NY Times downplayed Powell's responsibility for false weapons claims in U.N. address

An October 23 article by New York Times reporters Richard W. Stevenson and Douglas Jehl downplayed the role of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in shaping the speech Powell delivered to the United Nations on February 5, 2003 -- a speech that boosted the administration's case for invading Iraq but was subsequently shown to be riddled with falsehoods. Citing “former government officials and several published accounts,” the Times reported that the original draft of the speech was written by I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and was rejected by Powell and then-director of central intelligence George J. Tenet, both of whom believed it was “exaggerated.” The Times then used a quote from Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack (Simon & Schuster, 2004), its use of which had the effect of suggesting that Powell's main contribution to the speech was to remove baseless claims.

The Times article pointed out that Woodward reported in his book that Powell had rejected Libby's draft as “worse than ridiculous.” But the Times failed to mention that the final draft of the speech -- the one Powell presented to the U.N. to make the case for war against Iraq -- still contained numerous accusations about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs that have since been discredited, as Media Matters for America has noted. The Iraq Survey Group (ISG) confirmed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In its final report in September 2004 (also known as the Duelfer report), the ISG noted that Iraq appeared to have unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical and biological weapons in 1991 and 1992 and had not attempted to restart its nuclear weapons program after 1991.

Perhaps most important, the Times ignored evidence that Powell knew some of the claims he made before the U.N. were suspect. As Woodward also reported in his book, Powell sought and won from the Bush administration the “agreement that the length and content [of the U.N. speech] would be his decision” (p. 292). An August 19 CNN.com report noted that according to retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, Wilkerson and Powell “spent four days and nights in a CIA conference room with then-Director George Tenet and other top officials trying to ensure the accuracy of the presentation.” The Boston Globe noted in a September 14 article that Powell has insisted that “some US intelligence officials already knew many of the claims [in his speech] about weapons and terrorist ties were suspect, but they had not informed him or other senior policy makers about their doubts.” However, there is evidence that Powell included claims in his speech that he knew conflicted with available intelligence and even, at times, with the assessments of his own State Department.

In his speech to the U.N., Powell declared that “Saddam Hussein is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb. He is so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries, even after inspections resumed.” Powell then told the U.N.: “Most U.S. experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Other experts, and the Iraqis themselves, argue that they are really to produce the rocket bodies for a conventional weapon, a multiple rocket launcher.” What he did not say, however, was that the State Department's own Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) was one of the two intelligence agencies that dissented from the views of “most experts.” Indeed, Greg Thielmann, who was in charge of assessing Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs for INR, later told CBS News that in 2001, he had “reported to Secretary Powell's office that they [INR] were confident the tubes were not for a nuclear program.”

In its July 7, 2004, report on prewar intelligence, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted that on January 31, 2003, the INR listed 38 objections to a draft of Powell's speech. According to the committee, the document was forwarded to Powell. In it, the INR stated: "[W]e will work with our IC [Intelligence Community] colleagues to fix some more egregious errors in the tubes discussion." Most of the errors pointed out by the INR were removed from a subsequent draft of the speech, which the INR called “vastly improved” in a second set of comments dated February 3, 2003. However, as the committee noted, the INR specifically objected in its new comments to “the claim that the aluminum tubes Iraq was seeking 'far exceed US requirements for comparable rockets.' The INR comments said that the tube tolerances were similar to those of a U.S. rocket system.” Nevertheless, Powell told the U.N.: "[I]t strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets. Maybe Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don't think so."

The ISG has since confirmed the INR's analysis, concluding that “Iraq did not possess a nuclear device, nor had it tried to reconstitute a capability to produce nuclear weapons after 1991.” The ISG found that “Baghdad's interest in high-strength, high-specification aluminum tubes ... is best explained by its efforts to produce 81-mm rockets” and not the tubes' supposed use in creating nuclear weapons.

In addition, Woodward's book noted that Powell parroted unsubstantiated intelligence reports by telling the U.N. that Iraq possessed “up to a few dozen Scud variant ballistic missiles” even after he had acknowledged that "[t]he Scuds are not anything anyone has seen" (p. 309). Woodward further reported that in his preparation for the speech, Powell “saw that previous U.N. inspectors had accounted for something like 817 of the 819 Scuds” that Iraq possessed in 1991 (p. 309). No additional missiles have been found since Powell's speech, and the ISG has since determined that “the balance of credible reporting and documentary evidence suggests that, after 1991, Iraq no longer possessed Scud-variant missiles.”

Finally, in his speech to the U.N., Powell played an Arabic-language audiotape of an intercepted conversation, apparently between two Iraqi army officers preparing for U.N. weapons inspections. An August 9, 2003, Associated Press article noted that “Powell's rendition of the ... conversation made it more incriminating, by saying an officer ordered that the area be 'cleared out.' "* But according to the official U.S. translation, the officer ordered only that the area be “inspected.” In Plan of Attack, Woodward also noted Powell's questionable interpretation of the intercept:

Concerning the intercept about inspecting for the possibility of “forbidden ammo,” Powell took his interpretation further: “Clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there.” None of this was in the intercept.

From Stevenson and Jehl's October 23 New York Times article:

In late 2002 and early 2003, according to former government officials and several published accounts, Mr. Libby was the main author of a lengthy document making the administration's case for war to the United Nations Security Council. But in meetings at the Central Intelligence Agency in early February, Secretary Powell and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, rejected virtually all of Mr. Libby's draft as exaggerated.

John E. McLaughlin, the former deputy C.I.A. director, referred to this period in a statement issued in April 2005. “Much of our time in the run-up to the speech was spent taking out material, including much that had been added by the policy community after the draft left the agency, that we and the secretary's staff judged to have been unreliable,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

In his 2004 book “Plan of Attack,” Bob Woodward of The Washington Post wrote that Mr. Powell had rejected Mr. Libby's draft as “worse than ridiculous,” which Mr. Wilkerson alluded to in his recent speech.

* The AP's excerpt of Powell's speech differs slightly from the White House's transcript. In the AP version, Powell is quoted interpreting the intercept as, “We sent you a message yesterday to clear out all of the areas.” The White House's version quotes Powell as saying, “And we sent you a message yesterday to clean out all of the areas.”