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Philadelphia Inquirer


June 17, 2005 Friday CITY-D-EAST EDITION
SECTION: NATIONAL; Pg. A01
LENGTH: 972 words
HEADLINE: Trying to make hay of prewar memos
BYLINE: By Dick Polman; Inquirer Political Analyst
DATELINE: WASHINGTON
BODY:
George W. Bush asked voters last year to judge him as a war president, and the strategy worked. Yet today, as casualties mount in Iraq, and as sunny administration statements are contradicted by events on the ground, the public's patience is being taxed as never before.

These developments have emboldened grassroots liberals to focus public attention on the so-called Downing Street memo (and seven others, leaked in London last weekend), all of which raise questions about Bush's case for war. And yesterday, a dozen House Democrats staged a hearing on the British government documents, hoping to persuade more Americans that, in Michigan Rep. John Conyers' words, at least 1,700 U.S. troops "have lost their lives for a lie."

Yet even as the political climate seems increasingly hospitable to antiwar talk, most Democratic leaders have remained mum on the British memos.

The silence of the loyal opposition is noteworthy. Even party chairman Howard Dean, whose antiwar stance fueled his presidential candidacy, has steered clear of the memos. And none of the party's White House hopefuls have run to the cameras to recite the British line about how "the intelligence and facts were being fixed" by the Bush team.

This topic was assiduously avoided at yesterday's hearing, but there was some angry buzz about it in the corridor, among liberal activists who, in the words of commentator Arianna Huffington, are "like parched earth, desperate for some drops of truth about Iraq" from their Democratic leaders. The general consensus, shared by political analysts, is that most prominent Democrats are complicit on the war, and hence not well-positioned to attack it now.

Michael Desch, a former State Department official who teaches foreign policy at the George Bush School at Texas A&M, said by phone: "The trouble with most mainstream Democrats is that these people are up to their ears in Iraq, having voted to authorize force in 2002. So it's tougher for them to make hay now, because they don't want to face the 'flip-flop' charge, or be asked to explain why they didn't know what the British knew." (White House hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kerry, Evan Bayh and John Edwards all voted for the war.)

The White House has repeatedly contended that it used all the intelligence in good faith. But war critics believe that the British memos - all of them written prior to the invasion - are a treasure trove. One memo states, "There is no greater threat now that [Saddam Hussein] will use weapons of mass destruction than there has been in recent years." Another states, "U.S. scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al [Qaeda] is so far frankly unconvincing" - even though, four months earlier, Vice President Cheney told NBC that such a link was "pretty well confirmed."

This material was circulated at the hearing yesterday. It was not a typical Capitol Hill hearing, the kind that is usually staged in a cavernous room with mahogany tables. The House's majority Republicans would not let Conyers use an official hearing room, so he and his renegades went down to the House basement and squeezed 100 sweaty people into a space that was roughly the size of a double-bed room at a Comfort Inn. The folding tables looked as if they had been borrowed from a church social.

The witnesses seemed unperturbed. Retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who used to conduct briefings for President Ronald Reagan, declared that the Bush administration was guilty of "consequential, death-dealing lies." He also pronounced the media guilty of timidity, and recounted an incident that took place at the 2004 White House correspondents dinner:

"The establishment was all yukking it up... as the President [joked about] looking behind his office furniture for WMD - with Bush saying: 'They've got to be somewhere... nope, no weapons over there... maybe under here?' Ha, ha, ha. You all laughed at him, folks. I'll tell you who was not laughing - Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq 11 days after the show put on by the President."

Sheehan, who cofounded Gold Star Mothers for Peace, sat at McGovern's right. She vented her frustration, wondering "how many more families here in America are going to get a visit from the grim reaper dressed in a U.S. military uniform while we are trying to get our congressional leadership to do their duty to the Constitution?" She demanded that Congress use the British memos to probe anew Bush's war plans, but that won't happen unless GOP lawmakers revolt en masse against the President.

However, there is some talk on Capitol Hill about demanding an exit strategy, even a troop withdrawal. Former diplomat Joseph Wilson, one of the witnesses yesterday, said, "Our continued presence will guarantee more American deaths and more people who hate us for what we have done and from whose ranks increasing number of terrorists will be drawn."

Some political analysts argue that while many Americans may not care to reopen the prewar debate, they might focus their growing ire on the postwar predicament. And this is where the British memos may play a role, because postwar concerns are addressed. Example: "A postwar occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise. As already made clear, the U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point."

All told, the political power of the memos - and the willingness of Democratic leaders to invoke them - will hinge on how the war goes. In the words of Missouri-based political analyst Tim Lomperis, a former Army intelligence officer: "People are focused on results. If peace breaks out and there's a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, all will be forgiven. But if Iraq keeps unraveling, then all bets are off."

Contact staff writer Dick Polman at 215-854-4430 or dpolman@phillynews.com

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