Who Deceived Colin Powell?

If Powell had discovered that he was given a bogus translation in 2003, we might not be facing a devastated Middle East and ISIS today.

In 1520, the word ‘evacuate’ was a medical term for “empty, make void, nullify.” Then as now, surgeons ‘evacuated’ tumors and patients ‘evacuated’ their bowels. In both cases, the ‘evacuated’ material was not sequestered for safekeeping. It was discarded as waste, and the formal definition of ‘evacuate’ remains ‘to make null and void by expelling as waste’. The first military meaning of ‘evacuate’, to sequester munitions for safekeeping, arrived in 1710.

On February 5, 2003, then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, made the pivotal case for invading Iraq. His opening salvo to the General Assembly of the United Nations was a translation of an intercepted conversation. General Powell’s understanding of that conversation hinged upon his military understanding of ‘evacuated’:

Colin Powell addresses the United Nations Security Council

POWELL: Let me begin by playing a tape for you. What you’re about to hear is a conversation that my government monitored. It takes place on November 26 of last year, on the day before United Nations teams resumed inspections in Iraq.

The conversation involves two senior officers, a colonel and a brigadier general, from Iraq’s elite military unit, the Republican Guard.

[Plays audio tape of conversation in Arabic.]

POWELL: Let me pause and review some of the key elements of this conversation that you just heard between these two officers.

First, they acknowledge that our colleague, Mohamed El Baradei, is coming, and they know what he’s coming for, and they know he’s coming the next day. He’s coming to look for things that are prohibited. He is expecting these gentlemen to cooperate with him and not hide things.

But they’re worried. “We have this modified vehicle. What do we say if one of them sees it?” What is their concern? Their concern is that it’s something they should not have, something that should not be seen.

The [brigadier] general is incredulous:

[POWELL showing and reading translation of intercept]

“You didn’t get a modified. You don’t have one of those, do you?”

“I have one.”

“Which, from where?

“From the workshop, from the al-Kindi company?”


“From al-Kindi.”

“I’ll come to see you in the morning. I’m worried. You all have something left.”

“We evacuated everything. We don’t have anything left.”

Note what he says: “We evacuated everything.” We didn’t destroy it. We didn’t line it up for inspection. We didn’t turn it into the inspectors. We evacuated it to make sure it was not around when the inspectors showed up.

On February 6, 2003, I sent Powell an email via the Department of State website, with a copy by postal mail, asking whether he might have misinterpreted the word or words translated as ‘evacuated’, explaining that translators for whom English is a second language often use formal definitions of English words, such that “We evacuated everything. We don’t have anything left” may have meant what Saddam Hussein’s Foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, had been saying for months … that Iraq had gotten rid of, made null and void, made non-weaponizable, its weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

On February 7 the Department of State emailed a generic, boilerplate response thanking me for my interest.

Over the ensuing decade I tried and failed to persuade several Arabic-speaking acquaintances to independently translate the audio tape of the conversation between the Iraqi colonel and his brigadier general.

Then I discovered the US government’s quintessential source for authoritative translations from Arabic to English, Marine Corps University Professor of Arabic Studies, Norman Cigar. On January 4, 2013, I sent an email to Professor Cigar with the transcript of Powell’s presentation and a link to the audio recording, asking him to forward his interpretation of the Arabic word or words translated to English as “evacuated.”

On February 4, Professor Cigar replied (his emphasis):

Interesting question. The audio is not always clear, but I focused on the “evacuated” (in the English translation), and that is NOT what is said. Literally, the tape says “We did all that was necessary, and we informed them of everything, everything [is OK]” (sawayna al-lazim, wa-khabbarnahum wa-kull shay’; kull shay’). I have no idea why “evacuated” is used.

Two days later, I thanked Professor Cigar for his reply, clarifying that

My sense of General Powell is that if he had known that ‘evacuated’ ‘is NOT what is said’ in the intercepted communication, and that what WAS said indicates the opposite … that nothing was being covered up … he would not have used that intercepted communication in his presentation to the U.N. (let alone as the heaviest salvo in his list of evidence), he would have had his suspicions markedly raised regarding the rest of the evidence supplied to him and so would have had that evidence vetted more thoroughly, and in the end, thereby, he may not have agreed to argue in favor of invading Iraq.

Professor Cigar replied the same day with:

The entire translation of that text is shoddy.  It’s an interesting point, which no one has looked at (I certainly never thought of it)—you might get a native Iraqi to provide his/her independent version of the translation for the entire text (or someone should, as it would make an interesting article).  You could put in a FOIA request.  However, just that one Arabic text would make for a good short article!  I certainly don’t have any contact with him, but an article in an academic publication would get people’s attention.

Unfortunately, Professor Cigar had no more ability to contact Secretary Powell than I had, and I have not, thus far, persuaded him to complete and present his findings on “The entire translation of that text” (for which I suggested the title “Babel From Babylon” or “A War That Hinged On A Word”).  What remains is that the insertion of the word ‘evacuated’ into the translation of the intercepted conversation begs for explanation.

Was the translator an Iraqi dissident who wanted the US to invade Iraq? If so, was he or she hoping that ‘evacuated’ would be misunderstood in the manner that it was understandably misunderstood by General Powell, and yet provide plausible deniability of intention to deceive because ‘evacuated’ could be claimed, if questioned, to have been a somewhat supercilious way of saying that Iraq’s WMD had been made null and void … expelled as waste … the formal definition of ‘evacuated’ … i.e., that the Iraqis actually had done “all that was necessary”? Or was “We did all that was necessary” translated as “We evacuated everything” by a too-cute neocon to accomplish the same objective? Perhaps a collusion of both?

Is deliberate deception excusable if it is done with what the deceiver perceives to be good intentions? C.S. Lewis warned us about the phenomenon that Roberts and Stratton coined “The Tyranny of Good Intentions”:

C.S Lewis

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

All of us so classed by the insertion of the word ‘evacuated’ should be angry. Colin Powell should be furious. In addition to being a senior player in an administration that was “blind and deaf to any kind of countervailing information,” he violated his own Leadership Rule #8: Check small things. And if Powell becomes furious, the burden of being more responsible than any other person for enabling ‘The Coalition of the Willing’ to invade Iraq will weigh on his conscience, and so deter him from being, ever again, a moral busybody who brings more Hell to earth.

We need a leader who has really been through the wringer … not the kind of wringer that John McCain went through … not the kind of wringer that instills self-righteousness and adds an alluring confidence to the lunacy of warmongering … but the kind of wringer that favors skepticism over confidence when faced with lies and propaganda aimed at Iran. If this ‘evacuated’ debacle serves as the straw that breaks the camel’s back … the straw that convinces Powell that his UN presentation was built on “faith-based intelligence” … if it brings Powell around to the view that he was horribly misled and so became horribly misleading, whether as a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent, he should run for President. His recent interview with George Stephanopoulos shows that he is still articulate and wise—perhaps wiser than ever, and certainly wiser than the other viable candidates who have announced their candidacy.

President Powell with Vice President Jill Stein might be the least likely of all American politicians to pursue tyranny “with the approval of their own conscience.” They would not be perfect … but ‘perfect’ is the enemy of ‘good’ … and we desperately need ‘good’.


This article appeared on Aug 6,2015 in the Foreign Policy Journal.