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Downing Street minutes that lasted for months

By Philippe Naughton, Times Online

It is not that often, we have to admit, that an item posted one night on Times Online is still getting hundreds of thousands of hits six weeks later, especially when what bloggers like to call 'the mainstream media' have largely ignored its existence.

But that is what happened to the now infamous secret Downing Street memo, posted on the site on May 1 alongside a story by Michael Smith of The Sunday Times. And if the document has taken on a life of its own it is largely because of the bloggers and their web-savvy allies on the US Left.

The memo is not actually a memo, but the minutes of a top-secret meeting in Downing Street on July 23, 2002, when Tony Blair gathered senior ministers and advisers for a briefing on the Iraq situation. Among those they heard from was Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of the UK foreign intelligency agency MI6, who was identified only as 'C'.

'C' reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude, military action was now seen as inevitable, the minutes said. "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

That was not the only revelation made by the document, but it was the key one for US readers, all they needed to decide that the Bush administration had planned eight months before the Iraq war that the invasion was definitely going to happen and that it was just sorting out the legal and technical niceties.

The major US newspapers mostly decided not to touch the story, variously explaining afterwards that they could either not stand up the document's authenticity or that everyone knew that that was what had happened anyway.

Not so liberal bloggers and an alliance of activists, radio hosts, Democratic members of Congress and newspaper readers who insisted, and carried on insisting, that the document be aired and addressed.

The web magazine has run a long piece looking into which media organisations reported the memo and which ignored it. Until this week, the number of US newspaper articles reporting on the memo "could be counted on two hands", it said, and some of those were discussing the lack of media interest in the memo rather than the substance and implications of the memo.

Salon also reported that of more than 900 questions asked of Scott McLellan, the White House spokesman, in 19 briefings since the memo was first published, only two refered to the document (about which Mr McLellan claimed to be unaware).

The Sunday Times piece had not gone unnoticed in Washington. As early as May 5, before US media had touched the document and as Britons voted in an election that had obviously overshadowed the story in the UK, a group of 89 Democrat members of Congress headed by Representative John Conyers wrote to President Bush asking him to confirm or refute the minutes.

Various sites picked up the story and posted a link to the memo, including the filmmaker Michael Moore's influential blog., which monitors a staggering 11 million weblogs, lists 3,300 sites that have referenced or discussed the memo - although most just seem to be rants about MSM (mainstream media) "incompetence".

There are even sites dedicated to nothing else but the memo, including and

If you visit the DowningStreetMemo site you can click on a link to Mr Conyers's own site and add your signature to the letter to Mr Bush. So far, 145,000 people have done so; the organisers are hoping to gather 250,000 signatures.

You can also sign a petition on the Democracy for America site pledging to tell your friends about the Downing Street memo. This site is run by Jim Dean, a brother of the former Democratic presidential aspirant Howard Dean.

Almost six weeks after its publication, "memogate" continues to pick up steam. Senators Kennedy and Kerry have waded in, as has the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who suggested that the President should face impeachment for lying to the American people over the need for war in Iraq.

Just remember, you read it first in the "Times of London".




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