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Is this Bush's 'smoking gun'?
War opponents seek U.S. inquiry into U.K. memos Documents show war started before Congress approved
TIM HARPER, WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON—Cindy Sheehan never supported George W. Bush's war in Iraq, and always thought the case for the invasion was built on a pyramid of lies.
Her son Casey shared her views, she says, even as he deployed for Iraq from Fort Hood, Tex. His perception didn't change even as the army specialist mounted a rescue mission in Sadr City 14 months ago, then took a bullet in the midst of chaotic battle, ending a life that didn't last 25 years.
He had been in Iraq only two weeks.
"I always knew this war was built on lies," the California mother said, "and I will always regret that I didn't speak out before my son died.
"But now I have something that confirms what I've always known. It's there in black and white and I'm not going to let this thing die."
The evidence that has so energized Sheehan and others in the United States is known as the Downing Street memos.
War opponents say the eight leaked documents are the smoking gun that prove the United States was taken to war on a pack of falsehoods and that more than 1,700 young Americans have died in a conflict that was preordained by the U.S. president and his advisers.
The memos outline a series of British perceptions of Bush's determination to rush to war in Iraq throughout 2002. They accuse Washington of fixing intelligence to fit its policy, lacking any plan for post-invasion reconstruction and trying to goad Saddam Hussein into retaliation against air strikes to provoke a pretence for invasion before the case was made at the United Nations.
So pervasive have the Downing Street memos become in the United States, they are now widely recognized by the acronym DSM.
Two Democratic representatives, John Conyers of Michigan and Barbara Lee of California, are behind a growing demand for a congressional inquiry into the memos, to determine whether Bush lied to the American people.
The two lawmakers have delivered a letter signed by more than 560,000 Americans seeking an inquiry.
"I want to wake up the country so more people don't get the type of wakeup call I got," Sheehan said.
Two of the memos have received the most attention in the United States.
The minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top officials refer to reports from Richard Dearlove, then chief of Britain's intelligence service.
"Military action was now seen as inevitable," the minutes state. "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by conjunction of terrorism and WMD (weapons of mass destruction). But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
Two days earlier, another briefing memo given to Blair seems eerily prescient:
"A post-war 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 that point."
The memos were originally obtained by British reporter Michael Smith, who wrote about them in The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times.
Nobody in Blair's government has questioned their authenticity.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times this week, Smith argued that the real news in the July 23 memo was that the United States was engaged in an illegal air war against Iraq in the summer of 2002.
Smith pointed to the part of the memo quoting Geoffrey Hoon, Britain's defence secretary at the time, saying the U.S. had already begun "spikes of activity" over Baghdad, long before Washington argued its case before the United Nations.
The United States had begun intensified aerial bombing of Baghdad in May 2002, continuing through August of that year, in a bid to trigger a retaliation that would justify a full-out invasion.
When that did not happen, the U.S. responded by ratcheting up the bombing in September 2002, continuing until the invasion formally began on March 19, 2003.
Based on the memos he obtained, Smith argued that Bush and Blair really began an air war six weeks before the U.S. Congress approved military action.
In a March 25, 2002, memo British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Blair: "If 11 September had not happened, it is doubtful that the U.S. would now be considering military actions against Iraq. In addition, there has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with OBL (Osama bin Laden) and Al Qaeda."
Three days earlier, Straw had received this assessment from Peter Ricketts, Blair's foreign policy adviser: "For Iraq, `regime change' does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam."
Initially, the Downing Street memos received scant attention in the United States, with large newspapers either ignoring them or relegating reports about them to their back pages.
With the benefit of hindsight, more mea culpas have been offered, but the original thought in the United States seemed to be that the so-called fixing of intelligence and the predetermination to take out Saddam had been thoroughly aired.
After all, similar allegations have been made in books published by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and renowned journalist Bob Woodward.
Bush had been forced to distance himself from perceptions that Saddam had somehow been linked to the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001.
And successive government inquiries proved the intelligence used to justify the war was flawed at best, bogus at worst.
Downing Street memos? Yawn. Old news.
Yet, the mainstream media have been forced to look again by the likes of David Swanson, co-founder of a website called afterdowningstreet.org.
"I've worked on a lot of campaigns and coalitions, but I've never seen anything grow this fast," Swanson said.
"The reason we're getting so many hits is that readers couldn't go to the New York Times website or CNN.com to read these memos."
But Nile Gardiner, a specialist in U.S.-Britain relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, called the memos "much ado about nothing."
He said they show no evidence that either government sought to mislead.
"I don't see how this can significantly shift opinion in the U.S. The debate here is all about troop casualties, how long they will remain there, what happens if they leave — debate which looks ahead, not backward."
Bush has been publicly asked about the memos only once, after a White House meeting with Blair on June 7.
First, he tried to question the motive of the leaks, coming on the eve of the British election, then denied he had made up his mind for an invasion as early as 2002.
"There's nothing farther from the truth," Bush said. "My conversation with the prime minister was, how could we do this peacefully, what could we do?
"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 Downing Street movement has grow since then.
The slogan "Ask me about the Downing Street memo" has been plastered on T-shirts, barbecue aprons, teddy bears, wall clocks and even shirts for your dog. They are available on the americablog.com website.
Network and cable news programs took up the case this week and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove have fielded questions about the memos.
Rove, on MSNBC's television show Hardball, dismissed the memos as "a Brit making a comment about what he perceived to be U.S. policy.''
Rumsfeld said that no one in the administration lied about weapons of mass destruction.
Still, the memos have dovetailed with a precipitous drop in public support for the war, emboldening war opponents and Democrats awakened from their post-election slumber.
"This is all about our system of checks and balances," Swanson said. "If you can't impeach when lives are lost on lies, when can you impeach?"
Additional articles by Tim Harper