THE SAD AND CONTINUING SAGA OF THE DOWNING STREET MEMO'S 'COVERAGE' IN THE NEW YORK TIMES
By David Michael Green
A June 8 (and things are now breaking so fast that specific dates really matter) interview
with the former Public Editor of the NY Times, Daniel Okrent, might give hope to those of
us who still believe in such bizarre and quaint concepts like government transparency,
public trust, news media fairness, and peace.
In an interview with PBS Newshour�s Terence Smith, Okrent is asked: �Do you have a
view as to why this British memo didn't get more attention not only in the Times, but in
other papers?� Not a bad question.
Okrent replies with two comments. His first is to partially dismiss the criticisms by noting
that the Downing Street Memo originally surfaced in the context of the British election, was
covered by the Times as such, and then the newspaper just somehow failed to make the
leap to seeing this as domestic news in the United States.
This reminds me of the conundrum administrations sometimes run into when they seek to
avoid responsibility for debacles which occur on their watch. In saying �We didn�t know�
they may avoid getting tagged for a particular act of malfeasance, but they often are then
left with the alternative of appearing hopelessly inept. This is precisely the case for the
Bush team�s alibi on the failure to find WMD in Iraq, for example, though the media has
(surprise!) been too lame, corrupt or frightened to promulgate this obvious resulting
construction: If you buy the (far-fetched) claim that the intelligence was completely and
unequivocally wrong, then any thoughtful citizen is then left wondering about the
competence of the consumers of that intelligence. (Not to mention why the hell Bush
would later present the country�s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, to George
Tenet, the guy who �sold him the bill of goods�, while also promoting Condoleeza Rica and
Stephen Hadley, the two folks most responsible for the African yellowcake debacle, and
a host of other misrepresentations.)
But back to the intelligence consumer issue; did anyone in the administration ask, to
choose just one obvious example, where such intelligence came from? Was the president
not aware, or if he was aware, was he not troubled by the fact, that much of it came from
a single highly questionable source, the drunken liar (according to his German intelligence
handlers, who so informed the US) code-named �Curveball�? Either way, the
administration comes out looking awful. They�re either murderous liars or complete
I think the same dynamic applies to the New York Times. They are either lying about why
they didn�t run with the DSM as a huge bombshell of domestic politics in the US, or � if you
believe Okrent�s alibi � they were breathtakingly incompetent. What can we say about the
state of American democracy when the country�s newspaper of record is in the hands of
buffoons so inept that the foreign editor couldn�t find the phone number of the Washington
editor to let him know of a story which goes to the heart of the single most important policy
issue of our time, a story which could easily lead to the impeachment and removal of a
Okrent�s second reply to Smith is more intriguing, but ultimately appears at least
as disappointing. He goes on to say �My second thought is that something is coming, that
it is a story that calls for a great deal of reporting, and sometimes the absence of
something in the newspaper doesn't mean that it's not being reported, but they're waiting
until they have it right. I hope that's the case.� But then Smith asks him �Do you have any
evidence that it is?� and Okrent replies �No�.
Indeed not. All the way back on May 20, Okrent successor, Byron Calame, was taking up
the DSM as his very first webpage commentary, even before he had fully assumed his
duties (this was because they were being bombarded by angry readers demanding
coverage and speculating on reasons for its absence). Calame was also troubled by the
paper�s lack of coverage, but writes �My checks find no basis for Ms. Lowe's [a sample
incensed reader-correspondent] concern about censorship or undue outside pressures.
Rather, it appears that key editors simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a
high-powered meeting on a life-and-death issue � their authenticity undisputed � probably
needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers. Even if the editors decided it was old
news that Mr. Bush had decided in July 2002 to attack Iraq or that the minutes didn't
provide solid evidence that the administration was manipulating intelligence, I think Times
readers deserved to know that earlier than today's article.� [He refers here to a meager,
late and misleading-through-emphasis-choices article the Times published that day, their
first domestic slant on the DSM story.]
But then Calame allows Phil Taubman, the paper�s Washington Bureau Chief, to excuse
their poor coverage to date. Says Taubman: �It is mighty suggestive that Lord Dearlove,
the chief of MI6, came home with the impression, or interpretation, that �the intelligence
and facts were being fixed around the policy.� However, that's several steps removed from
evidence that such was the case. The minutes did not say that Mr. Tenet had told that to
Lord Dearlove or that Lord Dearlove had seen specific examples of that. The minutes, in
my estimation, were not a smoking gun that proved that Bush, Tenet and others were
distorting intelligence to support the case for war.�
These comments make Okrent�s optimism that the Times is cooking up The Big Story seem
highly dubious. Think about how obscenely ridiculous they are. First, because by any
reasonable standard, the Memo absolutely does provide such �evidence� that the facts
were being fixed. It says so itself. And, remember that it is an internal British government
document, leaked to the public. As such, and since it was never intended to see the light
of day, there would be no reason for it to be dishonest or distorted for the benefit of its
original readers. Moreover, a former member of the Bush team who was privy to these
discussions (Powell?) has confirmed, off the record, the accuracy of the Memo. Finally,
the Memo�s blueprint fits precisely with what are now established facts from the period,
namely, that the Bush people told lie after whopping lie about Iraq�s WMD capabilities, and
did so knowingly. All told, this amounts to extremely powerful �evidence�, and it is criminal
of the Times not to report the story on that basis.
But even so, secondly, since when is this the standard to qualify for newsworthiness? Isn�t
this an important story, even in the pure form of a credible allegation? Hasn�t that been
the way it has always worked? The way it worked with Clinton? Or more recently with
DeLay or Bolton? And, even if there�s no other angle imaginable, doesn�t the fact that 89
members of the House (that�s one-fifth of the body) wrote a letter to the president asking
for clarification of the DSM�s dire implications make this a big story?
This attitude on the part of the Times� Washington Bureau Chief certainly does not leave
me heartened, nor does it affirm the hopeful optimism of Daniel Okrent. This is especially
true in the context of the Times� abysmal performance during the period preceding the war,
�coverage� for which the paper itself would later apologize given its failure to challenge
administration claims, later proved relentlessly false (and therefore, given the way they
were presented by the administration, intentionally deceitful). One might think they would
be bending over backwards to make up for this failure, but from what I can see, they
continue to bend only forwards.
But then it gets worse from there. As more and more American papers are picking this
story up, the Times remains relatively silent at best, disingenuous at worst. New
revelations from the Downing Street archives were posted front page on the Washington
Post Sunday, but nary a word from the Times that day.
Then Monday the Times decided to peep up again, with another of its buried treasures.
On page 11, David Sanger and his paper decide to cover this crucial story again, for the
first time in a long time, with a short piece under the headline �Prewar British Memo Says
War Decision Wasn't Made�. The article argues that the Post�s revelations from the day
before prove that Bush hadn�t made a decision when the DSM says he did.
WHAT IS WITH THESE GUYS?? While taking the administration to task a bit for lack of
post-war planning, the Times pieces serves mostly to exonerate BushCo every way it can,
including publishing their press conference deceits and arguing that everyone knew the
war was in advanced planning stages in July 2002.
There are huge problems with this nonsense. First, as another contributor to these pages
has pointed out, this is a mis-reading of the new Downing Street documents, confusing
strategic decisions about how and when to invade with the policy decision that had clearly
already been made to go.
Second, this nutty piece acts, on this question, as if there is no context anywhere else.
We know for sure that the decision was made early, probably before Bush even became
president, and we know it from multiple sources (Woodward, O�Neill, Time Magazine, etc.).
Third, this is really the wrong question, anyhow. It is the lesser of the main crimes brought
to light by the Downing Street suite. So why is the Times � so reluctant to say anything
about these revelations � seemingly so anxious to throw up an exculpatory story right
away when they can find a (distorted) way to throw the administration a rope?
And, fourth, why aren�t they running screaming front-page headlines stories which report
the massive implications of the DSM�s most important accusation? Sure, it�s a big deal
that the administration lied about when it decided to go to war, and that�s especially
important because the whole Congressional/UN Security Council/inspectors dance is
therefore proven a total sham.
But the most important revelation from the Downing Street Memo is that THE
ADMINISTRATION KNEW THAT THE CASE WAS THIN, AND THEREFORE DECIDED
TO CONSTRUCT A PUBLIC RELATIONS BLITZ TO SELL THE WAR ON THE TRUMPED
UP BASIS OF DOCTORED INTELLIGENCE CLAIMING AN IMMINENT WMD THREAT
AND AN IRAQI LINK TO TERRORISM.
That�s a headline we�d like to see. That�s a headline we need to see.
I don�t know what has happened to this great newspaper since Bush came to office, but
they have pretty clearly now sold their soul to this devil, and they are allowing him to drag
their credibility down into the gutter with his.
If you feel the same, let them know:
Tell �em I sent you.
Meanwhile, here�s something you might find interesting:
Number of Google hits for �Downing Street Memo�, 6/5/05: 267,000
Number of Google hits for �Downing Street Memo�, 6/9/05: 575,000
Number of Google hits for �Downing Street Memo�, 6/14/05: 874,000
Till the next outrage...