By Warren P. Strobel
WASHINGTON - Highly classified documents leaked in Britain appear to provide new evidence that President Bush and his national security team decided to invade Iraq much earlier than they have acknowledged and marched to war without dwelling on the potential perils.
The half-dozen memos and option papers, written by top aides to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, buttress previous on-the-record accounts that portray Bush and his advisers as predisposed to oust Saddam Hussein when they took office -- and determined to do it at all costs after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Blair is Bush's closest global partner, and the documents, startlingly frank at times, were never meant to become public.
Now they have rocketed around the Internet and been seized on by opponents of the Iraq war as evidence that the president and his administration were not leveling with the American people about their war preparations.
By mid-March 2002, a year before the invasion of Iraq, top British officials were already so resigned to a war that they seemed preoccupied mostly with building international support and finding a legal justification.
That was just six weeks after Bush declared Iraq a member of the "axis of evil."
But Blair's advisers repeatedly expressed concern that the case against Saddam was weak and that the White House wasn't giving nearly enough attention to what would happen after he was toppled.
"The U.S. government's military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace. But as yet, it lacks a political framework. In particular, little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action, or the aftermath and how to shape it," stated a July 21, 2002, briefing paper prepared for a meeting of Blair's advisers two days later.
"A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise," it stated.
Bush and Blair forcefully denied in a news conference this month that they were fixated on war.
"There's nothing farther from the truth. My conversations with the prime minister were how can we do this peacefully," Bush said. "We worked hard to figure out how we could do this peacefully."
Neither the U.S. government nor the British government has disputed the memos' authenticity.
The release of the documents comes at a bad time for Bush. He faces growing congressional and public unease after 27 months of war in Iraq. Opinion polls show public support for the Iraq war at or near all-time lows.
"It's not collapsing. ... (But) there are signs people are becoming uneasy," said Christopher Gelpi, a Duke University political science professor who studies public opinion and the use of force.
Gelpi said the effect of the British memos is unclear because they haven't received wide media attention until recently. "The notion that the public has been lied to could have a very toxic effect on public support," he said.
Precisely when Bush made an irrevocable decision to invade Iraq remains murky.
"We still don't know -- and this is not unusual -- exactly when the presidential decision was made," said journalist James Mann, author of "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet."
The White House maintains it tried to avert war almost until the last minute.
Despite the outcry over the British documents, which have come to be known as the "Downing Street memos," much of what they say was known -- or knowable -- at the time, Mann said.
It's well documented that Bush began looking at military options for overthrowing Saddam's government as early as November 2001, with formal military planning beginning early in 2002.
Knight Ridder, for example, reported Feb. 13, 2002, that the president had decided in principle on overthrowing the Iraqi leader and ordered "a combination of military, diplomatic and covert steps" to achieve that goal.
Six days later, then-Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., visited U.S. Central Command headquarters and, Graham said in a memoir, was told by Gen. Tommy Franks that despite ongoing operations in Afghanistan, "military and intelligence personnel are being redeployed to prepare for an action in Iraq."
Franks denied making the comment.
Richard Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning, told an interviewer that in an early July 2002 chat with then-National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice, he questioned putting Iraq at the center of the U.S. war against terrorism.
He said Rice advised him "essentially, that that decision's been made, don't waste your breath."
The British memos document in crisp, sometimes wry, prose how advanced political preparations were even more than a year before the March 2003 invasion.
Moreover, they echo other accounts of Bush's determination to unseat Saddam, who once tried to assassinate his father.
In a March 22, 2002, letter to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Blair political adviser Peter Ricketts advised steering the public rationale for war away from "regime change."
"'Regime change' does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam," Ricketts wrote.
Bush came into office with aides, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who believed that the United States erred gravely by allowing Saddam to remain in power after the 1991 Gulf War.
Four days after the Sept. 11 attacks, during a crisis meeting at Camp David, Wolfowitz argued for attacking Iraq in response, as first recounted in journalist Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack."
Later that month, Wolfowitz helped arrange a trip by former CIA Director James Woolsey to the United Kingdom to look for evidence of an Iraqi role in Sept. 11.
Richard Clarke, at the time a veteran White House counterterrorism official, has written that Bush ordered him to look for the same evidence the day after the attacks.
The search for evidence, along with claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, continued for more than a year.
No Iraqi link to Sept. 11 has been found, and most of the intelligence about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction has since proved to be bogus.
In that sense, the British memos seem almost prophetic.
"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," Sir Richard Dearlove, head of Britain's MI-6 spy service, told Blair and his top advisers after talks in Washington, according to the first memo to be leaked. It was dated July 23, 2002.
"U.S. scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and al (Qaida) is so far frankly unconvincing," Ricketts reported earlier in his March 2002 letter to Straw.
In his own letter to Blair three days later, Straw also seemed to question the scale of the threat. "In the documents so far presented, it has been hard to glean whether the threat from Iraq is so significantly different from that of Iran and North Korea as to justify military action," he wrote.
All of the documents leaked thus far -- by persons unknown -- date before Bush's August 2002 decision to take his case against Saddam to the United Nations, as recommended by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Although Bush continues to assert that he tried diplomacy, things looked different in the spring and summer of 2002, at least as seen through the prism of the British government.
Blair's advisers found a deep distrust of the United Nations in Washington.
The National Security Council, led by Rice, "has no patience with the U.N. route," according to Dearlove's report to Blair and his advisers at the July 23, 2002, meeting.
In yet another memo, Christopher Meyer, then Blair's ambassador to Washington, said he met with Wolfowitz on March 17, 2002, and discussed how to build support for military action. "I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors," Meyer reported to London.
The two governments discussed ways to craft an ultimatum to Saddam on U.N. weapons inspectors that he would be sure to reject, providing an excuse for war and a path to building international support.
Said Mann: "Going to the U.N. was always a box to be checked and a necessity for winning the support of the British government."