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The last laugh
History will hold Bush and Blair accountable for their lies in the run-up to the Iraq war, even if the D.C. press corps just finds them funny.
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By Joe Conason, SALON
June 10, 2005 | On Tuesday, more than a month after the "Downing Street memo" first appeared on Britain's front pages, a Reuters correspondent asked George W. Bush and Tony Blair to explain the secret document that says the Bush administration had decided by July 2002 to invade Iraq -- and that the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's arsenal was then being "fixed" to bolster an otherwise exceedingly "thin" justification for war.
While the president and the prime minister airily attempted to dismiss the explosive memo -- just as many mainstream and conservative journalists in the United States did at first -- they have a lot more explaining to do. History will hold them accountable even if the press does not. For unlike previous indications of Bush's duplicity in promoting the war, this document provides historical evidence of a kind that usually remains hidden in a vault for years or even decades.
The Downing Street memo meets a higher standard of proof than gossip from one of Bob Woodward's unnamed sources or the memoirs of a disgruntled former official like Paul O'Neill. It is the official classified record of a crucial meeting of the British government's security cabinet on July 23, 2002 -- including the prime minister, the attorney general, the foreign secretary, the defense secretary and the chief of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service. It details their worried discussion of their American ally's premature and absolute determination to wage a war that the president publicly claimed he hoped to avoid, and of the difficulty they would have in justifying that war.
Stodgy and fearful, the Washington press corps seemed unable to process this revelatory document, concocting various excuses to ignore it or relegate it to the back pages. Until Tuesday, it seemed likely to fade into the archives, despite the best efforts of dissident politicians and bloggers.
So the president may have been surprised when Steve Holland of Reuters asked this question: "On Iraq, the so-called Downing Street memo from July 2002 says intelligence and facts were being 'fixed around' the policy of removing Saddam through military action. Is this an accurate reflection of what happened? Could both of you respond?"
Like the eager poodle that will be his permanent caricature, Blair leaped to answer first. His response is worth parsing carefully, especially because neither he nor Bush took any follow-up questions on the subject.
"Well, I can respond to that very easily," Blair said. "No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all."
He didn't deny the authenticity of the memo, nor did he try to claim that the obvious meaning of the phrase "fixed around" is different in London than in Washington. He also didn't try to explain why the memo so clearly quoted Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, making comments precisely to that effect. And he didn't explain why, if the memo was wrong, neither he nor anyone on his staff corrected its contents when it was circulated to all those present after the meeting.
Did Blair mean to suggest that Dearlove -- identified in the memo only by his traditional codename "C" -- had reported inaccurately on what he had learned from his CIA counterparts in Washington? If so, how would Blair know that? Or did Blair mean to imply that Matthew Rycroft -- his foreign policy aide who took the meeting notes and later wrote the memo -- misquoted Dearlove?
Blair moved on swiftly without further clarification, as if he and his government bore no responsibility for the memo's contents -- and he was lucky that nobody asked what he thought he was talking about.
"And let me remind you that that memorandum was written before we then went to the United Nations," he continued blithely. "Now, no one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time than me. And the fact is, we decided to go to the United Nations and went through that process, which resulted in the November 2002 United Nations resolution to give a final chance to Saddam Hussein to comply with international law. He didn't do so. And that was the reason why we had to take military action."
The credibility of Blair's remarks can be judged only in context of the Downing Street memo and other documents leaked in Britain, all of which show that "going to the U.N." was merely a pretext for military action -- which he had committed his country to support months earlier.
Yes, the Downing Street memo was written before the United States and the United Kingdom brought Iraq before the U.N. Security Council. But as Blair well knows, the decision to return to the United Nations had nothing to do with Bush's ultimate goal. The question debated among his advisors and with the British was what route they would take to get to Baghdad -- and how to manage world opinion along the way.
On May 1, the Sunday Times of London also published another classified British government document, titled "Iraq: Conditions for Military Action" and dated July 19, 2002 -- four days before the Blair security cabinet met at Downing Street. Circulated to the officials at that meeting, the memo emphasized the commitment Blair had already made when he visited Texas several months earlier:
"When the prime minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford [Texas] in April, he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change." The memo noted that the United States should meet "certain conditions" and that both governments would have to "shape public opinion" to make war politically feasible.
At the time, like his friend Bush, Blair was telling his public and elected officials that he had made no decision to invade Iraq. But still another memo shows that his denials were misleading. In a classified report, Sir David Manning, the prime minister's foreign policy advisor, informed Blair about his March 14, 2002, meeting with then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. "I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change, but you had to manage a press, a parliament, and a public opinion."
Or as Christopher Meyer, then the British ambassador to the United States, put it in still another leaked memo, dated March 18, 2003, about a conversation with Rice: "We backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option."
In other words, as the Downing Street memo also indicates, the United Nations was nothing more than the stage set for a "clever" plan to manage public opinion. At the July 23 meeting, Foreign Minister Jack Straw admitted that the case against Iraq "was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea, or Iran." Straw's solution was to "work up an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the U.N. weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force."
According to the memo, Blair hoped that Saddam would cooperate -- by refusing to cooperate with the U.N. "The prime minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the U.N. inspectors ... Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD ... If the political context were right, people would support regime change."
There was no discussion at the July 23 meeting, or in any of the leaked documents, about how to avoid war -- although Blair continues to insist that was his fondest wish.
Both Blair and Bush have frequently asserted, as the prime minister again repeated at the White House this week, that in fact Saddam didn't comply with the U.N. resolutions. Indeed, Blair rather strangely behaves as if the world hadn't seen the inspectors return to Iraq during the weeks before the invasion; as if the world hadn't watched the destruction of illegal missile parts found by the inspectors; as if the world hadn't learned, after exhaustive post-invasion searching, that there were simply no weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq.
Blair apparently thinks that everyone should simply believe him -- regardless of the Downing Street memo and other inconvenient realities -- because nobody knows what went on between him and Bush "more intimately ... than me." As Groucho Marx would have said, should we believe Tony or our own lying eyes?
As for Bush, he too tried to wave off the memo by asserting his own version of what happened three years ago -- and by insinuating that the American press somehow deserved blame for a story that it had scarcely dared to report.
"Well, I -- you know, I read kind of the characterizations of the memo, particularly when they dropped it out in the middle of [Blair's] race," he said. "I'm not sure who 'they dropped it out' is, but -- I'm not suggesting that you all dropped it out there." At that the reporters in the White House press room laughed along with Bush. That was some funny joke, especially coming from a president whose administration has so successfully intimidated the national media.
"And somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There's nothing farther from the truth," he continued. "My conversation with the prime minister was, how could we do this peacefully? what could we do?"
Nobody asked Bush to explain why the memo quotes Foreign Secretary Straw telling Blair and his other colleagues that according to his contacts in Washington, "it seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided." And incidentally, nowhere in the memo does Blair contradict any of his ministers' damning assertions about his friend Bush.
There remain many more questions to be asked and answered, now that the forbidden issue has been broached in our own press. Will the American media rectify its original error and pursue the story of the Downing Street documents? Or will it again drop the subject, even though both the president and the prime minister have implicitly confirmed the memo's authenticity?
Past performance on this and other stories displeasing to the White House suggests that their unconvincing and incomplete answers will be allowed to stand, even though the president's popularity and public support for the war have reached new lows.
For anyone who recalls the blazing indignation of the Washington press corps and the nation's talking heads after Bill Clinton lied about his sad philandering, the passive media response to this president's fatal dishonesty is astonishing.
He brandishes the "smoking memo" in their faces and laughs -- and they laugh with him.
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About the writer
Joe Conason writes a weekly column for Salon and the New York Observer. His book "Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth" is available here.