This week Powell continued the same pattern when Rachel Maddow interrogated him on the same subject:

MADDOW: I guess I have to ask [you about]…the decisions that you participated in [as Secretary of State ]about interrogation, about torture, about the other things.

POWELL: We had no meetings on torture. It’s constantly said that the meetings­ I had an issue with this—we had meetings on what torture to administer. What I recall, the meetings I was in—­I was not in all of the meetings and I was not an author of many of the memos that have been written (and some have come out, some have not come out).  The only meetings I recall were where we talked about what is it we can do with respect to trying to get information from individuals who were in our custody. And I will just have to wait until the full written record is available and has been examined.

MADDOW: I don’t mean to press you on this to the point of discomfort but there is an extent to which there is a legal discussion around this where everybody feels a little constrained by the legal terms and whether or not they are a legal professional. There is also the policy implications that you’ve been so eloquent about, in terms of what the implications are of these policies for the U.S. abroad in a continuing way… If specific interrogation techniques were being approved by people at the political level in the Cabinet, it doesn’t­the legal niceties of it almost become less important.

POWELL: I don’t know where these things were being approved at a political level.

MADDOW: If there was a Principals Meeting at the White House to discuss interrogation techniques?

POWELL: It does not mean it was approved, anything was approved, at a meeting…. It depends on did the meeting end up in a conclusion or was it just a briefing that then went to others to make a final decision on and to document. And so it is a legal issue and I think we have to be very careful and I have to be very careful because I don’t want to be seen as implicating anybody or accusing anybody because I don’t have the complete record on this. And that complete record I think in due course will come out.

In fact, Bush administration critics have argued that the whole point of these meetings was to find a way to violate the Geneva Conventions’ ban on torture in such a way that American torturers would not become vulnerable to future prosecution for violating international law.

Almost as bad as Powell’s apparent acquiescence to the torture administered by the Bush administration was his role in the creation of the disastrous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1993, which prevented gay people from serving openly in the military. As Nathaniel Frank has proven in his brilliant new book, Unfriendly Fire, that policy was based entirely on prejudice instead of actual data, and it has sharply damaged the security of the United States by expelling thousands of highly competent men and women from the American military.

But when Powell was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under Bill Clinton, he did not emulate Harry Truman, who a generation earlier had made Powell’s career possible by ignoring Southern bigotry and ordering the integration of black and white soldiers throughout the armed forces.  Instead, Powell teamed up with former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn to implement a policy that enshrined anti-gay prejudice in the military for (at least) another sixteen years.

Since then, everyone from retired general John M. Shalikashvili, who succeeded Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to former Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander have courageously called for a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But not General Powell. In that same interview with Rachel Maddow, Powell said that the policy should be reconsidered—and that he would back President Obama were Obama to decide to end it—but in the meantime, he would not commit himself to a position on the policy until he heard the views of current military leaders. He then repeated some of the idiotic arguments that were made in favor of the current policy sixteen years ago:

“The armed force of the United States is not the same as the armed force of one of our European friends or Canadian friends”—where gays have been completely integrated into the armed forces without any of the predicted catastrophes coming to pass. 

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