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Colin Powell versus Dick Cheney

at 06:00 AM ET, 08/31/2011


(CHRIS USHER/CBS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This post originally said an article on Powell’s intentions ran Aug. 3. The correct date is Aug. 4; it has been updated.

The old feud between former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and former vice president Dick Cheney has erupted again, with the publication this week of Cheney’s memoir, “In My Time.” A casual listener to the back-and-forth might think the two are fiercely disagreeing — Powell accused Cheney of taking “cheap shots” — but in several instances they are talking past each other.

 Perhaps that’s why national security decision meetings were so inconclusive in George W. Bush’s White House?

Let’s take a closer look at what the two men are saying.

 

“You know, he takes great credit for my resignation in 2004. Well, President Bush and I had always agreed that I would leave at the end of 2004. After the election, I stayed on for three more months because I wanted to and because there were some conferences that I wanted to attend and because Dr. Rice hadn't been confirmed.”

— Powell, Aug. 28, 2011, on CBS’s “Face the Nation”

 

Actually, if you look at Cheney’s book, he does not take “great credit” for Powell’s resignation. He writes, on page 425: “Although I tended to get involved in personnel matters with less frequency that I had at the beginning of our time in office, I felt strongly that major change was needed in the national security team. Getting a new secretary of state was a top priority.”

Cheney clearly does not think much of Powell’s performance as secretary, but he does not say he engineered Powell’s departure. He merely suggests he made his views known about Powell’s performance. (Ironically, Cheney later devotes many pages to criticizing Powell’s successor, Condoleezza Rice, for ineffectual diplomacy, especially regarding North Korea.)

 During Bush’s first term, it had been clear for a long time that Powell intended to serve just one term — The Washington Post reported that fact in a page one article on Aug. 4, 2003 — so there would not have been much need for Cheney to give a shove. Bush, in his own memoir, writes that he was dismayed by the infighting among his national security advisers and wanted to make a change.

 “Colin Powell made it easier for me,” he wrote in “Decision Points.” “That same spring of 2004, he told me he was ready to move on. He had served three tough years and was naturally fatigued.”

But this isn’t the whole story.

As Karen DeYoung reported in her authoritative memoir on Powell, “Soldier,” there were hints that Powell had changed his mind and actually was hoping to stay on a little longer in the second term: “Senior Powell aides, long aware of his determination to leave, had recently become convinced that the secretary anticipated an invitation to stay. They were equally certain that he intended to accept.”

 DeYoung then writes that such hopes were squelched when White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card called Powell on Nov. 10 and said briskly, “The president would like to make a change.” DeYoung adds that Powell then crafted his resignation letter to “claim the decision to resign as his own.”

 Our own book on Rice, “The Confidante,” says that Bush had already offered the job to her Nov. 6, and that Powell was informed that Bush wanted his resignation only after she had agreed to take the position. If Rice had turned Bush down, perhaps there would have been a second chance for Powell — and perhaps Cheney was determined to stop it. 

In any case, Powell appears to be accusing Cheney of something he did not quite write — and then not telling the full story about the circumstances of his resignation.

 

“He says that I went out of my way not to present my positions to the president but to take them outside of the administration. That's nonsense. The president knows that I told him what I thought about every issue of the day. Mr. Cheney may forget that I'm the one who said to President Bush, if you break it, you own it; and you have got to understand that, if we have to go to war in Iraq, that we have to be prepared for the whole war, not just the first phase.”

— Powell, Aug. 28, 2011

 

This is what Cheney writes: “I was particularly disappointed in the way he handled policy differences. Time and again I heard that he was opposed to the war in Iraq…. But never once in any meeting did I hear him voice objection. It was as though he thought the proper way to express his views was by criticizing administration policy to people outside the government.”

 Again, the two men are talking past each other. Cheney says he never heard Powell object to the war in Iraq. Powell responds by mentioning a private meeting he had with Bush and Rice — without Cheney — in which he did not object to the war, but rather to not first following a diplomatic path in order to build the case for war. (DeYoung provides a detailed description of this meeting on pages 403-408 of her book.)

 Another book, Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” also deals with this period and also makes it clear that Powell never objects to the war.

 

“Powell had been trying to say more, to sound a warning that too much could go wrong. The Reluctant Warrior was urging restraint, but he had not tossed his heart on the table. He had not said, Don’t do it. Taken together the points of his argument could have been mustered to reach that conclusion. Powell half felt that, but he had learned during 35 years in the Army, and elsewhere, that he had to play to the boss and talk about method. It was paramount to talk only within the confines of the preliminary goals set by the boss. Perhaps he had been too timid.”

 In the end, Bush sided with Powell on first trying diplomacy at the United Nations. But DeYoung’s and Woodward’s books illustrate how Powell and his aides also encouraged outside critics of the war to make their concerns known. (See page 160 of Woodward’s book regarding a call between Powell and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and page 408 of DeYoung’s book regarding an anecdote involving retired Gen. Anthony Zinni.)

 Bush, in his memoir, writes: “I admired Colin, but it sometimes seemed like the State Department he led wasn’t fully on board with my philosophy and policies. It was important to me that there be no daylight between the president and the secretary of state.”

 So clearly Bush also sensed that Powell’s aides — if not Powell himself — opposed his policies.

 

 “Mr. Cheney went out immediately after the president made that decision [to go the United Nations] and undercut it by giving two speeches to two veterans' groups that essentially said he didn't believe it would work. That's not the way you support a president.”

— Powell, Aug. 28, 2011

 

Cheney, in his book, openly acknowledges that he gave the first speech (the second one was toned down) because of a proposal “talked about in the White House” for an aggressive inspection regime, one advocated by Rice. He notes that it had been discussed by Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

 Woodward, however, reports that Cheney got approval from Bush for the speech, though the president “gave his okay without reviewing the details of what Cheney might say.” Powell was upset at the speech, but Bush later told Woodward that “when historians look back on it, they’re going to wonder what the big deal is.”

(In his own book, Bush writes that he dispatched Rice to tell Cheney to tone it down for the second speech.)

 In his book, Cheney quotes at length from the speech but for some reason does not include its most famous passage: 

“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”

 

“And then he goes on to talk about the Valerie Plame affair and tries to lay it all off on Mr. Rich Armitage [the deputy secretary of state and Powell’s best friend] and the State Department and me. But the fact of the matter is, when Mr. Armitage realized that he was the source for Bob Novak's column that caused all the difficulty, he called me immediately two days after the president launched the investigation. And what we did was we called the Justice Department. They sent over the FBI. The FBI had all the information about Mr. Armitage's participation in this immediately, and we called Al Gonzales, the president's counsel, and told him that we had information. The FBI asked us not to share any of this with anyone else as did Mr. Gonzales.
“And so if the White House operatives had come forward as readily as Mr. Armitage had done, then we wouldn't have gone on for two more months with the FBI trying to find out what happened in the White House. There wouldn't have been a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department who spent two years trying to get to the bottom of it. And we wouldn't have had the mess that we subsequently had.”

— Powell, Aug. 28, 2011

 

Without getting too deep in the weeds of the Plame affair — which resulted in the criminal conviction of Cheney’s top aide, I. Lewis Libby — it is fair to say that Powell’s recounting is a bit selective. Here is how Michael Isikoff and David Corn describe the same scene in an excerpt from their book, “Hubris:”

 [William Howard Taft IV, the State Department's legal adviser] felt obligated to inform White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. But Powell and his aides feared the White House would then leak that Armitage had been [newspaper columnist Robert] Novak's source — possibly to embarrass State Department officials who had been unenthusiastic about Bush's Iraq policy. So Taft told Gonzales the bare minimum: that the State Department had passed some information about the case to Justice. He didn't mention Armitage. Taft asked if Gonzales wanted to know the details. The president's lawyer, playing the case by the book, said no, and Taft told him nothing more.

 Cheney, in his book, bitterly notes that Bush told reporters he wanted to know the truth of what happened, as Powell sat silently next to him. (White House aide Karl Rove was Novak’s other source for the newspaper column that started the controversy.)

 The most extensive recounting of Plame saga, James B. Stewart’s “Tangled Webs,” reports that FBI agents unanimously wanted to charge Armitage and Rove with crimes, but in the end special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald decided to indict only Libby. Stewart notes that Fitzgerald did send Bush a report detailing how Armitage and Rove had leaked Plame’s name and had come close to being indicted, but Bush took no action.

(Note: The Fact Checker testified at Libby’s trial about whether he had discussed Plame with Libby during this period.)

 

“But it [enhanced interrogation techniques] was very carefully supervised. None of the techniques used were things that we hadn't already used on our own people in training.”

— Cheney, Aug. 30, 2011, on the NBC’s “Today Show”

 

This statement does not relate to the feud with Powell — though Powell fiercely objected to removing terrorism detainees from Geneva Convention protections — but Cheney’s comment requires some careful parsing.

 Cheney appears to be referring to the fact that some elite U.S. military personnel have participated in a program known as “Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE),” which trained survival skills in the event of capture. Waterboarding was sometimes demonstrated, but as a report by the Senate Armed Services Committee made clear, participants could always request that the procedure be immediately stopped. White House officials have acknowledged discussing the use of SERE techniques in interrogations.

 After World War II, the United States charged a Japanese officer with war crimes for using waterboarding on a U.S. civilian.

Cheney’s comment makes the decision to use such techniques much more benign than in reality.

 

The Pinocchio Test

 Most of  Powell’s comments fall in the single Pinocchio category — a bit of polishing of history to make his side of the dispute look better. Cheney’s statement on interrogation techniques is worthy of two Pinocchios.

 

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Update, 11 a.m.: A reader wondered why Cheney received two Pinocchios when the actual sentence he said —“None of the techniques used were things that we hadn't already used on our own people in training” — was factually true. This is an opportunity to once again explain our Pinocchio scale, which at the lower levels does not necessarily mean a lie.

For two Pinocchios, for instance, “some factual error may be involved but not necessarily” because politicians can use “legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.” We felt that was the case in this instance, since it seemed to minimize the extraordinary nature of this shift in policy. So his language thus might mislead a listener of the interview, and we thought it was worthy of two Pinocchios.

In his book, Cheney acknowledges the controversy surrounding the interrogation program (See pages 356-362). Moreover, another reader wrote that he was waterboarded under the SERE program and had no opportunity to object to it being stopped. (We have no way of validating this assertion, which seems to contradict the Senate report.) A third reader noted that that Japanese officer was convicted of a number of crimes, not just waterboarding.

The awarding of Pinocchios is a judgment call, especially at the lower levels. There are days we wish we had instituted ½ Pinocchios.

The bulk of the column dealt with Powell's comments about Cheney. In retrospect, Powell’s comments probably merited two Pinocchios as well, since there are “significant omissions” in his statements, especially regarding the circumstances of his resignation and the Plame affair. Incidentally, we should have noted that Armitage failed to tell anyone that he had also leaked Plame’s name to reporter Bob Woodward until after Libby was indicted.

Watch Powell speak about Cheney

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    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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