from 2000-2003.
At the same time, Pyne stressed that even if Powell had genuinely believed that Iraq possessed WMDs, that still was not strong enough of a reason to invade the country. He explained that Iraq was too weakened after losing sixty percent of its military equipment and personnel in the First Gulf War of 1991 to pose much of a threat to its neighbors, let alone the US.
Pyne noted that many in the intelligence community shared his assessment of Iraq’s capabilities. “Having personally toured the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia and interviewed the then Director of the National Intelligence Council, John C. Gannon, in October 1999, I can tell you that Iraq was not even on their top five list of major threats at that time,” he said.
Although Powell decided to brush his reservations about Iraq aside, some lower ranking officials in the Pentagon and State Department chose not to remain silent. Both Kwiatkowski and Pyne published articles in the lead up to the Iraq War warning about the potential consequences of the invasion.
Another dissident was Ann Wright, a US diplomat who also served 29 years in the US army as a colonel. On March 19, 2003, just one day before the US sent troops into Iraq, Wright submitted her letter of resignation to Powell.
“It was just gnawing at me that here we go again: The U.S. is going to go to war,” she told Sputnik. “We're going to kill lots of civilians. I mean, everybody knows what's the result of the U.S. interventions in anything.”
Wright warned that there were many concerning parallels between the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq and the Biden administration’s growing military involvement in Ukraine. She explained that just as opponents of the Iraq War were browbeat into silence, Ukraine skeptics are likewise being intimidated into towing the hawkish party line.
“There's a lot of controversy within the government itself on whether continuing to ratchet up the war by giving lots of weaponry to Ukraine or putting a great emphasis on ceasefire negotiations to stop the killing. Behind the scenes, there's a lot of dissent,” she said.
Wright expressed skepticism that the proponents of diplomacy would ultimately prevail in Washington since the US “always needs an enemy in order to keep the military industrial complex going,” noting that major campaign donors are involved in arms production.
Similar concerns were voiced by Kwiatkowski, who noted that Washington had undertaken no major reforms of the intelligence bureaucracies in the two decades following the Iraq invasion. At the same time, US human intelligence gathering resources are actually weaker today than they were in 2003. Finally, the US government’s growing control over news reporting and social media means that it is becoming even more difficult for Americans to access objective information about international developments.
“There is a vast difference between the reporting from the Pentagon via Defense Intelligence Agency and presumably other US intelligence agencies and the actual events and progress of the war on the ground in Ukraine,” Kwiatkowski said. “Where are the dissenters, and where is the human intelligence on the ground -- and how is what they are observing reaching US political leadership?”