Colin Powell the untouchable

He always tops the GOP vice-president list and is "defined by the word 'trust.'" So when will he face questions about his honesty?

Published March 20, 2000 9:54AM (EST)

With the Republican primary campaign essentially completed, the politerati have started obsessing about the next best thing: running mates. George W. Bush's selection will be important in defining his own candidacy. Of all the GOP names tossed about these days, none stirs such enthusiasm among Republicans as that of Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Columnist George Will hailed Powell as Bush's best choice. Bush has said Powell would be a wonderful ticket-mate. Powell, though, maintains he has no interest in the post.

Powell is an interesting, perhaps unique, phenomenon in public life: an untouchable. I discovered this firsthand a few years back when I broke a story indicating that Powell had lied as part of an Iran-Contra coverup. The evidence against him was strong, yet the media largely ignored the story. One news network even killed a report on it. The incident showed how tough it is to question Powell's sterling reputation. It also revealed that the retired general does have warts that, should he leap into the spotlight as a politician, could come into view.

In 1993, after nearly seven years of work, Lawrence Walsh, the Iran-Contra independent counsel, produced his massive final report. Buried within it were a few paragraphs devoted to Powell, who had been Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's senior military assistant when the Reagan administration was secretly trading arms with Iran. As part of his investigation, Walsh had brought a case against Weinberger. Consequently, Powell came under the scrutiny of Walsh's investigators.

In 1987, Walsh had requested that Weinberger hand over any records relevant to the Iran-Contra affair. In reply, Weinberger produced a modest amount of material, nothing incriminating. Then, in 1991, Walsh's investigators discovered that Weinberger had sent thousands of pages of diary and meeting notes he had kept while defense secretary to the Library of Congress. This material showed that, contrary to his sworn testimony, Weinberger knew in advance that the Reagan administration was shipping weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages. A grand jury indicted Weinberger for concealing these notes from Congress and from the independent counsel and for lying about his knowledge of the arms deal.

Powell played a small but key role in the Weinberger episode. In 1987, seven investigators from the House and Senate Iran-Contra committees questioned Powell in the White House situation room. In the course of this sworn deposition, Powell was asked a standard question: Did Weinberger keep a diary? The investigators wanted to know if documentary evidence existed that could help them unravel the scandal.

Powell replied, "The secretary, to my knowledge, did not keep a diary." But, as Walsh's investigators found out four years later, Weinberger had kept an extensive diary. Perhaps it was possible Powell had not known about Weinberger's notes. But in 1992, when Weinberger was under investigation for having lied about the notes, Powell had a different story to tell about his old boss's diaries.

In a sworn affidavit submitted to Walsh's office by Weinberger's attorney, Powell said, "During the period I worked with Secretary Weinberger ... I observed on his desk a small pad of white paper, approximately 5" by 7". He would jot down on this pad in abbreviated form various calls and events during the day. I viewed it as his personal diary." In a subsequent interview with Walsh's office, Powell revealed that he even knew that Weinberger had stored his diary notes "in his desk on the right side."

Powell's 1992 statement contradicted his 1987 statement. But he wasn't ratting out Weinberger. In fact, he was supporting him, for Weinberger was then claiming that he had not conspired to hide his notes, that his diaries had not been a secret to those around him, that his failure to turn over thousands of pages was merely an oversight. Weinberger's line was: See, everyone knew about them. Powell was backing him up.

Walsh was perturbed by the conflict in Powell's statements. How could Powell in 1992 have a clear and specific memory of diaries, when in 1987 he had said Weinberger kept no diaries? One of these statements, each sworn, had to be false. Walsh even uncovered evidence showing that Powell had helped Weinberger maintain his diary notes.

Walsh might have explored this troubling contradiction during Weinberger's trial, for Powell was on the witness list. But on Dec. 24, 1992, days before the trial was to begin, a lame-duck President Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra figures. "Powell was going to be an important witness during the Weinberger trail," says a lawyer who worked with Walsh. "What would have transpired we'll never know."

So what was Walsh to do about this Powell business? In his final report, Walsh noted that Powell's 1987 deposition statement "hardly constituted full disclosure." Walsh maintained that it had been "designed to protect Weinberger" and characterized it as "at least misleading." But, Walsh added, "It would have been difficult to prove that [Powell's 1987] deposition testimony was intentionally false." Thus, it had not warranted prosecution.

"This was a slippery issue for us," says another former staffer for Walsh. "Because of who Powell was and because the lie did not have to do with his own coverup, but was part of Caspar Weinberger's coverup. Even prosecuting Weinberger was difficult for us. But this wasn't a small matter for us."

Powell was not happy with how Walsh characterized his statements. Prior to the release of the report, he submitted a letter to the court overseeing Walsh and blasted Walsh for having "seen fit to impugn my honor." Powell maintained there were no discrepancies between his 1987 testimony and his 1992 affidavit. This is how he explained it:

"I was asked by congressional staff in 1987 whether Mr. Weinberger kept any records at all of his daily activities. I replied truthfully that he took notes, but did not have a diary -- a permanent record summarizing important events. My 1992 affidavit, on the other hand, focused in depth on the notes I said he took and my understanding that the notes were personal ... I described his notes [in 1992] as a diary to convey the idea that they were private and personal, as opposed to an official record."

Can you make sense of that? Actually, in 1987, Powell had not forthrightly told the investigators that Weinberger maintained notes. Powell only said that "whatever notes [Weinberger] kept, I don't know how he uses them or what he does with them." The clear implication of Powell's 1987 answers was that Powell had no idea whether Weinberger maintained a written record of his daily dealings. Yet in 1992, he was full of details about the Weinberger notes, and he even referred to them as a "diary."

When Walsh's report was released, no one in the media appeared to have taken notice of his criticism of Powell. But in 1995, when Powell was flirting with the idea of running for president, I flipped through Walsh's report, found the passage on Powell, and thought I had a hot-shit story: the all-American patriot -- a man described by historian Stephen Ambrose as "defined by the word 'trust'" -- caught in a lie. When I called Powell's spokesman for a response, I received an answer so convoluted I could not put it in the article. (People would think, I explained to an editor, that it was a typographical mistake.)

When the article appeared, I expected other media to pick up the story. No one called, except a friend who was an investigative reporter at a TV network. He asked for the supporting material and received an OK from his superiors to pursue the story. He filmed a segment, and it was scheduled to air. Then the story was killed from above. A message was indirectly conveyed to the reporter: this was not serious enough a charge to justify taking a swing at Powell and causing him to be angry with the network. After all, the network might want to book him in the future.

In the time since, Powell's contradictory statements have received cursory mention in a few press profiles. But his part in the scandal escaped thorough media scrutiny. Imagine the media response if an independent counsel accused Hillary Clinton of making misleading statements to protect a friend under investigation.

It does not seem likely Powell will sign up as Bush's sidekick. He has shown no interest in the job. And why should a fellow of his stature -- with his brand name power -- tie his future to the Bush campaign and its iffy prospects? If Powell does desire the presidency, he could credibly enter the next presidential race without having served as No. 2 to Bush. He also could waltz easily into the secretary of state or defense slots in a Bush administration. Should Powell decide to enter politics or seek a Cabinet post, it's doubtful his bit part in the Iran-Contra affair will get in the way. But will his free ride with the media continue?

By David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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