Blog Feed

Monday, May 01, 2006 

The Downing Street Memo, One Year Later

The anniversary of the publication of this shocking document provides an occasion to reflect on what we have learned during the last year. Last spring the memo's appearance was greeted with confusion, timidity and indifference. Misinformation abounded. Clearing away all that underbrush was critical, but what did it get us? With the gruesome truth exposed, the national media and government averted its gaze.

To admit the force of the revelations would have entailed facing up to an unpleasant question: Well then, what am I to do about it? But taking action is onerous, especially in the face of stonewalling by the White House. Rather than pursue the issue to its conclusion, many of those who were in a position to investigate or take other action preferred instead to let the matter drop. After all, who could really rebut the President's vague dismissal of the memo? "There's nothing farther from the truth."

Over time, unnoticed by a distracted media, the White House's defense--never actually tenable--has been shown to be utterly preposterous. All the main allegations, all the inferences based on the memo, have been borne out, and more, by subsequent revelations. That is the theme of this diary, and of part two tomorrow.

A little history

One evening a year ago, on April 30, I stumbled across what came to be called the Downing Street Memo. It was published in the Sunday Times by a reporter named Michael Smith. On the face of it, these official British minutes dated 7/23/2002 had impeccable credentials. On the face of it, they were supremely devastating to the public image of George Bush as well as Tony Blair. In a flurry of posts on line, I made the case that it looked and smelled like Watergate. A diary at Daily Kos on Sunday, May 1, finally attracted sufficient attention; the blogosphere exploded with the story. The rest is history.

A rather depressing history. With few exceptions, the American media did its best to ignore the scandal--as predicted. After nearly a month of almost non-existent news coverage, activists were fed up. I say with considerable pride that one of the only bright spots was our own, a hugely successful website almost from the day it was founded (May 13, 2005). But even the highest-quality saturation coverage on line can achieve only so much. Without politicians or journalists taking a leading interest, the issue stagnated.

A concerted netroots campaign to pressure the news media during June, headquartered here and at Daily Kos, finally succeeded in budging the mainstream media enough to create a buzz around the story. More quickly than could have been imagined, new revelations started popping up that buttressed and supplemented what the DSM has to say.

For example, further British planning documents from the spring of 2002--also leaked to Michael Smith--published in Britain in 2004 but virtually unremarked in the U.S. at that time, suddenly got pulled into the debate about the DSM. Smith also published an essential companion piece to the DSM, the Briefing Paper that had been distributed in advance to participants in the 7/23 meeting. The RAF was forced by the Liberal Democrats in Britain to cough up documents about pre-war bombing of Iraq, which confirmed the memo's picture of systematic and deliberate provocations from patrols in the No-Fly-Zone during the summer of 2002. Reporters in the U.S. also began adding to the outlines of the story. It would be tedious to catalogue all the information and new connections that sprang forth once journalists began to focus on the issue.

Republicans were in a tizzy in June, trying to discover talking points that would kill this story off. Their efforts, uncoordinated and often silly, tried to challenge the credibility of the document while ignoring its revelations. It looked like a rear-guard action.

Ultimately, the most important event was the joint press briefing on June 7, 2005 by Bush and Blair. Steve Holland of Reuters asked Bush about the memo, the first and so far the only time the President has been put on the spot in public.

On Iraq, the so-called Downing Street memo from July 2002 says intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy of removing Saddam through military action. Is this an accurate reflection of what happened?

Blair leaped in to run interference for Bush and change the subject from the manipulation of WMD intel. He asserted without explanation that "the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all." Then Blair insinuated that the appeal for a U.N. resolution in the fall of 2002 makes the DSM meaningless. Blair also claimed that the two leaders had consistently sought a "way of managing to resolve this without conflict." Bush then spoke up and boxed himself right into the same corner that Blair was occupying:

Well, I -- you know, I read kind of the characterizations of the memo, particularly when they dropped it out in the middle of his race. I'm not sure who "they dropped it out" is, but -- I'm not suggesting that you all dropped it out there.

And somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There's nothing farther from the truth. My conversation with the Prime Minister was, how could we do this peacefully, what could we do.

And this meeting, evidently, that took place in London happened before we even went to the United Nations -- or I went to the United Nations.

And so it's -- look, both us of didn't want to use our military. Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It's the last option. The consequences of committing the military are -- are very difficult. The hardest things I do as the President is to try to comfort families who've lost a loved one in combat. It's the last option that the President must have -- and it's the last option I know my friend had, as well. And so we worked hard to see if we could figure out how to do this peacefully, take a -- put a united front up to Saddam Hussein, and say, the world speaks, and he ignored the world. Remember, 1441 passed the Security Council unanimously. He made the decision. And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.

This pudding of an answer was mostly warmed over nonsense. As I commented at the time, in so far as it actually responded to the question, it was an idiotic response that could only do Bush harm:

For one thing, he failed to challenge the credibility of DSM... hereafter it will be very difficult for his cheerleaders to argue that DSM is forged, or 4th hand, or incompetently drafted. ...

Worse yet, Bush made an unforced error...He made a statement so egregiously at odds with the entire tenor of DSM, and with many of its specific statements, and so implausible on the face of it, that it focuses attention almost inevitably upon Bush's credibility. It should suck the air out of the remaining talking-points pretty effectively, and concentrate attention on how Bush can explain his implausible statement. Worse still, in this statement Bush claimed to have worked for what many Americans now yearn for--a peaceful solution. Peacemaking is Bush's weakest suit, and it has been since the first mutterings about an Iraq war. Bush now has made his weakest suit the focus of what is likely to become a liar-liar-pants-on-fire  story in the news media. At least, we need to ensure that the story turns in that direction.

It never did quite tear Bush down to the degree that it should have, though for the rest of June the White House was on the defensive about the DSM. Relief (of a sort) came only in July, when attention shifted suddenly to Plamegate. It was a bad summer for Bush and Rove, and it's just kept getting worse since then.

I'd just emphasize how vulnerable Bush remains on the ground of his June 7 statement. His tactic, like Blair's, was to
(a) reject or ignore every part of the memo's contents
(b) claim to have been a peacemaker, which is unverifiable and wholly undocumented
(c) misdirect attention to the "U.N. route", as if it confirmed rather than contradicted (b)

Bush's defense can hold only as long as the public is unaware, or only vaguely aware, of the actual contents of the DSM; and only as long as those contents are open to legitimate doubt. As of now, the latter is no longer true (if ever it was); there can be no doubt that the memo does indeed reflect how Blair's government interacted with the Bush administration. So Bush has banked upon and continues to depend on widespread ignorance of the text of the memo.

Why revisit "old news"?

Now is the hour to reconsider what may be done about the memo's revelations. One year ago, George Bush still seemed largely untouchable. The chipping away at his public standing had barely begun. Today, he's widely reviled; everybody admits that he's cornered. Last May, journalists were still experimenting with ever new methods of stenography. Nowadays, "Liar-in-Chief" competes with "Leaker-in-Chief" in the public consciousness, and more reporters are taking their cues.

In short, we have new opportunities to make the gruesome truth stick to Bush. Besides, as remarked, we have so much additional evidence to buttress the memo that the balance of proof has shifted. Why should the President's critics forever have to justify an interpretation of his actions based on the plain meaning of this document?

It's long since time that George Bush explained himself. He was evasive the only time a reporter questioned him. Thereafter Bush did not respond to a petition signed by we, the people, requesting an explanation. You'll recall that Congressman Conyers delivered it to a closed White House gate. The nation needs to demand anew a candid answer to the burning question: How and why did we go to war against Iraq?

Unfinished business

Last spring I argued that we needed to get the text of the document in front of as many Americans as possible. Today I believe even more strongly that the biggest obstacle, which even the month-long media campaign last June never overcame, was the unwillingness of newspapers to print the full text of the memo. Now, if we wish to re-engage with this struggle, that ought to be the initial goal: Get the entire document in print, not just a few extracts.

Do you remember your first time? The first time that you read the memo? You'd heard the hype and thought to yourself "Oh, looks pretty bad, but let's not oversell the thing." Then you decided you'd better click the link and take a look for yourself. You collected your jaw from the floor, fired up your email, and shouted something like this:

I just read the minutes. I've never seen more direct and damning evidence of fraud on the part of any US administration. It's just mind boggling.

My chin still bears a scar, how about yours? No matter how well chosen are the extracts from the text, no matter how incisive the analysis of it (and I wrote several overviews, such as this report), that will never have the visceral impact of reading the memo. For the minutes take you right inside a high-level meeting of our closest ally, you watch it unfold, and you observe the duplicity of the Blair cabinet as they seek a public pretext for a war, which they acknowledge has no legal justification. You're seeing a transatlantic conspiracy to deceive the world in action. In one op-ed, I compared it to a cross between the Pentagon Papers and the Blank-Check Telegram.

Another problem was that the full scope of the revelations was misunderstood and misrepresented. Commentators quickly focused on the one-paragraph report by "C", to the exclusion of nearly everything else in the memo. For example, surprisingly few people understood the essential point that the memo exposes the subsequent diplomacy in the U.N., and the weapons inspections themselves, as shams (the demand for inspections was made on the presumption that Hussein would reject it, providing the needed pretext for war).

It was not easily extracted, and therefore got far too little attention. The same is true of other observations that any reader of the whole text could have made fairly easily. To take another glaring example, there was no discussion of

how could we do this peacefully

at the July 23 meeting. None. It is entirely about how to get the war off to a good start, and how to find the right "context" (i.e. pretext) for an invasion of Iraq.

In important ways, the recorded comments by Jack Straw and Tony Blair are at least as important as anything "C" reports about the attitude of the Bush administration. Why is it that so many know C's `killer quote', but not the following explosive exchange between the Foreign Secretary, Attorney-General, and Prime Minister?

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. 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. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. There were different strategies for dealing with Libya and Iran. If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.

By bad luck, the report by "C" includes a colloquialism, "fixing facts around the policy", which was booted around in the U.S. like a football. That simply provided a plausible excuse for any who did not wish to press the plain meaning of the text. (The phrase `fixing evidence around an idea/theory', which can be heard in Oxbridge, is a charge of intellectual dishonesty; it means to cherry-pick your evidence.)  C's meaning is obvious from the wider context of the memo (the sentence after all begins with the word "but"), yet many Americans never got the full context.

This is a long way of saying that the failure of the press (with few exceptions) to print the entire memo was a huge disservice to the nation. More to the point, it is a failure that journalists can easily remedy now.

In addition, I would urge you (yes, I'm talking to you there, sitting in the seat) to help to revive this incendiary topic. The simplest step is to write an LTE. Vastly more effective, however, and not much more difficult, would be to compose an op-ed for your local paper; if you can write a 700 word diary, you can compose an op-ed. Many medium and small papers are eager to get submissions from their readers.

Local and national talk-shows could bring this issue back to a boil relatively quickly, if they choose to revisit it. To have an impact on DC, the most important show on radio is Diane Rehm's (WAMU), and on TV C-Span's Washington Journal. You ought to be able to convince the producers of these shows to schedule a program if you can convince them that what we have learned since the publication of the memo confirms and expands its picture of duplicity and war-mongering; and that, for all we have learned, we still are waiting for a candid explanation from the Bush administration.

To be continued

In a second post soon, I'll describe in some detail the range of evidence that has emerged over time since the original publication of the Downing Street memo. This assembling of information will have two purposes.

The first purpose will be to show that the memo was rightly interpreted in the first place. Last year Bush, Blair, and their supporters denied that we were in any position to interpret a lone document; we were told that we were taking it "out of context". Of course we had some context even then, but now there is more. And one of the best tests of a theory is whether it is confirmed or refuted when tested against new evidence. Speaking for myself, all the major interpretations of the memo that I advanced when it first appeared have stood the test of time. Thus critics of Bush have earned credibility in regard to the documentary evidence.

The second, related purpose will be to show how the memo's revelations have been buttressed and supplemented over time by means of subsequent revelations. The case against George Bush, that he rushed to war rather than seeking to avoid it, has never been stronger.

 posted by smintheus  # 12:39 AM   1 comments  

Archives (open in new window)

June 2005 | July 2005 | August 2005 | September 2005 | November 2005 | December 2005 | February 2006 | March 2006 | April 2006 | May 2006 | June 2006 |

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?  Go here for full-screen view of the Blog