Newsday (New York)
June 19, 2005 Sunday
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A07
LENGTH: 692 words
HEADLINE: Memo big, but not big enough
BYLINE: Ellis Henican
Is the Downing Street memo an interesting historical document? You bet it is.
Does it give a peek into America's most loyal allies, as they shook their heads in skepticism at the Bush administration's tortured arguments for war? That much it does.
But here's a little memo of my own, addressed to my frustrated anti-war friends: Take a deep breath, comrades. These quotes advance the case for Bush duplicity, but alone do not prove it.
Much as we'd like it to be, the Downing Street memo is not the smoking gun we've all been waiting for. It's not the impeachable offense at last. It's not even the 2005 equivalent of the Nixon Watergate tapes, that last-straw piece of the evidence that will collapse all remaining public support for a thoughtlessly planned and executed war in Iraq.
Too bad the eye-popping memo didn't leak the week it was written. It might have saved us all a whole lot of trouble.
But three years later, who could possibly be surprised to learn that George W. Bush and his top foreign-policy advisers were playing fast and loose with the truth as they rushed America and Britain toward war?
Give real credit to Michael Smith, a reporter at the Times of London who ferreted out the memo last month. It was he who shone the light of publicity on the hypocrisy of British officials, who voiced public confidence and expressed private doubts.
Stamped "secret and strictly personal - UK eyes only" and dated July 23, 2002, eight months before the Americans and Brits invaded Iraq, the main Downing Street memo summarizes a report from Sir Richard Dearlove, the chief of British intelligence. He'd just come back from Washington, where he'd met with top Bush administration officials.
Here's one juicy chunk:
"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. The NSC [National Security Council] had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."
Could it be much plainer than that? The key phrase is the conclusion that Bush administration "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" to go to war.
Not the other way around, as honest inquiry would demand. Not the evidence leading to the conclusion. Here, the spin conformed to the result.
And this, from the start, has been a hallmark of the Bush administration, especially of its approach to Iraq. Settle on a policy, then go looking for evidence to support it, twisting or ignoring or denying whatever points do not.
We also learn from the memo how perceptively the Brits were reading Washington.
"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 neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."
But how far does it go?
Does this prove what Bush and the people around him were thinking? Does it show they were lying and knew it?
It is, of course, only the impression of their allies, revealing but not quite definitive proof.
But here it is, and bring it on.
This was the week that the Downing Street memo jumped from the frying pan of cyberspace to the fire of American politics.
House Democrats, led by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, conducted their first public forum on Downing Street. People asked, out in the open, whether they'd finally found the lie that Bush could be impeached on.
The high crime or misdemeanor? Dragging America into war on false pretenses.
We might get there eventually. Who knows?
But we aren't there yet.
No, it wasn't quite a smoking gun, but perhaps a bloody knife freshly removed from the carcass of official deception. Or a foggy plastic bag, still carrying the telltale evidence of suffocated truth.
Pick the vivid image you like, and be on the lookout for new memos. Maybe the next one will come from this side of the Atlantic.
Let the hunt begin.
GRAPHIC: AFP / Getty Images Photo - Tony Blair