At just about every crucial juncture in his career, Colin Powell has failed his country, and himself.

This sorry record goes all the way back to his time as a young U.S. Army Major posted in Saigon, when, after the My Lai Massacre, he was asked to investigate a soldier’s letter describing atrocities against the Vietnamese people. Powell rejected the charges and famously wrote, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

On May 4, 2004, when Powell was Secretary of State, he told Larry King, “I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”

It was also when he was Secretary of State that Powell should have resigned from the government to protest George Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Instead, he became the president’s point man at the United Nations, where he delivered a speech riddled with falsehoods about the threats supposedly posed by Saddam Hussein. Craig Unger wrote in The Fall of the House of Bush that Powell must have been aware that the intelligence books had been cooked to distort the case for going to war at the time that he made that speech.

One year ago, Jan Crawford Greenburg reported on ABC News that in the second year of the Bush administration, then-Secretary of State Powell attended meetings chaired by then–National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in which they discussed specific torture techniques with Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet. Two days later, President Bush confirmed that those meetings had, indeed, taken place in an interview with ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz.

“Ashcroft was troubled by the discussions,” Greenburg reported. “He argued that, while the tactics were legal, senior advisers should not be involved in the grim details. One top official said Ashcroft asked out loud after one meeting, ‘Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.’” 

Powell, for his part, began making his non-denial denials—countering accusations that he had personally approved torture—by telling Greenburg through a spokesman that there had been “hundreds of Principal Committee meetings…and that he could not recall specifics. And even if he could, he was not at liberty to discuss those meetings anyway.” Then Powell told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he did not have “sufficient memory recall” about the meetings, adding, “I’m not aware of anything that we discussed in any of those meetings that was not considered legal.”

Charles Kaiser is the author of The Gay Metropolis and 1968 in America. He has been media editor for Newsweek, a member of the metro staff of The New York Times, and a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, where he covered the press and book publishing. To learn more, visit