Fifteen years ago, on February 5, 2003, Colin Powell, then Secretary of State in the administration of George W. Bush, spoke before the United Nations, making the case for a preemptive war against Iraq. According to Powell, his purpose that day was to “share with you what the United States knows about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, as well as Iraq’s involvement in terrorism.”
The Bush administration was determined to build public support for a war it had many months previously – in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks upon the U.S. by Al-Qaeda – decided to wage. The challenge for the administration, which was determined to redraw the political map of the Middle East to the strategic advantage of the U.S., was to somehow connect Saddam Hussein with 9/11 and terrorism. Iraq and Al-Qaeda were well-known by international intelligence agencies and many in the media to be hostile towards each other, so directly blaming Saddam for 9/11 seemed unlikely to be believable.
Powell suggested there existed an overwhelming moral obligation to control an Iraqi threat to world peace, and to do so soon.
“We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction. He’s determined to make more. Given Saddam’s history of aggression, given what we know of his grandiose plans, given what we know of his terrorist associations and his determination to exact revenge on those who oppose him, should we take the risk that he will not someday use those weapons at a time and a place and in a manner of his choosing, at a time when the world is in a much weaker position to respond? The United States cannot and will not run that risk to the American people. Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or a few more years is not an option, not in a post-Sept. 11 world.”
Though much of what Powell said on that day regarding the threat Iraq posed to the United States proved to be false, many media reports about the UN speech gave the opposite impression at the time.
On February 10, 2003, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted that journalists at “several major outlets neglected to observe the journalistic rule of prefacing unverified assertions with words like ‘claimed’ or ‘alleged’.”
“This is of particular concern given that over the last several months, many Bush administration claims about alleged Iraqi weapons facilities have failed to hold up to inspection. In many cases, the failed claims–like Powell’s claims at the U.N.–have cited U.S. and British intelligence sources and have included satellite photos as evidence.”
The response of the mainstream corporate press to Powell’s presentation was overwhelmingly positive.
- Writing in the New York Times, William Safire referred to anyone still skeptical of the need for war after Powell’s speech as “unreasonable or fearful or self-interested.” According to Safire, Powell overwhelmingly made the case “with a half-dozen smoking guns.”
- CNN turned to unindicted war criminal Henry Kissinger for expert response. “I think for anybody who analyzes the situation, he [Powell] has closed the deal,” said Kissinger.
- On Fox News, Sean Hannity called the evidence Powell presented to the Security Council, “irrefutable, undeniable, incontrovertible. Colin Powell brilliantly delivered that smoking gun today.” Hannity went further: “It was so compelling, I don’t see how anybody at this point cannot support this” war.
- Morton Krondacke on Fox cited “an overwhelming abundance of evidence” of Iraq’s duplicity.
- The Washington Post called Powell’s speech “irrefutable.”
The international press was less convinced, as was the alternative and left-wing press in the United States. The corporate press, however, immediately began the process of hiring military and national security “experts” to provide commentary on the big event that was about to launch. The U.S. invaded Iraq the following month, on March 20.
Norman Solomon wrote that “There’s no doubt about it: Colin Powell is a great performer, as he showed yet again at the U.N. Security Council the other day. On television, he exudes confidence and authoritative judgment. But Powell owes much of his touted credibility to the fact that he’s functioning inside a media bubble that protects him from direct challenge.”
Among the allegations against the Iraqi regime made by the Bush administration in an effort to build support for the war, a great had already been debunked, according to FAIR. Thus a certain level of perhaps greater-than-normal skepticism toward administration claims might be called for on the part of the Fourth Estate as the world prepared to hear Powell’s presentation. But that was not the case. Among those false stories cited by FAIR:
* Following a CIA warning in October that commercial satellite photos showed Iraq was “reconstituting” its clandestine nuclear weapons program at Al Tuwaitha, a former nuclear weapons complex, George W. Bush told a Cincinnati audience on October 7 (New York Times, 10/8/02): “Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of his nuclear program in the past.”
When inspectors returned to Iraq, however, they visited the Al Tuwaitha site and found no evidence to support Bush’s claim. “Since December 4 inspectors from [Mohamed] ElBaradei’s International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) have scrutinized that vast complex almost a dozen times, and reported no violations,” according to an Associated Press report (1/18/03).
* In September and October U.S. officials charged that conclusive evidence existed that Iraq was preparing to resume manufacturing banned ballistic missiles at several sites. In one such report the CIA said “the only plausible explanation” for a new structure at the Al Rafah missile test site was that Iraqis were developing banned long-range missiles (Associated Press, 1/18/03). But CIA suggestions that facilities at Al Rafah, in addition to sites at Al Mutasim and Al Mamoun, were being used to build prohibited missile systems were found to be baseless when U.N. inspectors repeatedly visited each site (Los Angeles Times, 1/26/03).
* British and U.S. intelligence officials said new building at Al-Qaim, a former uranium refinery in Iraq’s western desert, suggested renewed Iraqi development of nuclear weapons. But an extensive survey by U.N. inspectors in December reported no violations (Associated Press, 1/18/03).
* Last fall the CIA warned that “key aspects of Iraq’s offensive [biological weapons] program are active and most elements are more advanced and larger” than they were pre-1990, citing as evidence renewed building at several facilities such as the Al Dawrah Vaccine Facility, the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute, and the Fallujah III Castor Oil Production Plant. By mid-January, inspectors had visited all the sites many times over. No evidence was found that the facilities were being used to manufacture banned weapons (Los Angeles Times, 1/26/03).
CNN reported way back in 2005 that “In fact, Secretary Powell was not told that one of the sources he was given as a source of this information had indeed been flagged by the Defense Intelligence Agency as a liar, a fabricator,” said David Kay, who served as the CIA’s chief weapons inspector in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. That source, an Iraqi defector who had never been debriefed by the CIA, was known within the intelligence community as “Curveball.”
A decade after the U.S. attacked Iraq, FAIR’s Peter Hart wrote that there had still been very little in the way of accountability or consequences for the media institutions and journalists who got the Iraq stories all wrong, concluding “most of them faced no consequences whatsoever for being so disastrously wrong.”
Secretary Powell and his Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, both later claimed to have been duped by the Bush White House. Years later, Wilkerson suggested that both Bush and Cheney should be charged with war crimes.
In a 2007 memoir, General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, wrote that he was first informed by a Pentagon official of a Bush administration plan to attack Iraq less than two weeks after September 11, 2001. Six weeks later, that same official told Clark the plan had grown “much worse.”
“We’re going to take out seven countries in five years,” the official told Clark, who wrote that the plan would be “starting with Iraq and Syria and ending with Iran.”
Writing in the New York Times this week, Wilkerson noted the Trump administration is currently building a case for war against Iran, with the U.S. once again using questionable evidence.
For more on that story, watch the interview with Wilkerson below by Aaron Mate at The Real News Network.