June 19, 2005, Sunday METRO FINAL EDITION
SECTION: EDITORIALS; Pg. E6; EDITORIALS
LENGTH: 621 words
HEADLINE: MI-6 memo: More doubt on war decision Whatever the truth about Bush s Iraq intentions, we must get more serious about scrutinizing matters of national security.
Some Democrats in Congress and opponents of the war in Iraq are calling on the White House to respond to a leaked British intelligence report - the so-called Downing Street memorandum - that says President Bush and his top national security aides decided as far back as the summer of 2002 to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by force. More to the point, the memo, written by the chief of MI-6, the British counterpart of the Central Intelligence Agency, told senior officials that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" by U.S. officials.
This is a serious claim, although in essence it's not new. Many critics of the war in Iraq have long believed the president deceived the public in seeking to justify going to war. What's new is that that assumption was made in this case not by anti-war activists or political adversaries of the Bush administration but by the top intelligence official of a highly respected U.S. ally. Sir Richard Dearlove, then the head of MI-6, delivered the report to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other top British officials upon his return from a visit to Washington in July 2002 that included meetings with senior U.S. officials, among them then-CIA Director George Tenet.
The memo was leaked to the Sunday Times of London during the recent British parliamentary election campaign and published on May 1. It did not receive prominent attention in this country, however, until recently. Now, some Democrats and other administration critics describe the memo as proof of Bush's duplicity.
It is hardly that, notwithstanding a ring of plausibility in the minutes of a meeting in the prime minister's office at No. 10 Downing Street on July 23, 2002, at which the MI-6 chief described "a perceptible shift in attitude" in Washington.
"Military action was now seen as inevitable," it said. "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD." And it added, "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action." That, at least, is now clear beyond question.
The memo went on to describe concern expressed at the Downing Street meeting about the need to provide a legal justification for going to war.
The White House has brushed off Democrats' demands as politically inspired, and presumably that is part of it. And Blair, during a recent visit to Washington, denied that "the facts were being fixed in any shape or form at all." Indeed, even the leaked British memo notes that, as of July 2002, the White House had made "no political decision" to invade Iraq. Nonetheless, given its source and its contents, it cannot be shrugged off.
Absent a "smoking gun," most Americans seem likely to stick to whatever they believe about what drove the president to take the country to war. Whether growing disenchantment over the unrelenting insurgency in Iraq and the continuing loss of American lives there will change that is hard to know. What's clear is that the Downing Street memo adds to an ongoing debate about how we got to where we are. And it raises again a crucial question: Was the president given bad intelligence about the threat Iraq posed to U.S. security, or was he hell-bent on going after Saddam Hussein and, as the British spymaster said, made sure the intelligence was "fixed" to justify the policy?
Whatever the truth, one lesson all Americans - including the news media - should draw from this episode is that the actions of every administration, especially on matters of national security, need to be closely scrutinized. Vietnam should have taught us that. Iraq is forcing us to relearn that painful lesson. However much Bush deserves blame, so do we all.