Colin Powell will be most remembered for the act he most regretted, his 2003 presentation to the UN security council laying out US evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to exist.
It did not directly lead to the Iraq invasion because George W Bush was going to invade anyway, and the presentation did not succeed in its goal of persuading the council to pass a second resolution backing military action against Iraq.
But Powell’s speech marked a decisive moment in undermining US credibility on the world stage – all the more because of the then secretary of state’s repeated insistence that his claims were based on hard intelligence.
“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources,” he said in the now infamous 5 February 2003 briefing. “These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
To drive home the point, Powell played a recording of an intercepted conversation between Iraq army officers about a UN weapons inspection and displayed illustrations of the alleged WMD equipment to press home the urgency of the threat. But the description of the recorded conversation had been embellished to make it seem more incriminating, and the illustrations had sprung from the imaginations of Iraqi defectors telling the Bush administration what they wanted to hear.
Two years later, out of government, Powell described the speech as “a blot” on his career.
“I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record,” Powell told ABC News. “It was painful. It’s painful now.”
America’s allies and rivals would later be alarmed at Donald Trump’s intemperate posturing at the UN, for example by his dire threats against North Korea in 2017. But it was rhetoric that was a prelude to Trump’s assiduous courting of Kim Jong-un. The Powell presentation was postured as a sober litany of facts, and it was a prelude to war.
“Powell’s speech on Iraq marked a turning point in US relations with the UN. I don’t think that Washington’s credibility at the UN has ever entirely recovered from the Iraq war and the false claims on WMDs,” Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, said.
“Obviously Obama rebuilt US credibility at the UN to a significant degree, and Trump trashed it. Now Biden is in rebuilding mode again, but non-western diplomats still raise Iraq as proof that you can’t quite trust the US at the UN. It’s become the original sin of US-UN relations, and in fairness Powell recognized that after the event.”
Powell was exploited by the Bush White House for his credibility among the world’s diplomats and his reputation for caution, and he was comprehensively misled. He was told for example that his speech had been prepared by the national security council under Condoleezza Rice, but it was actually written by Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office, which had led the charge in browbeating CIA analysts into coming up with evidence and when that failed, going around the CIA altogether.
Powell had only four days to prepare the speech, but walking into the security council chamber, he said he felt confident. The main claims about biological warfare vans and chemical weapons had been in the president’s State of the Union speech, and he had the CIA sift through the text throwing out “a lot of stuff that was not double- and triple-sourced”. He made the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, sit behind him, in line of sight of the cameras, when he sat before the council.
It was only a few weeks later that the CIA admitted the main pillars of his case were “falling apart”.
“There were some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and they didn’t speak up. That devastated me,” Powell said in his 2005 ABC interview.
Powell however, had made the decision to believe the CIA over the state department’s own office of intelligence and research (INR), which submitted two intelligence reports before the speech questioning the solidity of the evidence.
Asked about Powell’s decision to ignore the INR’s findings, one of its senior analysts, Greg Thielmann, told the CBS News show 60 Minutes: “I can only assume that he was doing it to loyally support the president of the United States and build the strongest possible case for arguing that there was no alternative to the use of military force.”
“For Colin Powell, the situation put reputation and duty in conflict,” said Sir Christopher Meyer, who was Britain’s ambassador in Washington at the time. “I think the sense of duty came from being a fighting soldier … When the commander in chief of the United States of America says ‘Go to New York and deliver a presentation’, a man like Powell doesn’t say no.”
“He probably should have said no and I think later on, he thought to himself: ‘I should have resigned,’” Meyer said. “I think it crushed him. For the rest of his life he was mortified. I felt desperately sorry for him.”
The speech did not cause the Iraq war, which had been already been planned by the time Powell entered the chamber, but apart from the impact on US credibility, it did make its own particular contribution in the downward trajectory of the Middle East.
In one section of the speech, Powell referred to a Jordanian-born jihadist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, 21 times, in an effort to prove a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. According to an investigation by the PBS programme Frontline, it helped raise Zarqawi’s profile and helped give this previously obscure militant a mass following, paving the way for the organization that would become Isis.