Secret Downing Street Memo Fails To Sizzle

Political opponents of the President and those opposed to the war in Iraq have been trying, with spectacularly poor results, to make a secret July 2002 memo by British foreign policy aide Matthew Rycroft a “smoking gun” proving the White House was intent on war with Iraq earlier previously indicated.

Douglas Jehl, in The New York Times, reports that the memo still riles critics of Iraq war.

WASHINGTON, May 19 – 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, who are portraying it as evidence that Bush was intent on war with Iraq earlier than the White House has acknowledged.

Eighty-nine House Democrats wrote to the White House to ask whether the memorandum, first disclosed by The Sunday Times on May 1, accurately reported the administration’s thinking at the time, eight months before the American-led invasion.

The letter, drafted by Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the British memorandum of July 23, 2002, if accurate, “raises troubling new questions regarding the legal justifications for the war as well as the integrity of your own administration.”

…The British government has not disputed the authenticity of the British memorandum, written by Matthew Rycroft, a top foreign policy aide to Mr. Blair. A spokesman for Mr. Blair has said that the memorandum does not add significantly to previous accounts of decision making before the war.

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters on Tuesday that the White House saw “no need” to respond to the Democratic letter. Current and former Bush administration officials have sought to minimize the significance of the memorandum, saying it is based on circumstantial observations and does not purport to be an authoritative account of American decision making.You can read the memo in its entirety at The Times Online. [Note: The person identified as “C,” is Sir Richard Dearlove, the chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service.]

As near as I can tell the peculiarly British phrasing of the following paragraph is what has set off war critics:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. 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 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.

The “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” line appeals to the conspiracy minded, but more likely indicate a British intel speak spin on the intelligence gathering and analysis related to Iraq’s WMD program and terrorist ties. The ” wanted to remove Saddam, through military action” (which it should be remembered is, at best, 4th-hand reported in the memo), doesn’t seem to rise to the level of “smoking gun.” It’s worth remembering that a non-military option, encouraging Shiite revolt after the first Gulf War, had previously been half-heartedly attempted and hundreds of thousands of Shiites paid with their lives.

Critics contend the memo proves that the decision to go to war was already made prior to the meeting, and many months before Congressional authorization. Ironically the memo itself provides the best evidence that while war may have seemed “inevitable,” it was most certainly not decided on. Why? This line: “The US saw the UK (and Kuwait) as essential,” kicks off the major section of the memo where British options are discussed. What follows is a pretty accurate foretelling of the conditions upon which the “essential” involvement of the UK could be cemented. While UK support for a winning military strategy was indicated, “on the political strategy, there could be US/UK differences. Despite US resistance, we should explore discreetly the [UN] ultimatum.

The rest is history, but it’s worth noting that the political strategy adopted was that proposed by the British. Had the US decision to go to war actually have been pre-ordained, there would have been no benefit to pursing these time-consuming British strategies.

Interestingly you don’t see critics address this section of the memo.

For instance, what were the consequences, if Saddam used WMD on day one, or if Baghdad did not collapse and urban warfighting began? You said that Saddam could also use his WMD on Kuwait. Or on Israel, added the Defence Secretary.

If Bush and Blair were “lying” about WMD, why would they be looking for contingencies to address the use of WMD’s against US and UK troops?

Update: The new public editor at The New York Times, Byron Calame, looks at the memo story. It appears that the “story” at this point is the e-mail campaign aimed at editors around the nation questioning the lack of coverage on the memo. That campaign appears to have caught a whiff of success.

Calame then quotes NYT Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman on the newsworthiness of the memo.

“As I read the minutes, they described the impressions of the head of MI6, who had recently returned from Washington, where he had met with George Tenet. 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.”

Which is why the story of the left pushing the “where’s the coverage” angle is the only legs left on this one…

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