Michael Smith is the UK reporter many are likening to Woodward and Bernstein for his work in uncovering the Downing Street Memo and other leaked UK government documents. DowningStreetMemo.com recently interviewed Smith via email to ask him about how he came into those documents, what they mean, and what he would ask George W. Bush if he had the chance.
Q: There is some confusion as to what exactly was destroyed. RawStory reports that you burned YOUR copies of the original government documents. Other sites, such as Newsmax, are reporting that you burned the ORIGINAL government documents. See story here. Can you clarify? If you destroyed the copies, do you know if the originals you returned to the source are still in existence?A:
I was given the first six documents in September 2004. I have referred to these documents as the originals because they were the first documents that I was given. But these were of course not the "originals" of the actual documents. They were photocopies of the original documents.
Such documents have to be registered and the source could not have walked off with them without being found out. Quite apart from that there were a number of different copies of the documents in circulation within government. There was always more than one copy of each of the original documents held by the government. For instance, the Straw letter to Blair was marked strictly personal. But there would still have to have been at least two copies of it, one held by Blair's office and one by Straw's.
So the source made photocopies which he gave to me. I was told by the lawyers on the Daily Telegraph where I then worked that I had to copy them all and send the photocopies I had been given back to the source. This was because the photocopy paper used for the copies I was given by the source were made on a government photocopier. The paper they were printed on therefore in law belonged to the government and we could have been accused of theft and had the documents taken off us.
So having sent back those copies, we now have several photocopies of each document which are on paper that belongs to us. I worked from one of these. The editor has another, and the third goes to the lawyers, who have a secretary type the text up using a manual typewriter. This is not done in the same format as the original document. It is just a record of what the document actually says which we can keep without putting the source in danger. I did not at any time work from the typed up texts. I always worked from the photocopies.
There are any number of ways that the authorities could have tracked down the source using the photocopies of the documents. Photocopiers have their own signature, so the photocopier that was used could have been tracked down. A crease or mark of some sort on the original document the source copied could appear on the photocopy. Highly classified documents are often typed up again rather than photocopied, with deliberate mistypes inserted so that documents can be tracked down to a particular person. It was essential we destroyed any evidence.
At 6pm on the evening before the paper appeared, having finished off the two articles I was writing, I shredded the photocopies which I had made, leaving me with only the typed up versions. I then passed that typed up text version to two political parties, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalists). Plaid Cymru gave them to an academic who put them on his own website. That website was taken down immediately by the British Police Special Branch, who also began investigating me for a potential breach of the official secrets act.
Under British law, anyone who passes on material which they know to be classified to someone else is guilty of breaching the official secrets act, whether or not they have signed it, and in fact I have signed it anyway while in the army. The typed up texts had also been passed by the academics Plaid Cymru were dealing with to the Cryptome website, which could not be taken down by the British police because it is not based in the UK. That is how they came to be passed into circulation a couple of weeks ago. I had nothing to do with the process whereby they have recently come into the public domain, although I am happy that happened.
When I received the latest batch of documents I followed a very similar procedure, typing up the text and shredding the copies I had. At no point was I ever in possession of an original document, only photocopies of those original documents. Everything I did was designed solely to protect the source. That is a responsibility that every journalist has.
Long answer but it is a complex issue and simplifying it only led to unscrupulous people deliberately, and rather desperately, misconstruing my motives for destroying leaked documents that could have led the authorities to my source.
One thing we did do was to scan in the front pages of three of the documents, clean any identification marks off them and then reproduce them in the paper. Two of these can still be seen on the Telegraph website alongside my original story. Although this does not authenticate the text, it does show that the documents actually existed. This is the url.Q: Given the intense scrutiny on the language in the documents, how can the public be sure that the transcription of the copies of the documents is word-for-word accurate?A:
The Washington Post, the LA Times and the Associated Press have all
authenticated the documents independently.Q: Without divulging any information that would jeopardize your source for the DSM, is this a person who supported the war or who was against it? In other words, what to you say to the possibility that the "original" documents you were given were initially forgeries themselves?A:
I am not going to go into the source's motives but it is self-evident that they were unhappy about the way Blair took Britain to war. It is also difficult to see why I would have been investigated by the Special Branch for passing on information if the documents were fakes. Finally, there were a number of people at the July 23 meeting all of whom received a copy of the document. Surely one of them would come forward to say it was a fake. Surely Blair would have said the document didn’t exist when he was asked about it at the White House press briefing rather than dismiss it as an old document. The documents are authentic and the text is accurate.Q: In your LA Times article, you cite two separate sources, each giving you a separate batch of documents. Did either source give you special instructions or state a reason as to why they were disclosing this information?A:
NoQ: As you have pointed out in your articles, the RAF and US bombing of Iraq started in the May 2002, with a large escalation of activity after the July meeting described in the DSM. Specifically, you wrote "By the end of August the raids had become “a full air offensive.” Do you believe that this intense bombing had anything to do with the fact that Saddam Hussein offered to hold internationally-monitored elections and full weapons inspections by the UN and US troops in the weeks before the "formal" launch of the war? See story here.A.
No. The missions were planned to destroy as much of Iraq's defences as possible beforehand. Nothing Saddam did had any effect on them. They were going to happen anyway. Lt-Gen T Michael Moseley's briefing to allied officers at Nellis air base, Nevada, on 17 July 2003 (as reported in today's Sunday Times) made it very clear that this was the air war.Q: Some are equating the Bush administration's bombing in 2002 with the air strikes launched against Iraq under the Clinton administration. Is there any real difference? If so, what makes one more legal (or illegal) than the other?A:
The Desert Fox operation was launched by Clinton and Blair in December 1998 to punish Iraq for forcing out the weapons inspectors. Thereafter Iraqi air defences were attacked whenever the allies came under attack. The legality of this is disputed but the Foreign Office legal advice makes clear that both Britain and the US believed it to be legal. The period between December 1998 and May 2002 saw more bombs dropped than had been dropped before Desert Fox but nowhere near as many bombs as were dropped from May 2002 to the start of the war, or should I say the official start of the war. While what was going on between December 1998 and May 2002 was borderline legal. Spikes of activity to put pressure on the regime is illegal plain and simple. They were there to protect the ethnic minorities by preventing Iraqi aircraft overflying the areas inhabited by those minorities under UNSCR 688. That was not an Article VII resolution, which is the only type of UN resolution that allows for the use of military force to enforce it and the no-fly zones were certainly not put there to put pressure on the regime, for which read provoking the regime into giving the allies an excuse for war.Q: At the bottom of the Options Paper (ods020808.pdf) on page 7, are the words "Eid festival." Do you know what the significance, if any, that has?A:
I don't. It is ten months since I looked at these documents last and that part of the document did not figure in my reporting at the time. It may be the title for that section of the document. It is likely to refer to the Eid al-Fitr festival that brings an end to Ramadan. There was a belief that we should not attack during Ramadan as this would offend other Arab nations. But I cannot find any other references to the festival.Q: The "Iraq: Options" paper was written by the Overseas and Defence Secretariat Cabinet Office. Would the head of that office be Geoff Hoon? If not, who?A:
No it would not have been Geoff Hoon, who was British Defence Secretary. The Defence and Overseas Secretariat is a department within the Cabinet Office staffed by officials from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence and its job is to provide options and briefing papers for cabinet ministers.. It is headed by the Prime Minister's Foreign Policy Adviser who at that time was Sir David Manning, who of course appears in the Downing Street Memo as the recipient. He is also the recipient of the memo from the then ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer in which Meyer describes telling Paul Wolfowitz that they have to have "a clever plan" that will allow them to "wrongfoot" Saddam. It is also Manning who writes the secret memo telling Blair that the Americans seem to have no idea of what happens "on the morning after".Q: Regarding the RAF and US bombings/airstrikes in his article of May 29th, you wrote:"THE RAF and US aircraft doubled the rate at which they were dropping bombs on Iraq in 2002 in an attempt to provoke Saddam Hussein into giving the allies an excuse for war, *new evidence has shown*."What was that 'new evidence'? Is it publicly available? If so, where?A:
Yes it is available on Hansard in the form of written answers at the following urls. Although the questions were posed an answered some time ago, they have only recently emerged into the public light, hence the reference to new evidence. Journalistic licence I'm afraid but it was new to the reader.Link #1Link #2Link #3Q: And finally, if you were a member of the White House Press Corps, what would you ask President Bush with respect to the Downing Street Documents?A:
Mr President. Did you in any way whatsoever authorise Donald Rumsfeld to order US aircraft to step up bombing attacks on targets in southern Iraq during the summer of 2002 and if not why did you not point this out at the National Security Council meeting on August 5, 2002 at which Tommy Franks said he was using the increased flights over the southern no-fly zone to make the Iraqi defences "as weak as possible" in preparation for war?
I have a follow-up question Mr President. When did Congress authorise you to take military action against Iraq?