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Interview by Sir Trevor McDonald of Tonight With Trevor McDonald

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Washington, DC
March 15, 2004

(3:00 p.m. EST)

MR. MCDONALD: Secretary of State, one of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners who has been released has given us an interview in which he talks about the way he and others were treated. And I just want to put some of these things to you. He said that he was -- they were chained by their feet and hands to the seats on their way out to Guantanamo Bay and so they were, in fact, shackled and hooded. How do you react to that?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, I'm sure that as they were transported to Guantanamo Bay, for the safety of people on the airplane, they were probably restrained in some way. But I'm sure it was done in a manner that would not be unknown to any police organization in the world that is moving a group of individuals from one place to another.

MR. MCDONALD: But chained to their seats, shackled and hooded?

SECRETARY POWELL: If you're in an airplane, I think that's not an unwise thing to do. If you're on a long plane ride and you're in the air, I think it's wise to keep people restrained so that there is no difficulty aboard the plane for the safety of all aboard the plane.

MR. MCDONALD: This prisoner, who is called Jamal al-Harith, he says that they were beaten while they were in Guantanamo Bay.

SECRETARY POWELL: I think that unlikely. I think we have discharged all of our obligations under the Geneva Convention to treat people in our custody, our detainees, in a very, very humanitarian way.

Now, it is not a resort area in Guantanamo Bay. But at the same time we did not abuse the individuals who were down there, and we have had visits from the ICRC and other organizations, as well as our organizations, and it is not in the American tradition to treat people in that manner.

And so there have been charges like this that have been levied against our people in Guantanamo Bay. We've looked into them whenever these charges have come up and found those not to be warranted.

MR. MCDONALD: He says their private parts were shaved. Why would one do that?

SECRETARY POWELL: I have no idea of whether his private parts were shaved or not shaved, and I don't know, if they were shaved, whether there was a good reason for it or not. I have no knowledge that that took place and I can't confirm it or deny it.

MR. MCDONALD: Mr. Secretary, here's the point, though. These people were held for two years, the ones who have been sent back to Britain -- so the guy is held for two years without charge, released by the Americans, and now released by the British Government.

What conceivable threat did they pose?

SECRETARY POWELL: They posed a threat, in that they were picked up in a theater of war, a dangerous place where terrorist organizations were residing. Afghanistan had become a terrorist country. I mean, it was the home office of terrorism. And they were participating in that kind of activity, we suspected. We had to protect ourselves against further attacks such as we saw on 9/11. And we also were protecting other civilized nations around the world that are threatened by terrorism.

And so these individuals were brought to Guantanamo because there was sufficient basis to believe that we needed to interrogate them. We needed to make sure that they had any -- whether they had any intelligence information that would be useful to us that would help us in the battle against terrorism, the battle against the Taliban. We also had to make sure that there were no charges that could be placed against them for criminal activity or terrorist activity.

It took time to do all that and to make sure that we had gotten all the facts that they might have, and that we were not making a mistake by releasing somebody who might go right back to terrorism, and then discover later that we made a terrible mistake. It took time.

MR. MCDONALD: But that took two years?

SECRETARY POWELL: It took two years.

MR. MCDONALD: Can that be justified?

SECRETARY POWELL: It can be justified. We did it. We think it was fully justified by the danger we were facing, by the circumstances under which these individuals were located and detained, and we did a very, very thorough process and made sure that we knew who we had, who we were dealing with, what they might have done, and then now we're in the process of releasing all of those who it's clear there will be no charges on and they no longer pose any kind of a threat or danger to us.

Because there are no charges against these individuals either in the U.S. system or the British system does not mean that they were simply rounded up in Afghanistan with no basis for their being rounded up. It just means that there are no charges to be placed and we have derived all the intelligence information that we can out of these individuals and we don't believe they are a threat either to the United States or to Great Britain. And I am sure that the UK authorities might well keep notice of these chaps and make sure they understand what their activities are in the future.

MR. MCDONALD: But when they are released without charge, and whether these stories are true or not, they're telling these stories. What do you think that does to the reputation of your country?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, I'm sure that people will wonder whether or not these charges are true or not. And we will respond to the charges, and I'm sure that our military authorities who had responsibility for Guantanamo will listen carefully to what these individuals have to say, and we will look into what they have to say and refute them as appropriate.

Last week I got a series of such charges sent over from London just as inflammatory as the ones that you have just described. And we've looked into them very carefully and very thoroughly and I was able to give a response back to London. And I'm sure we'll do the same thing in this instance.

MR. MCDONALD: Mr. Secretary, sir, let me take you back just before the war. In February 2003, you told the UN, "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you is facts and conclusions based on solid evidence."

When you look back at that now, do you think that was true?

SECRETARY POWELL: It was absolutely true at the time I said it because at the time I said it, the intelligence community of the United States, the intelligence community of the United Kingdom, of a number of other countries, and the whole body of information and evidence and experience we had working with Iraq for a period of 12 years, what the UN had been doing in there for years, all suggested the following that: (1) Saddam Hussein had never given up the intention to have weapons of mass destruction and was working on them; (2) that he had the capability, the infrastructure, the factories that could churn this stuff out, the programs that were in place to go back to full production if he ever got loose of sanctions, and we also believed that he had stockpiles. Now --

MR. MCDONALD: That wasn't true though, was it?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, well you went to the third point. Let me come back to the first two.

He never lost the intention and there is nobody who could say that he ever lost the intention to have this capability. And the evidence is clear from documents, from what Dr. Kay, the chief inspector that we had over there found, that the programs were there in various stages. What we haven't found are stockpiles. And whether they'll be found or whether anything will be found I don't know; we'll let the new leader of the group, Mr. Duelfer, look for that.

But the only thing that I have any curiosity about now is why did we believe there were stockpiles there and so far we haven't found any? But I have no doubt about his intention. I have no doubt about the capability that he was keeping in his infrastructure -- in his industrial infrastructure and in his military infrastructure. And I am absolutely convinced that if he had gotten out of sanctions, if he had gotten out of the pressure that was being put upon him by the United Nations, if he finally got the United Nations to ignore all those years of sanctions against him, there's no doubt in my mind that he would have recreated all of that and he would have been the same kind of threat he was years ago when he gassed his neighbors in Iran and when he gassed his own people in Halabja, killing 5,000 people in one day in March of 1988.

MR. MCDONALD: But how does what you say square with the fact that many of the intelligence officers now say, and quite openly, that they felt that the intelligence was misused. And they go further. They say it was misused for political reasons.

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, some say that, and most say no. Most say, Dr. Kay says, Mr. Tenet says --

MR. MCDONALD: Mr. Tenet says there never -- we never said there was an imminent threat.

SECRETARY POWELL: Mr. Tenet did not say the information was misused.

MR. MCDONALD: He said there's no threat. He said he never said there was a threat.

SECRETARY POWELL: No, no. He didn't say there was no threat, Trevor. He said that he did not use the word imminent.

The information that I used on the 5th of February before the UN, and the information that the President used to make his decision was information provided by the Director of Central Intelligence, Mr. Tenet, and not as an individual, but as somebody who had all of the facilities of the United States intelligence community available to him.

When I was preparing my briefing for the UN to be delivered on the 5th of February, I spent four days and nights out at the CIA -- not just with Mr. Tenet, but with all of his chief analysts, a room full of people, and we went over all that we knew. And so the presentation I made to the United Nations represented the considered judgment of the intelligence community. And they stood behind it then, and they stood behind the National Intelligence Estimate, the actual document that they presented to the Congress and they presented to the President some months earlier. And to this day, Mr. Tenet will say that the information he presented then reflected the best information we had at that time. And nobody shaped it. Nobody cooked it. Nobody made it something other than what it was, the judgment of the intelligence community.

Even Dr. Kay, who has gotten so much attention lately because he says he doesn't think there are any stockpiles there, he went into Iraq thinking there were stockpiles there based on the intelligence case that he had seen, I had seen, the President had seen, Prime Minister Blair had seen, Mr. Aznar, Mr. Berlusconi and Prime Minister Howard, all of us, had seen this body of intelligence, which led one to believe -- any prudent person to believe -- looking at that regime, the nature of that regime, what Saddam Hussein had done in the past, the fact that he had forced the inspectors out in 1988*, the fact that President Clinton had relied on that same basic intelligence information to bomb Iraq for four days in 1998 -- to think that suddenly this gentleman had given up --

MR. MCDONALD: Mr. Secretary, it was wrong.

SECRETARY POWELL: What was wrong?

MR. MCDONALD: It was wrong. He had no weapons.

SECRETARY POWELL: No, he had -- we have not found the stockpiles, but there's no doubt in my mind that the intention, the capability, the infrastructure, the knowledge and the desire to have such weapons were all there and it all would come together again as soon as he was released from sanctions.

And the fact of the matter is, when the President made his decision, and when Prime Minister Blair and the other leaders made their decisions, it was in the belief, the belief -- the reasonable belief, the substantiated belief -- that there were weapons stockpiles there that could be used.

It wasn't something we made up. It wasn't something we pulled out of thin air. The body of intelligence that we relied upon from our intelligence services said there were stockpiles. Now --

MR. MCDONALD: So do you look --

SECRETARY POWELL: -- we haven't found the stockpiles.

MR. MCDONALD: But do you look back now and say, "Maybe we were wrong." Do you, do you say that?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, if -- since we haven't found the stockpiles, we have to now look as to whether or not the intelligence was flawed in one way or another.

MR. MCDONALD: And what do you think?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, I don't -- I'm going to wait until all the many committees looking at it have finished their investigations.

MR. MCDONALD: The British, I think, intelligence were the people who supplied the information about this connection between the possibility of Iraq getting uranium supplies from Niger. Now that has definitely been established as something, which did not happen. Do we now accept that?

SECRETARY POWELL: Yes, I don't think there's been any question about that.

MR. MCDONALD: So there --

SECRETARY POWELL: At least that particular instance, where there was -- you know, I don't know what might have happened many years past, but the particular report that you're referring to that got captured into some of our speeches and documents, clearly that didn't take place. That was misinformation that had been put into the system.

MR. MCDONALD: Do you feel let down by that?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, I always feel let down when I have been misinformed, but it was not that people went out deliberately to misinform us. We got bad documents that got captured by our system, and we did not realize they were bad quick enough. But this isn't, this isn't nefarious. This isn't an act of commission on our part, trying to cook up something. Intelligence came to us and upon reflection it was not good intelligence.

But you know, the intelligence business is not a business of certainty. You're making judgments. You're making inferences. You're dealing with somebody on the other side of this intelligence equation who is doing everything they can to deny you all the information you're trying to find out. That's why it's called intelligence.

MR. MCDONALD: But here's something you may have practically done, which might have helped: You could have given the weapons inspectors more time.

SECRETARY POWELL: Our concern was that the weapons inspectors, we believed, were not getting the full picture from Saddam Hussein. We believed that there was still a great deal of deceit and deception being practiced by the Iraqi regime.

We gave the Iraqi regime a test in that UN Resolution 1441. It's a test that was carefully structured. Foreign Secretary Straw and I and the other foreign ministers of the Security Council worked on it. We said, "Let's give Saddam Hussein 30 days after the passage of this resolution to give us a complete, full, accurate and comprehensive description of all he's done. Give us a statement." If, at that time, he had come forward 30 days later with a full, accurate description of all of his programs, then that would have been a test he had passed, and we would have to take that seriously.

But he didn't. When he had the opportunity to come clean, he deceived. And nobody will say that that document was anything but a deception. And from that point on, we had to assume that he would continue to deceive. And a point was reached when President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and the other leaders who were part of this coalition said that, "We can go no further with this."

And the material breach that he is in has been repeated by the material breach of the false declaration and continued material breaching by his unwillingness to let it all out. And that -- the standard required by UN Resolution 1441 had been met, and if another resolution wasn't forthcoming, then a willing coalition of nations were going to go in and remove this individual from power.

He's gone. We don't have to worry about weapons of mass destruction anymore. We don't have to debate about them. We also don't have to worry about any more mass graves. We also don't have to worry about any more of the kind of torture chambers he had.

MR. MCDONALD: Totally justified in your view?

SECRETARY POWELL: In my view --

MR. MCDONALD: Although we have no weapons of mass destruction, war was totally justified.

SECRETARY POWELL: I think it's, when -- I think it's very justified when you look now and see that the Iraqi people are working to become a democracy; when you see that just a few days ago they passed an administrative law on the way to a constitution. They're debating with each other, not fighting each other. They're not poisoning each other. They're not putting each other in mass graves.

They are debating with each other in the finest democratic tradition to find a way forward. They are going to resist these terrorist activities. They are going to get control of their country. They're going to get their sovereignty back. And it's going to be a country that's going to building a democracy where one has not existed before.

And I'm proud that we have been a part of a great coalition that caused that to come about.

MR. MCDONALD: I'll come back to Iraq, okay? Let me just ask one more question about this.

SECRETARY POWELL: Okay.

MR. MCDONALD: Tony Blair said regime change alone could not be and was not a justification for war.

In retrospect, if no WMD were found, for Tony Blair that war was unjustifiable then, wasn't it?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, Mr. Blair, when he made his decision to be part of this coalition, fully believed, and had every reason to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction stockpiles. Don't just think that it's stockpiles alone that constitutes a weapon of mass destruction program.

You have to have -- in order to create a threat, you have to have the intention -- no doubt he had the intention; you have to have the capability to produce these things -- he had the capability. What was missing, but what we didn't know was missing, was whether or not the stockpiles were there. And it's not over yet.

We're still looking at documentation. We're still interviewing people. Mr. Duelfer's hard at work. We don't know what the end of that story is yet. And Mr. Blair had the same basis of information that President Bush had. And both of them were operating on sound information and believed in the information they received and had every reason to believe in the information they received.

In fact, the information was such that it might have been irresponsible if they hadn't acted on the intelligence they were provided, just as President Clinton had back in 1998.

MR. MCDONALD: You talk about progress in Iraq, and I agree that the signing of this pathway to a new constitution is, is some progress. But when you take into account this bombing of March the 7th when 271 people were killed and almost 400 injured, are we not too sure whether we -- we're sort of radicalizing this country into factions which will continually tear at each other?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, the country has always had factions. The Shia, Sunni, the Kurds, the Turkoman -- many different factions within the society. For the first time we are creating a situation where these factions can respect one another and find a representative way to deal with one another as opposed to one faction suppressing the other, which is what Saddam Hussein did.

He used the Sunni faction to suppress the Kurds, in fact kill the Kurds -- destroy their villages. And he also used the Sunni faction and his control of it to suppress the Shias in the south, to destroy the marshlands that were their home for a thousand years. And so that's gone. He's gone. That kind of repression is over. And instead what we're seeing is Kurds, Shias, Sunnis all working together to create a federated system where they can live in peace with one another -- a Shia majority, but with full respect for the minority rights of every other ethnic group within Iraq. That's good news.

We are saddened by events such as the loss of all those Shia lives not too long ago and we despair every time we see a terrorist attack take place. But we don't despair to the point where we don't have hope for the future because we are also seeing the electricity is higher than it was before the war, the oil is starting to flow, the people are getting back to work, newspapers are flourishing, women have entered the workplace and the business place and political life. Kids are back to school. Schools are springing up. The hospital system is coming back to life. The marshlands are filling back up with water in the south. The Kurds are happy with their place in life and are willing to be part of this new nation that is being created.

And all of these are good signs. Town councils are forming. Parent-teacher associations are forming. So as we worry about and are distressed about bombings and terrorist incidents, let's not lose sight of all the good things that are happening and what we have been responsible for bringing into being -- a new nation that with our help and with our sustained support, and without us getting weak-kneed about it, but sticking with it as President Bush intends to do, and far be it from me to speak for Prime Minister Blair, but I will here -- as he intends to do, to stick with it and help these people build a nation that they will be proud of and we --

MR. MCDONALD: How long is America committed to staying?

SECRETARY POWELL: As long as it takes. It doesn't always mean we'll have 100,000 troops there. We don't want that. We think that over time, Iraqis can provide for their own security and the number of troops, U.S. coalition troops will drop as the Iraqis gain the capability to protect themselves.

MR. MCDONALD: Let me, let me --

SECRETARY POWELL: But we'll be there politically and with a large embassy presence and all the other pieces that come with an embassy and a great deal of money generously given by the American people to help the Iraqi people.

MR. MCDONALD: If we take Afghanistan as an example, good work has been done there in the infrastructure -- but there are still concerns about, about security. Warlords are in control of some of the areas around Kabul and the Taliban are rumored to be restructuring. You wouldn't want Iraq to go the same way would you?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, we don't want Afghanistan to go the same way. The direction Afghanistan is going in right now, from where we started in the fall of 2001 to where we are now is quite incredible.

We have a functioning government. We have ministries at work. Schools and hospitals are popping up. We have just seen the Afghan people write a constitution and have it blessed by a Loya Jirga process, and we're getting ready for elections. We've built roads. We're going to build more roads. There's money going into Afghanistan.

So the question is always: Is the glass half-empty, is the glass half-full? There's a lot more work to be done in Afghanistan and we're about to have a conference in Germany to get the international community back together again to recommit itself to Afghanistan. And we're going to deal with the Taliban. But let's keep in mind the Taliban want to go back to the ways of the past. They want to make this place a home for terrorism again, and we're not going to let that happen.

So rather than say, "Oh my gosh! The Taliban are still there!" Fine, we're going to defeat the Taliban if they're still there. And we're going to continue to help the Afghan people build a country that they can be proud of. The warlords, slowly but surely, are understanding that it is in the interest of their region and in the interest of the country for them to yield power and authority to the central government.

President Karzai is going about this in a very deliberate way and we're giving him support. So is the glass half-empty or the glass half-full? I think the glass is more than half-full. And I think it's a beer mug, not a crystal goblet that will break right away.

MR. MCDONALD: If President Bush wins a second term, will you serve in the next Administration?

SECRETARY POWELL: Trevor, there's only one answer to that question in our system of government and that is, I serve at the pleasure of the President.

MR. MCDONALD: And if it is the President's pleasure, might you be inclined?

SECRETARY POWELL: I serve at the pleasure of the President and we will see, but I also, you know, just leave it right there all the time.

MR. MCDONALD: I was just wondering whether retirement is an enchanting prospect or not.

SECRETARY POWELL: (Laughter.) Trevor, you're great, but I serve at the pleasure of the President.

MR. MCDONALD: Secretary of State, thank you.

SECRETARY POWELL: Thank you, Trevor.

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