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Memo to editors: Cover memos
By C.B. Hanif
Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005
No topic has funneled more recent outrage to this desk than what have become known as the Downing Street memos. Critics charge that the leaked British intelligence documents are further evidence that the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq was a done deal at least eight months earlier, rather than a last resort, and that the administration scammed a timid Congress while assuring a fearful American public that an invasion decision had not been made.
"And, if this be true," e-mailed Jimmy L. Shirley Jr., "it shows that the war is based on a lie (sound familiar?) and that our boys and girls are dying and being maimed based on this. Two of my sons are over there in the Army. I hope they get out and away alive and in one piece."
Mr. Shirley's hope should be shared by journalists at American news organizations whose credibility once again is on the line. The focus this time is the highly classified documents first published May 1 by TheSunday Times of London. They include the top-secret minutes of Prime Minister Tony Blair's War Cabinet meeting in July 2002 at his 10 Downing Street residence. Among other things, the documents quote the head of the foreign intelligence service, having just met in Washington with American counterparts, reporting that the Bush administration's "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
The initial silent treatment of the memos by news organizations on this side of the Atlantic contrasts starkly with such pre-invasion cheerleading as stories about the fabled weapons of mass destruction. A year ago, The New York Times said that it "looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in."
Again this time, the media have seemed to be in cahoots with the administration by appearing to help stem debate on what the White House has dismissed as old news fully explored during past U.S. and British election campaigns. Illustrative of the media's performance is that the first reference in this paper to the memos was in a May 13 Molly Ivins opinion column. Newspapers, which should have run stories and let readers make up their minds, have instead become part of the story. Readers who a month ago took this paper to task for underplaying the memos now are questioning the lack of answers to the questions they raised.
"So what underlies this disinterest?" asks Cathy Olsson. "Is it possible the administration is lulled by your apathy?" Referring to the Watergate scandal, she said: "Thirty years ago, a few true patriots braved the power of a morally debased administration to expose the extent of its corruption. Will we ever see their like again?"
"I would like to encourage you to give the Downing Street Minutes and related documents the extensive coverage that they clearly merit," wrote Mel Waxman of Delray Beach. "There is no more important question in a democracy than whether the people and their representatives have been misled about the justification for a war." He cited a constitutional attorney at AfterDowningStreet.org saying that the memos are "new and compelling evidence" that the president was actively engaged in efforts to deceive Congress and the American people about the basis for going to war against Iraq, which if true constitutes a High Crime under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution. "Please ask yourselves," Mr. Waxman said, "whether each item you are reporting on is important enough to take up space that should be devoted to this question."
"Frustrated in Florida" Merrilyn Karrels e-mailed, "If you care anything about the direction of this country, you will make some more noise about the Downing Street Memo. President Bush may have committed the 'ultimate' high crime against our government. This is not old news and the American public deserves to know the truth as to why and when Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove and a few other leaders started planning this war. You are the voice of the people," she said, "not politics."
James Ryan e-mailed, "Why are you ignoring what is one of the most important news stories in the history of the United States? A president and his administration willfully and purposely deceived the country they represent into a war. Americans are dead, and continue to die. What can be more newsworthy? Your lack of coverage on the Downing Street memos will boomerang on you when (not if) the viewing/listening public wonders where your journalistic integrity was on this issue."
Even if the memos are saying only what everyone already knows, the administration needs to answer for them more than it has. In failing to seek those answers, news organizations also have a lot for which to answer.
"The president he's got his war; folks don't know just what it's for," sang Les McCann at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival. That classic tune, Compared to What, seems a metaphor for the administration's shifting justifications — WMDs, fighting terrorism, ousting Saddam Hussein, installing democracy — for another war, and for the timid media's culpability in placing men, women and children in harm's way.