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'Downing Street memo' gets fresh attention


By Mark Memmott, USA TODAY

A simmering controversy over whether American media have ignored a secret British memo about how President Bush built his case for war with Iraq bubbled over into the White House on Tuesday.

At a late afternoon news conference, Reuters correspondent Steve Holland asked Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair about a memo that's been widely written about and discussed in Europe but less so in the USA.

It was the most attention paid by the media in the USA so far to the "Downing Street memo," first reported on May 1 by The Sunday Times of London. The memo is said by some of the president's sharpest critics, such as Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, to be strong evidence that Bush decided to go to war and then looked for evidence to support his decision.

The Sunday Times said the memo is the minutes of a meeting that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had with some of his top intelligence and foreign policy aides on July 23, 2002, at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's official residence. The story said the memo indicates that Blair was told by the head of Britain's MI6 intelligence service that in 2002, the Bush administration was selectively choosing evidence that supported its case for going to war and ignoring anything to the contrary. The war began in March 2003.

"Intelligence and facts were being fixed" by the Bush administration "around" a policy that saw military action "as inevitable," the newspaper quoted from the memo.

"There's nothing farther from the truth," Bush told reporters as Blair stood at his side. "Both of us didn't want to use our military," Bush said in response to a question about the memo. "It was our last option."

Blair added, "The facts were not being 'fixed' in any shape or form at all."

Bush said that at the time the memo was written, no decision had been made about going to war. He pointed out that it was written two months before he went to the United Nations and asked for a Security Council resolution calling on Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons of mass destruction or face "serious consequences."

The Sunday Times' May 1 memo story, which broke just four days before Britain's national elections, caused a sensation in Europe. American media reacted more cautiously. The New York Times wrote about the memo May 2, but didn't mention until its 15th paragraph that the memo stated U.S. officials had "fixed" intelligence and facts.

Knight Ridder Newspapers distributed a story May 6 that said the memo "claims President Bush ... was determined to ensure that U.S. intelligence data supported his policy." The Los Angeles Times wrote about the memo May 12, The Washington Post followed on May 15 and The New York Times revisited the news on May 20.

None of the stories appeared on the newspapers' front pages. Several other major media outlets, including the evening news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC, had not said a word about the document before Tuesday. Today marks USA TODAY's first mention.

Some activists who opposed Bush's decision to attack Iraq have been peppering editors with letters and e-mails to push the media into more aggressive coverage. Last week, a group known as Democrats.com offered $1,000 to anyone who can get Bush to answer "yes or no" to this question: Did he or his administration "fix the intelligence" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to terrorism?

"We want what the Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton and Star Wars stories have gotten: endless repetition until people have heard about it," says David Swanson, one of Democrats.com's organizers.

Robin Niblett of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, says it would be easy for Americans to misunderstand the reference to intelligence being "fixed around" Iraq policy. " 'Fixed around' in British English means 'bolted on' rather than altered to fit the policy," he says.

Ombudsmen at both The New York Times and The Washington Post have been critical of their newspapers for not covering the story more aggressively.

USA TODAY chose not to publish anything about the memo before today for several reasons, says Jim Cox, the newspaper's senior assignment editor for foreign news. "We could not obtain the memo or a copy of it from a reliable source," Cox says. "There was no explicit confirmation of its authenticity from (Blair's office). And it was disclosed four days before the British elections, raising concerns about the timing."

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