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20 years ago, the U.S. warned of Iraq's alleged 'weapons of mass destruction'

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said was the size that could be used to hold anthrax as he addresses the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 at the U.N. in New York.
Timothy A. Clary
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AFP via Getty Images
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said was the size that could be used to hold anthrax as he addresses the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 at the U.N. in New York.

This is part of a special series where NPR looks back at our coverage of major news stories in the past. Listen to the full audio story to hear excerpts from Colin Powell's U.N. speech and more of NPR's archival audio.

There wasn't just one moment that led to the Iraq War. But one speech, delivered 20 years ago at the United Nations, would come to define and undermine the conflict.

On Feb. 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sat in front of members of the U.N. Security Council. He'd been a staunch critic of U.S. intervention against Iraq's authoritarian leader, Saddam Hussein.

But with the world watching, Powell made a case for war.

"My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources — solid sources," he said. "These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."

Powell used information that intelligence officials assured him was credible. There were reconnaissance photos, elaborate maps and charts, and even taped phone conversations between senior members of Iraq's military.

"Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons," Powell said. "Saddam Hussein has used such weapons. And Saddam Hussein has no compunction about using them again — against his neighbors, and against his own people."

Powell repeatedly used one phrase during his hour-long speech: "weapons of mass destruction." He said those words a total of 17 times. It was the phrase the Bush administration kept publicly using to help justify invading Iraq.

A month and a half after the U.N. speech, President Bush ordered air strikes over Baghdad. It marked the beginning of a military operation "to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger," Bush said in a televised address to the nation.

U.S. forces toppled Hussein's regime in a matter of weeks, and the search intensified for evidence of Iraq's so-called "weapons of mass destruction." But the weapons were nowhere to be found.

Americans started asking questions.

"It's kind of embarrassing they haven't found anything," said Allen Hunley, a Tennessee dentist who spoke to NPR in July 2003 while attending the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. "It's almost like they were salesmen and they had a thing to sell."

National security analyst Joseph Cirincione also criticized Powell's speech in comments to NPR. Particularly, Powell's assurances that there was solid evidence behind his claims of sophisticated and illicit Iraqi weapons programs.

"Now we know that that just wasn't true," said Cirincione, then the director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

California Rep. Jane Harman served as the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and voted in support of the 2002 measure OK'ing the use of military force against Iraq. Reports of a "very long and scary list of active weapons of mass destruction" influenced that decision, Harman told NPR.

"I believed what I was told," Harman said on All Things Considered in January 2004. "And I'm as surprised as you that it turns out that there are no stockpiles of weapons."

Journalists and members of Congress started digging into the rationale for war laid out in Powell's U.N. speech. They discovered faulty and exaggerated reports from an intelligence community under political pressure from top White House officials.

There were also claims Bush took advantage of Powell's reputation by dispatching him to the U.N.

"As Bush said to him at the time, 'Maybe they'll believe you. Maybe the audience will believe you,' " journalist and Powell biographer Karen DeYoung told NPR in 2006. "Because it was always clear in the Bush administration that Powell was more popular than anyone else."

To this day, the Iraq War is widely viewed as a foreign policy and humanitarian disaster. The conflict dragged on for almost nine years and claimed nearly 4,500 American lives. Over 185,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, according to Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Some 2 million Iraqis had been displaced from their homes by the time U.S. forces pulled out in 2011.

Three years later, President Obama ordered troops back to Iraq to help combat the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — assuring Americans he would not commit to "another ground war." U.S. forces officially withdrew in December 2021 after almost seven years of fighting.

Powell later called his U.N. speech a "great intelligence failure" and a "blot" on his record, telling NBC News' Meet the Press in 2004 he trusted the information he'd gotten.

"But it turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases deliberately misleading," Powell said. "And for that, I am disappointed. And I regret it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jack Mitchell