How Colin Powell Got Duped by the CIA

Think back six years. How often did we hear then-Secretary of State Colin Powell tout his intense four-day vigil at CIA headquarters preparing the speech he would give to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003? Retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, who was asked by Powell to herd cats in putting that speech together, recently threw light on why it turned out to be such an acute embarrassment.

Surrogates of Vice President Dick Cheney were insisting on giving prominence to highly dubious reports of operational ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq, but on this particular issue (unlike the phantom WMD) CIA and State department intelligence analysts had stood firm in the face of heavy pressure. Indeed, the CIA ombudsman saw fit to tell Congress that never in his 32 years as a CIA analyst had he witnessed a more aggressive “hammering” on analysts to change their minds and give credence to reporting that was trash.

How was it, then, that Secretary Powell ended up citing a “sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network” to depict a relationship that did not exist? Fair labeling: Reading what follows may not make you quite as ill as reading the Department of Justice torture memos, but it may well sicken—and anger—you just the same.

According to Col. Wilkerson, just days before trying to sell the invasion of Iraq to the United Nations, his boss Colin Powell had decided not to regurgitate the dubious allegations about Saddam Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda. Just in the nick of time, however, top CIA officials produced a “bombshell” report alleging such ties. The information was more than a year old and apparently extricated via torture, but Powell took the bait.

Wilkerson says the key moment occurred on Feb. 1, 2003, as the two men labored at the CIA over Powell’s presentation to the U.N. Security Council four days later.

“Powell and I had a one-on-one — no one else even in the room — about his angst over what was a rather dull recounting of several old stories about Al Qa’ida-Baghdad ties [in the draft speech],” Wilkerson said. “I agreed with him that what we had was bull___t, and Powell decided to eliminate all mention of terrorist contacts between AQ and Baghdad.

“Within an hour, [CIA Director George] Tenet and [CIA Deputy Director John] McLaughlin dropped a bombshell on the table in the director’s conference room: a high-level AQ detainee had just revealed under interrogation substantive contacts between AQ and Baghdad, including Iraqis training AQ operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

Although Tenet and McLaughlin wouldn’t give Powell the identity of the al-Qaeda source, Wilkerson said he now understands that it was Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who had been captured 15 months earlier; who later claimed he gave the CIA false information in the face of actual and threatened torture; and who now seems to be quite dead.

Presumably not realizing that the “new” intelligence was tainted, “Powell changed his mind and this information was included in his UNSC presentation, along with more general information from a previous draft about Baghdad’s terrorist tendencies,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson’s account provides insight into how the need to justify war gave impetus to the use of torture for extracting information, and how the Bush administration’s reliance on harsh interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects helped grease the skids to war. Both.

Sealing the Deal

Powell, whose credibility essentially sealed the deal for war as far as millions of Americans were concerned, let himself be manipulated by senior CIA officials who kept him in the dark about crucial details, including the fact that the Defense Intelligence Agency had thrown serious doubt on al-Libi’s credibility. Wilkerson told me:

“As you can see, nowhere were we told that the high-level AQ operative had a name, or that he had been interrogated [in Egypt] with no US personnel present or much earlier rather than just recently (the clear implication of Tenet’s breathtaking delivery).

“And not a single dissent was mentioned (later we learned of the DIA dissent) … All of this was hidden from us – the specific identity, we were informed, due to the desire to protect sources and methods as well as a cooperative foreign intelligence service….

“As for me in particular, I learned the identity of al-Libi only in 2004 and of the DIA dissent about the same time, of al-Libi’s recanting slightly later, and of the entire affair’s probably being a Tenet-McLaughlin fabrication – to at least a certain extent – only after I began to put some things together and to receive reinforcement of the ‘fabrication’ theme from other examples.”

Among those other examples, Wilkerson said, was the case of the Iraqi defector codenamed Curveball, who supplied false intelligence about mobile labs for making biological and chemical weapons, and various Iraqi walk-ins who spun bogus stories about an Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

Though some of those sources appear to have concocted their tales after being recruited by the pro-invasion exiles of the Iraqi National Congress, al-Libi told his stories—he later claimed—to avoid or stop torture. This is a central point in the current debate about why torture was used and whether it saved American lives.

Torture Can Produce

For those of you distracted by the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) spotlight on “what-did-Pelosi-know-about-torture-and-when-did-she- know-it,” please turn off the TV long enough to ponder the case of the recently departed al-Libi. According to a Libyan newspaper, al-Libi has died in a Libyan prison, a purported suicide.

The al-Libi case might help you understand why, even though information from torture is notoriously unreliable, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the me-too officials running U.S. intelligence ordered it anyway.

In short, if it is untruthful information you are after, torture can work just fine! As the distinguished Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham put it during a Senate hearing on May 13—with a hat-tip to the Inquisition—“One of the reasons these techniques have been used for about 500 years is that they work.”

All you really need to know is what you want the victims to “confess” to and then torture them, or render them abroad to “friendly” intelligence services toward the same end.

Poster Child for Torture

Al-Libi, born in 1963 in Libya, ran an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2000. He was detained in Pakistan on Nov. 11, 2001, and then sent to a U.S. detention facility in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was deemed a prize catch, since it was thought that he might know of, or at least be induced to “confess” to, Iraqi training of al-Qaeda.

The CIA successfully fought off the FBI for first rights to interrogate al-Libi. FBI’s Dan Coleman, who “lost” al-Libi to the CIA (at whose orders, I wonder?), said, “Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links” between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, Maj. Paul Burney, a psychiatrist sent there in summer 2002, says, “A large part of that time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, and we were not successful,” according to Burney’s recent testimony to the Senate. Burney added:

“The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link…there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”

CIA interrogators elicited some “cooperation” from al-Libi through a combination of rough treatment and threats that he would be turned over to Egyptian intelligence with even greater experience in the torture business.

By June 2002, al-Libi had told the CIA that Iraq had “provided” unspecified chemical and biological weapons training for two al-Qaeda operatives, an allegation that soon found its way into other U.S. intelligence reports. Al-Libi’s claim was well received even though the DIA was highly suspicious.

Serious Misgivings

“He lacks specific details” about the supposed training, DIA observed. “It is possible he does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers. Ibn al-Shaykh has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest.”

Despite his cooperation, al-Libi was still shipped to Egypt where he underwent more abuse, according to a declassified CIA cable from 2004; the year al-Libi recanted his earlier statements. The cable reported that al-Libi said Egyptian interrogators wanted information about al-Qaeda’s connections with Iraq, a subject “about which [al-Libi] said he knew nothing and had difficulty even coming up with a story.” (This, despite the limited “success” CIA interrogators claimed to have had on this issue.)

According to the CIA cable, al-Libi said his interrogators did not like his responses and “placed him in a small box” for about 17 hours. After he was let out of the box, al-Libi was given a last chance to “tell the truth.”

When his answers still did not satisfy, al-Libi says he “was knocked over with an arm thrust across his chest and fell on his back” and then was “punched for 15 minutes.”

And, sure enough, as Sen. Lindsay Graham has noted, this stuff really works! For it was then that al-Libi expanded on his tales about collaboration between al-Qaeda and Iraq, adding that three al-Qaeda operatives had gone to Iraq “to learn about nuclear weapons.” Al-Libi added that the treatment he received improved after he told that to his interrogators.

In any case, al-Libi’s stories apparently were music to the ears of Colin Powell, who was under pressure to establish in his U.N. speech some evidence of a “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al-Qaeda—the “axis-of-evil” kind of epithet he ended up using to try to justify invading Iraq.

Al-Libi recanted his claims in January 2004. This prompted the CIA, a month later, to recall all intelligence reports based on his statements, a fact recorded in a footnote to the report issued by the 9/11 Commission. But he was really a big help before he recanted!

Just What the Doctor Ordered

George Bush relied on al-Libi’s false confession for his crucial speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, just a few days before Congress voted on the Iraq War resolution. Bush declared, “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases.”

Colin Powell relied on it for his own speech to the U.N. on Feb. 5, 2003: “I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these [chemical and biological] weapons to al-Qaeda. Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story.”

Bear in mind that before the attack on Iraq on March 19, 2003, polls showed that some 70 percent Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had operational ties with al-Qaeda and thus was partly responsible for the attacks of 9/11. Worse still, about half of the American people had been led to believe that Saddam was actually involved in 9/11.

For a while, al-Libi was practically the poster boy for the success of the Cheney/Bush torture regime; that is, at least until it was learned that he recanted, explaining that he only told his interrogators what he thought would stop the torture.

In his disingenuous memoir, At the Center of the Storm, George Tenet sought to defend the CIA’s acceptance of the original claims made by al-Libi in the run-up to the Iraq war. Tenet even suggested that al-Libi may have been right the first time—that it may have been his subsequent recantation that was not genuine.

“He clearly lied,” Tenet wrote. “We just don’t know when. Did he lie when he first said that Al Qaeda members received training in Iraq or did he lie when he said they did not? In my mind, either case might still be true.”

I am not making this up. That incisive analysis appears on page 353 of Tenet’s book.

Tenet, of course, is hardly a disinterested observer. If there was a CIA plan to extract a false confession, it’s likely he was a key participant. After all, he devoted 2002-03 to the mission of manufacturing a “slam-dunk” WMD-case for invading Iraq, in order to please his bosses. He had both the motive and the opportunity to commit this crime and, later, huge incentive to cover it up.

Al-Libi “Commits Suicide”

If al-Libi is now dead — strangely our embassy in Tripoli has been unable to find out for sure — this means the world will never hear his own account of the torture he experienced and the story he made up and then recanted. And we have already been asked to believe he “committed suicide” even though al-Libi apparently was a devout Muslim, and Islam prohibits suicide.

Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan-American and a prominent critic of the Gaddafi regime, explained to Newsweek, “This idea of committing suicide in your prison cell is an old story in Libya.” He added that, throughout Gaddafi’s 40-year rule, there have been several instances in which political prisoners were reported to have committed suicide, but that “then the families get the bodies back and discover the prisoners had been shot in the back or tortured to death.”

Am I suggesting…?

Anatomy of a Crime

Commenting on what he called the “Cheney interrogation techniques,” Col. Wilkerson, writing for The Washington Note on May 13, made the following points:

“…as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but on discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq to al-Qaeda.

“So furious was this effort on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee ‘was compliant’ (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet.

“As far as al-Libi is concerned, his harsh interrogation ceased after, under waterboarding in Egypt, he ‘revealed’ such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.”

Cheney Family Honor

Stung by Wilkerson’s criticism of her father, Liz Cheney, who worked in the State Department during the Bush/Cheney administration, lashed out publicly at Wilkerson on Sunday, charging he has made “a cottage industry out of fantasies” about the former Vice President. All that Ms. Cheney could manage in support of her contention was to point out that al-Libi was not among the three al-Qaeda detainees the CIA has said it waterboarded.

After his article in The Washington Note, I asked Col. Wilkerson for a retrospective look at how it could have been that the torture-derived information from al-Libi was not recognized for what it was and thus kept out of Secretary Powell’s speech at the UN.

Since al-Libi had been captured over a year before the speech and had been put at the tender mercies of the Egyptian intelligence service, should he and Powell not have suspected that al-Libi had been tortured?

Wilkerson responded by e-mail with the comments cited above regarding Tenet and McLaughlin interrupting Powell’s evaluation of the Iraqi WMD intelligence with their new —just trust us—“bombshell.”

I asked Col. Wilkerson: “Were there no others from the State Department with you at CIA headquarters on Feb. 1, 2003. Was the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), State’s very professional, incorruptible intelligence unit, not represented? He answered:

“When I gathered ‘my team’ – some were selected for me, such as Will Toby from Bob Joseph’s NSC staff and John Hanna from the VP’s office – in my office at State to give them an initial briefing and marching orders, I asked Carl [Ford, then head of INR] to attend. I wanted Carl – or even more so, one of his deputies whom I knew well and trusted completely, Tom Fingar – to be on ‘my team’.

“Carl stayed after the meeting and I asked him straightforwardly to come with me or to send someone from INR. Carl said that he did not need to come or to send anyone because he had the Secretary’s ear (he was right on that) and could weigh in at any time he wanted to.

“Moreover, he told me, the Secretary knew very well where INR stood, as did I myself (he was right on that too).

“As I look back, I believe one of my gravest errors was in not insisting that INR send someone with me.

“Fascinating and completely puzzling at first was the total absence of a Department of Defense representative on my team; however, after 3-4 days and nights I figured out … DoD was covering its own butt, to an extent, by having no direct fingerprints on the affair — and being directly wired into Cheney’s office, Rumsfeld’s folks knew they were protected by Toby and Hanna.

“When we all arrived at CIA, we were given the NIC [National Intelligence Council] spaces and staff. [But] I could not even get on a computer!! Protests to Tenet and McLaughlin got me perfunctory CIA-blah blah about security clearances, etc. — and me with 7 days and nights to prepare a monumentally important presentation! …

“[It took] 24 hours before George or John acknowledged I could be on a computer…. From there on, it was a madhouse.

“But at the end of the day, had I had an INR rep, had I had better support, had I been more concerned with WHAT I was assembling rather than HOW on earth I would assemble it and present it on time, I’m not sure at all it would have made any difference in the march to war.”

Not the Only Criminal Activity

So there you have it folks, the anatomy of a crime — one of several such already on the record, with some of the same dramatis personae.

Mention of Carl Ford and Tenet and McLaughlin remind me of another episode that has gone down in the annals of intelligence as almost equally contemptible. This one had to do with their furious attempt to prove there were mobile biological weapons labs of the kind Curveball had described.

Remember, Tenet and McLaughlin had been warned about Curveball long before they let then-Secretary of State Powell shame himself, and the rest of us, by peddling Curveball’s wares at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. But the amateur attempts at deception did not stop there. After the war began, CIA intrepid analysts, still “leaning forward,” misrepresented a tractor-trailer found in Iraq outfitted with industrial equipment as one of the mobile bio-labs.

On May 28, 2003, CIA analysts cooked up a fraudulent six-page report claiming that the trailer discovered earlier in May was proof they had been right about Iraq’s “bio-weapons labs.”

They then performed what in Army parlance is called a “midnight requisition,” finding the only Defense Intelligence Agency analyst sympathetic to their position and getting him to provide DIA “coordination,” (which was almost immediately withdrawn by DIA).

On May 29, President George W. Bush, visiting Poland, proudly announced on Polish TV, “We have found the weapons of mass destruction.”

When the State Department’s Intelligence and Research (INR) analysts realized that this was not some kind of Polish joke, they “went ballistic,” according to Carl Ford, who immediately warned Powell there was a very large problem. Tenet, in turn, must have learned of this quickly, for he called Ford on the carpet, literally, the following day. No shrinking violet, Ford held his ground. He told Tenet and McLaughlin, “That report is one of the worst intelligence assessments I’ve ever read.”

What seems clear is that Tenet and McLaughlin learned nothing from their decision just four months earlier to play fast and loose with intelligence—regardless of the risk of heavy embarrassment to the Secretary of State or, in this case, the President.

“They Should Have Been Shot”

This episode—and several like it—are described in Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, who say that Ford is still angry over the fraudulent paper. Ford told the authors:

“It was clear that they [Tenet and McLaughlin] had been personally involved in the preparation of the [bio-weapons labs] report. As it turned out, that analysis was unprofessional and even unethical. People did funny thing with the evidence…It wasn’t just that it was wrong. They lied…they should have been shot.” (Page 229)

Small wonder Ford has remained angry—like Wilkerson. It was all just too much. Ford knew he had made a huge mistake in early Feb. 2003, by assuming that Colin Powell would face down the blandishments of Tenet, McLaughlin, and the White House members of Wilkerson’s team.

The way these things normally work, it was not unreasonable for Ford to assume further that he would have the opportunity, in extremis, to trade on his credibility with, and entrée to, Secretary Powell to thwart the CIA seniors, if they peddled their meretricious wares at CIA headquarters.

In the end, Powell went along; Col. Wilkerson was left to twist slowly in the wind, so to speak. Bush, Cheney, and their courtiers prevailed and our country embarked on what the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal termed the “supreme international crime”—a war of aggression.

Sad. Very sad. Criminal, I would say.

RAY McGOVERN was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (Verso). He can be reached at:

A shorter version of this article appeared at

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: A version of this article first appeared on