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October 15, 2009

The speech that never was

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell's error-ridden February 2003 speech to the United Nations about the imminent threat posed by Iraq was literally a matter of life and death. In its promotion of the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq, it might have been one of the most consequential -- and controversial -- speeches ever by a U.S. secretary of state.

But here's what the State Department says it found when it searched its files for documents about a key presentation that undergirded Powell's speech: Zilch.

On Wednesday, in a rather illuminating case, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle rejected a Freedom of Information Act demand for the State Department documents. Substantively, Huvelle agreed with the State Department that it had adequately searched its records.

William Thaddeus Anderson asked for a presentation on “intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq” that had been given by I.Lewis Libby to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on January 25, 2003. He also asked for related documents from files belonging to Powell, Armitage, and Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff.

Huvelle reports the State Department searched:

"The Central Foreign Policy Records, as well as active and 'retired' records from the Office of the Executive Secretariat, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, and the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism."

And in none of those locations, State said, were relevant documents found. This seems surprising. One would think memos -- of the CYA variety, if nothing else -- would have papered the building. Or, maybe this was one of those presentations that was, you know, strictly off the books?

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mike

"Suits & Sentences" is a legal affairs blog written by Michael Doyle, a reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School, where he earned a Master of Studies in Law; he also earned a Masters in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on the Freedom of Information Act. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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