Interview on BBC Breakfast With Sir David Frost
Secretary Colin L. Powell Washington, DC August 29, 2002
(As Aired on September 8, 2002)
SIR DAVID FROST: And during that long, lonely flight back, you've obviously realized this must be a terrorist attack,
but how long did it take you to realize that this attack -- the whole world, your world, the world had changed?
SECRETARY POWELL: Once I heard that the Towers had actually collapsed and realized what this must have been like, and
how many people were probably in those Towers -- the numbers were in the thousands immediately, the initial estimates
that this has to be thousands -- I realized that this was not just an attack against the United States; it was an attack
against the civilized world, it was an attack against the whole world, which it turned out to be. Over 90 nations lost
people in those two Towers.
And then we realized that they were also attacking the Pentagon, had attacked the Pentagon, and that 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 realize that there's a strike directly at the capital of a superpower, the capital of the leader of the world that
wants to be free: Washington.
SIR DAVID FROST: And 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 that we could have done
differently? Was there any information that came to me earlier that should have suggested this was going to happen?"
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
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 airplanes would be the bomb
or where it would be heading, or people had made such an elaborate plan to pull this off. We had no insight into the
nature of that plan.
SIR 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
SECRETARY POWELL: It became a new kind of enemy. It wasn't a state. It was an organization that found safe harbor in
many states -- here in the United States, Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, in Asia. There are al-Qaida 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
SIR DAVID FROST: Was it difficult putting this coalition together in the last year, to the Gulf War coalition?
SECRETARY POWELL: A lot different. In the case of the Gulf War, there was a front -- the Iraqi army sitting in Kuwait
-- and a different kind of coalition was needed and it was easy to get the UN mobilized. And what we had to do was put
an army in that part of the world to get the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. This was a little 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 organization, a shadowy organization that was not
waiting in the desert to be attacked. It was hiding.
SIR 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 head of the Palestinian people, whether you approve of it or not.
Do you still feel that, or are we actually rather in favor of regime change in the Palestinian Authority, or, indeed,
SECRETARY 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
organizations; 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.
SIR DAVID FROST: And in terms of growing the war on terrorism, that debate and the phrase that's been used all year,
the next step, and the question mark being Iraq, obviously - what do we know, I mean, for sure, sort of proof about what
weapons of mass destruction they have today and how long it will take them to have nuclear?
SECRETARY POWELL: We know that they had weapons of mass destruction 12 years ago. And we know that in the four years
since the inspectors were removed that they have been continuing to pursue that kind of technology, both with respect to
chemical and biological weapons. 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. How far along we are right now is really a
function of what access they might have to fissile material or to materials that will allow them to create their own
enrichment facilities. 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.
SIR 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?
SECRETARY 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.
SIR DAVID FROST: Because we would have a problem going to the Security Council because we might get a veto, obviously,
from China or Russia.
SECRETARY 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.
SIR 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 favor of this
action and so on.
Could you, could we, go in alone, if necessary? James Baker says no, but what do you say?
SECRETARY 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.
SIR 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, sir, has the President actually consciously encouraged a debate within
the administration, as well as in the country?
SECRETARY 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 Defense 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.
SIR DAVID FROST: And when Dick Cheney says, for instance, there is now an imperative for preemptive action, that's his
view, but it's not necessarily yours?
SECRETARY POWELL: We all have lots of views and we all communicate in different ways. Sure there is an imperative to do
something. There is an imperative not to allow this regime, this regime which we characterize as evil and have every
reason to characterize 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 civilized world.
SIR 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?
SECRETARY 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 truce after an 8-year war. Those objectives were
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. 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.
SIR DAVID FROST: Can Americans ever feel as safe again after 9/11?
SECRETARY POWELL: Yes.
SIR DAVID FROST: -- or is there a vulnerability? Is there a sense in which we can't say 100 percent, it will happen
SECRETARY 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 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 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
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 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 America. 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.
SIR 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?
SECRETARY 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 that I made 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.
SIR DAVID FROST: So people don't need to keep their Powell buttons just for that? Thank you very much.
SECRETARY POWELL: They might be worth something on E-bay someday. (Laughter.) Good to see you again, David.
Released on October 2, 2002