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Colin Powell in 2011 on the cost of the Iraq War and how 9/11 changed the world

Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell, who died on Monday, is pictured leaving the White House in July 2011.
Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell, who died on Monday, is pictured leaving the White House in July 2011.

Updated October 18, 2021 at 10:40 AM ET

Editor's note: Colin Powell died on Monday from complications from COVID-19. In 2011, about a decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the former secretary of state spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep about what has changed since that day — and what he hopes hasn't changed. Read a transcript of that interview below.

Nearly a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says terrorists have been dealt a serious blow by the United States.

But he also cautions Americans not to worry so much about terrorism that "we start to lose the essence of who we are as an open, freedom-loving people, welcoming to the rest of the world."

In a wide-ranging interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, Powell also expresses his opposition to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, shares his thoughts on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, responds to criticism from former Vice President Dick Cheney and talks about the 2012 election.

Read the full transcript of the interview below and listen to the audio above.

Steve Inskeep: I want to ask about the way the country has changed over the past decade. And I was reading an interview that you did with, I think, Walter Isaacson in 2007. You said in 2007 that you thought we as a country were taking too much counsel of our fears. How would you describe our approach to terrorism now?

Colin Powell: I think that the point I was making back in 2007 was that there is no question that terrorism is a continuing problem, but we were a lot safer in 2007 than we were before 9/11 in 2001. We had done a lot of excellent work with respect to protecting ourselves at our airports, with respect to the intelligence work we had ongoing, our law enforcement activity, and especially what we did in Afghanistan to put al-Qaida on the run. And since then, we have really taken a bite out of al-Qaida's ability.

But at the same time, in making ourselves safer — and I give credit to President Bush and President Obama for doing this, and all of the other people working on it — in the process of making ourselves safer, there was a period of time when we started to act as if we were afraid of everything. And so we made it hard to get visas. We made it harder to come here to the United States, to go to our schools, to go to our hospitals for care, to go to our recreational facilities, to visit Disneyland and Disney World.

And my point then — and it's still my point today — is that terrorists have been dealt a serious blow. They're still there. They might get through again. They might kill some of our fellow citizens. They might knock down a building. You can't rule that out. And if they did that, we would go after them again. We would rebuild and we would mourn those who we lost.

But the one thing that terrorists cannot do — not one of them; not 10 of them; not 10,000 of them — they can't change who we are as an open, freedom-loving people. We open our arms to the rest of the world. We are touched by every nation, and every nation touches us. So we can't take such counsel of our fears that we change who we are, even though the terrorists aren't able to change who we are.

Inskeep: Are we still doing that, in your view?

Powell: There, I think, are some concerns that I still have with respect to some aspects of our immigration policy, with respect to some of the difficulties still associated with getting a visa, particularly for people who are going to make a heck of a contribution when they get here.

And so I think we're a lot better off. We're a little more comfortable. We're a little more at ease than we were in 2007 because we've done such a good job against al-Qaida. But we have to be on guard that we don't spend so much time worrying about terrorism and guarding ourselves that we start to lose the essence of who we are as an open, freedom-loving people, welcoming to the rest of the world.

Inskeep: Another thing you said in that 2007 interview was that you thought the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base — the prison there — should be closed.

Powell: Well, I've felt that way for years.

Inskeep: And a president has come in, whom you endorsed — President Obama. It's not closed.

Powell: Well, it isn't closed. Congress won't allow it to be closed. But I still think that it should be closed. That was my position when I was in the administration as secretary of state. It is not as neuralgic an issue as it was a few years ago. People seem to accept that there is a Guantanamo and it's going to be there for a while. But I have seen no reason to believe that our regular, civilian courts are not capable of dealing with these people, or that --

Inskeep: Haven't the trials proven --

Powell: — or that our imprisonment system, our judicial system here in the United States, which has 2 million people in jail, would be incapable of handling a couple of hundred more. And frankly, the real concern was not that these couple of hundred more in our civilian prisons in the United States would start conducting terrorist activities. The issue is going to be, how do you keep them alive overnight from the other prisoners?

And so I've always felt that we could have done this and done it in a way that would have shown to the rest of the world that we are totally consistent with the rule of law and are consistent with our Constitution. And in fact, as I think you might have started to say, our civilian courts have been throwing people in jail religiously. They have been very effective in putting terrorists in jail, whereas the military commissions and the activities at Guantanamo have not gotten up to speed to do that kind of thing.

Inskeep: Although there have been some high-profile cases that have nearly gone wrong, and I think of issues like the effort of a terrorism trial in New York where you discover that the security questions, the political questions have become quite problematic.

Powell: But that has nothing to do with the judicial process. Maybe it was a bad choice to do it in New York. Maybe you should have done it in Gaithersburg, Md., or in Buffalo, N.Y., or outside of Fort Drum, N.Y. But that was a political and public relations issue, not a question about the ability or inability of our civilian courts to handle these kinds of cases.

Inskeep: I want to ask about another legacy of 9/11 that's still with us — the war in Afghanistan. President Obama has changed strategy there, added troops and now is attempting a drawdown. As you look at the way this war has been prosecuted, does it in any way fit what is known as the Powell doctrine?

Powell: Well, the Powell doctrine, such as it is — and by the way, it isn't a doctrine in any Army manual; it's just the way in which I looked at military operations — says make sure you have a clear political objective and make sure you bring all the tools of national power to bear — economic, financial, political and military, if necessary.

And if you find it necessary to use military force, send in a force that will get you decisive results. I never used overwhelming but decisive. You know what you're going after and you're going to put the force behind it.

We didn't analyze it that way during the initial success after we got rid of the Taliban. We didn't realize that, that conflict was not over. And so years later, both President Bush and President Obama found it necessary to send more troops in. And so those troops have essentially helped in restoring order in some parts of Afghanistan but not all parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban has not been defeated. And so we will have to stay there a little longer.

But the question that has to be answered is, at what point do you say to the Afghans, it's now yours? You have a government. You have a president. You have a legislature. You have cabinet officers and governors, and we have helped you create a large army and a large police force. We will stay and provide training assistance and things of that nature, but from here on in, the battle is yours. And everybody pretty much is thinking that this has to happen sometime in 2014 and beyond.

Inskeep: Does the approach now make sense?

Powell: I think it's the only approach you can take. Making sense with respect to what? Sooner or later, the Afghan people have to be in charge of their own destiny, just as in Iraq, the Iraqi people are increasingly in charge of their own destiny.

Inskeep: Because you mentioned Iraq, as you know very well, you were criticized for advocating the case against Saddam Hussein before the United Nations. You've acknowledged there was flawed intelligence that was presented there. But I want to ask a somewhat different question. As you look back over the last several years, has Iraq proved to be a distraction from other issues that you find to be more important that you find facing the country?

Powell: Well, anything that takes you away from the domestic problems of the country can be said to be a distraction, but it was a necessary distraction because we went into Iraq to change that government – a government which changed. We got rid of a terrible dictator. We put in place a constitution and a process by which the Iraqi people can decide who their government should be. And so that's something we have to do.

And I think now, we are in a new phase of our Iraq involvement. We're drawing down. There's a question as to whether the Iraqis wish us to remain with any-size force and the administration says, let us know what you think is appropriate. And that negotiation will work itself out. But we'll still be engaged through our diplomatic efforts and the presence of diplomats and other security people — mostly contractor — in the area.

And so the flawed intelligence — it wasn't just me making the case; everybody was making the case. The president was making the case, many members of Congress were making the case that the intelligence supported military action. And in fact, even though my presentation, in many ways, was flawed — there was a lot of correct analysis in that presentation — it was based on a national intelligence estimate that the Congress had asked for and the CIA had provided, which is even more categorical than my subsequent presentation as to the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

So we all believed the intelligence. The United Kingdom and other nations believed in the intelligence. And I was as disappointed as anyone, since I was the principal presenter of the case, when it turned out that so much of it was flawed, and it was single-sourced on a very unreliable source that we should have been aware of was unreliable.

Inskeep: Was the war worth the cost?

Powell: That's the judgment that history will have to make. The cost is a lot of American lives lost, a lot of young Americans injured severely, many, many Iraqis killed. We got rid of a dictatorship. We no longer have to worry about this country being a threat to its neighbors or this country ever considering weapons of mass destruction. And remember, they did have them at one time in the past under Saddam Hussein.

And we have created a country that is being governed in a democratic process. It's a noisy process, but guess what? Democracy is noisy. But I think we can say that, that has been a measure of our success. But whether or not it was worth it is a judgment others will have to make, history will have to make.

I think, at this point, it was a costly war but it's worth it in the sense that we no longer have to worry about weapons of mass destruction in that country or terrorism coming from that country, and we have given this country of almost 30 million people an opportunity to live in peace, use the oil they have for beneficial purposes, not threaten its neighbors and create a democratic model in that part of the world.

Inskeep: General, you've been in the news recently, as you know very well, because Vice President Cheney, in his new book, criticizes you specifically. You've been on television saying that the vice president took what you felt were cheap shots. But I have a broader question that maybe speaks to the debates this country has had over the last decade: Is it fair to suggest that you and Vice President Cheney simply have very different views of the world? And if it is fair, what is the difference?

Powell: We have many similar views of the world. I worked with Mr. Cheney for a period of eight years — four years as his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then four years as secretary of state in the administration. And in any administration, you have points of view that coincide within the team and where you have differences within the team.

And in the first administration of — first term of President Bush's administration, Mr. Cheney and I agreed on many things and we disagreed on other things. That's the nature of the business. But I have nothing more to say about his book

Inskeep: But what I'm asking about the differences of the view of the world, maybe it comes back to that phrase that you used having to do with taking — (background noise). Let me just let that finish ringing. Excellent.

Maybe it comes back to that phrase you used about taking too much counsel of our fears. Is that the difference, that Vice President Cheney felt that it was valid to take a darker view of the world than you did?

Powell: Well, you'll have to ask Mr. Cheney that. My view is that, as the secretary of state, I gave the president and the vice president and my other colleagues my best advice with respect to diplomatic activity, with respect to how we work with our friends and allies to achieve common purposes.

Were there disagreements? Yes, there were disagreements. And Mr. Cheney points out that he was not happy with some of the positions I took, and I can say the same with respect to him. But that's what you find in an administration: strong points of view, argued strongly. And then compromises are reached, and if there are no compromises, the president decides. That's why he's the president and we are not.

Inskeep: But, I mean, people covered that over the years as a personality conflict and one of many within the administration --

Powell: You always — you folks always want to focus on personality conflicts, and I have had — I have had personality conflicts and I had had personality affinities with the people I've worked with over the years. And these are seven- and eight-year-old issues and seven- and eight-year-old activities that are of less interest to the people around the country than they are to those of us in Washington.

Inskeep: — which is why I'm wondering if what really happened was a philosophical difference, a different way of looking at the world, and if so, what the difference was.

Powell: I've just said to you it had many things that we agreed upon with respect to, for example, expanding the NATO alliance, with respect to getting more money to foreign assistance, with respect to the president's emergency program on AIDS relief, with respect to a treaty with Moscow, reducing significantly nuclear weapons, with respect to a proliferation security initiative. All these things we fully agreed to but there were differences.

Inskeep: And the difference was?

Powell: Well, what surprises you about that? I mean, have you ever seen an administration where there weren't different points of view within it? If you find one, let me know. And if there is one, it's isn't functioning very well. You have to have differences of opinion.

Inskeep: Oh, I'm not surprised.

Powell: Now, we may not have — we may not have had — how shall I put this — the smoothest way of resolving differences, but, you know, the national security system is what the president wants it to be.

And I thought that after my first four years — I always made it clear to the president I only wanted to serve one term, and in that last year I thought it was best that I stick with that and leave at the end of my term, and that's what the president's preference was too. We left on the best of terms.

Inskeep: Let me ask about the current president. You endorsed Barack Obama for president, quite famously, in 2008. And one of the reasons you gave seems quite relevant to this discussion of how the country has changed since 9/11. You specifically questioned his opponents, members of your own party who had suggested that Obama was a Muslim, who had suggested that there was something wrong with being a Muslim. You felt that that was wrong in 2008.

How is your party doing now, in 2011?

Powell: You don't hear that. It wasn't just party leaders that I had a problem with. It was the way in which the party — the party members were responding to these kinds of charges. And I think that has died down significantly. There are still difficulties in the country with respect to tolerance of Muslim activity. We saw that in the mosque situation in New York and elsewhere.

But I don't think you find any of the current candidates — they talk about immigration, but immigration tends not to be a Muslim issue. And so they talk about immigration, but for the most part, the kind of ugly things that were starting to be said back in 2008 — and I think that was slammed down — I don't see it --

Inskeep: Well, the president had to release his birth certificate to prove he was --

Powell: I don't see it — I don't see it emerging. The president had to produce his birth certificate because there was still this coterie of people in the country who won't believe. And even after he produced his long-form birth certificate, and Mr. Trump decided he better find another thing to do besides run for president, there are still people who don't accept that.

In fact, as you may have noticed, some people are trying to persuade me to listen to their arguments as to why he is not a citizen, and I don't choose to participate in that any longer. We've spent enough time on this issue. President Obama was born in the United States. He was born in Hawaii. He's shown his certificates, and the rest of this is just conspiratorial nonsense.

Inskeep: You've said you've been undecided about who to vote for in 2012.

Powell: I'm always undecided in every election. I've been very consistent. And some of your folks have said that I have somehow moved away from the president, or abandoned him.

But he would be the first to tell you, I think — and I shouldn't really speak for the president, so let me speak for myself — I have always gone through public life and saying that with respect to political candidates, I always measure each candidate against what I think the country needs at that time, and I will vote for the person I think who is most qualified to serve the nation at that time.

And so, in 2012 coming up, I don't know who all the candidates are, and I haven't had all their positions vetted yet, and in due course I will decide who I think is best qualified to vote for. And all I'm doing is voting. I'm not active in politics. I vote as a citizen, and if somebody cares to know what my opinion is at the time of the election, I might or might not share it publicly.

Inskeep: As a citizen, what would the Republican nominee need to do to get your vote back for the Republican Party?

Powell: I've voted for Republicans in the past. I've voted for Republicans who were strong on defense, who believed in a free and open economy but who also understood that there's a place for government in our lives, that government has a responsibility to those of our citizens who are in need and those of our citizens who are needy of health care.

And so I will look for a candidate, Republican or Democrat, who seems to be on the way or understands how to resolve the economic difficulties we're having, how to do something about unemployment, how to make sure that we free up our businesses and we don't over-regulate ourselves to the point that businesses are afraid to take any kind of chance because they don't know what regulation minefield they're running into.

And I will also measure the opponents on what their position might be with respect to candidates for the Supreme Court — a whole range of issues — and how they plan to protect our military but at the same time do it in a way that is cost-effective for the country.

And so, there are a lot of issues facing the country in 2012, and I will be looking to those candidates who make the most sense with respect to resolving these issues as opposed to some of the more far-out positions that I sometimes hear expressed by some of them.

Inskeep: Some of the more far-out positions in your party, you're saying — some of the more conservative candidates.

Powell: Well, my party is the only one offering up a number of candidates. The other party at the moment, so far, seems to only have one candidate.

Inskeep: General, one other question. When a 9/11 anniversary comes around or it just comes up in conversation, there are certain memories that I may have, certain things that come into my head, and have come into my head a lot. What comes into your mind when this anniversary arrives?

Powell: The actual morning of 9/11, I wasn't here. I was in Lima, Peru. And I was having breakfast with the president in Peru, Alejandro Toledo. And we were talking about textile quotas. He wanted greater access for Peruvian cotton, high-quality Peruvian cotton, to come into the country.

And suddenly the notes started being passed in to me that something had happened. And the first note said a plane had gone into the tower. It sounded odd, but things like that have happened before. And I was just rolling it around in my mind when the second note came in and said the other tower had been hit. And then I instantly knew what it was and I had to get home.

And so it was a long ride home, an eight-hour flight home, with very little communications, and trying to understand what we would be faced with and what I would be faced with and the department would be faced with when I got home.

But one of the most memorable moments of that day was before I left for home there was a meeting of the OAS, which is why I was in Peru in the first place. And the item on the agenda was a charter of democracy for the Americas.

And so I went to the meeting and I was getting expressions of support and sympathy, and I thanked all my colleagues. I made a statement about what had happened and that we would go after those who had attacked us. It was an attack on all freedom-loving people, but at the same time American would not be changed by this, and we will be a partner to all of them in the region.

And then, too, at a very emotional moment, the chair of the meeting asked for a vote on the charter for democracy by acclimation, and they all said yes. And I left.

Inskeep: Did 9/11 really change everything, as people have said thousands of times?

Powell: It has changed a lot. I hope it hasn't changed everything. I hope we still are willing to be open to the rest of the world. I'm saying this again because I say it in every one of my — every speech I give I say the same thing: America cannot shut down. Economically we cannot shut down. People count on us. People rely on us. America has an important place in this world.

And so, even though a 9/11 forced us to become much more defensive and protective of our nation, and to protect our people, the first responsibility of a government, and we had to go out and go after those who had perpetrated this crime against us, that changed the country. We all now have to go through TSA. And I willingly do it. I stand right in line with everybody else. And it's annoying but it's necessary.

But that hasn't really changed the country, because when I get through TSA and I'm sitting at one of the gates, I still see the same kinds of Americans that I saw before 9/11 going about their business with their kids, with their families.

The country still believes in the country. And even though we have to be more protective of ourselves and more defensive of ourselves, that part of the country has not changed. We're still Americans. We still believe in who we are and what we are, and the role that we have to play in the world.

Inskeep: General Powell, thanks very much for your time.

Powell: My pleasure. Thank you.

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