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Downing Street Reporter On Washington Post Live Online


Michael Smith
Reporter, Sunday Times of London
Thursday, June 16, 2005; 10:00 AM

Two top-secret British documents that were leaked to the press recently suggest that the Bush administration "fixed" intelligence about Iraq and that actions at the United Nations were designed to give legal cover to British Prime Minister Tony Blair before an invasion to oust Saddam Hussein .

Michael Smith, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London, has led the coverage, starting with his report of the so-called Downing Street Memo on May 1.Smith was online Thursday, June 16, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the Downing Street Memo and his reporting.

A transcript follows.

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Carlisle, Pa.: In your research, did you or any reporter you know come across War College or other military-academic research that indicated that Saddam Hussein likely no longer had weapons of mass destruction and that a foreign invasion of a country such as Iraq with a strong anti-American sentiment would be a costly venture? It seems the military academicians and intelligence reports had the facts right, but this information never filtered upwards to the White House or, if it did, it was ignored, nor did the press ever consider any of it useful except for perhaps a one day news spin and then was quickly forgotten.

Michael Smith: I think it is clear from the documents themselves that the whole venture was widely viewed as being highly dubious with no certainty of what would come out of it. The administration ensured that it only got the answers it wanted. But they either ignored the advice they were getting on the likely cost or managed to filter it out with this highly pressurized regime of come up with the right answers, or we will be on your back to do so all the time. That is what resulted in the National Intelligence Estimated of October 2002 which was designed by George Tenet to get a questioning Congress off the President's back. Everyone has heard about the British "dodgy" dossiers but the actual intelligence analysis, the so-called JIC report, on which the main dossier was based spoke mostly of weapons programmes, i.e. production of the agent that would be put into weapons, rather than actual stockpiled weapons .The closest it came to saying there were actually any weapons was to say there "may be" 1.5 tons of VX gas, a conclusion that went back to the conclusions of the UNSCOM weapons inspectors in 1998. The CIA's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on the other hand, said there were probably up to 500 tons of chemical weapons in Iraq. That gives you a feel of the kind of distortion that was going on. But as for the idea that he had very active programmes going on, well everyone, including the French and the Russians, thought that. There was a kind of group think that no-one was challenging. Long answer but I hope it's helpful.

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Washington, D.C.: To what do you attribute the seeming lack of interest by the American public and main stream media, at least initially, in the revelations contained in the Downing Street Memo?

Michael Smith: Firstly, I think the leaks were regarded as politically motivated. Secondly there was a feeling of well we said that way back when. Then of course as the pressure mounted from the outside, there was a defensive attitude. "We have said this before, if you the reader didn't listen well what can we do", seemed to be the attitude. I don't know if you have this expression over there, but we say someone "wants to have their cake and eat it". That's what that response reeks of. Either it was politically motivated and therefore not true or it was published before by the US newspapers and was true, it cant be both can it?

The attitude they have taken is just flat wrong, to borrow an expression from the White House spokesman on the Downing St Memo.

It is one thing for the New York Times or the Washington Post to say that we were being told that the intelligence was being fixed by sources inside the CIA or Pentagon or the NSC and quite another to have documentary confirmation in the form of the minutes of a key meeting with the Prime Minister's office. Think of it this way, all the key players were there. This was the equivalent of an NSC meeting, with the President, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, George Tenet, and Tommy Franks all there. They say the evidence against Saddam Hussein is thin, the Brits think regime change is illegal under international law so we are going to have to go to the UN to get an ultimatum, not as a way of averting war but as an excuse to make the war legal, and oh by the way we aren't preparing for what happens after and no-one has the faintest idea what Iraq will be like after a war. Not reportable, are you kidding me?

One point I would make though, everyone keeps saying it is continually making waves over here. We at the Sunday Times are not going to let it go but no-one else is interested in the UK press. The Washington Post came to it late but look at everything it is doing now. Ignore today's silly editorial article. The Post is now working away at this and I know they are planning to try to do more on it. Sadly there is no sign of the New York Times changing its sniffy we told you this already view!

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Manassas, Va.: Thank you. I'm not in for a head-hunting expedition no matter who the target. But I am in for revealing some concrete evidence to what has seemed obvious to most rational people for the last few years.. we (most of us) were duped into thinking there was some kind of legitimate reason to "blow thing up" in another country... thank you for starting the snowball that will hopefully PROVE that this is in fact false. Only a country's own people can decide to change their leadership/government, we can't do it for them. I hope that your presenting this issue to the world helps the U.S. people change our leadership perhaps sooner than the next election. Do you feel this is grounds for us to do so, i.e., to impeach our current President (granted this may not be your area of expertise)?

Michael Smith: I personally believe there are grounds for it but not yet, not in the memos we've seen. It needs US reporters to get to work to take the documents and their implications forward. If the Brits said that there weren't enough preparations in place for what comes after, what was the reaction back in Washington. Who was it who overruled the arguments coming out of London. Whether or not we are into headhunting that person has a lot to answer for as the nightly television pictures coming out of Iraq are showing. We in the mainstream media are at a crossroads now. The Internet has opened up a large number of challenges to us. We can allow the web news sites to sideline us or we can impose our largely better honed skills and show that we are the best at what we do. US journalists are world-renowned for their skills and attention to accuracy but you can be inaccurate just as much by ignoring something as you can by writing it up and getting it wrong.

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Orlando, Fla.: You have experienced reaction to the Bush/Blair mendacity on the Iraq run up on both sides of the pond.. How do you compare them?

Is there a chance Blair will eventual go with a vote of No Confidence (nice that you have it)..

Here, the chance of Bush being impeached seems slim... Thought the facts certainly justify it..

Michael Smith: I think Blair will go although I personally think Bush is much more at risk because there is an unstoppable public feeling against the continued presence of US soldiers as targets for insurgents. The polls and the public pressure are not going Bush's way. There is no doubt in my mind that the administration lied and distorted the truth, one Congress begins to realise the scale of it, Bush could be in serious trouble.

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Pasadena, Calif.: Bush used every fictional pretext he could find to justify invading Iraq. Why hasn't the press explored his real agenda for starting an unprovoked war?

Michael Smith: The press had explored that but since 9/11 there has been pressure on the US media to hold off a bit. That was understandable at first, 9/11 was a massive shock to the system and as close to a national emergency as you can get. Then with the war, there is a natural tendency to get behind our boys. That is absolutely right in my view and anyone who looks at my reporting at the time will see it is the way I reported it. The media on both sides of the Atlantic did question bad decisions but not aggressively enough. There is an understandable fear of being seen as not backing the boys in the frontline. You can do both frankly. You can back the boys who are doing what the politicians order them to do while at the same time questioning the politicians' orders. The soldiers cant challenge orders, only rarely at elections and polls can the public challenge the politicians. It is part of the media's role to make that challenge. It has been done but at times far too timidly.

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Cocoa, Fla.: Many Americans suspected that the administration would find a way to go to war without world approval. Seeking a devious way to proceed this memo would confirm our suspicions. It seems this document is authentic but where will this lead us? A great number of voters are concerned and will our Congress have support for an investigation with what is known? Are there other facts we still don't know publicly?

Michael Smith: Yes there are other facts you still don't know and the media should be using these public documents as a base from which to find them out because it is those facts that will really damage Bush. Some of the media already are on the case. Knight Ridder went in very early on in this story and I see is still going. The LA Times and the Washington Post and lots of smaller papers have all been doing their bit. They need to keep going. If the administration, as it claims, did nothing wrong, it has nothing to fear from journalists looking for the facts.

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Washington, D.C.: I think the implications of all of this information is truly unknown. Our Post reporters chat with us here online saying that it's not going to lead to impeachment. I am not so sure. But if not that far, I see this as causing a great deal of problems for our government. What do you think will be the consequences, if any, for Blair?

Michael Smith: I bow to their better judgment on impeachment. I do think that the pressure now is such that it could go that way but only with continued pressure from us journalists and you the people. I firmly believe that Congress will turn against this awful ill-conceived war. I frankly don't care if Saddam Hussein and his buddies ended up in a grave like the ones they prepared for so many of their own people. What I do care about is the way in which nearly 2,000 allied soldiers, more than 1700 of the Americans with yet more today, have died simply because Blair and Bush didn't prepare for what would come afterwards.

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Rockville, Md.: Can we expect more disclosures from highly placed British sources?

Michael Smith: I hope so. Keep reading the Sunday Times Web site!

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Austin, Tex.: Has there ever been a historical equivalent to the Downing Street Memo that may help put it in better context with the American public? Also, do you think that it's possible since few Americans know what 'Downing Street' is or means, the significance of the document is just not appreciated on this side of the Atlantic?

Michael Smith: I think in journalistic terms we need to go back to the Pentagon papers, in terms of a US context you have to look at the answer I gave earlier comparing that meeting to an NSC meeting. That is its significance, that is its equivalent. It is highly damning and some of the self-serving nonsense from people who should know better in some, and it is now only some, of the US media is frankly depressing.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you find the parallels between how the Watergate scandal began and how this is beginning interesting, considering the recent revelation of who Deep Throat was?

Michael Smith: Well on one level, you have a source leaking stuff out and the story building up with only one newspaper keeping going, sustained by its source, it is similar. But Watergate led to a President quitting. This has only led, so far, to a greater public awareness of the mendacious way, and I think that is a fair description of the way in which the administration works.

At its most basic Watergate was an obvious crime, a break-in, nasty electoral dirty tricks and a cover-up by the White House. But I have heard people say now on a number of occasions that nobody died over Watergate. The number of Americans killed in Iraq has likely gone up even as we have been on the Internet having this discussion.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Every reason given by the Bush administration for the Iraq war has either been proven to be imaginary or questionable at best. At what does someone bring up the issue of oil as the principle motivation for the conflict? I've rarely heard anyone, other than a die hard Republican, deny it as a significant factor but no one ever publicly addresses the possibility. Outside the United States it is pretty much seen as the only reason.

Michael Smith: I honestly believe it is more complex than that, but yes the control of the Middle-East as a whole, of which this is only a part, is about oil, no question. What we need are the memos that say that to make people realise it. But interestingly it was never mentioned in any of those leaked UK memos so as I say there were a lot of reasons for Iraq and it is more complex. I really do believe, as Peter Ricketts, the Foreign Office Policy Director says in one of the memos that have come back into vogue this week, "it looks like a grudge match between Bush and Saddam."

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you expect we will see more leaks which further corroborate the assertion that Bush lied to justify the neoconservatives' aggressive stance against Iraq? Also, what are your thoughts on the semantics argument of the Iraq war supporters (i.e., in the U.K., "fixed around" doesn't mean what you think it means...)?

Michael Smith: There are number of people asking about fixed and its meaning. This is a real joke. I do not know anyone in the UK who took it to mean anything other than fixed as in fixed a race, fixed an election, fixed the intelligence. If you fix something, you make it the way you want it. The intelligence was fixed and as for the reports that said this was one British official. Pleeeaaassee! This was the head of MI6. How much authority do you want the man to have? He has just been to Washington, he has just talked to George Tenet. He said the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. That translates in clearer terms as the intelligence was being cooked to match what the administration wanted it to say to justify invading Iraq. Fixed means the same here as it does there. More leaks? I do hope so and the more Blair and Bush lie to try to get themselves off the hook the more likely it is that we will get more leaks.

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Arlington, Va.: If what you say is a major factor:

"I really do believe, as Peter Ricketts, the Foreign Office Policy Director says in one of the memos that have come back into vogue this week, "it looks like a grudge match between Bush and Saddam." "

Why on earth would the U.K. go along with Bush? The real reason must benefit the U.K. also.

Michael Smith: Oh don't get me wrong, we're not letting them off the hook either. Trust me on that one. Blair wanted to keep the alliance alive and was desperate to do anything to please George Bush and what is more he cant even claim that no-one told him it would all end in disaster. There's at least a chance that some of the neo-Cons believed the garbage about the Iraqis lining up to welcome us with open arms.

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Washington, D.C.: More than oil and a Saddam grudge, it appears that Bush wanted to be a "war president" to help him stay in office and, maybe, really win an election the second time around. Do you see that as part of the motivation?

Michael Smith: Undoubtedly so. Nothing unites a country behind its leader like a war.

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Detroit, Mich.: Mr. Smith

It seems as though the memos indicate two critical but separate points, 1. The U.S. government made the intel facts conform to the foregone policy and, 2. Perhaps equally damning that the policy planners gave little if any thought to the post-war effort. Could you perhaps comment on lack of planning for the "post-war" environment.

Michael Smith: I think that I answered this one a little time back. Absolutely one of the worst, if not the worst, thing pointed up by these memos is the lack of preparation. Very damaging to both Blair and Bush

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Farmington, N.M.: One of the reasons Americans can no longer trust mainstream corporate media to exercise journalistic integrity in dissemination of the news is because pundits and reporters are being paid by our elected officials and agents to report government propaganda as if it were actually news. Do you have the same problem in Britain?

Michael Smith: I wasn't aware this was happening either here or in the UK and I absolutely know it wouldn't be happening with any of the leading papers on either side of the Atlantic. But if you have evidence of it, then perhaps you need to ring the Post news desk. it sounds like a story.

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New York, N.Y.: One of the recurrent scenarios in the United States is that revelations of executive branch deception in foreign policy do not lead to a broad change in the way the public treats the administration. In your estimation as an investigative reporter, what should individual members of the American electorate do after learning about The Downing Street Memo? What actions should ordinary people take?

Michael Smith: I think they should lobby Congress. The way the polls are going, we are at the point now where that is going to be effective. I don't believe that there is a single politician on the Hill who is happy to see US soldiers dying to no good effect. If they are convinced that the administration not only failed to prepare for the aftermath, or as it seems from the memos didn't even care to believe the experts, they are soon going to come round to the view that something drastic needs to be done.

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Edinburgh, U.K.: What do you think of the argument reported in Howard Kurtz's article that Sir Richard Dearlove may have came to his conclusion by reading the newspapers?

Michael Smith: This is the head of British intelligence, a man who has just had conversations with America's most senior intelligence and national security figures. He is reporting back at the highest level, to what is effectively a war cabinet and as I know to my own cost has no great regard for newspapers. He has made his own judgment, no-one better qualified to tell that meeting what was happening. No shadow of a doubt.

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Anonymous: Are there other issues regarding the Iraq war which are big in the U.K. which are never heard here in the U.S.?

Michael Smith: Blair's lack of honesty has had a hugely damaging effect on his reputation. He is trusted with virtually every aspect of the government apart from the war and his "poodle-like" attitude towards George Bush. The legality is the only other issue but that is very much part of these memos. We haven't yet reached the point where people are as concerned as they are in America over the cost of the war both in human and financial terms. But there has always been strong opposition to the war here and while before the war it was a large minority, it is now a large majority. So if we were to move people back to July 2002 with the attitudes they have now, we would never go to war.

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Bowie, Md.: Considering the fact that both elections (Bush and Blair) are now concluded and the public has supported both, what real significance does the memo play in today's politics? Other than confirming what the opposition already suspected.

Michael Smith: The war and the lies around the war, as patently demonstrated by the various documents I obtained, has already ensured that Blair will retire early.

I believe that we will see more coming out in America. I think as I said earlier that we have reached a tipping point, where the public will turn against the war and that will have a definite effect on the mid-term elections. Anything more depends on the mood of Congress.

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Louisville, Ky.: Your tone is very damning and you are obviously actively trying to do what you can to reveal the dubious justifications for this war and the total lack of postwar planning.

If you were an American reporter, Fox News and the conservative radio movement would dismiss you out of hand as a partisan, axe-to-grind liberal, and we might never have read your disclosures. Do you feel fortunate to report for the Sunday Times?

Michael Smith: I do. But look I am not some mealy-mouthed left-wing apologist. I vote Conservative in elections for parliament and Liberal-Democrat (the term Liberal does not have the same connotations over here) in the local elections. I actually backed the idea of the war. I have just finished a book on an American military unit which is very admiring of that unit. I cant go into details as it is not published until March.

I am just a reporter doing my job. I am not partisan, other than in arguing the case for the importance of the leaks. The information in the documents is damning enough. I don't believe that Republicans want US soldiers to die for no good cause in an insurgency that could have been avoided anymore than Democrats do. This isn't about politics. It's about common sense and honesty. Like many non-Americans around the world I was brought up to believe that they were articles of faith for the American people. The level of interest in the memos shows that that wasn't wrong but a lot of non-Americans look at some of the things that have been done recently, like the way in which the war was justified and Guantanamo and wonder how that same America could do those things.

As I say, that's not being anti-American. I think no more of the Blair government in that regard. It has definitely been just as bad.

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Arlington, Va.: Is your source concerned for their safety? I read that a page from one of the memos was redacted to protect their identity. Doesn't anyone in the U.K. government that had access to the memos now know who the leak is?

Michael Smith: Yes definitely concerned not to be found out. But I am not going to say anything more about that because it would only help those who are undoubtedly looking for him or her!

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Baltimore, Md.: As an outside observer, I always credited Tony Blair with at least having good sense. What are the policy reasons that he would let the U.K. get sucked into the Iraq adventure by Bush? Is this, perhaps, another manifestation of the desire, shown by both Labour and Conservative politicians for the past 50 years, to prove Britain "still matters" on the world stage. (This started with Suez, I think.)

Michael Smith: I think it started out with a very pragmatic believe, which I think is right, that America is our main ally and that Saddam Hussein would need to be dealt with at some stage.

You cant do that sort of thing nowadays without the might of the American military, you probably never could since WWII. Sometimes the US view is isolationist, leave us alone, we don't want to do anything. George Bush wanted to do it and he wanted to do it now. It made sense to Blair and I have to say it made sense to me. But at that point the policy appears to have unraveled. Surely if all your experts say this is a bad idea, it's illegal, which it was for us, you haven't any way of controlling what comes after, then you drop Plan A and look for Plan B.

Blair didn't because Bush didn't want to and from that point on it was always going to end up like it has today.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think that when Blair resigns, the new PM will bow to public opinion and begin pulling British troops out? Or is there a sense there, as in some circles of the U.S., that since we started this, there's an obligation to tough it out and see the occupation through until the Iraqi government can take over?

Michael Smith: We're are stuck a barrel now. The Geneva Convention says that if you occupy a country, you have to leave it able to govern itself and protect itself. The Brits will stick to that I am sure but we will see a draw down of troops in the UK controlled sector because it is much more peaceful and getting to the point where it needs to be able to govern itself. But when will Iraq be repaired enough for us all to leave. I suspect it will be a long time yet.

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Washington, D.C.: Assuming that PM Blair is still in power, if the U.S. decides to take military action against Iran or Syria in the future, do you think Britain will go along this time?

Michael Smith: Hell will freeze over before another UK prime minister follows Bush to war. It would be political suicide.

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Alexandria, Va.: I guess I see this memo as being interesting from a British perspective but haven't we known the basics in the U.S. for a long time ?

Quite a while ago, Paul Wolfowitz clearly stated that WMD was used as a pretext to go to war because the administration believed it to be the only way to sell a preemptive attack on Iraq.

This was reported in the press. People read it. There seemed to be little hubbub about it.

I'd contend that most Americans just don't give a damn and those that do fall into the us vs. them category.

Michael Smith: You may be right. There is a whole swathe of America that does feel that way. It gets most of its news from Fox and it is very happy to trust the administration. But the polls show that those people are becoming a minority, maybe not a small minority but a minority. When the approval rates for the war will stop dropping is a good question but they have some way to go yet. Too many troops have died. This whole story will have an effect. But there will be other effects. How many communities are there in America who haven't lost someone? That will all have an effect. There seems no way to stop the number of soldiers dying. The polls will have their own momentum. The more people you see taking a view, the more you tend to think maybe they're right.

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Anonymous: George W. Bush once slipped during a speech and stated he was upset that Saddam Hussein had tried to kill his father. Is this a possible explanation for his fixation over Saddam Hussein? Indeed, perhaps if he had been more honest about it, it might have been understood more.

Michael Smith: Maybe. That was clearly the view of Peter Ricketts when he said in one of the memos that it looked like a grudge match

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Do you believe the Wolfowitz Doctrine, written up at Project for a New American Century in 2000, is evidence that should be submitted alongside the Downing Street Memos, or are the doctrine's aims of proving America's military might by overthrowing Saddam's regime and protecting our Saudi resources irrelevant for an investigation at this point?

Michael Smith: Well you cant say they didn't warn us. I think that is all part of what the congressional committees will eventually get their teeth into.

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Albany, N.Y.: I have a short and sweet question for you.

Yesterday this paper, The Washington Post wrote and editorial about Iraq and mentioned the Downing Street memo and said the memo revealed absolutely nothing new and added nothing to the debate.

What say you?

Michael Smith: The same as I said earlier in other answers. This is the documentary evidence from within the UK equivalent of an NSC meeting. It is one thing saying well the Post wrote this back then from our sources, but it is a very different thing to have the documents from the heart of government that prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The other thing we keep coming back to is the build-up of concern over the whole business of being in Iraq, losing soldiers every day. These memos not only convince the ordinary man or woman in the street they strike a chord.

That editorial said it couldn't speak for its news desk who keep going with this story. Whoever wrote it was entitled to their opinion. But they were flat wrong!

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West Cornwall, Conn.: Has the name John Bolton come up when the question arises as to who it was who organised the `fixing" of the intelligence?

Michael Smith: Well the fixing of the intelligence is certainly one thing that many of us knew about already. But for anyone who didn't believe it the Bolton nomination hearings ought to have convinced them. We on the Sunday Times didn't focus on this point too much as we had already reported it. I personally think we have had too much focus on the intelligence. It's a red herring. Saying it was faulty intelligence that led us to war let's Blair and Bush off the hook. It wasn't faulty intelligence that took us to war, it was them. This is why they have both been happy to set up inquiries, two by Blair and the Presidential Commission by Bush. These masquerade as inquiries into the war. In reality, Blair and Bush set out the terms of reference so that they only look at the intelligence. When they come back and say the intelligence was faulty, Blair and Bush both say how awful it was but hey we weren't to blame for that and anyway Saddam Hussein has gone and that's a good thing. Focusing on the intelligence lets them off the hook.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you embedded with British Forces in Iraq since 2003?

Michael Smith: I have both in Iraq and Afghanistan but that is not the answer to your question I think. Come back on with your point.

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Toronto, Canada: I know it's not really the same thing, but was Andrew Gilligan right? Or, at least, in the future, with the likely leak of more memos do you think that the "Today" programme will be vindicated in some way?

Michael Smith: David Kelly was a very, very good source. His concerns were expressed to Andrew who rightly reported them. The concerns were that intelligence was being manipulated to make a point. Kelly never said "sexed up", nor did Gilligan, it was an announcer on the radio programme who coined that phrase, although that was the upshot of what Kelly was saying and was accepted by others who thought likewise as a correct interpretation. The problem came in the reporting, which went awry. Gilligan inadvertently said in a live interview the the Government knew that the intelligence was wrong. Kelly never said that. That was the only thing that was wrong frankly. His editors at the BBC should have spotted this and moved swiftly to correct that incorrect allegation. They didn't. We had a witch hunt against both Kelly and Gilligan. One was able to survive that, sadly one did not. A good, honest man killed himself. The Today programme has to a certain extent already been vindicated but it should have retracted the incorrect part of the story. Inside the BBC, that battle as to whether Gilligan and Today were right or wrong still rages.

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Durham, N.C.: I sympathize with your sentiments. But how do you respond to the argument that, even given the fact the intelligence was "inconclusive", that the War ended a horrible, repressive regime and is instituting a democracy, which of course, requires "hard work?" There can be some claim of success, even though the Bushies have bungled the whole thing from beginning to end.

Michael Smith: The problem is that as the memo's show even if we do calm it all down, which I would hope would eventually happen, what are we going to do, withdraw? What will happen then?

This is the Cabinet Office Options Paper of March 8, 2002.

"There would... be a strong risk of the Iraqi system reverting to type. Military coup could succeed coup until an autocratic, Sunni dictator emerged who protected Sunni interests. With time he could acquire WMD."

Or what about this letter from Jack Straw to the Prime Minister dated March 25, 2002

"What will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than anything. Most of the assessments from the US have assumed regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq's WMD threat. But none has satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured, and how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be any better. Iraq has no history of democracy so no-one has this habit or experience."

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Cortez, Colo.: What's the use of this information being publicized now? We are stuck there. The ones of us screaming our heads off and writing letters just based on what people in country and what Hans Blix was saying certainly don't feel any better for it.

Michael Smith: Well of course a large number of people have died, more than 1,700 of them Americans and in a sense this is all too late. But it would not have had the same effect even six months ago. There was not the same public mood. So the timing of the publication has struck a chord and should be used to take the issue forward. Those who expressed concerns now have more credibility. Congress is beginning to take notice. It will take time and the stories and public pressure will need to keep coming. But as I said earlier, the polls indicate a tipping point. I was one of those in favour of war originally. You sound like you were always against it. Things are going your way. I'm surprised to hear you so gloomy.

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Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, which influential/powerful Congressmen would most easily be persuaded to champion an investigation that could challenge the U.S. administration?

Michael Smith: I confess I do not know enough about US politics to say that but the main people would be the democrats and republicans in the centre of the political divide, where both parties meet. It needs to have Dean and Clinton talking about it angrily rather than, or should I say as well as, people who were always against the war like John Conyers, crucial though his part in this new public awareness has been. But it also needs Republicans on the edges to break ranks. Difficult but not impossible with the polls swinging against the war.

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Fairfax, Va.: What role do you think bloggers and their persistence played in the mainstream American media picking up the Downing Street Memo story? The MSM here ignored the story for more than a month.

Michael Smith: I think your question says it all. They played a crucial role. AfterDowningStreet.org; DowningStreetMemo.com. RawStory and Salon have all played major parts. I had better stop naming sites or I will be accused of leaving out other important ones!

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Woodbridge, Va.: All this stuff about how wonderful it is that we got rid of Saddam is frankly beside the point. When the war was being sold to us this administration insisted it was NOT about regime change. It was supposed to be necessary to save AMERICAN lives from Saddam's weapons. Why are they being let off the hook about this?

Michael Smith: They wont be let off the hook by me, or you I suspect. History will certainly not let them off the hook.

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Houston, Tex.: Many Americans and others worldwide feel that our government was complicit in 9/11, i.e. they were behind it. Looking back, do you think that 9/11 was orchestrated as a lead in to Iraq and Afghanistan?

Michael Smith: Definitely not. No way. These guys have got all sorts of things wrong but all that stuff about 9/11 being manufactured is just conspiracy theory and silly at that.

One thing I would say, and I notice this figures in other questions. If Blair and Bush hadn't launched the Iraq War then US and UK Special Operations Forces would have been concentrating on one man and one man alone and Osama bin Laden would have been captured, or more likely killed resisting capture.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Smith, Do you think the majority of the Iraqi people give a fig about the Downing Street Minutes kerfluffle?

Michael Smith: I think they have far more things to worry about, but some of those are the result of the mistakes highlighted by these memos. I keep going on about the number of allied soldiers killed. Thousands more Iraqis have died and while sure Saddam wasn't renowned for being nice to his people, those who didn't cause him trouble never got any back. Even Mr Rumsfeld accepts that it is far more dangerous in Iraq now than it was before the war.

_______________________

Baltimore, Md.: Did Dr. Kelly's death have anything to do with the Downing St. memo?

Michael Smith: Only in that his complaint was the same as that expressed in the memo by the head of MI6 that the intelligence was being fixed around the policy. But one was talking about the fixing that was going on around the UK Dossier and the other about the US, with the exaggerated weapons strengths and the phony link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein

_______________________

London, U.K.: Isn't it unfair to say that the Russians were part of the 'groupthink'. In late 2002 Putin was going on record to say that there was no trustworthy data to support the existence of WMD in Iraq.

Michael Smith: No because the two things aren't mutually exclusive. There was no trustworthy data to support the existence of actual weapons, as the response you're referring to said. The JIC report simply said there "may" be 1.5 tons of VX gas and at the same time as he OKed the 45-minute claim, John Scarlett, the JIC chairman, refused to harden that up. But as for the programmes are concerned there was no dispute and no-one outside Iraq believed that the programmes were just ticking over waiting for an end to sanctions. I believe the Canadians were among those that came closest but neither the Russians nor the French were.

_______________________

Boca Raton, Fla.: Mr Smith:

The memo states:

'The military were continuing to ask lots of questions.

For instance, what were the consequences, if Saddam used WMD on day one, or if Baghdad did not collapse and urban war fighting began? You said that Saddam could also use his WMD on Kuwait. Or on Israel, added the Defence Secretary.'

If the WMD intelligence was 'fixed' and everyone knew that was so, why would there have been any concern whatsoever that Saddam would use WMD? The two statements appear to me in contradiction.

Thank you.

Michael Smith: There is no doubt that the US and UK military were concerned about the possibility of an Iraqi chemical or biological attack. Everyone thought it was likely, the fixing came in the strength of reporting. I pointed to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate saying there were "probably" up to 500 tons of chemical weapons in Iraq as opposed to the British JIC report saying that the "may be" 1.5 tons of VX. But the biggest concern within MI6 at the time was the fixing of intelligence to show a non-existent link between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: Among military people, you're know as pro-defense. Why the point of your anti-Iraq war article?

Michael Smith: Thank you for giving me the chance to answer this question. I am very pro-defence you're right. All right-thinking people should be. Saddam Hussein might not have been the threat he was painted but there are plenty out there who would be given the chance. As the 9/11 commission showed, America let its defences drop and got caught with a sucker punch. That shows the need to keep up your defences.

We in Europe rely too often on America to bail us out, even if occasionally you come a bit late to the party! Defence budgets are repeatedly cut over here with the armed forces being asked to do more and more. As some of you may have guessed by now before I became a journalist, I served in the army. That makes me all the more angry when people fight wars they don't need to and kill people who don't need to be killed, not least because it is never the politicians who get killed it is the ordinary soldiers.

Bin Laden is a legitimate target, Iraq, even an Iraq led by Saddam Hussein, was not. This was an illegal war but the most criminal part of it all was the lazy, arrogant way they went into it. (British tanks crossing the start lines, in a war being fought about WMD, did not even have any chemical or biological filters fitted because the Ministry of Defence failed to buy them in time.)

Just look at all those memos again, don't look for fixed intelligence, don't look for illegality. Just look at the lack of preparation, look how right all those experts who said it would all turn out badly were and then wonder how many British and American soldiers died because those politicians were too arrogant to take the advice of the experts.

_______________________

Charlottesville, Va.: Do you think there's a way to remove the partisan tone that usually accompanies the discussion of this memo? I'd like to see it discussed in real Congressional hearings and have it become a major topic. However, every mention I've seen has come with comments about impeachment, or BUSH LIED! which doesn't help and gets it easily dismissed as partisan whining.

Michael Smith: You're right. That's the way forward. Only then will it be taken seriously and get the attention across the political divide it deserves. These things always take time. Congress has to take a more considered view and that is only right. But we are getting there. I have no doubt that the lack of preparation will be discussed in Congress. That's when the heat will really be turned on the administration.

_______________________

Michael Smith: Well. I've been going on for well over three hours. It's time to put the soap box away! I would like to thank you for all your questions. Even those who clearly disagreed with the tone of some of my answers were always polite about it. It has been a great experience for me and I thank you all for the kind things you said about my journalism. I have been truly overwhelmed by the number of people who have come on line, in more ways than one. I am really sorry that I have been unable to answer all your queries but I hope somewhere in my many answers you will find the answer to the question you wanted to put. Thanks again and goodbye.

Michael Smith

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/06/14/DI200...

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