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Editorial: Bush & Blair/Iraq denials raise questions

Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Published June 9, 2005

On the subject of when, why and how the United States decided to attack Iraq, American citizens' recent seeming lack of interest has been a puzzle to many in the rest of the world.

As the Bush administration's stated reasons for war shifted, ebbed and flowed, many simply went with the flow, finding each succeeding reason -- well, reason enough. Some became more and more skeptical, even cynical; others just didn't know what to believe. But whatever their reasons, Americans have shown much less interest than the British in a bombshell of a memo leaked last month in London.

Tuesday provided a moment when top leaders could have helped them sort it all out, yet little was clarified -- which can only lead to increased skepticism on the part of anyone paying close attention.

When the so-called Downing Street memo came up in a question directed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush at their joint news conference in Washington, the two leaders answered in such a way as to spur headlines like the one on Page 1 of Wednesday's Star Tribune: "A joint denial of Iraq memo." People who've paid casual attention to news of the secret document might variously assume now that Bush and Blair had dismissed the memo as a forgery or denied that its contents were true -- or both. A careful reading of the two men's words, however, shows that they denied much less than one might think; it also brings up pertinent questions that the president should be pressed to answer.

The memo is actually the minutes of a meeting of Blair and his highest officials on July 23, 2002, eight months before the invasion of Iraq. Leaked to the Sunday Times of London, it was printed on May 1. The memo contained this description of what was said by Sir Richard Dearlove, or "C," the head of Britain's foreign intelligence service: "C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam [Hussein], through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Bush and Blair were asked of this part, "Is this an accurate reflection of what happened?" Blair, saying he could respond very easily said, "No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all," and went on to say that military action had to be taken because Saddam didn't comply with international law. Bush said, among other comments, "There's nothing farther from the truth," implying that C was wrong, without going into detail.

Neither addressed the intelligence and whether it was being concocted to provide a justification for removing Saddam. Blair, who was more specific than Bush, didn't address other key parts of the minutes, such as when Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is summarized as saying, "The case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force."

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith explained in the meeting that, as the memo relates, "the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation."

How could one of those occur? Blair did not address his own response to Straw and Goldsmith as described in the memo: "The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors."

This is stunning. As Mark Danner wrote in Sunday's New York Review of Books, "Thus the idea of UN inspectors was introduced not as a means to avoid war, as President Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible."

These and other points make the Downing Street memo one more in a string of accounts that undercut the administration's version of events. Tuesday's brief, narrow denials may have generated the desired headlines, but they did little to set the record straight.




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