Published on Thursday, June 23, 2005 by The Free Lance-Star (Fredricksburg, VA)
by Rick Mercier
The smoke has just about cleared following the small brush fire caused by the Downing Street memos, and responsible observers agree that we can ignore them.
Perhaps I shouldn't have said smoke. I didn't mean to imply that the secret British documents are smoking guns that show the Bush administration made up its mind to invade Iraq as early as March 2002 even though the intelligence did not support such action.
These memos certainly aren't smoking guns. In fact, they don't even tell us anything new, and if you had any sense you'd know that, just like you'd know that our leaders choose war only as a last option, that we invaded Iraq because we were attacked first, and that the Iraqi insurgency is in its last throes.
The wise folks on The Washington Post's editorial board summed up the irrelevance of the British documents in an editorial last week: "The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration's prewar deliberations. Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002" (when the latest memos were produced).
The Post's editorial writers are authorities on all this prewar stuff. After all, they could see that Colin Powell's February 2003 presentation to the United Nations amounted to an "irrefutable" case against Iraq. As they put it then: "It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction."
They also could see that Saddam and al-Qaida were in cahoots and that an invasion of Iraq was "an operation essential to American security"
But if you really need a second opinion about the Downing Street memos, how about The New York Times? They're real smart, too. After Powell's U.N. speech, the Times said the then-secretary of state "may not have produced a 'smoking gun,'" but his presentation left "little question that Mr. Hussein had tried hard to conceal one."
See, these people know a few things about smoking guns. And the Downing Street memos aren't smoking guns. Or, as the Times put it in a news analysis last week, "the memos are not the Dead Sea Scrolls."
That's right. If it's the gospel on Iraq you're seeking, you should listen to your government, or to those who serve as loyal operatives of your government, such as former Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, who taught Times reporter Judith Miller everything she needed to know about those scary WMD that Saddam's mad scientists were making.
Like the Post's editorial writers, the Times noticed nothing new in the Downing Street memos. "There has been ample evidence for many months, and even years, that top Bush administration figures saw war as inevitable by the summer of 2002," the paper said.
See? A lot of yapping about nothing-that's what this Downing Street flap is. So you can stop reading this column right here and go find something more interesting, like another story about Tom Cruise and whoever that schoolgirl is he's supposedly marrying.
But since I have to fill up the rest of this column space, I will run through some of the current hysteria surrounding the Downing Street memos.
Those waving the memos around and yelling for impeachment proceedings to begin say it is, too, news that the United States' closest ally thought the case for war was "thin" (British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's assessment, according to one document) and that it nervously sought to concoct some sort of legal cover for an invasion.
The memoheads also wonder why, if everything in the documents was "publicly known" by the summer of 2002, the Post's and Times' news coverage and editorials were not much more skeptical of the Bush administration's prewar claims and machinations.
To buttress their charge that the decision to invade Iraq was made well before the president said it was, some of the memoheads have begun citing reports about the increase in U.S. and British bombing attacks against Iraq in the months preceding the ground campaign.
One recent article in The Sunday Times of London (which first broke the story about the Downing Street memos) said there was a spike in bombings in May 2002 and that the purpose was not to defend no-fly zones in Iraq but to goad Saddam into retaliating so there would be a pretext for all-out war.
Like the Downing Street memos, this war-before-the-war story has gotten quite a bit of attention in Britain, yet not much over here. But I'm sure the reason the story has been ignored by the likes of the Post and the Times is that it is old news.
Heck, the Post probably even did that story before the war, and it's not their fault if you didn't happen to see it on Page A20 below a piece on the plight of Tanzanian goat herders.
The Downing Street memos controversy points out a definite contrast between the U.S. and British media. It's no wonder one of the memos stated that the British government "had to manage a press ... that was very different than anything in the States."
All I know is that I'm sure glad I live in America and not over there, where my judgment could easily be clouded by a bunch of hyperventilating journalists out to sensationalize the most trivial things.
Say, did you see the ring Tom Cruise gave that little teeny-bopper?
Rick Mercier is a writer and news editor for The Free Lance-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .