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Colin Powell Comes into Focus in New Book

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Two new books examined the Bush administration's internal debates over Iraq.

AMOS: In one of them, Washington Post editor Bob Woodward writes that administration officials misinformed the public about the war. That book is called the State of Denial. In response, White House officials issued carefully worded denials that they were in a state of denial.

INSKEEP: The other book comes from another Washington Post editor, Karen DeYoung. She's written a biography of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and she's on the line. Good morning.

Ms. KAREN DEYOUNG (Washington Post): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Your book, which was excerpted in your newspaper's magazine over the weekend, mentions Colin Powell's last meeting with President Bush before he left office as secretary of state. What did he say about Iraq?

Ms. DEYOUNG: He told the president that he thought there were about two months left, and this was in January of 2005, to make it right. There was going to be an election at the end of January in Iraq. Powell said that he thought that elections were not going to do the trick, that the only thing that was going to make progress in Iraq was for the Iraqi army to actually get its stuff together, to be trained and to believe in what it was doing, that they were just like the American army. And I think he made a reference to Vietnam. If they didn't believe in what they were doing, then they weren't going to fight for their country.

INSKEEP: This is one of a number of dire warnings that we learn about from Colin Powell. There's another mentioned in Bob Woodward's book in which he said to the president that the only thing he needed to worry about was Iraq and Iraq. Why do you think Secretary of State Powell -and also as a former secretary of state he's not been that vocal in public?

Ms. DEYOUNG: I think it's part of his personal makeup and part of his tradition. Obviously, he spent 35 years in the army, retired in 1993 as a four-star general. He thinks it's a question of loyalty to the administration. He knows that he was part of it and there's something unseemly about coming out and criticizing an administration that he had a major role in.

INSKEEP: General Powell said to you, I believe, I'm the guy who will always be known as the Powell briefing, referring to his...

Ms. DEYOUNG: Right.

INSKEEP: ...the case that he made before the U.N. Security Council before going to war. How hard did he try to get the facts straight, which turned out to be inaccurate in that briefing?

Ms. DEYOUNG: You know, I think it's a question of looking for the wrong thing. He only had about a week to get his speech in shape. He had been given a text by the White House that both he and the CIA found was inadequate. It made a lot of charges that they couldn't back up. And so he kind of went back to scratch and started looking for things that would prove the points that he was going to make, the best evidence that the CIA had about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaida's relationship with Iraq.

I think the problem in retrospect was that they were not looking for the things that disproved it. They went in and said, we believe that this is the case, give us the best evidence that we can use to show that it's true. And nobody said, gee, do you have any evidence that maybe works against this that says that it's true?

INSKEEP: Does that indicate that it really was quite hard to get the intelligence right on a case like this?

Ms. DE YOUNG: There was evidence that indicated it wasn't true. They had information from inside the Iraqi government, in fact, that indicated that there were no weapons of mass destruction. They simply didn't believe it. I think it was a classic example of groupthink.

INSKEEP: Does he seem bitter at all now?

Ms. DE YOUNG: I don't know if bitter is the right word. You know, Powell, I think, has emerged from the Bush administration better than one would have hoped, better than he could have hoped, I think. To a large extent he really hasn't taken the blame for it. He's still enormously popular. He goes around and gives speeches.

A lot of people, I think, were saddened about his role in the administration, but feel that he's at least partially redeemed himself and basically put the blame elsewhere. He has spoken out in a minor sort of way every once in a while. And I think he's managed to bring himself out of that situation with his reputation more or less intact.

INSKEEP: Karen DeYoung is author of Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell, an excerpt of which ran over the weekend on The Washington Post. Thanks very much.

Ms. DE YOUNG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.