Memo offers Bush's critics hard evidence on prewar intelligence
BY DICK POLMAN
Knight Ridder Newspapers
PHILADELPHIA - (KRT) - Shortly after his November triumph, President Bush declared that voters had endorsed his prosecution of the war in Iraq. In his words, "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections."
But today, with U.S. casualties rising and military recruitment falling, it is clear that Bush's accountability moment has been extended. Even though he won't run for office again, voters continue to assess the signature decision of his presidency; in growing numbers, they are voicing dissatisfaction.
And amid all this unease - for the first time, a majority of Americans say that the war launched in March 2003 has not made this nation safer - a growing grass-roots movement is spotlighting a once-secret British government memorandum, written in the summer of 2002, that depicts Bush as having already decided to wage war, even though the case against Saddam Hussein was "thin."
Americans are probably more conversant about Angelina Jolie than about the contents of the so-called Downing Street memo, which was leaked in London seven weeks ago to the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times. But if the chaos in Iraq continues (80 U.S. troops and 700 Iraqis died last month), the awareness gap may narrow - because the memo states that as Washington was preparing for war, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
This is one of the few pieces of hard evidence that supports critics who contend that Bush hyped a non-existent threat - Saddam's purported weapons of mass destruction - as his justification for waging war.
Liberal Internet blogs, and roughly 90 House Democrats, have sought publicity for the memo, and last Tuesday, for the first time, the Washington press asked Bush about it. He didn't dispute its authenticity. He didn't address the observation that his intelligence was being "fixed." He did deny that he had opted for war in the summer of 2002, saying "there's nothing farther from the truth."
Other Bush defenders have gone further. Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, insisted on NBC last weekend that numerous U.S. probes have "discredited" any suggestion that Bush's war planners fixed the intelligence. And Jim Robbins, who teaches foreign policy to military officers at the federal National Defense University, dismisses the memo as "personal opinions based on unsubstantiated impressions from unnamed sources."
But this document - actually, the minutes of a meeting attended by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top security aides - is viewed seriously by a range of U.S. policy experts. Michael O'Hanlon, an Iraq specialist at the Brookings Institution, said Thursday that "the memo is right" and "hard to dispute."
Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is now a war analyst at Boston University, said: "The memo is significant because it was written by our closest ally, and when it comes to writing minutes on foreign policy and security matters, the British are professionals. We can conclude that the memo means precisely what it says. It says that Bush had already made the decision for war even while he was insisting publicly, and for many months thereafter, that war was the last resort.
"This is no longer a suspicion or accusation. The memo is an authoritative piece of information, at the highest level."
The meeting was conducted on July 23, 2002. One key participant was Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 (equivalent to our CIA). The minutes say:
"(Dearlove) reported on his recent talks in Washington (with CIA chief George Tenet). There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
There was further discussion about the "intelligence and facts." The memo recorded concerns expressed by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw: "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing had not been 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."
Straw therefore suggested, according to the memo, that Bush needed "help with the legal justification for the use of force." Blair's idea was that Bush should go to the United Nations; this was a "political strategy to give the military plan the space to work." But the problem was that "the NSC (Bush's National Security Council) had no patience with the U.N. route."
Subsequently, Blair was instrumental in persuading Bush to go to the United Nations. But, in the view of many Iraq experts, the memo shows that Bush went to the United Nations not as a means to avoid war (his public stance) but as a way to gain more political support for the war he intended to wage. Indeed, after the United Nations balked at passing a second war resolution, Bush went ahead anyway.
The memo's reference to "fixed" intelligence is noteworthy. It's not a new issue. It has long been clear that Bush's depiction of Saddam as a grave menace was overstated. Among many examples: Bush said, on Oct. 7, 2002, that Saddam intended to use unmanned aerial vehicles "for missions targeting the United States," a distance of 6,000 miles. It later turned out that the UAVs had a range of 300 miles.
But the Bush camp is working hard to deny the memo's fixed-intelligence passage - a sign that the White House is sensitive about the issue. Last weekend, GOP chairman Mehlman stated: "That (memo) has been discredited. Whether it's the 9/11 commission, whether it's the Senate, whoever's looked at this has said there was no effort (by Bush's war planners) to change the intelligence at all."
Mehlman's claim is undercut by the facts.
The Sept. 11 commission never looked at the administration's behavior; commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton said last year. "(Under the law) we were to focus our attention on 9/11 and those events, and not on the war in Iraq."
And while a 2004 Senate panel did criticize the prewar intelligence as "a series of failures," it didn't look at whether the Bush team had misused the material. That task was postponed until after the election; today, in the words of Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, it's still "on the back burner."
As yet, however, there's no sign that the memo will politically embarrass the GOP. None of the likely 2008 Democratic presidential contenders - Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Evan Bayh, John Edwards - have made it a cause celebre. The most prominent critic is in the House, where Democrats are virtually powerless, but where Michigan Democrat John Conyers plans to conduct a public forum Thursday, with interest stoked by a grass-roots Web site called afterdowningstreet.org.
Party strategist David Axelrod explained the Democratic wariness: "We already fought that battle (over Bush's veracity) and we lost. He got elected again. So even though the memo is important, there's a sense that people don't want to revisit the lead-up to war. Although I'm not sure I agree with that, when you look at the number of Americans dead today."
Bacevich, the retired Army colonel, said, "Despite our love of democracy, we as a people have bought the idea that foreign policy should be made behind closed doors, based on secret information that mere mortals can't handle, without a full national debate. This memo shows the danger of that attitude. And that we should find it unacceptable."