Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, also a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that U.S. drone strikes should be limited to targets that present a “real, immediate threat to us” and conducted by the military rather than the Central Intelligence Agency.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We’re at the Vietnam Memorial, and we begin the Memorial Day Weekend show with a distinguished guest, General Colin Powell. General, thank you so much for being with us.
COLIN POWELL: Thank you very much, Al, pleased to be with you.
HUNT: We are in front of this magnificent wall where 58,286 brave Americans who died in that war are etched in granite. What are your thoughts when you’re at this wall?
POWELL: I’m always deeply moved when I come to the wall. The names of many of my friends and colleagues, school buddies from City College of New York are on that wall. And I have brought many visitors here from other countries. And they’re also always deeply touched, not only by the wall itself, but by the people they meet at the wall, the families who have come here to see the names of their loved ones to take an engraving, or to leave a gift.
And you know I’m on the program that is trying to create an education center in the middle wall. I want to raise that education center. It’s over the last 30 years we’ve accumulated 100,000 gifts, things that were left at the wall. We have them in a warehouse. We want to be able to display these. We want to make sure that these names on the wall just don’t become anonymous names to future generations.
HUNT: So that’s one purpose of the Vietnam education center.
HUNT: What else should be exposed?
POWELL: The education center will also reflect not only the sacrifices made by our Vietnam veterans, but by the veterans of all our wars. And it’s an opportunity to educate current generations of Americans, and more importantly future generations of Americans who have not experienced this kind of conflict, which I’m glad that that will be the case, I hope that will be the case, but to remind us that the privileges that we enjoy, the freedoms we enjoy a lot of people gave their lives and a lot of people served our country, came home safely, but all of them are deserved of our praise and thanks.
HUNT: What lessons will we learn from Vietnam?
POWELL: I think we learned that be very, very careful when you decide to get into a war. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the political objectives that you’re trying to achieve. And make sure that you have a good understanding of what the enemy’s motivation and inspiration happens to be.
I think with the Vietnam War we got into this conflict and underestimated at the very beginning the intensity of feeling within North Vietnam that this was a nationalistic issue for them and not just communist ideology versus democracy or capitalist ideology. So I’ve always been one who believed that political agendas must be clear when you’re going to commit the armed forces of the United States, and that means the young men and women, to battle where lives will be lost on both sides.
HUNT: Compare the treatment that you received when you returned from Vietnam to the treatment that of course was given and so Iraq to Afghanistan received today.
POWELL: I think we can all remember that period roughly from ’68 to, oh ’74 or ’75 when things were really not good in this country. We saw the assassination of our president earlier in the 1960s, and in 1968 the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy -
And the whole country turned against the war, so much so that conscription was ended. From now on we’re not going to draft young men. You have a volunteer army. So it was a very, very difficult time. And those of us who came back from Vietnam thought that we had done what was asked of us, and we did not get the same kind of appreciation and respect that our veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are getting.
You also have to remember that in those days that you could be drafted and go whether you wanted to or not. Now we have a volunteer army, a volunteer force that was absolutely a terrific force. And the American people respect them ever since they first go through that. And early 1990s we have seen this kind of action for support for our volunteer troops.
HUNT: Let me - let me return to today’s force in a moment, but one of things a lot of those Vietnam veterans and even the more recent veterans are dependent upon the VA.
HUNT: And our VA is headed by a magnificent man, a good friend of yours, General Eric Shinseki himself who suffered disabilities during the Vietnam War. And we know he cares a lot, but there’s a huge backlog over there. Disability claims are not being handled. What should be done about that?
POWELL: Well, I think Secretary Shinseki, General Shinseki is doing everything he can do, but the claims, the rate of claims being submitted I think is rather extraordinary and unexpected. So we’re still catching up.
And for the most part they’re filed on paper. They’re paper. And it just takes a long time to study all of these. Some of them are valid claims, others perhaps are not as valid as they should be to get disability. And so the VA has a responsibility to ensure that those veterans who deserve disability payments get those disability payments. And that’s going to take time.
General Shinseki has said he needs another couple of years to work on the backlog. I have confidence that he will get it done.
HUNT: And we are doing better as far as jobs are concerned? It used to be a very high unemployment rate, still is higher than the national average for veterans, but getting better.
POWELL: There are a lot of organizations, a lot of corporations that I work with and who I visit on a regular basis who have made it part of their corporate culture to reach out to our veterans and offer them jobs, or more importantly give them the training for jobs that will be available to them. So I think the American business community is committed to helping reduce this unemployment rate hopefully below the national average. Our youngsters would be act and reintegrate themselves back to civilian life with a decent job so they can provide for their families. And it reflects the respect that we have for them.
HUNT: General, you mentioned earlier that the difference between the force back in Vietnam and force today. What is the state of the American military today?
POWELL: I think it’s terrific. Today’s voluntary youngsters have over the last 10 years went back two, three, four, five to six. And I read about one fellow who went back nine times. That is a heck of a sacrifice that they have made in service to their nation. So I think this whole volunteer force is a great force that has dispatched itself and has done a terrific job in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
HUNT: Do you worry as they’ll have some challenges?
POWELL: Yes. Suicide rate has increased significantly. They’re coming back with post-traumatic stress disorders that we need to work on. We have a problem right now with respect to sexual assaults within the military. And I’ve been in touch with my military colleagues, the guys who replaced me many years ago. And they understand that this has to of getting this kind of problem under control, and doing everything we can to get into the lives of these returning veterans and see if they’re having difficulties readjusting, or family problems. What can we do to help them?
HUNT: Is it part of the problem they’re stretched a bit too thin?
POWELL: Two conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan, constant turnaround. They were stretched thin and in the early days it was several years after 2001 we did not make it really to increase the size of the force for the increased demands being placed on the force. And now in fact we are going to start reducing the force again as a result of budgetary issues, but also because these two conflicts they’re drawing to a close, Iraq having drawn to a close.
HUNT: You mentioned the sexual-assault issue. Should military people who are convicted of sexual assault be automatically dishonorably discharged?
POWELL: So you can’t make a categorical statement like that. We have a military justice system that is driven by our law. And it is not that dissimilar to the civilian system.
HUNT: Is it working?
POWELL: I think it is working. There will always be a case where somebody disagrees with a judgment made by somebody in the appellate decision. Well let’s examine that, but let’s not toss out a system that I think has worked very, very well over the years.
I have been in that position as a commander. I have been in the appellate authority. I had decided who should get tried and who not get tried. And I can tell you in my experience as a commander we take it very, very seriously. We have grand jury type proceedings called Article 32 proceedings. And we are very careful before we bring charges. And then we work to make sure that we are representing the government’s interest well and also representing the interests of the defendant as well.
HUNT: We’re going to take a short break now, but we’ll be right back with Colin Powell at the Vietnam Memorial.
HUNT: We’re back in front of the Vietnam Memorial with General Colin Powell. And, General, President Obama gave a speech to the National Defense University, in which he said we had al-Qaeda on the run and now it’s time to redefine the war on terrorism, including narrowing the authorization of the use of force since pro depth 9/11. What did you think of his speech?
POWELL: I thought it was a very important speech. I think it was a very balanced speech. He made it clear that there are still enemies out there that we have to deal with, but we have to be more careful of the use of force, especially with respect to drones.
Drones are a very, very effective weapon and we will continue to use them, but in a more circumscribed manner to make sure that we are going after the high value targets that present a real immediate threat to us. One of the problems with using drones too widely was sort of laid out today by a Pakistani senior officer. He said if you make a mistake and you end up killing 10 or 15 villagers or 20 villagers, in addition to the person you were after, you have created 20 new enemies to the United States of America.
Their families will seek revenge. And he said, and the Pakistani Army gets blamed for being complicit with all of this. And so I think the president has set out some circumstance.
HUNT: So the right balance -
POWELL: So I think it’s the right balance, but I think it’s now important for the Congress to take a look at this. And I think it would be very, very valuable for the Congress to make their own judgments on it. And I would like to see a national policy that reflects both commander-in-chief’s responsibilities and point of view and the Congress’ responsibilities and point of view.
HUNT: Should drone programs be run by the Pentagon or by the CIA?
POWELL: I believe the Pentagon. The CIA didn’t do this kind of targeted assassination just a few years ago. And then because of 9/11 and what we were going through for the last years, they took more and more responsibility.
HUNT: Should we shift right away?
POWELL: Yes. The application of states’ military force should be done by the military leaders in the Department of Defense. This doesn’t mean the CIA has nothing to do with it. The intelligence will come from the CIA and other sources and then be fed into the Department of Defense. So I think that’s the sensible thing to do.
HUNT: The president mentioned Syria. Should the United States do more to help topple the dictator, Assad? If so what - and how does that fit in with a Colin Powell axiom if you break it down?
POWELL: Well I think that’s a pretty good axiom. And I think what the president is doing and what most of the other allies are doing of providing humanitarian support, and as Secretary Kerry is to then trying to create a diplomatic environment that will permit a political solution, but I think we have to be very, very careful with some of, well let’s just go in and start bombing, let’s just go in and -
HUNT: In no-fly zone?
POWELL: - in the no-fly zone. I wouldn’t like the no-fly zone. If you want to take out the Syrian air force, take it out. Don’t just fly around in circles waiting for them to come up. That won’t be hard to do.
But you have to understand if that doesn’t work, are you committed to then take the next steps? So I think this is the time for caution. And the other really unknown element in all of this is what comes after Assad? I have no use for President Assad. I’ve negotiated with him. He’s a pathological liar. You can’t trust anything that he says.
So I’ve got no trust for him, but at the time I’m not sure what replaces him. And the conflict will not be over just because he suddenly walks away. I think a new conflict will emerge and we’ll have to determine what role we will play in resolving that.
HUNT: And on Benghazi we know tragically four Americans were killed. There was inaccurate security. We probably couldn’t have gotten forces in there anyway. Is this just an unfortunate incident and which would have involved later a turf battle between the CIA and the big department of communications, and move on and -
POWELL: And there have been so many issues like this where you always have to accept some risk if you want to get the job done -
POWELL: - as an ambassador or the military. And in this case I would be looking at two things. One, did we know enough beforehand to understand that we were putting the ambassador and the others into two great an environment of risk? And did the ambassador make, and his team, make the correct assessment of the risk they were in?
But you know, if you’re going to get the job done you have to accept risk. All the chatter about the talking points, I don’t care about the talking points, I don’t care about the talking points or who said what to whom. I’m more interested in what was known before with respect to the risks they were about to accept and what was done on the ground to negate that risk. That’s what we ought to be looking at.
HUNT: Well the question is when we do that, get the facts out, we’ll basically move on, or is this a full-fledged scandal which requires a special congressional investigation?
POWELL: I don’t think it’s a full-fledged scandal if all you want to do is look at who said what on the talking points. Talking points in the government, as you probably gathered, is kind of like making sausage. Everybody has an equity.
POWELL: And everybody wants a position. Everybody wants to add something or take out something, but I don’t think the talking points are as important out of the intelligence assessment that was made before, the university assessment that was made and the risk assessment that was made on the ground. That’s what I would want to be sure we don’t make the mistake doing it again.
HUNT: You appreciate the danger of leaks. You also appreciate the role of a free press. As you read these stories about the Associated Press, Fox News, the New York Times and others, are you worried that that is a fair balance, or are we doing the task -
POWELL: Is it at a balance or being brought back in balance? I have always believed that as a government official, secretary of state or in my military career, I had an obligation to the American people to account for them or would have removed it, better do it in a way that makes sure that they knew what we were doing, but at the same time to do it in a way to protect secrets because it allows their sons and daughters who are at risk.
POWELL: There were leaks that put them at risk. And so I think the press has the same responsibility to inform the American public. And the press always wants to get more information out of me than I wanted to give them. So we always have to find the right balance so then for those that thank you.
Well, we both have the same motivation to educate the public and to inform the public about what we’ve been doing for them. And so some of the things I’ve been reading about lately with respect to the AP or Fox News, I think that’s perhaps over the line.
HUNT: Finally, you endorsed Barack Obama again in 2012. How has he done at the start of his second term and what would you like to see him do differently?
POWELL: Well I think that he has done reasonably well. The economy is improving. It’s kind of hard to debate that when the stock market is approaching 16,000, and something I never would have believed. When you see the employment rate start to drive down, and in my travels around the country I see more and more people getting involved in the economy again, versus describing them off the sidelines. And so I think that is the major challenge he had. And I think he ought to keep focusing on it. As many people have said, we have got to fix our fiscal situation and our economy if we’re going to be able to do anything else in the world.
With respect to immigration that remains to be seen. I hope that succeeds. With respect to gun control, my advice to him would have been go for background checks three days after it has to be in Connecticut. Don’t wait a two weeks for an opposition to be raised against it and make it impossible to get that.
HUNT: General Colin Powell, what a perfect setting. And thank you so much for being with us today.
POWELL: And this wonderful wall receives more visitors than just about any other place in Washington.
HUNT: And it is extraordinary.
POWELL: And as you said at the early part of the show, it was not universally liked when they first saw the design. And Brigadier General George Price, one of my mentors, a black general, when he heard someone criticize it the black gash, well what’s wrong with a black gash? It is marvelous, and it is a beautiful thing and it is inspired. The architect who did it, Maya Lin, if you read the proposal she set forth, it was an inspired piece of work.
HUNT: General Powell, thank you.
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