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Michael Smith discusses receiving the leaked so-called Downing Street Memo
July 6, 2005 Wednesday
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The use of anonymous sources is certainly in the news this week between the case of Judith Miller and Matt Cooper and the publication of Bob Woodward's book about Deep Throat. We'll talk with Woodward tomorrow. Right now, we're going to hear the story of how an anonymous source leaked the so-called Downing Street Memo to my guest, Michael Smith. He is a reporter for the Sunday Times of London. That now famous memo was one of several that were leaked to Smith. Six memos were leaked to him in September 2004 when he was working for The Daily Telegraph.
Those memos covered the period of March to April 2002, leading up to the summit between Prime Minister Blair and President Bush in Crawford, Texas. A second batch of memos was leaked to Smith at the Sunday Times in April of this year. Those included the Downing Street Memo, which was dated July 23rd, 2002. These top-secret memos from 2002 outline warnings that British Cabinet members gave to Prime Minister Tony Blair about the risks of joining with the US in an invasion of Iraq. The memos also express skepticism about the Bush administration's claims about the threat posed by Iraq.
What seems to you to be the most important piece of information in these documents?
Mr. MICHAEL SMITH (Journalist): There are three things that I think are important, yes. The first thing is that Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush agreed back in April 2002--not July 2002, as everyone keeps thinking--but April 2002, to take military action to achieve regime change; that British officials then decided that the only way--since regime change is illegal under international law, under British interpretation of international law, the only way they could make it legal was to go to the UN, get an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on UN weapons inspections, and then declare him in violation of that because he wasn't doing enough, which is exactly what happened. They decided they'd do that to justify a military action. So we didn't go to the UN to avert war. We went to the UN to get an excuse for war.
That's the two things that, up front, I think politically are important, but perhaps devastatingly important--and much, much more so because it has real, real implications and real consequences--was all of the warnings they got about how bad Iraq could be after a war, about the lack of preparation, about how they weren't preparing enough for postwar Iraq, how they weren't working out what they would do and how--a total mess it would be if they didn't work it out properly.
GROSS: You know, in that July 23rd memo, the one known as the Downing Street Memo, there's some discussion of how the case for war is thin. The memo says, `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 neighbors and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.'
It seemed that England was very concerned about the lack of a legal justification for war, and it seems also that they were concerned that their standard for a legal justification was going to be higher than that of the Bush administration. Is that your reading of it?
Mr. SMITH: I don't think there's any doubt about that. The difference between law--in a sense, the law was the same, but in many, many ways, it was different. We needed the UN Security Council to say that Saddam was in breach of his obligations under the cease-fire resolution, Resolution 687, which is the resolution which constrains him on WMD and says he has to get rid of his WMD. We needed the UN Security Council to decide that he was in breach of it. The president himself--under American interpretation of law, the president himself could decide that for himself. So he didn't actually need to go to the UN at all, and it was Colin Powell and Blair between them--Colin Powell on the basis that if you were going to build a coalition, you've got to get as many people on board as possible.
So that was the whole point of going--as far as Mr. Bush was concerned, he understood that he needed Blair on side. He needed as many people on side as possible. Blair was the key player in terms of getting people on side, because he was a big cou--Britain was a small country but with a big profile that would stand alongside America and, therefore, give it more than just America doing it. So Bush understood that. He understood Mr. Blair also had political difficulties at home, that there was a sizeable minority here against the war. So he was happy to go to the UN, but he didn't need to.
GROSS: The way I read the memos, it sounds like there was a lot of concern in the Blair administration that there was no legal justification for war, that one of the ways of getting legal justification would be to create this ultimatum for Saddam Hussein, an ultimatum that Saddam Hussein would fail to agree to, and that could be the opportunity for, you know, a legal justification for war.
Mr. SMITH: When the prime minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April, he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change. And that was a crucial phrase here in Britain, because, of course, certainly under British interpretation of international law, regime change was illegal. So our prime minister had agreed back in April 2002 that he would back military action to achieve something which was illegal under British law. More than that, of course, both he and President Bush continued right through 2002 to say that no decision had been made on whether to go to war or not. And clearly, the decision was made to go to war in April 2002.
And still, I think, in some ways, the focus hasn't been enough on that in America and a realization that if the prime minister is discussing Iraq with President Bush and he agrees to back military action to achieve regime change, by the very nature of things, the person persuading him to agree to it is President Bush.
GROSS: The document also elaborates on what in a previous document was described as wrong-footing Saddam Hussein. Would you read that part for us?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah, sure. It says, `The ministers are invited to agree to engage the US on the need to set military plans within a realistic political strategy, which includes identifying the succession to Saddam Hussein and creating the conditions necessary to justify military action, which might include an ultimatum for the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq.' So in other words, the whole business of going to the UN wasn't to avert war, as both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair said only last month when they were in Washington together, but it was in order deliberately to wrong-foot, as Christopher Meyer had said, Saddam into giving them an excuse to going to war. They hoped that he would refuse or, in some way, they could say he was refusing to work with the weapons inspectors and, therefore, he was in breach of UN Security Council resolutions and, therefore, they had a reason to go to war. And, indeed, that's, of course, what actually happened.
GROSS: Is there any evidence that Blair tried to talk Bush out of going to war?
Mr. SMITH: Now I think this is probably--over here, this was perhaps the most damning aspect of the whole thing; that here, we had our prime minister in that whole month--you know, there were a plethora of memos, some of them, you know, from very high-ranking people, and certainly one of them from Jack Straw, his foreign secretary, his equivalent of Colin Powell at the time, or Condi Rice now. And he is being told by all these people, `Don't do this.' I mean, they're not saying it in those terms, but they're saying, `If you do this, it's going to be disaster, and what's the point? You know, we know that Iraq has no history of democracy. Once we leave, as eventually we will leave, hopefully, we've no way of controlling what happens in Iraq, other than by coming back in again.' You know, `Coup will follow coup' is one of--the phrase used in these earlier documents. `Coup will follow coup. Eventually, a Sunni strongman will come to power. He will be able to get WMD of his own accord. There will be nothing we can do about it. What's the whole point of this? Where are we going with this?'
And yet come April--you know, a few days later, a few days after that Jack Straw memo, there is Tony Blair in Crawford agreeing with President Bush, yes, he will back military action to achieve regime change.
GROSS: What kind of analysis has there been in the British press about why Prime Minister Blair agreed to go to war with the Bush administration against the advice of his own Cabinet? Now the advice might have changed, but the advice through July 23rd of 2002--in the memos that you were leaked, the advice is pretty much all negative about the war.
Mr. SMITH: It is. There was a piece by Robin Cook, who was Jack Straw's predecessor as foreign secretary, in The Guardian the other day, and it said that when he was in Blair's Cabinet, when he was foreign secretary, Cook was forever coming up against this thing where Mr. Blair was so determined, for political reasons over here, to make it clear that he could be as much the president's friend as anyone from the right wing in Britain. Because, of course, he was vulnerable as ostensibly part of the left-wing Labor Party, and leader of the left-wing Labor Party, to accusations from the Conservatives, the right wing, the equivalent of the Republicans over here, that they had a better relationship with the president. And from the very outset, one of the things that Mr. Blair set out to do was to show that, actually, he had a better relationship with Mr. Bush. And Robin Cook puts it down to that, to this idea that he had to be on side with the president as much as possible.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Smith of the Sunday Times of London. He's the reporter to whom the Downing Street Memo was leaked. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Michael Smith, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London. He's the reporter to whom the Downing Street Memo was leaked, as well as several other top-secret British memos from 2002 in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.
What can you tell us about how these memos were first leaked to you?
Mr. SMITH: I was phoned by someone, a friend, who--you know, he's--obviously, he's well-positioned, but I wouldn't say any more than that. He'd come up with a few stories before, you know, gossip, tittle-tattle, which led to stories. None of them had been major stories. I mean, The Washington Post, of all papers, describe him as Britain's Deep Throat, but, you know, I certainly wouldn't have regarded him as that. And he said to me--we met in a bar. He was clearly nervous. It was fairly empty, actually, and we had to sit in a secluded part, and he said, `Was anyone interested still in all this stuff?' and I said, `Well, here'--we'd just had the Butler inquiry, our equivalent of the presidential commission into intelligence, and, you know, frankly, we were pretty much talked out on this whole subject, so I sort of thought, well, it's got to be good, but I didn't say that. I said, `Well, you know, it depends what it is.'
And he showed me the letter from Jack Straw and that, of course, was--you know, it was very, very damning. It had much more of, you know, the whole business of the intelligence being thin, that it was all likely to end in disaster. You know, there were major problems with the legality of the whole thing. And, you know, I said I thought it was quite good and could make a story, and he said, `Well, I've got five others here.' And that's where it all led to. And now I did a big piece on that in the Telegraph, and then I got some more stuff from another source, and I'm not going to talk about that at all, but, I mean, you know, it's been stunning stuff.
GROSS: Did you have any reservations about the authenticity of the memos when they were first leaked to you and did you do anything to verify them?
Mr. SMITH: I didn't have any real problems with the authenticity of the memos because of the people they were coming from, to be absolutely honest with you. But the first lot, we--well, we were very, very careful with them because we were extremely nervous that we might get taken to court to provide them back to them. They matched up with things I'd been told earlier, but, of course, this is on paper. This is not, you know, some source in Whitehall telling you this. This is actually the paperwork. They were definitely MOD documents. We didn't regard them as potential fakes. So going to the government would have been difficult.
But once we'd published them, you know, there was absolutely no doubt at all they were genuine. I mean, they were virtually confirmed straight away by Mr. Blair, who had to respond, you know.
GROSS: So you didn't go to the government beforehand and say, `We're about to go to press with this'?
Mr. SMITH: No. I didn't go to the government...
GROSS: `Verify the documents.'
Mr. SMITH: ...beforehand and say, `I've got these documents. Can you tell me they're genuine or not?'--because, frankly, if I'd done that, I would have lost the documents and probably the source.
GROSS: How would you have lost the documents?
Mr. SMITH: Well, because I was under very strict orders who I could talk to about the documents from the lawyers from the very start, what I could do with the documents, how I had to handle the documents. And those orders turned out to be very prescient orders because we were jumped on straight away by a special branch after we published. I was actually investigated for a breach of the Official Secrets Act in that I had passed on intelligence to other--information that was--I knew to be classified secret to other people. And that was actually--I'd passed them on to two political parties who needed to see the documents in order to comment on them.
GROSS: What was the outcome of that investigation?
Mr. SMITH: The outcome of that investigation is as far as we know, it's still ongoing, but it's died a death because it's obviously very difficult to argue that a journalist given documents, which are probably in the public interest--the contents of those documents are known to the public. It's very difficult to prosecute a journalist for breach of the Official Secrets Act on that basis. I had passed them to two politicians, so in doing so, that, again, was in the public interest.
Now one of those political parties passed the text on to someone else who was working for them, an academic, and that academic put them on a Web site. And that's the only reason we actually see those documents now, frankly, because that's--the documents, as passed around on the Internet, they are actually typed up text of what was in those original documents. They're not the original documents. The original photocopies I was given I passed back to my source, having photocopied them myself. And the photocopies that I'd made from those original photocopies we shredded the night we went to press because...
GROSS: Why? Why?
Mr. SMITH: We were very, very concerned that something in those photocopies, maybe just a little crease from the original document that's reproduced on the photocopy or some way in which the document is manipulated to identify it as a specific copy of a document--and with top secret and secret documents in Britain, we know that they use different methods of doing it. A misspelling in--a document would be typed up on a computer, one copy printed out for such and such; then a little change made somewhere and not on a copy printed out for someone else. So that if you've got a dozen documents, a dozen copies of one document, each of those will be different so that it can be traced back to one person or another. That system...
GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.
Mr. SMITH: ...sounds complex and...
GROSS: You did this to protect the source, not because you thought the...
Mr. SMITH: Well, yeah. No, it's purely to protect the source...
Mr. SMITH: ...not for any other reason. And I know that some right-wing Web sites have tried to extract from this somehow that we made the documents up in the first place, which is ludicrous because, frankly, if you look at the Downing Street Memo, it's got a dozen recipients, any one of whom would surely have come forward now and said--and as it be--Mr. Blair--the easiest way out for Mr. Blair would be to say, `This is a fake. It's not true.' Of course, he'd say it straight away.
GROSS: Do you know if the Blair administration is trying to investigate who the sources were for the memos that were leaked to you?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. And you'd expect that. They're obliged to. I mean, I think if you put yourselves in their position, I entirely understand why they want to find out who it is that's leaked a secret document to a journalist. Equally, it's my position that I'm determined that they don't find out or at least they don't find out via me.
GROSS: We're recording this interview on Tuesday, July 5th. I'm wondering what your reaction has been to the Judith Miller and Matt Cooper case? They've both been threatened with prison for not revealing their sources about who leaked the fact that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. Now Matt Cooper's magazine, Time, has decided to comply with the investigation. It's still unclear whether Cooper and/or Miller will be sentenced to jail--it's unclear, as we record this on Tuesday, July 5th. What has your impression been watching this case? I figure you must be following it, having been the recipient of leaks yourself.
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. I think Time's attitude over this has been disgraceful. Of course, Time isn't above the law, but Time has a responsibility to protect its sources. And, frankly, were I a source anywhere, the last place I'd go to now would be Time magazine.
GROSS: Do you think there's any chance that your source had an agenda and was leaking memos selectively and was only leaking memos that put the war in a bad light or that put the Bush administration in a bad light, and that there are other memos that would change the big picture if we'd seen them and if we were able to see the Downing Street Memos in context with those memos?
Mr. SMITH: Well, the out-of-context--first of all, half a dozen memos--these were the key memos over the period between March the 8th and April 2nd. We got the key memos. I know from my own knowledge of what the attitude was within the MOD, within the foreign office and within the intelligence services over here to some of the things that were going on in the States and, all these things do is put them on paper and show that they were actually genuine. And, frankly, no, I don't think they're out of context.
But does the source have an agenda? Probably, but it's nothing to do with America. It's nothing to do with putting the administration in America in a bad light. The agenda here--and all sources have an agenda of some sort. If someone comes to you to get something published, they have a reason for it. Now, you know, the reason might be malevolent, and in that case you might look at it with a bit of concern and say, `Right. You know, clearly malevolent. What's the reasoning behind it. Is the stuff you're getting genuine?' Well, the stuff is genuine.
GROSS: Michael Smith, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SMITH: That's all right. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Michael Smith is a reporter for the Sunday Times of London. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we meet actress Lauren Ambrose. She plays Claire Fisher on HBO's "Six Feet Under." And Ken Tucker reviews "Blame the Vain," Dwight Yoakam's 18th album.