When Secretary of State Colin Powell stepped down earlier this month, the flood of political obituaries were packed with praise, but almost all contained obligatory paragraphs highlighting the top diplomat?s ?low point?: his February 2003 speech on Iraq to the United Nations.
But no matter how much conventional media wisdom says otherwise, Powell?s presentation on the eve of the Iraq War remains as true today as it was then, which is to say almost entirely so.
To claim, as the New York Times editorialized recently, that ?Mr. Powell in fact offered half-truths, poorly analyzed intelligence and outright fantasies? is pure fiction retrofitted to match anti-war rhetoric. Most of the case the four-star general presented was based not on shaky human sources, but telephone intercepts, satellite imagery, and not unimportantly, Saddam?s own admissions and track record.
Perhaps the most flagrant revisionism, though, occurred not in the opinion pages, but in news stories from the country?s most respected source for objective news: the Associated Press.
Near the end of its original story reporting Mr. Powell?s departure, AP scribes George Gedda and Deb Riechmann wrote: ?Powell will perhaps be best remembered for that U.N. Security Council appearance on Feb. 5, 2003, during which he argued that Saddam must be removed because of its possession of weapons of mass destruction. There is no evidence that those claims had any foundation.?
The AP report is, in turn, both misleading and simply untrue.
General Powell did not rest his entire case on Saddam?s possession of WMD. Nor was his primary argument founded on Saddam?s extensive ties to terrorism or his clear, savage history of human rights abuses, though both were included near the conclusion.
No, Mr. Powell tailored his message for his audience. His first and foremost argument was that Saddam was in violation of UN Resolution 1441, which warned Baghdad of ?serious consequences as a result of its continued violations.? Saddam was, in fact, in violation of Resolution 1441?and Mr. Powell proved it.
One of the first pieces of evidence offered by Mr. Powell was a telephone intercept of a conversation between two senior officers from the Republican guard on November 26, 2002?the day before UN weapons teams started up inspections. The most damning line: ?We evacuated everything. We don?t have anything left.?
As he did throughout the speech, Mr. Powell detailed the only plausible interpretation. He said: ?Note what he says: ?We evacuated everything.? We didn't destroy it. We didn?t line it up for inspection. We didn?t turn it into the inspectors. We evacuated it to make sure it was not around when the inspectors showed up. ?I will come to you tomorrow.??
Moments later?after pointing out that ?the inspectors found 12 empty chemical warheads on January 16??Mr. Powell played another intercept, one of a Republican Guard officer issuing an order to a subordinate in the field.
In the recorded conversation, the superior reiterated a previous instruction: ?And we sent you a message yesterday to clean out all the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there. Remember the first message: evacuate it.? Lest anyone had any doubt how to interpret this clandestine conversation, the senior officer said, ?After you have carried out what is contained in this message, destroy the message because I don?t want anyone to see this message.?
Buttressing the intercepts, Mr. Powell also provided satellite photos, including shots of bunkers at a facility called Taji. The side-by-side photos?one from before the arrival of weapons inspectors, one taken afterward?with tents and decontamination vehicles nowhere to be found in the later image.
Mr. Powell also showed photos of three sites?out of roughly 30 total?where large cargo trucks arrived at known weapons facilities just before the UN inspectors did.
If anything, subsequent discoveries have bolstered Mr. Powell?s primary argument that Saddam was in violation of Resolution 1441. There were large, unknown shipments crossing into Syria on the eve of war?entirely consistent with evidence of transfer from facilities shortly before UN inspectors appeared.
And David Kay?the man whose credibility is considered near-perfect by the media because he believes Saddam did not possess WMD?found that Saddam had, in fact, duped the weapons inspectors.
As for the remainder of Mr. Powell?s address to the UN, most of the other evidence he cited to support claims that Saddam possessed WMD still stands?particularly Saddam?s own admissions, his bloody track record, and his inability to produce any legitimate proof that he had actually destroyed his stockpiles.
Finally, the 9/11 Commission supported Mr. Powell?s contention that Iraq had ongoing contacts with al Qaeda, and regular news reports of beheadings and terrorist strikes remind Americans that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is as dangerous as originally claimed.
Perhaps it is too much to ask of journalists to go back and actually re-read Mr. Powell?s speech to the UN. If they don?t, though, the media-created myth that the four-star general?s presentation has been debunked will soon become accepted as true.