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Bull Poop: How Much Is Too Much When Selling War?

Powell’s Bull Poop: How Much Is Too Much When Selling A War?

By Dennis Hans

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent use of the B-word (''bullsh*t'') during a practice session at the CIA for his February 5 presentation at the United Nations has lifted the veil, if ever so slightly, on a question that every administration grapples with: In public statements and speeches, what is the ideal blend of truth and bull poop?

There is no hard and fast rule. Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln strived to keep the bull poop quotient below 10 percent, both for themselves and their cabinet officers. But they’ve long been derided by political people as “old school.” Modern-era administrations typically prefer higher concentrations — anywhere from 20 to 75 percent.

Not only are there differences between administrations, there are differences within administrations and even within individuals. Powell, for instance, might have a different standard than Donald Rumsfeld or George W. Bush. Bill Clinton preferred a low concentration on domestic-policy pronouncements and a high concentration when addressing personal matters he considered nobody’s business. A cabinet officer who’ll say virtually anything in a TV interview with a Sunday morning bozo might be more careful in a formal address that will form part of his historical legacy.

On February 1, when Powell and two dozen U.S. officials worked their way through the latest draft of his forthcoming U.N. address, they were operating with material gathered largely by officials close to Vice President Dick Cheney.

My pet name for Cheney is “Mikey.” Remember the cereal commercial about the little kid who, his friends say, will eat “anything”? Because of heart trouble, Cheney no longer can eat anything. But he will SAY anything. He would prove that again in a few short weeks, when he went on national TV in early March and said what no one else, not even the president, would dare to say: “We believe [Saddam] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons”!

If Cheney believes it will help the cause, he will indeed say anything. So will Powell, but he differs with Cheney over HOW to help the cause. Powell prefers his lies to be plausible and sprinkled liberally throughout a speech containing a fair number of facts.

It wasn’t just the high percentage of lies in the draft that alarmed Powell. It was their quality. Those howlers could cost him his carefully crafted image as The Towering Figure of Integrity.

As recounted in U.S. News and World Report, “At one point during the rehearsal Powell tossed several pages in the air. ‘I'm not reading this,’ he declared. ‘This is bulls- - -.’” (

Among the claims Powell deleted from the working draft was Iraq’s pursuit of large quantities of uranium from Niger. Recall that we were still several weeks away from Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei’s exposure of this claim as built on obviously forged documents. Nevertheless, there had long been serious doubts — to say the least — at the State Department, the CIA and elsewhere about the quality of the evidence upon which the Niger connection was based, as Seymour Hersh (, Nicholas Kristof ( and Newsweek ( have reported.

The U.N. presentation was an historic occasion. Powell’s legacy was on the line. Nine days earlier, however, it was not. So he didn’t think twice about posing this question at the World Economic Forum ( “Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for nuclear weapons?”

A lawyer might argue, correctly, that Powell didn’t mention Niger by name. I would direct that lawyer to a State Department “Fact Sheet” (, dated Dec. 19, 2002, taking Iraq to task for omissions in its weapons declaration to the Security Council: “The Declaration ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger. Why is the Iraqi regime hiding their uranium procurement?”

State Department Fact Sheets apparently are throw-away items, not to be taken seriously and used only for such trivial matters as providing one-liners for State of the Union addresses. The one Bush delivered January 28 presented the Niger allegation as established fact.

When Powell addressed the Security Council a week later, he steered clear of all things Niger. Rather than dirty his presentation with such crude bull poop, he preferred to fertilize it with the highly enriched stuff — bull poop so fine that it sounds like the unvarnished truth.

According to a careful analysis by Dr. Glen Rangwala (, a Cambridge University professor who works with the Labour Party opposition to Tony Blair and is the leading authority on U.S. and U.K. claims about Iraqi WMD, Powell employed these tools of enrichment: misrepresentation (on a grand scale), misquotation, mistranslation, discredited sources, false inferences and bait and switch.

Rangwala examined each of Powell’s 44 claims and found the majority wanting. What he didn’t examine, however, was the mindset of the U.S. reporters and commentators who would pass judgment on Powell, were predisposed to believe his every word, and would have extraordinary influence on the American public’s response. That media mindset, coupled with their ignorance of the basic facts, led them to swallow whole a presentation that was a 30-70 mixture of truth to bull poop.

It seems our news media, with few exceptions, are a lot like “Mikey”: They’ll eat anything.

*** # # # ***

©2003 by Dennis Hans

Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. You can read his stunning essay “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit’” — published several weeks before the start of the recent war — at He can be reached at

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