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Washington confronts 'memogate'
By Tony Allen-Mills, Washington correspondent of The Sunday Times, for Times Online
President George W. Bush has finally responded to a question that much of America has been asking: did a secret memo prove that Washington was gearing for war in Iraq months earlier than the White House has admitted?
The Downing Street memo on US preparations for war in Iraq was revealed in The Sunday Times five weeks ago. But it wasn't until Tony Blair's visit to the White House this week that the resulting controversy made waves in Washington, and revived a long-dormant American debate about President Bush�s march to war from the summer of 2002.
It has also provoked embarrassed questions in the US media as to why so many newspapers and broadcast outlets here ignored the story for so long.
The leaked memo quickly spread across the internet after it was first published by The Sunday Times on May 1 with several prominent US websites providing links to The Sunday Times article and the memo on Times Online. But only when British Prime Minister and President Bush appeared at a joint press conference on Tuesday did the American President face his first public question about a British intelligence official�s remark that "intelligence and facts were being fixed" by Washington to support the US case against Saddam Hussein.
Both Mr Blair and Mr Bush attempted to dismiss the memo�s central implication that Washington was gearing for war months earlier than has been admitted. But their denials opened the door to an American media scrutiny that had previously been notable for its absence.
Despite attempts by some of Mr Bush�s Democratic opponents to portray the memo as a potential Watergate-style scandal � one newspaper dubbed it "memogate" � most US media outlets ignored the original Sunday Times story on the grounds, now regarded by some as excessively cautious, that they could not verify the memo�s authenticity and were unable to obtain copies of their own.
There was also suspicion in Washington that the timing of the memo�s publication, a few days before the British elections, was a politically-motivated ploy intended to damage Mr Blair. President Bush suggested as much on Tuesday, when he declared at his White House press conference that "they dropped it out in the middle of the race".
All of which persuaded US editors that this was a story they could afford to ignore. While the American public is growing increasingly concerned about the current conduct of the Iraq war, its origins have never been much of an issue here and Mr Bush�s re-election last November effectively neutered controversy about US intelligence failures over weapons of mass destruction and Saddam�s supposed terrorist links.
The US media, stung by a series of recent scandals involving reporters who made up stories, has also been implementing ever more cautious editorial policies about anonymous sources and unofficial leaks. The media that gave birth to Deep Throat � the legendary Watergate whistleblower � was in danger of becoming the media of Deaf Ears.
One senior US editor frankly admitted this week that his paper hadn�t touched the Sunday Times memo because it hadn�t been able to obtain a copy from its own sources. Jim Cox of USA Today said his newspaper had tried calling Downing Street, but not surprisingly had failed to obtain "explicit confirmation of [the memo�s] authenticity".
It was not until President Bush was asked about the memo on Tuesday that USA Today mentioned it to its readers for the first time. So frustrated were some of the President�s opponents at the US media�s silence that one left-wing website, Democrats.com, offered a $1,000 reward to any reporter ready to tackle the President on the issue. The Reuters reporter who posed the question on Tuesday was unaware of the reward and has no intention of collecting it.
Yet now the controversy is out in the open and there is no further doubting of the memo�s authenticity, or excuse for media foot-dragging. The original Sunday Times report was widely quoted in leading newspapers this week. A Democratic senator entered the memo into the record of a meeting of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
A group of 89 Democratic congressmen has already written to the President questioning him about the claims in the memo, and several of their number have told The Sunday Times they do not intend to let the matter drop, despite the White House�s refusal so far to respond.
Perhaps most significantly, the President�s continuing difficulties in Iraq are taking a heavy toll of his approval ratings, and are beginning to threaten the Republicans� chances in mid-term elections next year. Further violence in Iraq may yet encourage a rebirth of American public interest in how the war came to be started.
.At Tuesday�s press conference, Mr Bush and Mr Blair managed to dodge serious examination of their preparations for war, but the issue does not look like going away soon.
Read more on Iraq and the Downing Street memo in The Sunday Times this Sunday.