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The Real News in the Downing Street Memos

Los Angeles Times
By Michael Smith
Michael Smith writes on defense issues for the Sunday Times of London.

June 23, 2005

It is now nine months since I obtained the first of the "Downing Street memos," thrust into my hand by someone who asked me to meet him in a quiet watering hole in London for what I imagined would just be a friendly drink.

At the time, I was defense correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, and a staunch supporter of the decision to oust Saddam Hussein. The source was a friend. He'd given me a few stories before but nothing nearly as interesting as this.

The six leaked documents I took away with me that night were to change completely my opinion of the decision to go to war and the honesty of Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush.

They focused on the period leading up to the Crawford, Texas, summit between Blair and Bush in early April 2002, and were most striking for the way in which British officials warned the prime minister, with remarkable prescience, what a mess post-war Iraq would become. Even by the cynical standards of realpolitik, the decision to overrule this expert advice seemed to be criminal.

The second batch of leaks arrived in the middle of this year's British general election, by which time I was writing for a different newspaper, the Sunday Times. These documents, which came from a different source, related to a crucial meeting of Blair's war Cabinet on July 23, 2002. The timing of the leak was significant, with Blair clearly in electoral difficulties because of an unpopular war.

I did not then regard the now-infamous memo — the one that includes the minutes of the July 23 meeting — as the most important. My main article focused on the separate briefing paper for those taking part, prepared beforehand by Cabinet Office experts.

It said that Blair agreed at Crawford that "the UK would support military action to bring about regime change." Because this was illegal, the officials noted, it was "necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action."

But Downing Street had a "clever" plan that it hoped would trap Hussein into giving the allies the excuse they needed to go to war. It would persuade the U.N. Security Council to give the Iraqi leader an ultimatum to let in the weapons inspectors.

Although Blair and Bush still insist the decision to go to the U.N. was about averting war, one memo states that it was, in fact, about "wrong-footing" Hussein into giving them a legal justification for war.

British officials hoped the ultimatum could be framed in words that would be so unacceptable to Hussein that he would reject it outright. But they were far from certain this would work, so there was also a Plan B.

American media coverage of the Downing Street memo has largely focused on the assertion by Sir Richard Dearlove, head of British foreign intelligence, that war was seen as inevitable in Washington, where "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

But another part of the memo is arguably more important. It quotes British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon as saying that "the U.S. had already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime." This we now realize was Plan B.

Put simply, U.S. aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone were dropping a lot more bombs in the hope of provoking a reaction that would give the allies an excuse to carry out a full-scale bombing campaign, an air war, the first stage of the conflict.

British government figures for the number of bombs dropped on southern Iraq in 2002 show that although virtually none were used in March and April, an average of 10 tons a month were dropped between May and August.

But these initial "spikes of activity" didn't have the desired effect. The Iraqis didn't retaliate. They didn't provide the excuse Bush and Blair needed. So at the end of August, the allies dramatically intensified the bombing into what was effectively the initial air war.

The number of bombs dropped on southern Iraq by allied aircraft shot up to 54.6 tons in September alone, with the increased rates continuing into 2003.

In other words, Bush and Blair began their war not in March 2003, as everyone believed, but at the end of August 2002, six weeks before Congress approved military action against Iraq.

The way in which the intelligence was "fixed" to justify war is old news.

The real news is the shady April 2002 deal to go to war, the cynical use of the U.N. to provide an excuse, and the secret, illegal air war without the backing of Congress.,0,1838...


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Consistantly, for the last 3 years on his work with the Telegraph and with the TimesOnLine, Michael Smith has been the pre-eminent journalist on the subject of the illegal war in Iraq.

One could do no better than to spend several days reading Michael Smith like one would read a history book, as his information, his view and his analysis are not to be found ANYWHERE in the US media.

Why is this? Because US journalists were told not to report certain news, and if they did, only to report it with a certain slant.

I am delighted that more attention is being paid to Michael Smith in the US media, and that the public has more of a chance to get their information from so reliable a source.

However, it is more important now to demand that US media start towing the line. The Washington Post and the New York Times were excellent in their coverage of the torture memos. But on the memos documenting the illegality of the war in Iraq, almost silent. And when they made a little noise it was only because the informed public put pressure on Michael Getler, ombudsman of the Washington Post, and Byron Calame, Public Editor of the New York Times.

I am not exaggerating when I say that there is a media blackout on the subject of the illegal war in Iraq. The last time those words were used in the US media is when Kofi Annan stated plainly, "The war in Iraq is illegal"

All of the articles we are now reading in relation to the Downing Street Documents are about nothing if not the maneuverings to make an illegal war seem legal. And yet, still, 90 days after the airing of the BBC programme, "Tony: Iraq & The Truth" we are still battling every day to get the media NOT JUST to pay attention to the subject but TO REPORT THOROUGHLY AND ACCURATELY.

I am glad that Michael Smith has crossed the ocean. I do not hope that he becomes a US journalist, because their fates are not to be envied. But I hope he continues to write for the LA Times and other major US newspapers. He might keep some of our journalists in the US informed; and he will raise the bar so high for standards in news writing that we may yet read some news that is accurate, fair and thorough about the war in Iraq.

Well, Michael, I guess you have found your reader base. Welcome to America!

I wrote this and posted it on 2 AOL political chatrooms yesterday and they yanked it immediately...

Last weekend, the most peculiar thing happened. I had tuned in early to the Fox News Channel to view their "Cost Of Freedom" business block, four half-hour shows where various talking heads gather to pontificate and make prognostications about the stock market. The lead-in to Bulls and Bears was Fox and Friends, a happy-talk sort of affair with a white guy, a black guy and a blond woman hosting the show. As the final moments of their program waned, something struck me as odd. The blond woman got this grave look on her face and somberly reported that "President Bush's approval rating in the latest poll had dropped to 42%." Huh? Isn't this, afterall, FOX News? There was a palpable air of, well, a death in the family on the set. After sporadically watching Fox for the past five years or so, I could not remember even one instance where they even ran a negative story on old W. What was going on here? I forgot about it to watch the even more forgettable cost of freedom.

One thing stuck with me, though. Why all the hangdog looks on the faces of those Fox anchors? I mean, wasn't this just another "liberal" poll to spin? It's a sport at Fox. I started thinking, no, there was definitely more to it than the poll. What was it? Then it hit me. The so-called "Downing Street Memos." Ironically, coincidentally, capriciously, perhaps even fatefully, the memos had leaked concomitantly with the outing of the secret identity of the notorious "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame. But there was a couldn't be blamed, not this time, on "the liberal media." At least not the American one. No, this time it was America's staunchest ally, Great Britain, where the smoke was starting to grow from simmering white to bellowing black. How far behind could the fire be?

Although I was just a kid for Watergate, I followed it closely. I mean, they didn't teach this stuff in public junior high school civics class in 1973. I started to recall the Nixon white house, saddled with a bloody, unpopular war and how, after the first automatic denials, the wagons slowly started to circle for the inevitable siege to come. I remembered a country bitterly divided in those days, although there were only three television networks and no Internet then to fan the flames. I remember all the Republicans (my parents included) calling the whole thing a partisan effort to make Nixon look bad and nothing more. Anyone daring to question the President of the US was immediately labeled a "traitor." After it was all said and done, as always, always, it was the cover-up, the lies, the dishonesty, not the act, that did Nixon and his cohorts in.

Fast forward to 2005. Where do these new memos lead? Could they be fake? I guess anything is possible. What if they aren't? What will the ramifications be? The consequences of the two most powerful nations on the planet agreeing to "fix" (get ready to hear that word many, many times) intelligence to make their case to go to war? Will the neocons stand by their man if the walls come tumblin' down for the 2006 elections?

Stay tuned, friends, the spin has just begun.

Good letter. If a Republican is branded a liar then you're a traitor. But if a Democrat lies then an all out committee has to be appointed to investigate and then impeachment can't be far behind.

Thank you, sir.

It's another sad time for America when our own media aides and abets this administration all in the name of what? Profits and/or CIA positioning. I hold them accountable. They helped keep this hidden from our eyes not giving it the attention it so deserved, like the "run-away bride," showing they've run out of ideas on what to cover.

And, I'll never foget that video circulating all over the internet (notice Google even takes down links now by the masses to these sites); it clearly shows Bush joking in March 2004 to a turf & surf dinner held annually for the very media status quo. And all of them are laughing as Bush shows a slide show behind him looking behind curtains and under his desk while he jokes about "Nope, no WMD here..." and so on. Tears of saddness rolled down my eyes while tears of laughter rolled down they're own. Leiberman was sitting at a front table laughing, as well. And people have to ask if he's truely a Democrat. If one seen this video clip "out here" you wouldn't need to ask any longer.

So, thank you Michael Smith for having the integrity and courage to speak loudly across the Atlantic so those of us with ears could hear and we do. Now, how do we stop corporate America I ask? They own our media in all forms. How do we as Americans take back our country, I ask when still many of my fellow Americans either don't "get it," "don't want to" or "just don't care" because they're stuck on stupid, stuck on hatred, stuck on war-mongreling when in fact they too are aiding and abetting the crimes of this administration.

If not for your fellow Americans, stand-up and be heard against these lies of mass destruction for our troops; for your children and grandchildren and for the world. It's not about you, it's about all of us.

Kudo's to those working behind the scenes working to keep the Downing Street documentations in the public eye. You're dedication will never go unforgotten. At least they care... and they're not owned by corporate America so what have they got to loose except their safety. Just don't stop. Keep talking about it out here and on the radio - least we forget.

This is one of the two most important things I've read this month! Plan B is shocking. We can all agree that "spikes of activity" is truly the real news. It is a story that demands investigation.

The other thing I read is Mark Danner's "The Secret Way to War" (New York Review of Books, available online at, which quotes Ron Suskind's "Without a Doubt (The New York Times Magazine):

An unnamed Bush senior advisor said that guys like me [i.e., reporters and commentators] were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Every American needs to learn about Plan B and "spikes of activity", despite the Bush empire's efforts to silence the Downing Street Minutes story.

Why isn't this story getting more airplay or discussion?

Why isn't this front page stuff? Yeah, I know about the lazy (sell-out) MSM, but for God's sake! From what I've read, Saddam was the only terrorist in Iraq before the war and now it is the number one breeding ground. What more does the media need to fully investigate this story and point out that because of this President and his cast of characters we are not safer! If this story hit all the page ones' out there, poll numbers would really reflect the mood of the country.

I guess I should be grateful (amazed?) that MSNBC has looked at this.

If this isn't damning evidence that points to the fact that Bush and his Administration has actually increased terrorism instead of combatting it I don't know what is. How could anyone, especially conservatives, realistically feel safer?

Doesn't this also show how the Downing Street papers foretold the future?

What are we going to do about holding this President and his Administration accountable for the lies, deception and the immoral direction this country is heading? Who is going to be the major Democratic candidate that will finally stand up and tell this Administration we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore??!!

I too thank you for your work. Please do not let this die. There may be next to no coverage of this here in the states now, but I hope that we can all change this. I can't believe that something like this could be politicized the way it is. I believe every American should be concerned enough to at least allow a bi-partisan investigation. After all, if the Bushies didn't do anything wrong, then what do they have to worry about, right?

Yes, the American media are a tool of big American corporations who love Bush to death. Why is there no Woodward and Bernstein reporters investigating the real reason we went to war. Because the media is owned by big business. If my memory serves me correctly I thought we went into Iraq because they had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and this was to be a preemptive measure. Now all of a sudden it's become well Saddam should have been gotten rid of anyway. Bush should get his stories straight. If Clinton had done even a fraction of this he would have been investigated till there was no tomorrow and then impeached and tarred and feathered and whatever else can be done. At least Clinton's lies didn't cause any innocent deaths. Don't let this story die no matter what.

I have quite a lot to say about the Downing Street Memos.What do we as Americans, Republicans and Democrats do to make the press accountable for give and take information that we deserve to know. The media has failed to give coverage to one of the most important controvercial subjects in the history of the United States.We must speak out and demand media attention. We must demand investigation into the events leading to this war. As a group we can be strong, Democrats and Republins standing side by side. If we let this goverment continue to silence the media it will continue to silence true justice. We must take bake the media, we must stand strong.

I agree with you but unfortunately our media is too concerned over what the celebrities are doing. This is the problem in America. The mainstream media has become a big business and it is now more concerned with viewership and circulation than it is with reporting the news. Magazines that feature Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes OUT-SELL magazines that deal with current world news. Our mainstream media agents are more inclined to get into "freedom of press" arguments regarding the right to photograph celebrities than they are in dealing with our government. It is not because our government is so open that there is no need to argue it is just that the people's focus has shifted from worthy news to juicy news. Most people that I deal with throughout the day don't know the name of the U.N. Secretary General or what the USA PATRIOT Act is REALLY about but they surely know that Brad and Angelina built a sandcastle in Africa. It is shameful. How do we go about getting people interested in things that matter?

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