Readers of The New York Times learned on June 13 that in the summer of 2002, the Bush administration had not yet made the decision to invade Iraq, and a recently released British document doesn't prove it had. On June 14, Times readers learned that that document and the Downing Street Memo, released in May, may show that the decision to invade had been made by the summer of 2002, but it doesn't much matter because everyone in Washington knew that Bush had already made the decision to invade.
Confused? The Times seems to be. Referring to a newly-released memo dated July 21, 2002, David Sanger's June 13 article begins, "A memorandum written by Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet office in late July 2002 explicitly states that the Bush administration had made 'no political decisions' to invade Iraq." But as the rest of the July 21, 2002, memo makes clear, the "political" decision was not whether to invade, but how to package the invasion politically:
The US Government's military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace. But, as yet, it lacks a political framework. In particular, little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action, or the aftermath and how to shape it.
Further on, Sanger reiterates his position that the July 21, 2002, memo disproves critics who have asserted that the Downing Street Memo (which, though released first, is dated July 23, 2002) proves that the administration had already made its decision. "The publication of the memorandum is significant because a previously leaked document, now known as the Downing Street Memo, appeared to suggest that a decision to go to war may have been made that summer," Sanger declared.
But on June 14, Times reporter Todd Purdum directly contradicted Sanger: "The disclosure of British government memorandums portraying the Bush administration as bent on war with Iraq by the summer of 2002 ... has caused a political stir on both sides of the Atlantic."
Moreover, Sanger is simply wrong to suggest that the newly-released July 21, 2002, memo contradicts those who claim that the Downing Street Memo proves that the decision "had been made that summer." The newly released memo, predating the Downing Street Memo, and stating that "no political decisions" have been made, was part of the British government's preparations for a meeting of senior British cabinet officials and advisers that was scheduled for July 23. The Downing Street Memo, dated July 23, 2002, is minutes from that meeting, in which the chief of British intelligence, Sir Richard Dearlove, summarized recent meetings with U.S. officials in Washington.* The two are entirely consistent. On July 21, British officials perceived that "no political decisions" have been made in Washington, but on July 23 Dearlove reported, based on his meetings, that "[m]ilitary action was now seen as inevitable."
Meanwhile, Purdum opined that "the documents are not quite so shocking." He continued: "Three years ago, the near-unanimous conventional wisdom in Washington held that Mr. Bush was determined to topple Saddam Hussein by any means necessary." Yet Purdum failed to note that "near-unanimous conventional wisdom" notwithstanding, President Bush continued to deny, up until the day before the invasion began, that he had made the decision to invade Iraq. To cite just a few of the dozens of examples: On October 1, 2002, he said, "Of course, I haven't made up my mind we're going to war with Iraq." On January 2, 2003, he said, "I'm hopeful we won't have to go to war, and let's leave it at that." On March 6, 2003, just two weeks before the invasion began, he said, "I've not made up our mind about military action. Hopefully, this can be done peacefully."
It is certainly true that many people believed at the time that President Bush wanted to invade Iraq, notwithstanding his denials to the contrary. But if the "near-unanimous conventional wisdom" was right -- as we now know it was -- that means that Bush repeatedly and persistently lied to the American people, and continues to lie. This is hardly a small matter.
Yet to hear the Times tell it, if a president lies to the public but lots of people don't believe him anyway, then he hasn't really lied. By the Times' reasoning, if independent counsel Kenneth Starr had produced definitive evidence that President Bill Clinton had committed perjury, the Times wouldn't have reported it because many Americans already believed it to be true. Does anyone really believe the Times would have ignored such a story?
The Times does not deny that the evidence shows that the decision had been made long before the administration admitted it. According to Purdum:
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. In the March 31, 2003, issue of The New Yorker, with the invasion just under way, Richard N. Haass, then the State Department's director of policy planning, said that in early July 2002 he asked Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, whether it made sense to put Iraq at the center of the agenda, with a global campaign against terrorism already under way. "And she said, essentially, that that decision's been made, don't waste your breath," he said then.
Other news outlets were reporting the same thing during the run-up to the war. In a September 2002 article, USA Today wrote that President Bush "decided that Saddam must go more than 10 months ago; the debate within the administration since then has been about the means to accomplish that end." This story, unusually lengthy by USA Today's standards, was obviously assiduously reported and based on multiple sources. Yet even then, it -- along with other news outlets -- refused to state the obvious truth: that Bush was actively, repeatedly lying to the public about his intentions.
This is the elephant in the room that American journalists adamantly refuse to acknowledge.
One of the talking points in circulation is that the Downing Street Memo constitutes "old news." If we learn definitively that the president of the United States lied repeatedly to the American public in order to obtain support for a war in which to date more than 1,700 American lives have been lost and more than $200 billion has been spent, it would appear to be news, old or otherwise.
Correction: The original version of this item incorrectly stated that the original Downing Street Memo, dated July 23, 2002, was the recorded minutes of a meeting that day between U.S. and British officials. In fact, the memo is the minutes of a British meeting that day in which the British intelligence chief summarized recent meetings with U.S. officials.