300-Word History Lesson: Colin Powell and the WMDs That Didn’t Exist

Ten years ago this week, in a presentation to the United Nations Security Council that he would later call “one of my momentous failures,” then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. “Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world,” Powell said. Six weeks later, on March 20th, the war in Iraq began with precision missile strikes on Baghdad, a tactic dubbed “shock and awe.”

In fact, as the world learned soon enough, the intelligence that Powell based his speech on was seriously flawed—Saddam Hussein did not possess WMDs, and none were ever found in Iraq. By September 2005, Powell himself was on national television describing his U.N. appearance to Barbara Walters as a lasting “blot” on his record.

Powell’s elaborate presentation included satellite photographs of what he claimed were facilities for the manufacture of chemical and biological weapons, and the “eyewitness” account of an Iraqi engineer who ran a mobile WMD lab. He dramatically displayed a vial of white powder as he described Iraq’s extensive stockpile of anthrax. “My colleagues,” he said, in what turned out to be his most self-damning claim, “every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”

As Powell has acknowledged, they were anything but.

If the WMDs weren’t real, the war in Iraq certainly was. It lasted more than seven years and left 4,487 American servicemembers dead and 32,226 wounded. Iraqi deaths exceeded 100,000.

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