The U.S. press is finally beginning to pay attention to the Downing Street Memo and other British documents recently released. Yet as they do so, some news outlets are arguing that we should be talking about something else. The Washington Post's editorial page, which enthusiastically supported the Iraq war, stated on June 15: "The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the [Bush] administration's prewar deliberations." This seems to have become a talking point of the right: Move along, nothing to see here.
In this argument, the fact that the administration's critics suspected, believed, or argued something is offered as a reason to dismiss direct evidence that those critics were right. On the June 14 edition of MSNBC Live, NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell explained: "There have been anti-war groups and anti-Bush groups who've tried to generate this [coverage of the Downing Street Memo] on the Internet, but ... there's no smoking gun here." Why not? Because "if you go back to George Bush's own comments [in summer 2002], you had to be brain-dead not to know what he was up to." The Post discarded the Downing Street Memo's observation that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" by stating: "Yet it was argued even then, and has since become conventional wisdom, that Mr. Bush, Vice President [Dick] Cheney and other administration spokesmen exaggerated the threat from Iraq to justify the elimination of its noxious regime."
But the fact that it became conventional wisdom that Cheney and Bush were manipulating intelligence to bolster their case for war does not negate the significance of the head of British intelligence reporting the same thing based on his conversations with U.S. officials.
The analogy to President Clinton bears repeating: By the Post's reasoning, if independent counsel Kenneth Starr had produced definitive evidence that President Bill Clinton had committed perjury, the Post wouldn't have reported it because many Americans already believed it to be true. Does anyone really believe the Post would have ignored such a story?
The Downing Street Memo raises important questions that are most decidedly not "old news" and need to be asked. Among these questions reporters might consider asking are the following:
The Downing Street Memo relates discussions about Iraq between Richard Dearlove, chief of British intelligence agency MI6, and Bush administration officials. Presumably, the head of British intelligence would have met with senior administration officials. With whom did Dearlove meet? Who told him that military action was inevitable? Were these officials also making public statements indicating that the administration had not decided whether to invade?
Exactly what did American officials tell Dearlove that led him to conclude that the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy?
The memo states that in early 2002 the administration had begun "spikes of activity" -- i.e., increased bombings of Iraq -- to pressure Saddam Hussein. Documents recently released in Britain showed that the Royal Air Force dramatically increased bombings of Iraq during 2002, presumably in concert with the United States. Was the intent to goad Saddam into a military response that could be used as a pretext for invading Iraq?
The memo states, "No decisions had been taken, but [the British Defense Secretary] thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections." The Bush administration began to make the case for war in September 2002 because, according to White House chief of staff Andrew Card, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." Were the November 2002 elections part of the calculation on the timing of the invasion?
According to the memo, "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran." How does the administration square this with its multiple, unequivocal statements on Saddam's supposedly terrifying arsenal of weapons?
During their recent joint press conference, both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair denied that the decision to go to war had been made by the summer of 2002. Yet no one has disputed the memo's authenticity. So were U.S. officials lying to Dearlove, telling him that war was a foregone conclusion when it wasn't? Was Dearlove lying to Blair about what he was told? Both possibilities seem absurd, yet someone somewhere was not telling the truth: either Dearlove, the American officials with whom he met, or Bush and Blair. Which is it?