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Breakfast with Frost
Colin Powell, US Secretary of State
Colin Powell, US Secretary of State
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: COLIN POWELL, US SECRETARY OF STATE SEPTEMBER 8th, 2002 (recorded, August 29, 2002 in the State Department Washington, D.C.)

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Now on the morning of September 11th last year, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, wasn't in Washington. He wasn't even in the USA, he was on a working visit to a conference in Peru, but as soon as the gravity of the attack became apparent he flew back to Washington and with Dick Cheney and President Bush began the task of formulating the American response - which is of course an ongoing process. The Taliban have been ousted but not of course eliminated. The hunt for Bin Laden continues. America now has Saddam in its sights. Colin Powell talked to us in his office at the State Department a few days ago and I asked first about the reaction on his part, his first thoughts when he heard the news of the attack on the Twin Towers.

COLIN POWELL: Once I heard that the Towers had actually collapsed and realised what this must have been like, and how many people were probably in those Towers. I realised that this was not just an attack against the United States; it was an attack against the civilised world, it was an attack against the whole world, which it turned out to be. I mean over 90 nations lost people in those two Towers. And then when you realised that they were also attacking the Pentagon, had attacked the Pentagon, and that the fourth plane that crashed in the field in Pennsylvania might have been heading to the White House or might have been heading to my own department, the State Department - it might have been heading right to this building that we're sitting in here today - you realise that it was a strike directly at the capital of a superpower, the capital of the leader of the world that wants to be free: Washington.

DAVID FROST: And I mean there's been talk about the intelligence and other things. Condoleezza Rice said, "I don't think there was any personal failure on my part, but I keep on thinking, 'How could I have done something different. Is there any way I could have known?'" I mean, you must all have had that.

SECRETARY POWELL: We all go through that. And I've been in many crisis situations in the course of my career as a soldier, as a National Security Advisor, and now as Secretary of State, and whenever something happens that is a surprise, a shock, some tragedy occurs, you immediately start thinking, "Is there anything we could have done differently? Was there any information that came to me earlier that should have suggested this was going to happen?" And in this instance, I've played that tape over and over. We knew that something was going on. Our Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, throughout the summer was giving us warnings: There's something going on, something's happening, something's going to happen; we're not sure what it is. But we've never had enough insight or fidelity into the reports we were getting to have predicted something of this magnitude or this nature. It was something we had never seen before. I mean, we look for bombs, we look for terrorists, but we never thought one of our own airplanes would be the bomb.

DAVID FROST: And so how has foreign policy changed as a result of 9/11? How has your approach - swapping the once-Communist enemy for the terrorist enemy, and yet that's a vague and elusive force - how has it changed the job you do?

COLIN POWELL: It became a new kind of enemy. It wasn't a state. It was an organisation that found safe harbour in many states - here in the United States, Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, in Asia. There are al Qaeda cells all over the world. And it was not a state; it knew no boundary, it knew no territory that you could go attack. Yes, you could go attack Pakistan and get rid of the Taliban and get rid of the headquarters, but that wasn't getting rid of all of al Qaeda.

DAVID FROST: Was it more difficult putting this coalition together in the last year, than the Gulf War coalition?

COLIN POWELL: A lot different. It wasn't going to be a Desert Storm that would be over in a few months. This coalition had to be ready to stay together for years, and not just to focus on a geographic place, Kuwait, but to focus on an organisation, a shadowy organisation that was not waiting in the desert to be attacked. But was hiding.

DAVID FROST: And there's been a twin track thing which you've been the main leader on in terms of - Mubarak said it this week, again, about the fact that without a solution to Israel and the Palestinians there can be no overall solution or support for attack on Iraq or whatever. And throughout the year, back in April you said Chairman Arafat is the head of the Palestinian Authority, is recognised as the head of the Palestinian people, whether you approve of it or not. Do you still feel that, or are we actually rather in favour of regime change in the Palestinian Authority, or, indeed, in Israel?

COLIN POWELL: Well, Mr. Arafat is Chairman of the Palestinian Authority and the head of the PLO, and so that's simply a matter of fact. It's also a matter of fact that most Palestinians look to him as their leader, and that still is a fact today. What we said however in the President's speech on the 24th of June is that he is a failed leader, that he has not brought peace to the region, he had not stopped the violence, he has not cracked down sufficiently on terrorist organisations; and as a result of his failed leadership, it is incumbent upon us to see if there are not other leaders within the Palestinian community who we can work with. And we have not suggested to the Palestinian people that they overthrow him or to the Israelis that they send him into exile. We just believe that the situation would be improved and the plight of the Palestinian people would be dealt with in a more effective way with the emergence of new leaders. We believe that there are other leaders within the Palestinian community who are now starting to emerge. We hope that they will be empowered by the community, or, by that matter, by Mr. Arafat. And we have seen some slow - but there has been progress in recent months.

DAVID FROST: Would it help if Israel pulled out of the West Bank, as the President asked them to do back on April the 4th?

COLIN POWELL: It would help. And I think it would also help the situation enormously if we could end settlement activity and ultimately end the occupation. But it has to be part of a comprehensive solution. And so what we have to do is restore a sense of security, where the two sides are co-operating with each other in good faith, trying to find these terrorist organisations and individuals and shutting them down, and with the Palestinian leaders, Mr. Arafat and all the others, saying to the Palestinian people that the Intifada must end, terrorism must stop. End the violence and we will work to help the Palestinian people have a state called Palestine, and we will work to end the occupation and end the settlement activity.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of bringing the war on terrorism up to date, and the phrase that's been used all year, the next step, and the question mark being Iraq, obviously - what do we know, for sure, sort of provably, about what weapons of mass destruction they have today; and how long it will take them to have nuclear?

COLIN POWELL: We know that they had weapons of mass destruction 12 years ago. Now, how much more they have done since 1998, what their inventories might be like now, this is what is not known and this is one of the reasons it would be useful to let the inspectors go in. They have to be able to go anywhere they need to, anytime they need to, to see whatever they have to see to assure the world that these weapons are not there or are being brought under control. With respect to nuclear, we know that at the time of the Gulf War, after the Gulf War when we were able to get into Iraq with the inspectors, that they were further along than we had thought. And so you can debate whether it is one year, five years, six years or nine years; the important point is that they are still committed to pursuing that technology. And if they're committed to pursuing that technology, then obviously they're committed to trying to have a nuclear weapon.

DAVID FROST: And if there is to be military action, do you feel personally that it would be a good idea to involve the support or a resolution of the UN or their support, or weapons inspectors would be one way of involving the UN? And do you think support from Congress is needed or just desirable?

COLIN POWELL: Well, the President is examining all of our options - political, diplomatic, military. He has said to all of our friends and allies around the world he will consult closely with them, and that of course includes consulting with the United Nations. The actual form of that consultation, how he goes about it, these are issues that are being widely discussed within the administration.

DAVID FROST: Because we would have a problem going to the Security Council because we might get a veto, obviously, from China or Russia.

COLIN POWELL: Well, there's always the prospect of a veto in any Security Council resolution, but that's why no decisions have been made yet.

DAVID FROST: Everybody points out the fact that 14 nations seem to have said no to this idea of military action against Iraq, and the list goes from Germany and China through - and Mubarak says no Arab states are in favour of this action and so on. Could you, could we, go it alone, if necessary? James Baker says no, but what do you say?

COLIN POWELL: Well, the United States has enormous military power and we have the capacity to do just about anything we set our minds to. But when you say this "action," the President has not decided on this action or any other action. As almost all of these 14 nations have said, and many other nations have said, we are not in receipt of a military plan from the United States of America. The President has not decided to undertake military action. And the President is examining all of his options, and when he has completed that examination it will be as a result of consultation with friends, consultation within his administration. The President will take the case to the public and to the international community.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of what people who have drawn attention to the sort of difference of nuance from Dick Cheney to other members of the administration, and so on, has the President actually consciously encouraged a debate within the administration, as well as in the country?

COLIN POWELL: The President always encourages us to debate. I think one of the strengths of the President's national security team is that we all have known each other for many, many years in very different capacities. I used to have Condi Rice's job. I used to work for Dick Cheney when he was Secretary of Defence and I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So we all know each other well and we can have full, open debate without pulling our punches. But we all debate for one purpose, and that purpose is to give the President of the United States the best advice we can, making sure he understands all the advantages and disadvantages of every course of action that is available to him - all of us mindful that the President is the one charged by the American people to make the decisions.

DAVID FROST: And when Dick Cheney says, for instance, there is now an imperative for pre-emptive action, that's his view, but it's not necessarily yours?

COLIN POWELL: We all have lots of views and we all communicate then in different ways. Sure there is an imperative to do something. There is an imperative not to allow this regime, this regime which we characterise as evil and have every reason to characterise it as such, there is an imperative not to allow this regime to continue to stick its finger in the eye of the international community, to stick its finger in the eye of the civilised world.

DAVID FROST: And this is a question that, really, only you are equipped to answer, which is, today, would Saddam Hussein be more of a military foe than 12 years ago, or weaker?

COLIN POWELL: Much weaker. If you recall, Desert Storm was fought for the purpose of reversing the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. It was also fought in a way that would leave the Iraqi regime with sufficient military capability so that it could defend itself against Iran, which it had just arrived at a truce after an 8-year war. Those objectives were achieved. In the accomplishment of those objectives, the Iraqi army was significantly reduced in capability and size. So I would guesstimate - and I really should leave this to my successors at the Pentagon -they don't like me guesstimating in military terms. But I would guesstimate that the Iraqi army is perhaps at one-third or a little better than one-third of its capability of 12 years ago. It is not the same force.

DAVID FROST: Can Americans ever feel as safe again after 9/11?


DAVID FROST: - or is there a vulnerability? Is there a sense in which we can't say 100 percent, it will never happen again?

COLIN POWELL: We can never say, no one can ever say, 100 percent it will never happen again. We had terrorist attacks before 9/11, some of it indigenous. Remember Oklahoma City. There will be terrorist attacks again in the future. But what we must not do is become a terrified society. We have to protect ourselves. We have to protect our borders. We have to invest whatever it takes into our intelligence and law enforcement communities to protect us. But what we must not do is become afraid. We must not be afraid to travel, we must not be afraid to enjoy ourselves, we must not be afraid to assemble. We must not be afraid to let people from overseas come to America. The strength of America is immigration. The strength of America is to be an open society and invite people to come to our shores and visit our cities and go to our universities and use our hospitals. And so we cannot be so afraid that we start to shut that down. Protect ourselves but let's not be afraid. And we won't be because we're Americans. We have a spine of steel, we have a heart full of courage, and we'll get through this current crisis and we'll be stronger for it.

DAVID FROST: And while we've been talking about very serious and very tragic subjects, everybody says you've found this job a very fulfilling job and so I must ask the question everybody asks every other day: Will you ever consider again the thought of the elective office that you discarded in the mid-90s?

COLIN POWELL: No. "Discarding" is perhaps too strong a word to put on it. I considered whether or not elective office was appropriate for me and determined that it was not either for me or for my family. And I've not changed that point of view. It was a correct decision when I made it in 1995. I'm pleased that another opportunity to serve came along as Secretary of State. It's a wonderful job. It's very fulfilling and rewarding. It also has its frustrations. And it's a hard job. But I believe I'm serving the American people once again and I am very proud to be serving this President.

DAVID FROST: So people don't need to keep their Powell buttons just for that? Thank you very much.

COLIN POWELL: They might be worth something on E-bay someday. (Laughter.) Good to see you again, David.


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