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Published on Tuesday, February 4, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
An Open Letter to the U.N. about Colin Powell
by Dennis Hans
Greetings, members of the United Nations.
I am writing on the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 presentation on Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s alleged links to al Qaeda and its possession of and/or ongoing attempts to develop banned weapons of mass destruction. Many of you will read this after February 5, and that’s fine. You will be debating and discussing the import and details of Powell’s presentation in the days and weeks that follow, and you will be aided immeasurably by a fuller understanding of the man and his standards.
Judging from the following excerpt of an article in Sunday’s Washington Post ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A12652-2003Feb1.html), European diplomats in particular have far too rosy a view of Powell’s character and credibility:
“Any hope of an agreement, a European diplomat said, rests with Powell. He is widely trusted by council governments, and many said his words this week will have a heavy impact. ‘You are lucky to have a representative for this administration that is as credible as he is,’ the European diplomat said. ‘If you didn’t have him, you’d really have much, much greater difficulties working with a whole lot of Europeans.’”
Secretary Powell is a brilliant man, but I ask that you leave open the question of trust and credibility. For starters, you might ask Hans Blix to expound on this portion of a recent New York Times article: “Mr. Blix took issue with what he said were Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's claims that the inspectors had found that Iraqi officials were hiding and moving illicit materials within and outside of Iraq to prevent their discovery. He said that the inspectors had reported no such incidents” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/31/international/middleeast/31BLIX.html).
If Blix is correct, this suggests that Powell is willing to deceive on matters that are easily checked. What would such a man be capable of when presenting “evidence” that is not subject to verification?
Although our immediate focus is Iraq, I include below a postscript that offers evidence and citations from reputable human rights groups of Powell’s “fictitious” certifications to Congress on aid to Colombia, as well as his devotion in the 1980s to murderous governments and rebel forces in Central America and Africa whose depridations would make that European diplomat’s skin crawl.
Iraq: Powell for the prosecution
U.N. members, if you prepare properly for Powell’s presentation, you can make an invaluable contribution to your own and the world’s understanding of the true extent of Iraq’s threats to its neighbors and the global community, as well as its links, if any, to al Qaeda. If you’re not prepared, you could make a horrendous mistake with unfathomable repercussions.
Powell’s presentation will be in the form of “here is the unvarnished truth as we understand it.” But his will be a case for the prosecution and should be viewed as such. He will present only those tidbits that strengthen his case while suppressing tidbits that undermine it — and he will have a great advantage over a prosecutor in an American court.
You see, that prosecutor would earlier have taken part in what is called the “discovery” phase. The rules differ by state and by type of case, but the idea is that both sides in a trial get access to just about all the information and evidence the other side has gathered. You, on the other hand, will not be privy to the mountain of evidence from which Powell has selected his damning tidbits. You won’t have access to the material that places each accusation in its proper context, or the material that weakens or directly contradicts each accusation.
Nor will you know if certain evidence is unreliable because it was obtained through torture. On Monday Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a letter to Powell ( http://hrw.org/press/2003/02/powell-ltr020303.htm) urging him to denounce the use of torture and not to include in his presentation any “information” obtained through torture or severe mistreatment. (An in-depth story in the Dec. 26 Washington Post, cited by Roth, indicates the administration now countenances torture.) Would the Bush administration permit U.S. intelligence agencies to torture directly and/or ship detainees to foreign torture centers in hopes of extracting the magic words “Saddam and al Qaeda — all for one and one for all”? You might want to ask Secretary Powell.
The tubes: What did Powell know and when did he know it?
Powell has known for many months that officials in his own State Department, as well as experts in the Energy Department, doubted that those aluminum tubes Iraq tried to purchase were intended for use in a nuclear-weapons program. Yet Powell stood by as President Bush delivered three major speeches where he stated as incontrovertible fact that Iraq’s purpose for the tubes was nuclear. If the president wanted to mislead the American people — to scare them into supporting his desire for war — that was just fine with Powell.
It was in President Bush’s September speech to your body, the United Nations, that he made his first categorical statement that Iraq had attempted to purchase aluminum tubes necessary for building centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium. He didn’t say that the tubes “could” be used in a nuclear project, or that “we have grave concerns” that this might be the case. He didn’t say what he and Powell knew to be true: “Even though we lean hard on all our intelligence pros to put the worst possible spin on Iraqi actions, the truth is that many of our best people make a persuasive case that the tubes are for a non-nuclear program.”
Bush repeated his categorical statement about the tubes’ nuclear purpose in a national address October 7. He repeated it again January 28, in his State of the Union address. Between the two speeches, evidence continued to mount that the tubes were indeed for the purpose that Iraq told the U.N. inspectors: for conventional artillery rockets.
We now know, thanks to the work of Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick (not to be confused with pretend-reporter and Powell-mouthpiece Bob Woodward), that the nuclear theory had plenty of holes from the start (“U.S. Claim on Iraqi Nuclear Program Is Called Into Question” ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35360-2003Jan23.html).
Amazingly, the primary reason cited by CIA and Pentagon proponents of the nuclear theory — the fact that Iraq was seeking tubes of a precise size — is the strongest evidence for the conventional-rockets theory! (So much for the pretense by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz that the CIA is too eager to dismiss allegations of Iraqi misdeeds.) In fact, the 81mm tubes were a perfect fit for the conventional-rocket program that dated back to the 1980s, and not even close to a fit for centrifuges. On Jan. 8, reports Warrick, Dr. el Baradei of the IAEA issued his “preliminary assessment that the tubes were ‘not directly suitable’ for uranium enrichment but were ‘consistent’ with making ordinary artillery rockets -- a finding that meshed with Iraq’s official explanation for the tubes.” Yet on Jan. 28, the president continued to pretend otherwise in a nationally televised speech, confident that the major U.S. news media would let him get away with one more lie. Confident that his much admired and respected secretary of state would side with him, rather than the American people who were the target of the lie.
Big lies that go unchallenged produce big results for Bush and Powell
Recall what else Bush was saying around the time he first told his tall tubular tale: He was trying to scare the hell out of the American people and Congress with warnings about the grave and imminent nuclear threat posed by Saddam. At a Sept. 7 news conference, Bush said, “I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied — finally denied access [in 1998], a report came out of the Atomic — the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need.” But as Joseph Curl reported three weeks later in the conservative Washington Times, there was no such report: “In October 1998, just before Saddam kicked U.N. weapons inspectors out of Iraq, the IAEA laid out a case opposite of Mr. Bush’s Sept. 7 declaration: ‘There are no indications that there remains in Iraq any physical capability for the production of weapon-usable nuclear material of any practical significance,’ IAEA Director-General Mohammed Elbaradei wrote in a report to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan” ( http://www.washtimes.com/national/20020927-500715.htm).
But Bush’s lie was reported widely as fact, and along with other lies it has had a tremendous impact on public perceptions. According to a recent Knight-Ridder poll, 41 percent of Americans believe Saddam has nuclear weapons while only 24 percent know the truth: he has none ( http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/4911975.htm). If Bush and Powell had a policy of leveling with the American people, support for a war would plummet.
There is a long list of lies and half-truths in Bush’s three major speeches on Iraq, as the Institute for Public Accuracy (accuracy.org) and others have shown. Each lie and half-truth merits its own investigation, to determine just how long that Powell and Bush have known it was all or partly false, yet continued to peddle it. It is bad enough to take unconfirmed rumors and pass them off on the public as certified facts. But it is unconscionable to knowingly, willfully mislead the American public and the community of nations in order to trick them into waging a war of aggression.
How to stage your own “discovery” phase
You won’t have access to the raw data from which Powell will build his case, but if you try hard enough you can have the next best thing: honest national-security bureaucrats who’ve seen all this data and, in recent months, have provided to the handful of serious reporters in Washington careful analyses that directly contradict the party line pushed by Powell and Bush. These reporter include the Post’s Joby Warrick, Knight-Ridder’s Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel ( http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/story.hts/nation/1607676 ), and the Los Angeles Times’ Greg Miller and Bob Drogin ( http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/wire/la-na-cia11oct11.story).
The reporters and their sources can help you start your own “discovery” process. It could begin the day of Powell’s presentation and continue in the days and weeks that follow. It can be carried out in a manner that safeguards intelligence “sources and methods” and in conjunction with those members of the U.S. Congress who are still eager to have the free, open and honest debate they were denied last fall.
These dedicated, experienced officials, Landay and Strobel report, “charge that the administration squelches dissenting views and that intelligence analysts are under intense pressure to produce reports supporting the White House’s argument that Saddam poses such an immediate threat to the United States that pre-emptive military action is necessary. ‘Analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books,’ said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. A dozen other officials echoed his views in interviews. No one who was interviewed disagreed.”
I can’t tell you their names. I don’t know them because they spoke to the reporters on the condition they not be named. Landay and Strobel explained why: “None of the dissenting officials, who work in a number of different agencies, would agree to speak publicly, out of fear of retribution.”
Powell is on the side of the squelchers and the bullies. He is no friend of the frightened officials who want nothing more than for their leaders to be honest with the American people.
Bring these reporters to New York. Ask them to tell you what their sources told them. Ask them how to reach their sources, and plead with those sources to go public. Tell them there is safety in numbers. If 20 blow the whistle, it will be impossible for the White House to discredit them all. Ask dissident members of the U.S. Congress, former President Jimmy Carter and retired General Anthony Zinni to echo your plea. It only takes a few brave bureaucrats to open the floodgates for dozens more to follow.
Only by bringing these well-informed, honorable patriots out into the open can U.S. citizens and the world community begin to have the full, open and honest debate that we absolutely must have before making such a momentous and fateful decision to go — or not to go — to war.
The ultimate “team player” on a team that cheats
All his career, Colin Powell has been known as a “team player.” But as was the case in the 1980s, today he’s playing on a team that cheats. Ponder for a moment the words of the thoughtful Wall Street Journal reporter David Wessel, writing in the December 12 edition:
“[T]his administration seems particularly proud of its skill in misleading the press, the public and Congress, when convenient. It has even hired Elliott Abrams and John Poindexter, both of whom were convicted of lying to Congress about Reagan-era aid to Nicaraguan rebels. . . . A White House aide who had told me one thing on the record a few weeks ago tried to persuade me over the weekend, not for attribution, that the opposite was true. I protested. His reply: ‘Why would I lie? Because that’s what I’m supposed to do. Lying to the press doesn’t prick anyone’s conscience.’”
Lying to the press is the same thing as lying to the public. It’s a hallmark of the Bush team, and Powell is its all-star. Beware.
Postscript: More Reasons to Be Wary of and Sickened by Powell
Human Rights Watch says Powell files “fictitious” certification on Colombia
On January 14, 2003, Human Rights Watch (HRW) held a press conference to announce the release of its latest world report. Executive director Kenneth Roth said that Powell’s State Department twice in 2002 issued “fictitious” certifications that Colombia had met the human-rights and rule-of-laws conditions that the U.S. Congress had attached to Colombia aid. Congress required him to make an honest judgment, and HRW, Amnesty International and the Washington Office on Latin America demonstrate in a collaborative report that Powell did no such thing ( http://hrw.org/backgrounder/americas/colombia-certification4.htm). He says Colombia met all of the conditions; they say none. If you read the report, you’ll be hard-pressed to consider this an “honest disagreement.”
Two of my own articles ( http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0209-04.htm, http://www.colombiareport.org/colombia85.htm) address Powell’s slippery — dare I say “Clintonesque” — language in 2001 when the State Department designated the AUC (a rightwing paramilitary death-squad federation in Colombia) a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” The carefully worded statement included not a hint of a relationship between the AUC and the U.S.-backed Colombian army. HRW has, for years, documented that intimate working relationship. If Powell had acknowledged the obvious truth, he and President Bush would have been placed in the awkward position of justifying continued aid to an army that, in a myriad of ways, aids and abets terrorists.
Powell proud of his support for murderous contras
During the 1980s, thousands of Nicaraguan were murdered by a terrorist rebel force known as the contras, which had been created by the U.S. from the remnants of the hated National Guard of the deposed Somoza dictatorship. The U.S. organized, armed and trained the contras, directed them to attack defenseless Nicaraguan villages, and produced and distributed a handbook that justified and encouraged the assassination of local officials. In 1986 the International Court of Justice ordered the Reagan administration to end the contra war and pay reparations to Nicaragua. It did neither.
You can read all about the contras in the gruesome reports of HRW, whose careful documentation has stood the test of time. But, you ask, what does that have to do with Powell? To this day, Powell is proud of his contribution to the contra cause. Here’s what he said to journalists Norman Solomon and Robert Parry in 1995:
“Working for Ronald Reagan as his deputy national security adviser and national security adviser, I worked very hard, fought very hard to get adequate support to the contras, the freedom fighters, who were resisting the communist government of the Ortegas in Nicaragua.... I have no regrets about my role.” ( http://www.fair.org/extra/9601/powell.html)
According to HRW, the contras made torture, murder of defenseless civilians, and execution of surrendered enemy soldiers standard operating procedure. In the eyes of Powell, the contras were “freedom fighters.”
A word on the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte
The Reagan team had bribed the brutal generals who ran Honduras behind a democratic façade to provide bases and sanctuary for the contras. You see, the contras, unlike a legitimate guerrilla force, could not establish themselves in their own country. The CIA helped the worst of the Honduran military set up a death squad called Battalion 316, which developed a habit of torturing suspects to death. The man whose job it was to hush this up, to pretend that no systematic abuses were being committed by our allies, was the U.S. ambassador. His name is John Negroponte, and many U.S. senators, as well as his predecessor in Honduras, consider him dishonest. But he’s a good friend of Powell’s, and today he’s the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
The only notable black American to countenance Constructive Engagement
Ask your fellow ambassadors from South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and Namibia what they thought of the “Reagan Doctrine” and of “Constructive Engagement” with South Africa. Ask them how many of their countrymen were slaughtered in the 1980s as a result of U.S. support for monsters named Savimbi and Mobutu. Ask them about the strategic alliance between Powell’s president and the apartheid regime that was destabilizing the entire southern African region. The number slaughtered as a direct result surely is in the hundreds of thousands. Ask these African ambassadors what they think of a black man who is proud to have served in the uppermost foreign-policy reaches of an administration that conceived the abomination known as Constructive Engagement.
No African American of stature other than Powell would have willingly served as a cheerleader for the Reagan Doctrine, with its murderous consequences in Africa and beyond. Perhaps this helps explain why Powell is so beloved by the big names of America’s lilywhite, center-right news media.
I’m a moderate liberal who, in the 1990s, taught courses on American foreign policy and mass communications as an adjunct (part-time) professor at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. In the 1980s I wrote a number of essays and book reviews on U.S. intervention in the Third World and how the major U.S. media tended to stick close to the White House party line (a tendency that’s in full force today). The essays appeared in Christianity & Crisis, the National Catholic Reporter and the Berkshire Eagle newspaper. Today I write as an opponent of the looming war, hoping to persuade you to join me in opposition.
I have no love for Saddam Hussein. I regard him as one of many brutal dictators whose most grisly crimes were committed in the 1980s, when they had strong support from the Reagan administration that Powell so loyally served. My preferred solution to the current crisis is for Saddam to go into exile, with a 5-year grant of immunity from international prosecution, after which he must fend for himself. He can come to my state, sunny Florida, where two U.S.-backed Salvadoran generals whose human rights record is nearly as appalling as Saddam’s are enjoying their retirement in relative tranquility.
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada) and online at TomPaine.com, Slate and The Black World Today (tbwt.com), among other outlets. He has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu
©2003 by Dennis Hans
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