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GOP Candidates Start Anti-Powell Research : Politics: Information is being gathered on general's public record, private life. Dole, Buchanan camps are said to be leading the most aggressive drives.

November 02, 1995|JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Anticipating the entry of retired Gen. Colin L. Powell into the Republican presidential race, leading GOP candidates quietly have begun compiling research on Powell's public record and private life in hopes of discovering ammunition to use to deny him the nomination.

The most aggressive anti-Powell preparations are being conducted by the campaigns of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, campaign aides said.

Dole sees Powell, with his four-star charisma and current broad popularity, as the most acute threat to his front-runner status, while Buchanan considers Powell a moderate who will reverse the conservative economic and social policies of the new Republican Congress.

Already Powell's potential rivals are sharpening their knives.

"Think about what 30-second spots can do to someone. A man who stands as a beacon of racial harmony could be sucked into controversy over racial set-asides," said one Dole aide, specifically mentioning an investment Powell made more than a decade ago in a Buffalo, N.Y., television station. "Should he enter the race, everyone in America will know about the Buffalo broadcast license," added the aide, who insisted on anonymity.

None of the Republican contenders have yet launched a major anti-Powell "opposition research" effort, according to spokesmen for the campaigns. Nor has the White House or the Clinton-Gore reelection team begun combing through Powell's history in search of dirt.

But all of them have been contemplating for some weeks how they would run against a legend of Powell's proportions.

Powell's supporters say that the general can easily withstand such scrutiny and that scurrilous attacks will only backfire on the mudslingers. Powell's principal spokesman, retired Army Col. F. William Smullen, said that Powell dealt in his autobiography with many of the potential issues that might be raised against him.

"He's stepped up to the plate on many occasions to answer questions and he's quite accustomed to that and would not be uncomfortable with that," Smullen said.

The challenge for Powell's rivals would be to find areas of weakness in his record or his seemingly impeccable personal history.

Two possible areas of controversy involve Powell's conduct in the Iran-Contra affair and his service in the U.S. Army division responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Powell, then an Army major, served in 1968 as a senior operations officer for the Americal Division, a unit of which was responsible for killing more than 100 civilians in the village of My Lai earlier that year. Powell arrived after the massacre, but heard allegations of torture and murder of civilians through a letter passed up the chain of command by a young Army specialist.

Powell dismissed the charges as unsupported and dropped the matter, which erupted into a national scandal more than a year later.

In 1985, as military assistant to former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, Powell became aware of the secret plan to trade arms for hostages with Iran. He and Weinberger both objected to the deal, but went along with orders when then-President Ronald Reagan overruled them.

Powell became enmeshed in the scandal years later when independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh found inconsistencies in his testimony before congressional investigators. In a 1987 deposition, Powell said that Weinberger did not keep a "diary" or detailed notes of his daily activities. But five years later, in a sworn affidavit, Powell recalled that Weinberger did indeed keep contemporaneous, daily notes that Powell characterized as "a personal diary which reflected a record of his life."

Walsh concluded from the inconsistency that Powell's 1987 testimony was "at least misleading" but chose not to seek an indictment because he could not prove that Powell had intentionally lied.

In his autobiography, Powell ridiculed the "out-of-control" independent counsel for pressing what he sees as a picayune discrepancy in his testimony.

Referring to the 1992 deposition, Powell wrote that he made a "casual reference" to Weinberger's daily jottings as a "diary."

"Bingo! That did it. The independent counsel figured he had caught me in a contradiction," Powell noted acidly, decrying what he called "unjust treatment" at Walsh's hands.

Powell's relationships with longtime Washington insiders Richard L. Armitage and Kenneth M. Duberstein are also certain to become issues if he enters the race. Armitage has been the target of conspiracy theorists, who charge that he has been involved in drug smuggling and Vietnam POW/MIA cover-ups. Duberstein, who served as chief of staff in the final year of the Reagan Administration and is now a partner in a Washington lobbying firm with Democrat Michael Berman, is considered by some to be insufficiently committed to Republican doctrine.

Finally, while the ending of the Gulf War will be long debated, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was clearly left with enough military power to threaten his neighbors.

The task of running against Powell is made difficult for his Republican rivals because his most visible assignments--military aide to Weinberger, national security adviser in the Reagan White House, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under former President George Bush--have been in Republican administrations.

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