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Justifying the Silence on Downing Street Memos
June 17, 2005
One of the features of the newfound media interest in the Downing Street Memo is a profound defensiveness, as reporters scramble to explain why it received so little attention in the U.S. press. But the most familiar line--the memo wasn't news because it contained no "new" information--only raises troubling questions about what journalists were doing when they should have been reporting on the gulf between official White House pronouncements and actual White House intentions.
There are two important points in the Downing Street Memo, and media apologists have marshaled slightly different--though equally unconvincing--arguments as to why each did not deserve coverage. The first point is that the White House was intent on going to war long before it announced the decision to invade Iraq; "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action," the memo states, citing British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
The Washington Post editorialized (6/15/05): "The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration's prewar deliberations. Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002." The New York Times reported (6/14/05) that "the documents are not quite so shocking. Three years ago, the near-unanimous conventional wisdom in Washington held that Mr. Bush was determined to topple Saddam Hussein by any means necessary." NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell similarly remarked on June 14 (Media Matters, 6/15/05) that you had to be "brain dead not to know" what the White House was doing.
But if everyone knew it was a lie when Bush and the White House repeatedly denied that they had decided to go to war (as with Bush's March 6, 2003 statement, "I have not made up our mind about military action"), why were reporters not exposing this bad faith at every turn? On March 16, 2003, for example, Andrea Mitchell referred to negotiations at the United Nations as part of "the diplomatic campaign to avoid war." If war was a foregone conclusion, why were such talks reported as if they mattered?
And how should reporters treat recent comments by George W. Bush that war was a last resort? "Both of us [Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair] didn't want to use our military," he said at a June 7 press conference. "Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It's the last option." If this is known to be a lie, why isn't it identified as such in news reports? If there's some doubt about whether he's lying, isn't the Downing Street Memo important evidence as to what the truth is?
The second issue raised by the Downing Street Memo regards the fixing of intelligence. On this question, media responses differ somewhat: The memo is inconclusive, some say, or investigations into intelligence tampering have shown that such claims are without merit. The June 15 Washington Post editorial claimed that "the memos provide no information that would alter the conclusions of multiple independent investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, which were that U.S. and British intelligence agencies genuinely believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that they were not led to that judgment by the Bush administration."
The investigations the Post is alluding to are irrelevant, since they did not specifically address the question of how the White House handled intelligence reports on Iraq. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation was limited in scope; as the Washington Post reported (7/10/04), the panel "[made] no judgment on whether the administration distorted the intelligence it was given." A more recent review of intelligence practices was similarly limited--a fact also reported by the Washington Post (4/1/05): "The panel that Bush appointed under pressure in February 2004 said it was 'not authorized' to explore the question of how the commander in chief used the faulty information to make perhaps the most critical decision of his presidency."
More important, however, is the fact that the Downing Street Memo does suggest that the British government did not believe the evidence of Iraq's WMD programs was strong. As the memo states, "the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."
The case for the politicization of intelligence is not difficult to make--it merely involves citing evidence the media ignored at the time. In its March 3, 2003 issue, Newsweek reported what should have been a bombshell: The star defector who supplied some of the most significant information about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction had told investigators that those weapons no longer existed.
Iraq defector Hussein Kamel--Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, who ran Iraq's unconventional weapons programs--was debriefed in 1995 about the status of those programs. Some of what Kamel said to the weapons inspectors would become very familiar: 30,000 liters of anthrax had been produced by the Iraqi regime, for example, and four tons of the VX nerve agent. These specific quantities were cited repeatedly by White House officials to make the case for war, and were staples of media coverage in the run-up to war.
But Kamel told the inspectors something else: that Iraq had destroyed these stockpiles soon after the Gulf War. "All weapons-- biological, chemical, missile, nuclear-- were destroyed," Kamel told the inspectors.
At the time, FAIR pointed out (2/27/03) that White House officials were misleading the public by selectively citing the Kamel interview: "Their repeated citations of his testimony--without revealing that he also said the weapons no longer exist--suggests that the administration might be withholding critical evidence."
Despite their obvious importance, the Kamel revelations were barely mentioned in the mainstream media. This fact is worth remembering when journalists claim that pre-war media coverage was remarkably prescient about the White House's intentions. The truth is that the Downing Street Memo is a reminder of how poorly the media served the public before the war--which might explain their reluctance to take it seriously.
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