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Full Text Transcript: Colin Powell talks with Rachel Maddow


NEW YORK – April 1, 2009 – MSNBC's Rachel Maddow spoke to former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell today, discussing Afghanistan and Pakistan, torture, and the Republicans' most recent budget proposal.  Portions of the interview aired on "The Rachel Maddow Show," April 1st and 2nd on MSNBC. This is the full record of their exchange.

For a segmented transcript with corresponding video clips of the interview from the show, .

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: First of all, General Powell, happy birthday. I know that you have a birthday this week.

GEN. COLIN POWELL, (RET), FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: And yours is today so happy birthday to you.

MADDOW: This is a sort of Ares cabal.


MADDOW: I have to ask you, when you look at President Obama abroad, trying to make the case for Afghanistan, to our allies this week, Secretary Clinton at The Hague trying to do the same. I wonder if you wish you were back there. If you ever wish that you were there too.

POWELL: I have been to so many summits in the course of my career and had so many meetings in The Hague and Brussels and elsewhere but I have no feelings that I would want to be there. But I surely hope that their work is successful. I hope that they’re able to mobilize our NATO and other European allies to understand that the risk in Afghanistan is not just a risk to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is a risk to Europe, it is a risk to the rest of the world, because we cannot allow al Qaeda to grow in an environment of chaos in that part of the world. We can’t allow Pakistan to fail and we don’t want Afghanistan to fail. So I hope the president and Secretary Clinton and my other colleague, Secretary Gates, my friends, will be able to make that case to our friends over there so that they will do more.

MADDOW: The Powell Doctrine, part of the Powell Doctrine is that military campaigns should employ decisive force and that there should be a way out. In year eight of the war in Afghanistan, as we’re making these continued overtures to allies now, it doesn’t seem that that is the game plan. I wonder if you think that the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation is something to which the Powell Doctrine should not apply.

POWELL: I think the Powell Doctrine is pretty good military strategy and I’m proud to have a doctrine named after me that really is classic military thought Decide what you are trying to achieve politically and if it can’t be achieved through political and diplomatic and economic means, you have to use military force, then make sure you know exactly what you’re using the military force for and then apply it in a decisive manner.

The president, I think, has laid out a very comprehensive plan and made a statement last week about Afghanistan and it looks like every single issue and every itch has been scratched. We need more troops, we need more civilians, we need more economic assistance to both Afghanistan and Pakistan and he understands the centrality of Pakistan to the situation in Afghanistan.

Now the means he’s applying to it, 21,000 more troops, hundreds more civilians, a billion and a half dollars a year to Pakistan, is that enough? Is that decisive? I don’t know the answer to that question because even the greatest of all strategists must take into account the presence of an enemy. There is somebody on the other side who is going through their own analysis. Leaders of al Qaeda, leaders of the Taliban. And I don’t know enough about that situation to know what level of force is really necessary to be able to say we now control Afghanistan and working with the Pakistanis, the Pakistanis now control those tribal areas.
We don’t know how this plan will execute yet. And it’s going to be a long term prospect. There should be no illusions that this is suddenly going to be a surge that produces results by the end of the year.

And your question was how does it all end up? I think ultimately it ends up with America and NATO and the UN all coming together to help the Afghans put together a security force that can provide security for the country so that it isn’t going to take American troops and NATO forever to be there and if that can be the case, that we have security forces built up to the point where they can manage security and a government that’s functioning and that has control throughout the country, that would be a success, we could start to come home.

But the other half of that which makes it more complicated in recent months is the situation in Pakistan. Because if Pakistan remains a sanctuary, a place where al Qaeda and the Taliban can regroup and get recruits, then that isn’t going to solve the problem and American troops aren’t going to go into Pakistan. We have to work with the Pakistanis so they can bring that problem under control.

MADDOW: In both the small scale and the large scale it seems like one of the issues they’re sort of maybe learning to deal with now, and not on purpose, is that sometimes a lot of American force is counterproductive, that it may be that if we have too big a military footprint in Afghanistan, that the Afghans will never feel like their security is their own and they will never stop resenting us enough to accept help from us that would be constructive.

On a global scale we have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of American military bases all around the globe. To an extent that we are demonstrating a capacity to project force, that
may bring on resentment and may bring on a feeling toward American that we are here to push around rather than to give a hand up. Do you worry about that?

POWELL: Most of the force that America has projected over the last 50 or 60 years has been welcomed. It created stability in Europe during the Cold War. It created stability in Korea and Asia and that part of the Cold War and I think that the Afghan people want security and if the Americans are here to provide them that security while their own forces are being built up, that would be appreciated. Not by everybody. There are still elements in Afghanistan who will resent this foreign American presence. And we have to make it clear to them, we’re not here forever. We’re here to stabilize the situation, help your government, exercise control throughout the country and build up their forces so that they can take over responsibility for the security of you and the welfare of your people.

MADDOW: You were secretary of state when the Afghanistan War started. Can you tell us about conversations that you had with President Bush or Vice President Cheney or even Donald Rumsfeld about winning the peace in Afghanistan? Was that a major agenda item? Was that a central area of focus?

POWELL: It was an area of focus and our principal task, even Though though it’s been, I think, missed in recent reporting, we went in there and after we got rid of the Taliban government
because they wouldn’t turn over al Qaeda, we then focused on going after al Qaeda and the Taliban and we were having donor conferences and I chaired one and I went to Tokyo to chair one to get the kinds of funds for reconstruction that they’re now trying to do in The Hague and so we were not unmindful of the need for reconstruction or unmindful of the need for a stable government. We helped Mr. Karzi become president and take over and we began the process of building the Afghan security forces. But we did not eliminate al Qaeda. We did not eliminate the Taliban. Could we have if we had more forces? That will be discussed and debated for years to come.

MADDOW: Do you have an opinion on that?

POWELL: I don’t know. It is such an amorphous thing to say al Qaeda and the Taliban. You’re not dealing with a unit, an enemy unit that I know how to go after because I’ve been trained all my life to do that kind of thing. You’re dealing with people who melt into villages. You’re dealing with people who are not in uniform. You’re dealing with tribal alliances and allegiances that go back hundreds of years and so it’s not a simple task to say, fine, here is al Qaeda. Here is the Taliban. I know how to defeat them. And so I think more troops would have always useful and a commander that doesn’t always apply more troops to a problem. But when you have challenges elsewhere in the world, then maybe you can’t send more troops now that Iraq is seeing a drawdown of American forces the president feels comfortable and my military friends feel comfortable in sending more troops to Afghanistan. But it’s not yet a demonstrable thing that more troops are necessarily the answer and will succeed. That’s what you have to see, that’s why plans are great, but it’s execution and responding to whatever the enemy does that will really be the test.

MADDOW: And certainly with Afghanistan of course upscaling the other forms of American power as represented in Afghanistan. Increasing state department and reconstruction efforts.

MADDOW: Your former chief of staff, Colonel Wilkerson, said that battlefield vetting was poor before sending people to Guantanamo. And he has said—made a little bit of a splash recently—he has said that senior U.S. government officials understood the implications of that, that essentially Guantanamo was quite full of people who were basically innocent and should be released. Were you one of the senior officials who was aware of that?

POWELL: I was aware that people were being picked up on the battlefield and there was sufficient cause at the point of pickup—when they were interviewed by the GIs or the Afghans who turned them over to us or Pakistanis who turned them over to us—there was sufficient cause for them to be detained, either in Afghanistan or sent to Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo Bay was a good solution initially because it was separate from the United States and we could sort our way through these people. But over time, it became clear that many of the people we picked up in Guantanamo Bay, we really couldn’t link them to terrorist activity. And as a result, many of them have been released. We're down to a number of 200 or so, but at one time, it was up to 7 or 800. Well, where’d they go? They were released over time as any intelligence value they might have was determined and no more intelligence value, go.
We also picked up teenagers who, after a while—these people can't be responsible for anything or guilty of anything. We picked up one gentleman who was 93 years old who ended up there. And we said, “Fellows, come on, we got to send this guy back.” And so we worked that population down over time but…

MADDOW: Was there initial resistance to those claims that—was there an internal debate about whether the 13-year-old boy, whether the 93-year-old man, should be released?

POWELL: Yes. Yes and we pressed on it and there were discussions about these issues sometimes down to the individual case. And ultimately, cases as obvious as that, the old man and the teenagers, they were resolved and they were sent back home.

MADDOW: Who was fighting to keep those people in?

POWELL: There were people who wondered whether or not they still had some intelligence value even if they were 93 years old or 13—did they know something about it or were they involved? And it was not a trivial matter to make sure that if somebody did know something about it, you find out about it, regardless of age or anything else, because you have to remember the post-9/11 environment. America and its leaders wanted to make sure that something like that didn't happen again. But we found, over time, that a lot of people had been swept up and that you couldn't pass the test of them actually being combatants or a danger if they were released. And so they were released. And now we're down to a much smaller population of a couple of hundred and you’ll have to work, we’ll have to work our way through those.

I, for one, have advocated the closing of Guantanamo not only since I left the position as Secretary, but while I was Secretary, because I thought there were other ways to handle this in our civilian court system, with military courts-martial or through the Federal court system. And I felt we were paying too high a price for Guantanamo in terms of the public opinion around the world we were losing. And frankly, the moral basis of our fight against terror was being undercut by Guantanamo and all the people who could point to Guantanamo and say: “Is this justice? People have been there four, five, six, now seven years. How long do you plan to keep them without doing something about it?” And so I have always been one for doing something about Guantanamo. And now President Obama says he's going to have it closed by the end of the year.

It doesn't mean they're all going to get released. Some of them are really really bad. Well let's put them in our court system. We've got two million people in jail in this country. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. All of them had lawyers. All of them had access to the writ of habeas corpus and courts found them guilty and put them in jail. And I'm confident that even although evidence may be not adequate or even tainted in some cases, as we know, I have confidence in our Federal court system to handle it.

MADDOW: On the issue of intelligence tainted evidence and those things. ) were you ever present at meetings at which the interrogation of prisoners like Abu Zubaida other prisoners in those early days where the interrogation was directed, where specific interrogations were approved, it has been reported from a couple of different sources that there were principles at meetings, which you would have typically been there where thoseinterrogations were almost play by play discussed.

POWELL: They were not play by play discussed but there were conversations at a senior level with regard to what could be done with these types of interrogation. I cannot say further because I don’t have knowledge of all the meetings that took place or what was discussed at each of those meetings and I think it’s going to have to be in the written record of that meeting what will determine whether anything improper took place.But it is always the case that at least in the State Department’s standpoint, we should be consistent with the requirements of the Geneva Convention and that’s why this was such a controversial, controversial issue that you have to go in due course I think we all will go to the written record. I’m not sure what memos were signed or not signed. I didn’t have access to all of that information.

MADDOW: If there was a meeting though at which senior officials were giving the approval for sleep deprivations, stress positions, water boarding, were those officials committing crimes when they were getting their authorization?

POWELL: You’re ask me a legal question. I mean I don’t know If any of these items would be considered criminal and I would wait for whatever investigation that the government or the
Congress intends to pursue with this.

MADDOW: The – there have been two Bush administration officials now who have said explicitly that what we did at Guantanamo was torture. One of them was the State Department
general counsel for Guantanamo litigation a man named, Vijay – excuse me – Panj Matabam.

POWELL: I don’t know him.

MADDOW: Also Susan Crawford, who heads up the military tribunals at Guantanamo. Both have said it was torture. Do you think that they are wrong? Do you feel like you have enough information to know if people were waterboarded, is that torture?

POWELL: I will let those who are making the legal determination of that make that judgment. Susan Crawford has made a statement and she is in a position of authority to make such a statement, has access to all of the information. The lawyer you mentioned who is working I guess in the legal advisor’s office in the State Department who I don’t believe I know him has made statements. What’s the basis for his statements and what meetings he was in and whether he was in Guantanamo I just don’t know.

MADDOW: I guess have to ask that – a broader question about whether or not you have regrets not about what the Bush administration did broadly in the years that you were secretary of state but the decisions that you participated in about interrogation, about torture, about the other things …

POWELL: There was no meeting on torture. It is 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 the meetings and I was not an author of many of the memos that have been written and some have come out and some have not come out. The only meetings I recall was 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 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 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 towards the U.S. abroad in a continuing way and you’ve been very optimistic in thinking that America still has a reservoir of good will around the world that we can call on regardless of these difficulties that we’ve had around these issues. If specific interrogation techniques were being approved by people at the political level in the Cabinet. It doesn’t – almost the legal niceties of it almost become less important.

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

MADDOW: Was there a principles meeting at the White House to discuss interrogation techniques?

POWELL: It does not mean it was approved, anything was approved at a meeting.


POWELL: 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. To your first point, I still think there is an enormous reservoir of good will toward the United States of America and you can see that in President Obama’s trips. You can see that ever since the elections. So I think we can overcome the negative views that have arisen in recent years because of issues like Abu Ghraib and issues like Guantanamo.

MADDOW: On a totally different matter. Do you think that—do you still think that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is necessary for good order and discipline in the military? You have discussed the idea that it should be reviewed. Would you support the move if Congress decided to get rid of that policy?

POWELL: If Congress decided to get rid of the policy and if the military leaders of the armed forces are a part of that, of course I would. And if the president decided to do it, I would support the president.

In 1993, when this became an issue when President Clinton came in, I was never given, nor was Secretary Aspin at that time ever given, an instruction by President Clinton to get rid of the policy. We studied it and came to a conclusion that, at that time, in 1993, Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a pretty good solution for the moment. I didn't want it to happen but the Congress made it a law. So it is not policy anymore, it is a law, and only the Congress can change it as Secretary Gates mentioned last week.

But it's 15 years later. A lot has changed. Attitudes have changed. And so I think this is a time to review that policy and review it before congressional committees to see if a change of law is now appropriate. I am withholding judgment because I am not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff anymore. And I think we have to hear from our senior military leaders about the effect of a change in the law would have on the force. And if they came forward and said, “Let's do away with it,” or, “Let's modify it or change it,” that would mean a lot to me in terms of my point of view.

But ultimately it's going to have to go before the Congress as a law to be changed, not a policy to be changed.

MADDOW: The examples of other countries that have successfully integrated openly gay people into their forces, are those good reference points for that sort of a study?

POWELL: Those are reference points that have to be taken into account, sure. I would study every one of those cases. Many of them have happened since 1993, with a number of countries, and I think all of those should be looked at. I don't think, however, the armed force of the United States is the same as the armed force of one of our European friends or Canadian friends. And therefore as the courts have held traditionally over the years, and the Congress has as well, the military is a unique institution with rules and regulations and a way of living in close proximity with other soldiers—and you're told whom you're going to live with—that the military can have a set of regulations and rules that would not pass any kind of legal or constitutional muster if it was in civilian society. And so I think because it is the quality of the force and the ability of the force to apply the nation's power wherever it's called upon to do so, we have to be careful when we change this policy.

But if the military leaders think that enough time has passed since 1993 that we ought to take a look at this and perhaps change the policy, I'll be completely supportive. I'm not going to make a judgment until I hear from the chiefs.

MADDOW: The phrase "Global War on Terror" is apparently out with the old. Secretary Clinton confirming that this week, that the administration is not going to use that. Do you think that's important? Do you have an opinion about what we should call the wars? Do you think the "War on Terror" phrase is appropriate?

POWELL: I don't think I ever used it very much. I just referred to terrorism. We have a concept called terrorism and we have terrorists. Now let's get the terrorists. And there are many ways to go after them. You can go after them through police activity, through intelligence activity, by drying up the ponds in which they emerge, in lots of ways. And when you called it not only the "War on Terror" but the "Global War on Terror," it took a connotation that this is a war that somehow will be won someday. But we've had terrorism throughout history and we'll continue to have terrorism in the future. We have to make sure that we are defending ourselves well and that we are going after terrorists and the sources of terrorism. And the sources of terrorism, you attack not just with armies and police forces, but with more increases in development assistance and foreign assistance funding so we can help people understand that if you stay away from this kind of activity, America will help you build an economy, create a democracy, alleviate poverty, give you clean water, help you, and dry up these ponds from which terrorists emerge from time to time.

MADDOW: You have been so outspoken on the need to increase that form of American engagement in the world, and that's not only strategic, but a monetary commitment to the rest of the world. The Republican Party right now is sort of trying to find its legs politically, I think, while they're in the minority. And the one issue they seem to be coalescing around is the idea that there ought to be a spending freeze, that the government ought to get smaller and ought to try to do less.  I wonder if that makes you feel like less of a Republican.

POWELL: Well, you know, I've never seen a spending freeze work. I have heard it trotted out many, many—what are you going to freeze, Social Security benefits? What are you going to freeze, the growth of Medicare payments? Veterans—no increase in disability amounts for veterans? Are you going to freeze the Defense Department?

You can't freeze a government as large as ours with a budget of $1.5 trillion. And so, if somebody actually froze everything, then it would freeze our development assistance.

I'm proud to say that in the Republican administration I worked in, President Bush's first term, we doubled the amount of development assistance. We quadrupled the amount going to our African brothers and sisters. And we created a program to fight HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases that went up to $15 billion. And that passed in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans.

So I hope my Republican friends don't go too far with this spending freeze idea because I don't think it works. It's not really practical.

MADDOW: Are you still a Republican?

POWELL: I am a Republican, yes. But I'm also an American citizen. And I try to make my political judgments on what I think is best for the country.

MADDOW: On the issue of development assistance in Afghanistan, Secretary Clinton has essentially said in recent weeks that the initial reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan were wasted, that that money didn't go to reconstruct the country in a way that we should consider to have been effective, both because of just inappropriate—because of corruption, and also because an unfocused approach to the problem. Do you disagree?

POWELL: I can't agree with her that it was wasted and the characterization that was made of it was all wasted.  Roads were built. Schools were built. A government was created. A military force was created. It needs to be made much larger, but there is a military force there now. A police force, which has problems but, nevertheless, we did something to get it started. We helped millions of refugees who were living in camps in Pakistan come back to Afghanistan.

And so I think there were problems in the aid effort, and we can do a better job. I cannot go along with the assessment that it was all wasted. And in fact, when we started our aid efforts in that part of the world, and we were also providing funds to Pakistan, we needed Pakistan in order to be able to conduct our operations in Afghanistan. And so a lot of that money went to assist the Pakistani military to help us and to build them up. And some went to—I spent a lot of time with President Musharraf and his team at that time, going over textile quotas and debt relief and other things to get the Pakistani economy going again. And so I think the money wasn't totally wasted, as some have characterized it, either in Afghanistan or in Pakistan.

MADDOW: Did Pakistan spend the money well once they got it?

POWELL: I don't think you can say they spent every dollar well, but I do know that they were investing in their educational system. They did things with their military. But I cannot account for every single dollar, nor do I have the order trail on every single dollar.

MADDOW: We are out of time. I have one last question for you.

You look at your role as Secretary of State, your multi-decade career in the military, your time as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and you’ve been one of the leading voices talking about combining hard power and soft power, using smart power. And then at home, you've been involved in America's Promise and these other efforts to reduce educational disparities, to increase opportunity for all American kids.

Do you see a parallel there with your international experience, your international opinions, about how things get done well in the world and what you're trying to do here at home now?

POWELL: Absolutely. And I also see a great parallel in connection with my military experience in that, for 35 years of my life, I was a soldier. And what did I do? I trained young people for jobs in the military. And we brought kids in from every corner of America. And within eight weeks, we made soldiers out of them, and within 16 weeks, we gave them a trade—something that they would do in the military.

So I think I have an idea of what kids need. And America's Promise is a way of transferring that kind of experience to civilian young kids. Give them a safe place in which to learn and grow. We called it the barracks. Let's call it a Boys and Girls Club now. Make sure they have mentors, adults in their lives who care for them—parents, coaches. In the military, we call them drill sergeants. Make sure they have a healthy start in life. We had a lot of kids come into the military who didn't have that healthy start, and we gave it. Gave them a marketable skill. We do that first, soldiers, and give them a way to serve. And that's what soldiers do. They serve their countries.

So everything I did in the military was transferable to what we do here in civilian life. And as you look at this world that's emerging, and you talk about smart power, hard power—smart power is, I think, the better term, it’s a good term—and when you look at that kind of world that we are in, 300 million Americans are now competing on a flattening earth with billions of people.

And in China and India and in countries behind the former Iron Curtain, they are investing in their young people and investing in education. Whereas in America, a third of our kids do not finish high school. And in our minority communities, it's up to 50 percent, and they're not finishing high school.

This is a moral failure. But more importantly, it's an economic and a security failure if we're not bringing kids along who are going to contribute to this society and help us exercise smart power around the world.

MADDOW: General Powell, it's a real pleasure to meet you.

POWELL: Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW: Thank you for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

POWELL: My pleasure. And happy birthday again.

MADDOW: You, too. Thanks.