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Tomgram: Mark Danner on Smoking Signposts to Nowhere


Imagine that the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate scandal had broken out all over the press -- no, not in the New York Times or the Washington Post, but in newspapers in Australia or Canada. And that, facing their own terrible record of reportage, of years of being cowed by the Nixon administration, major American papers had decided that this was not a story worthy of being covered. Imagine that, initially, they dismissed the revelatory documents and information that came out of the heart of administration policy-making; then almost willfully misread them, insisting that evidence of Pentagon planning for escalation in Vietnam or of Nixon administration planning to destroy its opponents was at best ambiguous or even nonexistent; finally, when they found that the documents wouldn't go away, they acknowledged them more formally with a tired ho-hum, a knowing nod on editorial pages or in news stories. Actually, they claimed, these documents didn't add up to much because they had run stories just like this back then themselves. Yawn.

This is, of course, something like the crude pattern that coverage in the American press has followed on the Downing Street memo, then memos. As of late last week, four of our five major papers (the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and USA Today) hadn't even commented on them in their editorial pages. In my hometown paper, the New York Times, complete lack of interest was followed last Monday by a page 11 David Sanger piece (Prewar British Memo Says War Decision Wasn't Made) that focused on the second of the Downing Street memos, a briefing paper for Tony Blair's "inner circle," and began: "A memorandum written by Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet office in late July 2002 explicitly states that the Bush administration had made ‘no political decisions' to invade Iraq, but that American military planning for the possibility was advanced."

Compare that to the front-page lead written a day earlier by Michael Smith of the British Sunday Times, who revealed the existence of the document and has been the Woodstein of England on this issue (Ministers were told of need for Gulf war ‘excuse'):

"Ministers were warned in July 2002 that Britain was committed to taking part in an American-led invasion of Iraq and they had no choice but to find a way of making it legal. The warning, in a leaked Cabinet Office briefing paper, said Tony Blair had already agreed to back military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein at a summit at the Texas ranch of President George W Bush three months earlier."

The headlines the two papers chose more or less tell it all. It's hard to believe that they are even reporting on the same document. Sanger was obviously capable of reading Smith's piece and yet his report makes no mention of the April meeting of the two leaders in Crawford explicitly noted in the memo and offers a completely tendentious reading of those supposedly unmade "political decisions." Read the document yourself. It's clear, when the Brits write, for instance, "[L]ittle thought has been given [in Washington] to creating the political conditions for military action," that they are talking about tactics, about how to move the rest of the world toward an already agreed-upon war. After all, though it's seldom commented on, this document was entitled, "Cabinet Office paper: Conditions for military action," and along with the previously released memo was essentially a war-planning document. Both, for instance, discuss the American need for British bases in Cyprus and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. It was, as well, focused on the creation of "an information campaign" and suggested that "[t]ime will be required to prepare public opinion in the UK that it is necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussein."

We are talking here about creating the right political preconditions for moving populations toward a war, quite a different matter from not having decided on the war. To write as if this piece reflected a situation in which no "political decisions" had been made (taking that phrase out of all context), without even a single caveat, a single mention of any alternative possible explanation, was bizarre, to say the least.

A day later, the New York Times weighed in with another piece. Written by Todd Purdum and this time carefully labeled "news analysis," it was placed on page 10 and arrived practically exhausted. "But the memos," wrote the world-weary Purdum, "are not the Dead Sea Scrolls. There has been ample evidence for many months, and even years, that top Bush administration figures saw war as inevitable by the summer of 2002."

The Times editors at least had the decency to hide both their pieces deep inside the paper (and the paper remained editorially silent on the subject of the memos). The Washington Post did them one better. On its editorial page, its writers made Purdum look like the soul of cautious reason by publishing Iraq, Then and Now, which had the following dismissal of the memos:

War opponents have been trumpeting several British government memos from July 2002, which describe the Bush administration's preparations for invasion, as revelatory of President Bush's deceptions about Iraq. Bloggers have demanded to know why "the mainstream media" have not paid more attention to them. Though we can't speak for The Post's news department, the answer appears obvious: 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.

Of course, the editorial writers might at least have pointed out that, before March 2003, the Post editorial page, now so eager to tell us that we knew it all then, was generally beating the drums for war. If they knew it all then, they evidently couldn't have cared less that the administration's "prewar deliberations" bore remarkably little relationship to its prewar statements and claims. Nor did they bother to repeat another boringly obvious point -- that the best of the Post's reporting on the subject of the administration's prewar deliberations from journalists like Walter Pincus had, in those prewar days, generally been consigned to the inside pages of the paper, while the administration's bogus claims about Iraq (which, they now imply, they knew perfectly well were bogus) were regularly front-paged.

Let's just add that if Post editorialists and Times journalists can't tell the difference between scattered, generally anonymously sourced, pre-war reports that told us of early Bush administration preparations for war and actual documents on the same subject emerging from the highest reaches of the British government, from the highest intelligence figure in that government who had just met with some of the highest figures in the U.S. government, and was immediately reporting back to what, in essence, was a "war cabinet" -- well, what can you say? To return to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate affairs, long before news on the Papers was broken in 1971 by the Times, you could certainly have pieced together -- as many did -– much about the nature of American war planning in Vietnam, just as long before the Watergate affair became recognizably itself (only months after the 1972 election), you could have read the lonely Woodstein pieces in the Post (and scattered pieces elsewhere) and had a reasonable sense of where the Nixon administration was going. But material from the horse's mouth, so to speak, directly from Pentagon documents or from Deep Throat himself, that was a very different matter, as is true with the Downing Street memos.

Let Sunday Times reporter Michael Smith -- by his own admission, a British conservative and a supporter of the invasion of Iraq -- explain this, as he did in a recent on-line chat at the Washington Post website, with a bluntness inconceivable for an American reporter considering the subject:

"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 [National Security Council] 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 U.N. 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?"

Similarly, on the line in the initial Downing Street memo that has been much hemmed and hawed about here -- "But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." -- he has this to say:

"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 [the British equivalent of the CIA]. How much authority do you want the man to have? He has just been to Washington, he has just talked to [CIA director] George Tenet. He said the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

But does all of this even qualify as a news story today? For that you need a tad of context, so here in full is the President's response when, at a recent news conference with Tony Blair, he was asked about that facts-being-"fixed" reference in the Downing Street memo:

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I -- you know, I read kind of the characterizations of the memo, particularly when they dropped it out in the middle of [Tony Blair's election] race. I'm not sure who "they dropped it out" is, but -- I'm not suggesting that you all dropped it out there. (Laughter.) 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.

"My conversation with the Prime Minister was, how could we do this peacefully, what could we do. And this meeting, evidently, that took place in London happened before we even went to the United Nations -- or I went to the United Nations. And so it's -- look, both us of didn't want to use our military. Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It's the last option. The consequences of committing the military are -- are very difficult. The hardest things I do as the President is to try to comfort families who've lost a loved one in combat. It's the last option that the President must have -- and it's the last option I know my friend had, as well.

"And so we worked hard to see if we could figure out how to do this peacefully, take a -- put a united front up to Saddam Hussein, and say, the world speaks, and he ignored the world. Remember, 1441 passed the Security Council unanimously. He made the decision. And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power."

So even today, our President gets up and, in response to these memos, denies that he or Tony Blair made a decision to go to war until the last second ("There's nothing farther from the truth."), something our papers are now saying we all knew wasn't so back when. So he lied then, and he lies today on this matter, and somehow this isn't considered a news story because somewhere, sometime, some reporters on some major papers actually published pieces contradicting him before the Downing Street documents themselves were written? The logic is fascinating. It is also shameful.

As ever, to hear this discussed in a blunt fashion, you have to repair to the Internet, where, at Salon, for instance, you can read Juan Cole writing in The Revenge of Baghdad Bob:

"Bush is trying to give the impression that his going to the United Nations showed his administration's good faith in trying to disarm Saddam by peaceful means. It does nothing of the sort. In fact, the memo contains key evidence that the entire U.N. strategy was a ploy, dreamed up by the British, to justify a war that Bush had decided to wage long ago... The docile White House press corps, which until the press conference had never asked the president about the Downing Street memo, predictably neglected to press Bush and Blair on those issues, allowing them to get away with mere obfuscation and meaningless non-answers."

I swear, if the American equivalents of the Downing Street memos were to leak (as they will sooner or later), there would be stories all over the world, while our papers would be saying: No news there; we knew it all along. So how have the various memos defied a mainstream media consensus and over these weeks risen, almost despite themselves, into the news, made their way into Congress, onto television, into consciousness?

Well, for one thing, the political Internet simply wouldn't stop yammering about them. Long before they were discussed in print, they were already up and being analyzed at sites like the War in Context and Antiwar.com. So credit the blogosphere with this one, at least in part. But let's not create too heroic a tale of the Internet's influence to match the now vastly overblown tale of the role of the press in the Watergate affair. Part of the answer also involves a shift in the wind -- the wind being, in the case of politics, falling polling figures for the President and Congress. Can't you feel it? The Bush administration seems somehow to be weakening.

The mainstream media can feel it, too, and weakness is irresistible. Before we're done, if we're not careful, we'll have a heroic tale of how the media saved us all from the Bush administration.

Sadly, the overall story of American press coverage of this administration and its Iraqi war has been a sorry one indeed, though there are distinct exceptions, one of which has been the work done by the Knight Ridder news service. Its reporters in Washington -- Warren Strobel, John Wolcott, and Jonathan Landay among others -- seemed remarkably uncowed by the Bush administration at a time when others were treading lightly indeed. Even now, compare Strobel's recent piece published under the very un-American sounding headline British documents portray determined U.S. march to war with the reporting norm. It begins: "Highly classified documents leaked in Britain appear to provide new evidence that President Bush and his national security team decided to invade Iraq much earlier than they have acknowledged and marched to war without dwelling on the potential perils." As it happens, Knight Ridder doesn't have a flagship paper among the majors that would have highlighted its fine reporting, and so its work was essentially buried.

About a month ago, to accompany a forceful analysis by Mark Danner (posted on May 15 at Tomdispatch), the New York Review of Books would become the first publication in this country to put the initial Downing Street memo in print (a striking act for a "review of books" and an indication of just how our major papers have let us down). Recently, John Wolcott of Knight Ridder wrote Danner a brief response and in the July 14th issue of the Review, Danner, who has been on fire this year, considers what to make of the strange media coverage of the memo in this country and why it is important. Thanks to the kindness of the Review's editors, you can read the exchange here. Tom

Why the Memo Matters
By Mark Danner

[On May 16th, the New York Review of Books put the original Downing Street memo in print in this country for the first time. Mark Danner wrote the accompanying analysis, "The Secret Way to War." In response to that piece, John Walcott of Knight Ridder news service wrote a brief letter and Danner, in answering, has now taken the opportunity to return to the significance of the Downing Street memo and the press coverage of it. This exchange will appear in the July 14th issue of the New York Review of Books, on newsstands June 20th.]

To the Editors:

Mark Danner's excellent article on the Bush administration's path to war in Iraq [The Secret Way to War, NYR, June 9] missed a couple of important signposts.

On October 11, 2001, Knight Ridder reported that less than a month after the September 11 attacks senior Pentagon officials who wanted to expand the war against terrorism to Iraq had authorized a trip to Great Britain in September by former CIA director James Woolsey in search of evidence that Saddam Hussein had played a role in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Then, on February 13, 2002, nearly six months before the Downing Street memo was written, Knight Ridder reported that President Bush had decided to oust Saddam Hussein and had ordered the CIA, the Pentagon, and other agencies to devise a combination of military, diplomatic, and covert steps to achieve that goal. Six days later, former Senator Bob Graham of Florida reports in his book, he was astounded when General Tommy Franks told him during a visit to the US Central Command in Tampa that the administration was shifting resources away from the pursuit of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan to prepare for war in Iraq.

John Walcott
Washington Bureau Chief
Knight Ridder

Mark Danner replies:

John Walcott is proud of his bureau's reporting, and he should be. As my colleague Michael Massing has written in the pages of the New York Review of Books, during the lead-up to the Iraq war Knight Ridder reporters had an enviable and unexampled record of independence and success. But Mr. Walcott's statement that in my article "The Secret Way to War" I "missed a couple of important signposts" brings up an obvious question: Signposts on the way to what? What exactly does the Downing Street memo (which is simply an official account of a British security cabinet meeting in July 2002) and related documents that have since appeared, prove? And why has the American press in large part still resisted acknowledging the story the documents tell?

As I wrote in my article,

"The great value of the discussion recounted in the memo...is to show, for the governments of both countries, a clear hierarchy of decision-making. By July 2002 at the latest, war had been decided on; the question at issue now was how to justify it -- how to ‘fix,' as it were, what Blair will later call ‘the political context.' Specifically, though by this point in July the President had decided to go to war, he had not yet decided to go to the United Nations and demand inspectors; indeed, as ‘C' [the chief of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA] points out, those on the National Security Council -- the senior security officials of the U.S. government – ‘had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record.' This would later change, largely as a result of the political concerns of these very people gathered together at 10 Downing Street."

Those "political concerns" centered on the fact that, as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw points out, "the case [for going to war] was thin" since, as the Attorney General points out, "the desire for regime change [in Iraq] was not a legal base for military action." In order to secure such a legal base, the British officials agree, the allies must contrive to win the approval of the United Nations Security Council, and the Foreign Secretary puts forward a way to do that: "We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors." Prime Minister Tony Blair makes very clear the point of such an ultimatum: "It would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the inspectors."

On February 13, 2002 -- five months before this British cabinet meeting, and thirteen months before the war began -- the second of the articles Mr. Walcott mentions had appeared, under his and Walter P. Strobel's byline and the stark headline Bush Has Decided to Overthrow Hussein. The article concludes this way:

"Many nations...can be expected to question the legality of the United States unilaterally removing another country's government, no matter how distasteful. But a senior State Department official, while unable to provide the precise legal authority for such a move, said, ‘It's not hard to make the case that Iraq is a threat to international peace and security.'... A diplomatic offensive aimed at generating international support for overthrowing Saddam's regime is likely to precede any attack on Iraq...

"The United States, perhaps with UN backing, is then expected to demand that Saddam readmit inspectors to root out Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs... If Baghdad refuses to readmit inspectors or if Saddam prevents them from carrying out their work, as he has in the past, Bush would have a pretext for action."

Thus the stratagem that the British would successfully urge on their American allies by late that summer was already under discussion within the State Department -- five months before the Downing Street meeting in July 2002, and more than a year before the war began.

Again, what does all this prove? From the point of view of "the senior State Department official," no doubt, such an admission leaked to a Knight Ridder reporter was an opening public salvo in the bureaucratic struggle that reached a climax that August, when President Bush finally accepted the argument of his secretary of state, and his British allies, and went "the United Nations route." Just in the way that unnoticed but prophetic intelligence concealed in a wealth of "chatter" is outlined brightly by future events, this leak now seems like a clear prophetic disclosure about what was to come, having been confirmed by what did in fact happen. But the Downing Street memo makes clear that at the time the "senior State Department official" spoke to the Knight Ridder reporters the strategy had not yet been decided. The memo, moreover, is not an anonymous statement to reporters but a record of what Britain's highest security officials actually said. It tells us much about how the decision was made, and shows decisively that, as I wrote in my article, "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."

The Knight Ridder pieces bring up a larger issue. It is a source of some irony that one of the obstacles to gaining recognition for the Downing Street memo in the American press has been the largely unspoken notion among reporters and editors that the story the memo tells is "nothing new." I say irony because we see in this an odd and familiar narrative from our current world of "frozen scandal" -- so-called scandals, that is, in which we have revelation but not a true investigation or punishment: scandals we are forced to live with. A story is told the first time but hardly acknowledged (as with the Knight Ridder piece), largely because the broader story the government is telling drowns it out. When the story is later confirmed by official documents, in this case the Downing Street memorandum, the documents are largely dismissed because they contain "nothing new."

Part of this comes down to the question of what, in our current political and journalistic world, constitutes a "fact." How do we actually prove the truth of a story, such as the rather obvious one that, as the Knight Ridder headline had it, "Bush has decided to overthrow Hussein" many months before the war and the congressional resolution authorizing it, despite the President's protestations that "no decision had been made"? How would one prove the truth of the story that fully eight months before the invasion of Iraq, as the head of British intelligence reports to his prime minister and his cabinet colleagues upon his return from Washington in July 2002, "the facts and the intelligence were being fixed around the policy"? Michael Kinsley, in a recent article largely dismissing the Downing Street memo, remarks about this sentence:

"Of course, if ‘intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,' rather than vice versa, that is pretty good evidence of Bush's intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right. And we know now that was true and a half. Fixing intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy is the Bush II governing style, especially concerning the war in Iraq. But C offered no specifics, or none that made it into the memo. Nor does the memo assert that actual decision makers had told him they were fixing the facts."

Consider for a moment this paragraph, which strikes me as a perfect little poem on our current political and journalistic state. Kinsley accepts as "true and a half" that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" -- that is, after all, "the Bush II governing style" -- but rejects the notion that the Downing Street memo actually proves this, since, presumably, the head of British intelligence "does [not] assert that actual decision makers had told him they were fixing the facts." Kinsley does not say from whom he thinks the chief of British intelligence, in reporting to his prime minister "on his recent talks in Washington," might have derived that information, if not "actual decision makers." (In fact, as the London Sunday Times reported, among the people he saw was his American counterpart, director of central intelligence George Tenet.) Kinsley does say that if the point, which he accepts as true -- indeed, almost blithely dismissing all who might doubt it -- could in fact be proved, it would be "pretty good evidence of Bush's intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right."

One might ask what would convince this writer, and many others, of the truth of what, apparently, they already know, and accept, and acknowledge that they know and accept. What could be said to establish "truth" -- to "prove it"? Perhaps a true congressional investigation of the way the administration used intelligence before the war -- an investigation of the kind that, as I wrote in my article, was promised by the Senate Intelligence Committee, then thoughtfully postponed until after the election -- though one might think the question might have had some relevance to Americans in deciding for whom to vote -- then finally, and quietly, abandoned. Instead, the Senate committee produced a report that, while powerfully damning on its own terms, explicitly excluded the critical question of how administration officials made use of the intelligence that was supplied them.

Still, Kinsley's column, and the cynical and impotent attitude it represents, suggests that such an investigation, if it occurred, might still not be adequate to make a publicly acceptable fact out of what everyone now knows and accepts. The column bears the perfect headline, "No Smoking Gun," which suggests that failing the discovery of a tape recording in which President Bush is quoted explicitly ordering George Tenet that he should "fix the intelligence and facts around the policy," many will never regard the case as proved -- though all the while accepting, of course, and admitting that they accept, that this is indeed what happened. The so-called "rules of objective journalism" dovetail with the disciplined functioning of a one-party government to keep the political debate willfully opaque and stupid.

So: if the excellent Knight Ridder articles by Mr. Walcott and his colleagues do indeed represent "signposts," then signposts on the way to what? American citizens find themselves on a very peculiar road, stumbling blindly through a dark wood. Having had before the war rather clear evidence that the Bush administration had decided to go to war even as it was claiming it was trying to avert war, we are now confronted with an escalating series of "disclosures" proving that the original story, despite the broad unwillingness to accept it, was in fact true.

Many in Congress, including many leading Democrats who voted to give the President the authority to go to war -- fearing the political consequences of opposing him -- and thus welcomed his soothing arguments that such a vote would enable him to avoid war rather than to undertake it, now find themselves in an especially difficult position, claiming, as Senator John Kerry did during the presidential campaign, that they were "misled" into supporting a war that they believed they were voting to help prevent. This argument is embarrassingly thin but it remains morally incriminating enough to go on confusing and corrupting a nascent public debate on Iraq that is sure to become more difficult and painful.

Whether or not the Downing Street memo could be called a "smoking gun," it has long since become clear that the UN inspections policy that, given time, could in fact have prevented war -- by revealing, as it eventually would have, that Saddam had no threatening stockpiles of "weapons of mass destruction" -- was used by the administration as a pretext: a means to persuade the country to begin a war that need never have been fought. It was an exceedingly clever pretext, for every action preparing for war could by definition be construed to be an action intended to avert it -- as necessary to convince Saddam that war was imminent. According to this rhetorical stratagem, the actions, whether preparing to wage war or seeking to avert it, merge, become indistinguishable. Failing the emergence of a time-stamped recording of President Bush declaring, "I have today decided to go to war with Saddam and all this inspection stuff is rubbish," we are unlikely to recover the kind of "smoking gun" that Kinsley and others seem to demand.

Failing that, the most reliable way to distinguish the true intentions of Bush and his officials is by looking at what they actually did, and the fact is that, despite the protestations of many in the United Nations and throughout the world, they refused to let the inspections run their course. What is more, the arguments of the President and others in his administration retrospectively justifying the war after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- stressing that Saddam would always have been a threat because he could have "reconstituted" his weapons programs -- make a mockery of the proposition that the administration would have been willing to leave him in power, even if the inspectors had been allowed sufficient time to prove before the war, as their colleagues did after it, that no weapons existed in Iraq.

We might believe that we are past such matters now. Alas, as Americans go on dying in Iraq and their fellow citizens grow ever more impatient with the war, the story of its beginning, clouded with propaganda and controversy as it is, will become more important, not less. Consider the strong warning put forward in a recently released British Cabinet document dated two days before the Downing Street memo (and eight months before the war), that "the military occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise." On this point, as the British document prophetically observes, "US military plans are virtually silent." So too were America's leaders, and we live with the consequences of that silence. As support for the war collapses, the cost will become clear: for most citizens, 1,700 American dead later -- tens of thousands of Iraqi dead later -- the war's beginning remains as murky and indistinct as its ending.

Mark Danner, a longtime New Yorker Staff writer and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, is Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. His most recent book is Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, which collects his pieces on torture and Iraq that first appeared in the New York Review of Books. His work can be found at markdanner.com

This article appears in the July 14th issue of The New York Review of Books

This post can be found at http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=3602

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