WASHINGTON (Dispatches) – Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who rose to become the first Black U.S. secretary of state and top military officer but whose reputation was tainted in 2003 when he touted spurious intelligence to the United Nations to make the case for war with Iraq despite deep misgivings, died on Monday at the age of 84.
Despite being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, his family said, he died due to complication from the disease.
Powell was one of America’s foremost Black figures for decades. He was named to senior posts by three Republican presidents and reached the top of the U.S. military as it was regaining its vigor after the trauma of the Vietnam War.
Powell, who was wounded in Vietnam, served as U.S. national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan from 1987 to 1989. As a four-star Army general, he was chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush during the 1991 Persian Gulf War in which U.S.-led forces expelled Iraqi troops from neighboring Kuwait.
Powell will forever be associated with his controversial presentation on Feb. 5, 2003, to the UN Security Council, making President George W. Bush’s case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein constituted an imminent danger to the world because of its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
He admitted later that the presentation was rife with inaccuracies and twisted intelligence provided by others in the Bush administration and represented “a blot” that will “always be a part of my record”.
Bush had picked Powell, the top U.S. military officer during his father’s presidency, as secretary of state in 2001.
Powell endured four stormy years as the top U.S. diplomat, often outmaneuvered by Vice President Dick Cheney - with whom he had served closely under the first President Bush - and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
With U.S. troops already fighting a war in Afghanistan launched after Afghan-based Al-Qaeda leaders allegedly plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, hawks within the Bush administration began to advocate war with Iraq.
Powell allegedly held grave reservations about a war, as well as the veracity of intelligence about Iraqi weapons, and the Pentagon’s insistence on a relatively small invasion force.
Powell privately warned Bush about the monumental difficulties of invading and occupying Iraq, invoking the so-called Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.”
Nevertheless, Powell agreed to publicly sell the case for war in order to gather international support.
In the Security Council chamber, he displayed photographs and diagrams purporting to detail Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as well as translations from U.S. intelligence intercepts.
At one point, Powell brandished a small vial containing a teaspoon of simulated anthrax, warning that Iraq had not accounted for “tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons” of the deadly pathogen.
The invasion came six weeks later but no such weapons were found, undermining American credibility for years. U.S. forces fought in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, with nearly 4,500 American troops killed and 32,000 wounded.
According to Western estimates, the U.S. invasion of Iraq is believed to have led to the deaths of an estimated 288,000 people in Iraq - at least 185,930 of them civilians - and to have led to the rise of the Daesh group, but the toll is believed to be much higher.
“It’s a blot... and will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now,” Powell said in a 2005 interview with ABC News.
Powell told the author of a 2006 book that he spent five days ahead of the UN presentation “trimming the garbage” that Cheney’s staff had provided as evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs and alleged links to Al-Qaeda.
“There were some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and they didn’t speak up. That devastated me,” Powell told interviewer Barbara Walters in 2005.
Powell announced his resignation in “mutual agreement” with Bush after the president’s November 2004 re-election.
Powell was born in New York City on April 5, 1937, and raised in the South Bronx neighborhood, the son of a shipping clerk and a seamstress from Jamaica who arrived in America in 1920 aboard a “banana boat” - a United Fruit Company steamer.
He served 35 years in the Army, including two combat tours in Vietnam and postings in West Germany and South Korea. In Vietnam, he was wounded by a “Punji stick” booby trap near Vietnam’s border with Laos and injured in a helicopter crash.