David Corn, TomPaine.com
June 21, 2005
David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
I'm obsessed with the Downing Street memos. Now, I don't want to come across as a cranky lefty who waves these memos about and calls for the impeachment of George W. Bush. But I've recently appeared on several TV and radio shows and have encountered mainstream media people who dismiss the memos as nothing new. And this is getting me angry. I expect conservatives who back Bush and his war in Iraq to try to spin these documents away. They're merely following the deny-reality strategy that has worked so well for their man in the White House. It's the non-ideologues who say the memos are no big deal who get me riled.
I do think progressives who have embraced the DSM and related memos as the Holy Grail of Bush deceit may have emphasized the wrong aspects of the documents. They have tended to fixate on one portion of the first Downing Street memo—the minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting during which Richard Dearlove, the head of the British CIA, told Prime Minister Tony Blair that Bush was set on war in Iraq and "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." A-ha, DSM devotees cry, this shows Bush had decided to go to war from the start and was rigging the intelligence to grease the way.
Is the DSM evidence that Bush was not speaking honestly in the summer of 2002 when he said he was still looking to resolve the Iraq matter without resorting to war? Probably. On August 7, 2002, Bush declared in a speech, "I will explore all options and all tools at my disposal: diplomacy, international pressure, perhaps the military." (Wasn't his use of the word "perhaps" rich?) But these days that misrepresentation seems not to count much in the offices of the establishment media. Those who dismiss the DSM say everyone knew back then Bush was heading toward war, and that there were plenty of stories in the press about the preparations for war. When I was on NPR's "Diane Rehm Show", I noted that the Downing Street memo contradicted Bush's public statements at the time. USA Today's Susan Page—whom I think highly of as a political reporter and fellow talk-show gabber—said facetiously she was shocked that a president would not tell the truth about his intentions. I was going to reply that one reason why Bush (and other presidents) get away with fibbing is that too many in the press treat presidential dissembling (or "disassembling," as one perp might call it) as routine. But we had to take a break. (Granted, I don't have much of a sense of humor about presidential disingenuousness.)
It has been hard for the DSM gang to get the media fired up over an indication that Bush misled the public about his intentions. As for the fixed intelligence, that one line in the Downing Street memo is suspicious but not conclusive. If Democrats were in control of either house of Congress, they certainly would be justified in holding a hearing to determine if this sentence did mean Bush cooked the intelligence. Yet it is possible to read the line as meaning the Bushies were marshalling whatever "intelligence and facts" they had to make the case for war. There is a certain dishonesty in presenting a selective case, and a president can be blasted for doing so beyond acceptable boundaries. But that's not quite the same thing as falsifying intelligence.
The DSM and the other British memos, though, are significant and serious for another reason: They prove that Bush's primary case for war—the argument that Saddam Hussein, with his supposed connection to Al Qaeda, posed a direct WMD threat to the United States—was false (if not an outright lie). Moreover, they show that the issue is not bad intelligence—as Bush and his crew have suggested after no WMDs were found in Iraq—but the administration's purposeful misrepresentation of intelligence. This is the main point for DSM fans to make.
The Downing Street memo, for instance, notes that British Foreign Minister Jack Straw believed the WMD case for war was "thin." Presumably, he had access to the leading prewar intelligence, and none of it convinced him. As these documents demonstrate, British officials were indeed worried about Hussein and WMDs, but Straw, according to the minutes of that July 23, 2002, gathering, told Blair that "Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran." Other British memos go into more detail. A March 22, 2002, memo written for Straw by Peter Ricketts, the political director of the British foreign service, notes, "Even the best survey of Iraq's WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or [chemical weapons/biological weapons] fronts; the programmes are extremely worrying but have not, as far as we know, been stepped up." Another memo written by Blair national security aides reported that intelligence on Iraq's WMD was "poor," that Iraq's nuclear weapons program was "effectively frozen," and that its chemical and biological weapons programs have been "hindered."
Compare this to what Dick Cheney said in August 2002: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction….What he wants is time, and more time to husband his resources to invest in his ongoing chemical and biological weapons program, and to gain possession of nuclear weapons." Cheney was conveying the impression that Iraq possessed active WMD programs. There was, he said, "no doubt" about this. The British memos show that Bush's number-one ally had a rather different—perhaps more reality-based—view. And, in retrospect, we know which one was closer to the truth.
Nowadays, Bush-backers like to claim that Bush, Cheney and Co. were led astray by the CIA and its faulty intelligence. But the British memos demonstrate that Bush and Cheney were not duped; they were doing the duping. The Brits looked at the existing intelligence and concluded the material was inconclusive and that Iraq's WMD programs were not strong. Yet the Bush-Cheney administration told the American public the intelligence was rock-solid and that Iraq was crazy with active WMD programs, including a project to develop quickly nuclear weapons. The DSM and the other documents are the evidence that blows apart the bad-intelligence defense embraced by the Bush administration.
Moreover, these records also show Bush was fiddling with the truth when he claimed before the war that Hussein was in league with Al Qaeda. That was a crucial component of Bush's case for the invasion. The argument he made at the time was not that Hussein would be so stupid as to use a biological or chemical weapon against a U.S. target (and risk retaliation that would certainly annihilate his regime) but that Hussein would slip such a weapon to his pals in Al Qaeda. According to these memos, Bush was essentially making this up. Ricketts wrote, "US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Aaida [sic] is so far frankly unconvincing." Other Blair aides noted there was "no recent evidence" of a link between Baghdad and Osama bin Laden. And Jack Straw wrote to Blair, "there has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with [bin Laden] and Al Qaida. Objectively, the threat from Iraq has not worsened as a result of 11 September."
So the documents indicate that the intelligence on the two main arguments for war—Hussein's WMD activity and his purported ties to bin Laden—was unconvincing, according to Bush's number-one ally. (Why, then, did Blair go along with Bush? That remains a good question. Ricketts' memo provides a clue. He writes that if the Blair government shared "Bush's broad objective," then Blair could "help shape" what happens.) And these memos offer the latest in proof that Bush hyped the case for a war that has claimed 1,700 American lives and the lives of probably 10,000 or more Iraqi civilians. (One of the document also reports that the Bush administration was giving "little thought" to the invasion's "aftermath and how to shape it.")
Nothing new here? Think of it this way: had the contents of these memos been known before the war, how might they have affected the debate?
Or consider this exchange. When I was discussing the memos the other day with a skeptical mainstream media reporter who brushed them aside as insignificant, I said, "Imagine if you came across official U.S. documents that noted that before the war, Condoleezza Rice had said in private meetings that the WMD intelligence was uncertain, that Hussein's WMD programs were not robust, and that the WMD case for war was 'thin.' Wouldn't that be hot-damn front-page news?" "You have a point," this MSMer said. Well, that's what happened in London. Put aside the questions of fixing intelligence and lying about intentions, these memos demolish Bush's case for war and his CIA-made-me-screw-up defense. That's why they are—or ought to be—big news.