by David Michael Green, Common Dreams
The Downing Street Memo is the gift that just keeps on giving. And well it should. It is the smoking gun which proves that the gravest possible crime was committed by the Bush administration, and among its victims were the American people.
I am more hopeful about American politics than I have been in a long time, though still cautious. For nearly five years now, the Bush administration has gotten away with murder - literally and figuratively - with seemingly immutable impunity, always defying the laws of political gravity, at least as they are known in this universe. So I've come to be tentative and rather pessimistic about the possibilities of ending this national nightmare of reaction, thievery and militarism, and bringing these criminals to justice.
But Downing Street seems to have legs, and I feel a critical mass building now. It is different this time, in part, because this is the first true insider smoking gun, set down in black and white. But it is also different, in part, because the context has changed. Unlike previous revelations, from the Clarke or O'Neill (Suskind) books, for example, the evidence this time comes against the background of growing discontent at home with the disaster of Iraq, and the diminished credibility of a president and the movement of regressive politics he leads.
Generally content or frightened people will forgive a lot, sometimes even murderous lies of this magnitude. But angry, deceived people will not. Bush has built himself a credibility gap of which Lyndon Johnson could be proud, which probably accounts more than anything for his inability to sell the bundle of Social Security deceits he's been peddling. He said he was going to get Osama 'dead or alive'. He didn't. He said his tax scheme would revive the economy. It didn't. He said it wouldn't add to the national debt. Boy, did it.
He and his minions said Iraq was a necessary war, in response to an urgent threat, and that American 'liberators' would be greeted with flowers and chocolate. None of that came true, of course, and now the public no longer supports George and Dick's Excellent Adventure in the Cradle of Civilization. Fifty-seven percent of Americans perceive the war as going badly. Only forty percent think that it's been worth it to remove Saddam from power given the costs in troops and dollars. And only thirty-eight percent approve of how Bush is handling the war.
Moreover, Iraq echoes the tragedy of Vietnam in every salient way, from the lies going in, to the 'everything's just fine' detachment of the political class, the international opprobrium, the inability to effectively fight counter-insurgency warfare, and the lack of any sort of remotely appealing exit scenario. And on the Nam trajectory, it feels like we are at 1970 or so in terms of public disenchantment. (In part, we should note, that is precisely because of the lessons learned from that war, which produced a healthy increase in political skepticism among the American public.) But in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive had already occurred by 1970, and so, for many years, had the draft. Imagine what will happen to already low and falling support for the Iraq debacle if in the coming months there is a single, highly demoralizing reversal for the US military in Iraq, a la Tet, or if a starved military is forced to reinstitute the draft.
This is the context in which the damning evidence of the Downing Street Memo arrives, and it is part of the explanation for why the Bush administration may now finally find itself in the deep trouble it so richly deserves.
The Memo itself lays out in clear text the game of deceit played by the Bush and Blair gangs in the run-up to the Iraq War. Among its highlights, the DSM confirms that the war had been decided upon well before Congressional or UN Security Council action, and before weapons inspectors were inserted and then removed because of the 'urgency' of Iraq's threat (of course, the real urgency and real threat was that the absence of WMD would kill Bush's pretext for war). The Memo then goes on to show, most significantly, that the war planners knew their case was "thin", so they distorted - "fixed" - the intelligence and facts in order to market the war. (For a more complete discussion of the Memo itself and the wholesale failures of the mainstream media to treat this earth-shattering story with anything approaching the coverage it deserves, see http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0513-20.htm .)
Eighty-nine members of the House sent a letter to the president asking for clarification of the ominous implications of the Memo, and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan soon began getting questions about it. It will hardly surprise attentive readers that his response to these questions was smug, condescending, and maximally disingenuous. Without addressing the content or implications of the Memo (and, most absurdly of all, while claiming not to have read it), McClellan refers us to the president's statements of the time, which he says provide a clear record of Bush's honest and very public diplomacy on the Iraq issue. It turns out, however, that if one examines that record just as McClellan suggests, one finds anything and everything but honesty from Bush and his team. Instead, precisely as the DSM prescribes, we were given a boatload of knowing lies from the administration, often in the most visible of fora, like the State of the Union address (see http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0519-30.htm ).
Since these initial developments, much has happened in just a short time. First, knowledge of the Memo's existence is becoming more widespread. As of this moment, I doubt more than one percent of Americans are aware of the story, but that number is increasing rapidly, especially through the alternative media. More and more articles written on a variety of subjects make reference to it, even in passing, and it is flying across email networks with accelerating rapidity. Google "Downing Street Memo" and about 267,000 hits are returned at present, with that number rising fast. The story feels at this moment like a virus about to kick into the exponential phase of its growth curve, or a pregnant cloud about to burst showers over the parched land.
The mainstream media is addressing the DSM, but still only in bits, and - it would appear - only reluctantly. No doubt the experiences of CBS and Newsweek have been precisely as intimidating as the White House intended them to be, and no doubt fears of lost profits prove even more sobering. Just the same, there is movement, and some of it has been forced by us. Two weeks too late, for example, the New York Times finally ran a brief single-column story. Of course, they buried it on page 10, and they gave the story the wrong emphasis.
Its first paragraph reads "More than two weeks after its publication in London, a previously secret British government memorandum that reported in July 2002 that President Bush had decided to 'remove Saddam, through military action' is still creating a stir among administration critics. They are portraying it as evidence that Mr. Bush was intent on war with Iraq earlier than the White House has acknowledged." The article goes on to develop this theme of timing, which is by far the lesser of the two main deceits proven by the DSM. Almost no mention is made in the article of the much more egregious crime of lying about the necessity of the invasion for American security needs, and willfully constructing an entire campaign of disinformation to market the war.
The Times also felt the pressure of its readership on this issue to such an extent that the new Public Editor, Byron Calame, was compelled to publish an online response to the "flood" of angry email from readers expressing disappointment and worse at America's so-called newspaper of record. Mr. Calame writes "My checks find no basis for Ms. Lowe's [a sample incensed correspondent] concern about censorship or undue outside pressures. Rather, it appears that key editors simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a high-powered meeting on a life-and-death issue - their authenticity undisputed - probably needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers. Even if the editors decided it was old news that Mr. Bush had decided in July 2002 to attack Iraq or that the minutes didn't provide solid evidence that the administration was manipulating intelligence, I think Times readers deserved to know that earlier than today's article [Calame is referring here to the article discussed in the previous paragraph]."
Again, this goes to the lesser issue raised by the DSM, but Calame then interviews Phil Taubman, the NYT Washington Bureau Chief, who addresses the more salient question of the manipulation of intelligence to sell the war. Says Taubman: "It is mighty suggestive that Lord Dearlove, the chief of MI6, came home with the impression, or interpretation, that 'the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.' However, that's several steps removed from evidence that such was the case. The minutes did not say that Mr. Tenet had told that to Lord Dearlove or that Lord Dearlove had seen specific examples of that. The minutes, in my estimation, were not a smoking gun that proved that Bush, Tenet and others were distorting intelligence to support the case for war."
There are two huge problems with this alibi for the Times' obscene failure. First, by any reasonable standard, the Memo absolutely does provide such 'evidence' that the facts were being fixed. It says so itself. And, remember that it is an internal British government document, leaked to the public. As such, and since it was never intended to see the light of day, there would be no reason for it to be dishonest or distorted for the benefit of its original readers. Remember also that Tony Blair has in fact commented briefly on the Memo, but never denied its veracity in any fashion. Recall that a member or former member of the Bush team who was privy to these discussions has confirmed, off the record, the accuracy of the Memo. And remember that the Memo's blueprint fits precisely with what are now established facts from the period, namely, that the Bush people told lie after whopping lie about Iraq's WMD capabilities, and did so knowingly. All told, this amounts to an extremely powerful case, one which would certainly prove highly persuasive in a criminal case, where the standards of proof are far higher than they are for a public's evaluation of their political leaders in a democracy.
But, even if this extremely persuasive evidence were not on the table, the second problem with the Times' lame excuse is that unassailable evidence of a crime (do we ever have that?) is hardly necessary for publication of a news story, anyhow. We don't 'know' yet whether Tom DeLay is guilty of the accusations which have been made against him, but those accusations are themselves highly newsworthy, and have been treated, appropriately, as such. We don't yet 'know' definitively whether John Bolton is a 'kiss up, kick down' sort of fellow, but the fact that there is some evidence suggesting that might be the case deserves, and got, plenty of media coverage. And I sure don't remember a lot of media hesitation over Whitewater or Monicagate. Me, I'm just one guy out here in the hinterlands, but where I come from, very powerful evidence of a president lying to sell a war - evidence which has not been disputed, evidence which has been independently corroborated in multiple ways, and evidence which has caused deep concern among a large portion of Congress - well, that's worthy of a wee bit more coverage than we've seen to date. Indeed, apart from 9/11, what story of the last decade is bigger than this?
The arguments proffered by the Times for its poor coverage of the DSM render this news blackout and associated coverup distortions looking very much like a case of disingenuousness of which the White House would be proud. Together, they would constitute a crime on top of a crime, but for the fact that it is not, alas, the first episode in this ugly story. By its own (very late) admission, the Times betrayed its responsibility to the American public during the run-up to the war - precisely the period described in the Memo - by failing to question the 'evidence' and claims offered by the administration for the necessity of going to war, serving instead as a virtual government stenographer. That makes the current fiasco - at best - a perfect trifecta of botched journalism from America's paper of record. But it also makes that 'at best' interpretation seem increasingly implausible. Far more likely with such a series of failings, all in the same direction of massively favoring the administration, is that the Times is purposely abdicating its duty as a government watchdog. Whether that is because of cowardice, profits, both, or some other explanation is as yet unclear.
My, how far we've traveled. In this week full of Watergate reminiscences, the irony of our present condition could not be more complete. Three decades ago, two cub reporters with the backing of a great patriotic paper struggled to uncover, bit by painstaking bit, information which saved the republic from a highjacking. Today, the story is out there in plain sight, and yet the no-longer-remotely-great journalistic organs not only fail to present it, they conspire to cover it up, adding their own special contribution to the current unraveling of constitutional government. Increasing numbers of Americans are coming to realize that learning the truth about their country requires going to foreign sources like the BBC, or to alternative electronic media. Fortunately, however, American journalism still exhibits a pulse in a few parts of the country. Most significant so far has been a stunning cri de coeur out of Minneapolis, deep within America's heartland and hardly a Havana, Falluja or even Berkeley. In a devastating Memorial ('Memo'rial?) Day editorial, the Star Tribune called the president what he is, a liar who has committed the gravest sin any commander-in-chief ever could, "spending [American soldiers'] blood in an unnecessary war based on contrived concerns about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction".
Wow. One can only imagine the shivers running down the spines of Rove, Bush, Cheney and the rest as they read those words and consider the (very mainstream) source. Already unpopular and no longer trusted, the Memo has the capacity to devastate if not destroy this White House, and potentially even to sentence its occupants to financial ruin and long prison terms. (If this were to get any sweeter, more deserved, or more ironic, those jail cells would turn out to be in The Hague, rather than Leavenworth. Nobody pinch me yet, please, this is too good.)
Indeed, the ironies which may ensue from this point forward are exquisite to contemplate. Those who have recklessly dismantled American democracy over the last two decades in a naked pursuit of power may well in turn become victims of several of the destructive precedents they themselves have established.
For starters, consider Karl Rove's dilemma right now. He is in precisely the position he has long loved to place his opponents (such as Democratic members of Congress over the Iraq war vote just before the elections of 2002, to choose just one example). If he says nothing about the DSM, he risks it continuing to proliferate exponentially, with more and more mainstream, heartland, media hurling devastating and unanswered body blows at the Bush administration, until ultimately a tidal wave of rage crests over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But if he addresses it head on, he risks making tens of millions of Americans aware of something they presently are not, with most of them likely to then see the plain message of this evidence for exactly what it is.
Hobson's choice or not, at the rate things are progressing, the White House will have to respond, and likely soon. Just this week a chorus of impeachment calls has echoed across the alternative media, including even one (at least) from a conservative source, Paul Craig Roberts of the Hoover Institution, who accuses Bush of "intentionally deceiving Congress and the American people in order to start a war of aggression against a country that posed no threat to the United States". He goes on to note, quite accurately, that "As intent as Republicans were to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about a sexual affair, they have a blind eye for President Bush's far more serious lies".
To get a sense of how frightened and vulnerable the Bush team is, consider McClellan's response to a reporter's question about the letter sent by 89 members of the House calling for an explanation of the Downing Street Memo. McClellan said the White House saw "no need" to answer the letter. This tells us three things, right off the bat. First, the Bush administration is blocking Congress from performing its constitutionally mandated duty of oversight of the executive. Well, no surprise there. Second - and, again, absolutely no surprise - this White House has once more demonstrated its seemingly inexhaustible capacity to break all prior records for arrogance. Napoleon couldn't touch this stuff, and neither could Nero. Imagine believing that you're above answering basic questions posed by Congress about the single biggest issue of our time. Imagine seeing "no need" to explain to the country why documentary evidence exists showing that you lied your way into a war which continues to consume American soldiers by the thousands, with no end in sight. Now, that's how they do it in the big leagues.
But experience reminds us that arrogance and bullying behavior almost always serve to mask massive insecurities just beneath, bringing us to the third revelation which can be extrapolated from McClellan's non-comment. Think about it. The gravest possible accusation has been made against the president and his team, emanating from, among others, one-fifth of the House of Representatives. In addition to its moral implications, it has the political capacity to topple the presidency and perhaps kill the entire regressive right movement of the last quarter-century. It is, in short, some very serious business. Knowing what we know about how these folks viciously attack anyone who besmirches them in the slightest, what are we to make of their silence on this most lethal - this most existential - of political attacks? No doubt they are completely trapped by the evidence and can only hope and pray the Memo just goes away. But ever true to form, McClellan, Bush, Cheney and the whole lot of them would be strewing carnage across the landscape on this issue if they could get away with it. Just ask CBS, Newsweek, Amnesty International, Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke, John McCain or John Kerry. Get in their way, and the attacks come hard, fast and personal. That they are not now in full assault mode further affirms the accuracy and power of the Memo, as well as suggesting that the White House is strategically trapped between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps they even find themselves in shock and awe.
It is crucial now for progressives and patriots of all stripes to push this opportunity as hard as possible, down multiple paths.
The mainstream media is the most significant avenue for advancing this initiative which has the potential to take down Bush. We must continue to exert unrelenting pressure on media outlets simply to do their jobs, so that the public may be informed of this gravest breach of its trust. Members of Congress, led by John Conyers, have also played an important role so far by providing legitimacy to the critique, a rallying point around which other vectors can agglomerate, and an important angle the media can exploit should they ever decide one day to earn their salaries. We must do more to pressure Congress, particularly vulnerable Republicans (and I predict there may be quite a lot of them in 2006) to take this question seriously or explain to their constituents why they do not.
Impeachment is completely warranted for the crimes committed by the Bush administration, and we must relentlessly demand this outcome. As mentioned above, there are potentially exquisite ironies in this case, and this is one of them. Having impeached Clinton for lying about oral sex, how ridiculous would Republicans now appear trying to argue that there is no impeachable offense here?
Another example of sublime irony might be produced by a court case, perhaps over a wrongful death charge. Cindy Sheehan (bless you for your sacrifice, and for your tireless work to save others from the same fate), are you reading this? History is calling your name. And once again, imagine the patently obvious hypocrisy of Republicans trying to prevent the president from having to testify in such a case, after they just got through establishing a legal precedent for the same by forcing Clinton to do so, while in office, over the far less harmful allegation of sexual harassment.
And, in yet another example of exquisite irony, imagine how unsympathetic the judiciary is likely to be toward them, after the radical right has excoriated judges who don't bend to their will, to the point that GOP senators have offered justifications for recent violence directed against judges.
The regressive movement of the last several decades has provided a vicious spectacle, to the extent that internal cannibalization always seemed one likely avenue for its ultimate demise, with, for example, the far right running a nearly successful primary candidate against sitting Republican Senator Arlen Specter last year.
But this is better. Lots better. After a quarter century of scorched earth politics, I could not have designed a more appropriate fate for these destroyers of democracy than to be hoisted by their own petards, and then taken out by their own destructive precedents.
America has gone seriously astray due to the regressive right movement that began in earnest with Reagan, incubated under Gingrich, and blossomed full-blown in the era of Bush, Scalia and DeLay. This political cancer has yielded death, destruction, environmental wreckage, massive debt, wholesale violations of human rights, diminishment of national security, dismantling of constitutional democracy at home and widespread hatred for America abroad. And that's just the first term. It is difficult to imagine that one could ruin a country so thoroughly in just four years, but the Bush team has succeeded famously (with a good deal of help from the press, the Democrats and the public). Finally, it appears that we have in the Downing Street Memo a weapon, and with it the proper context, to end our long national nightmare.
David Michael Green (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.
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