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'Downing Street memo': The second draft of history
Posted on Mon, Jun. 20, 2005
By PAUL WALDMAN
Philadelphia Daily News
FOR THE LAST month, newspapers large and small across the country have featured mentions of the "Downing Street memo," the British document from July 2002 describing meetings between British and American officials about Iraq.
"Military action was now seen as inevitable," reads the memo, first revealed in the Times of London on May 1. "But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
But most of these mentions in American papers weren't news stories. They were letters to the editor asking why there haven't been more news stories.
But a tipping point may now have been reached, and we can hopefully expect some serious, extended discussion of what the memo tells us about the run-up to the Iraq War. If so, news organizations should take the time to consider how they can get the story right.
The central question raised by the memo is whether the Bush administration was lying - and that's not too strong a word - to the American people before the war. According to the Downing Street memo, the Bush administration had decided to go to war while it was still proclaiming its desire to avoid it. So there are some questions that need to be answered:
1. Which American officials told Richard Dearlove, the head of British intelligence, that military action was inevitable, and the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy?
2. The memo states that in early 2002, the administration had begun "spikes of activity"
- increased bombings of Iraq
- to pressure Saddam Hussein.
Was the intent to goad Saddam into a military response that could be used as a pretext for invading Iraq?
3. The memo states, "No decisions had been taken, but thought the most likely timing in U.S. minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the U.S. Congressional elections."
Were the November 2002 elections part of the calculation on the timing of the invasion?
4. According to the memo, "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."
HOW DOES the administration square this with its unequivocal statements on Saddam's supposedly terrifying arsenal of weapons?
5. Despite Bush's and Tony Blair's denials of the memo's contents, no one has disputed the memo's authenticity.
So, were American officials lying to British officials, telling them that war was a foregone conclusion when it wasn't? Were the British officials who returned from Washington lying to Prime Minister Blair about what they were told? Both possibilities seem absurd.
It is all too often the case that when the war drums are beating, the press loses its ability to aggressively question the government. As the Downing Street memo has shown, many questions remain not only unanswered, but unasked. Perhaps they will be asked now - better late than never.
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow with Media Matters for America.